Monthly Archives: October 2019

Woodbine

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me the first album by Woodbine, a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop, and asked if I wanted to go and see them live.

I found the record interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music. So I was up for going to see them play, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter, David Gedge, had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. (I was so young!) My friend and I were by some distance the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good 15 years older than we were.

Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever seen play live, I think. It didn’t help that they were all drunk (their drummer was really drunk – falling-down drunk. He was half asleep in charge of a drum kit), but I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Even at on their best day, they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at a small boozer (the Crown & Anchor down the road, maybe), it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two of their own and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage (the venue now called Thousand Island) later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to singer Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed rather embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy, narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising – to be untidy – is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, wouldn’t feel the same at all. Would be all wrong, in fact. There is a rightness to the analogue wrongness of Woodbine.

Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want and Tricity Tiara* will do you.

tricity tiara
This is a Tricity Tiara, or more correctly a Tricity-Bendix Tiara. Not many of these about any more, but a landlord’s favourite cheap oven for donkey’s years.

 

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

My Byrds kick continued last week…

At first, the idea was a concept album – a double album, no less – charting the history of American music, beginning with bluegrass and jazz, taking in folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and going forward into the world of electronic, Moog-based music. The problem was that after the dismissals of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the Byrds were down to a two-piece: guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn and bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman. They needed reinforcements, and since they were going to attempt to play jazz, they needed a quality drummer and preferably a pianist, as McGuinn’s 12-string arpeggios didn’t exactly speak the language of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

The man who got the nod was Gram Parsons, a songwriter, guitarist and pianist of Chris Hillman’s acquaintance. I’m not quite sure what Parsons played that convinced McGuinn he was a proficient jazz piano player (what solo piano work I’ve heard by him suggests a decent country player with some gospel licks, but not McCoy Tyner), but that turned out to be irrelevant. Once in the Byrds fold, Parsons immediately began selling Hillman and latterly McGuinn on the idea of an entire album of country rock, along the lines of the work he’d done with the International Submarine Band.

McGuinn took some persuading (producer Gary Usher interceded on Parsons’ and Hillman’s behalf), but eventually consented to follow Parsons’ vision for the album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s influence, in a hard-headed analysis, does outstrip its quality; it’s credited as being the first country-rock album, but that isn’t quite right, as mostly the band plays country as country, and drummer Kevin Kelley plays rock beats only on One Hundred Years from Now and the choruses of Nothing Was Delivered. But nonetheless, this was a famous rock band diving headfirst into country music (making a whole record of it, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry to promote it), whereas for the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and Lovin’ Spoonful, country was just one flavour of what they did.

It’s not hard to pick the weak points of the original album – they’re the songs where Parsons’ recorded vocals were covered over by Roger McGuinn doing a southern accent rather badly (The Christian Life and You Don’t Miss Your Water). But thanks to the inclusion of perfectly good Parsons-sung outtakes on the expanded addition of the album and sundry box sets, that defect is remedied quite easily. The version of One Hundred Years from Now sung by Hillman and McGuinn in harmony is different in feel from the Parsons-fronted outtake, but it’s still pretty good and I don’t think Parsons’ vocal improves it hugely.

There are plenty of strong moments, too. Hickory Wind, obviously, even if Gram Parsons possibly plagiarised it*. Chris Hillman sings I Am a Pilgrim with a winning sincerity, his vocal abetted by John Hartford’s excellent fiddle playing. Parsons romps his way through Luke McDaniel’s You’re Still on My Mind, supported by Earl P Ball on piano and JayDee Maness on steel, and McGuinn’s two Dylan covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered are typically excellent.

Contemporary country music at the poppier end of things does not come from the same branch of the family tree as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No matter how much pop and rock it contains, it’s a product of the Nashville industry, not of interlopers, like the Byrds were in 1968. As I said when writing about Younger than Yesterday, I hear no Byrds influence in much indie music right now, and no one seems to talk about the band, but young fans of country fans might find a lot to please them in this record. Along with Workingman’s Dead, it’s the pre-eminent early country rock album.

*I should say, if he did indeed steal it from Sylvia Sammons, it was a despicable act, but with both dead and Parsons also the writer of enough good songs to make it totally feasible he did write it, I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

 

My Back Pages & Younger Than Yesterday – The Byrds

Younger than Yesterday saw the Byrds pulling in every direction they knew how to: Beatle-ised Dylan covers, embryonic country rock with psychedelic touches, lysergic folk-rock, a jazzy torch song, driving rock ‘n’ roll with jazz trumpet, another one of Roger McGuinn’s rather goofy sci-fi songs, a ’65 Beatles pastiche and, in the shape of David Crosby’s much-maligned (rightly maligned) Mind Gardens, Indian raga.

The predominance of Chris Hillman songs (he has four solo writing credits and a co-write on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star) does make Younger than Yesterday a bit of an outlier in the Byrds’ canon, but those songs are actually pretty strong, Have You Seen Her Face and Time Between especially, and Younger than Yesterday is by a nose my favourite Byrds album. I do love Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo too (at least if you programme it so that you use the outtake recordings with Gram Parsons’ vocals, rather than the ones with McGuinn’s impression of him), and I’d perhaps agree that nothing on YtY is quite as breathtaking as Goin’ Back or Hickory Wind, but what Younger than Yesterday has in its favour is My Back Pages.

Among the very many things they were, the Byrds were the finest interpreters of Bob Dylan’s music, covering more than 20 different Dylan songs, with few clunkers among them. The band’s opening statement, its recording of Mr Tambourine Man, stands not just for their own career, but the entire genre of folk-rock. They – even before Hendrix transformed All Along the Watchtower – raised the Dylan cover to an artform.

The band’s best Dylan interpretation isn’t Tambourine Man, though, nor Chimes of Freedom or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, nor even the two separate versions of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (though I’m very fond of the 1969 recording – the slow one that’s on The Very Best of the Byrds). It’s their recording of My Back Pages from 1967’s Younger than Yesterday.

The decision to cut My Back Pages was contentious within the band. The group’s manager, Jim Dickson, suggested the song, and Roger McGuinn approved of the choice. David Crosby, though, argued against it; the Byrds had already covered Dylan six times on their first two albums, and their previous record, Fifth Dimension, hadn’t featured any Dylan at all. Returning to Bob’s songs when he, McGuinn and Chris Hillman had all written a clutch of strong songs for their next album was a step backwards, he argued.

It was a rare occasion when both men were right. It was, viewed hard-headedly, a backward step to return to the Bob Dylan songbook; adding electric guitars and a 4/4 beat to Dylan’s songs had been done already (not least by Dylan himself), and could never be revolutionary or transformative again. But McGuinn was also correct; the song fitted the band like a glove, playing to the strengths of Michael Clarke, their rather limited drummer), and he had a knack for editing Dylan’s songs for the pop audience, knowing just how much he could leave out and still get away with it.

Crosby, outvoted, sulked, and the song contributed to the deteriorating relationship between him and the rest of the band, but My Back Pages was a masterpiece, on a record that already had in its favour So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (featuring Hugh Makekela’s trumpet), Everybody’s Been Burned and Time Between (to which Vern Gosdin and the great guitarist Clarence White contributed).

I bought Younger than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a three-fer at the start of my last year at university and played all of them to death. They’re all fine albums, and rather underrated at the moment I think. Does any young band rep for the Byrds? Why not? If you’re not familiar or have them pegged as one-trick ponies, go have a listen. Start with My Back Pages.

Your Ghost – Kristin Hersh and Nashville tuning

To hear examples of Nashville tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think).

Reacquainting myself with Hips and Makers yesterday and today, I could kick myself for being so cloth-eared. Nashville tuning is as prevalent on that album as it is on Strange Angels.

I started listening to the album’s opening track, Your Ghost – a duet with Michael Stipe that is one of the best things Hersh has ever done – because I’m mixing a song with an arrangement of acoustic guitar, cello and two voices, and wanted to hear how they balanced Jane Scarpantoni’s cello against the vocals. I was surprised, then, to find that I’d never noticed previously that there is a second guitar on the track, mixed off to the right-hand side. It’s a Nashville-tuned strummed part that exactly duplicates the main rhythm track. On each chord change, Hersh plays two single notes (root, fifth, I assume) then strums the chord – the single notes of the Nashville-tuned part tend to get drowned out by the standard-tuned guitar, but I think she’s doubling the whole performance, not just the strummed chords.

It’s a nice detail, one for headphone listening, and creates a rich, enveloping acoustic guitar sound. I’m not sure if it was Hersh’s idea, or Lenny Kaye’s (Kaye was the producer), but according to Steve Rizzo, who was assistant engineer on Hips and Makers and is Hersh’s co-producer/engineer today, it’s something she still does:

“We’ve been using that on almost every solo record. A lot of people think she’s playing a 12-string, but what’s happening is it’s the 6-string and the Nashville [a Gibson J-45] played together. She can play the exact same thing from take to take so they sound like a 12-string, which is pretty cool. And sometimes it sounds very physical. Her hands can be so strong that it’s like, ‘How the hell is she playing that?’”

The key to it is the element Rizzo identifies: Hersh’s doubling of the parts is so tight that it does sound like a 12-string. When the two takes are panned down the middle, it’s impossible to tell that’s it’s two performances, not a single 12-string. But panning one of the parts off to the side, as on Your Ghost, creates a really cool effect that’s worth the effort it must take to create it.

hersh
Kristin Hersh – Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45 not pictured

Alternate tunings

I’m in recording mode at the moment, and thinking a lot about the use of acoustic guitar in recording, which is what prompted the post about Nashville tuning the other day.

Altered tunings are where I live as a guitarist. For the first few years after I discovered them, they felt like my secret thing. I became serious about songwriting and extending my range as an acoustic guitarist in the late 1990s. At the time, the biggest band in the UK was still Oasis, and Noel Gallagher took a decidedly meat-and-potatoes approach to the acoustic guitar: strummed open chords and barre chords all the way. Consequently, that’s how kids of my generation learned to play acoustic guitar. Gallagher and Cobain between them offered up 90% of what 90% of young guitarists wanted to know.

While some more adventurous electric players went down the prog/metal route to learn about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and so on, young guitarists looking to learn about fingerpicking and alternate tunings had a harder time of it finding teaching materials. I can’t even remember where I first learned about using open tunings for fingerpicking rather than slide, but I do remember that the first songs I wrote in non-standard were in open G, and it would have coincided roughly with picking up my first Nick Drake album in 1999 or early 2000 (it was before I went to university in September 2000, I know that much). After finding alternate tunings, I felt a sort of ownership of them; easy, when no one else I knew used them, and few songwriters I ran into at open-mike nights did either.

But of course, it wasn’t just me learning about this stuff. For me, and I suspect many others at the same time, Nick Drake opened up a new world of tunings. The increased profile of his music that came as a result of the Volkswagen ad that used Pink Moon meant that he was now being discussed by mainstream guitar magazines (again, this was still an analogue world – in 1999, only 13% of UK households had an internet connection).

One of the first things I did when I got online was go to OLGA (the On-Line Guitar Archive – again, the hyphen in “online” tells you how long ago this was) and find a list of Nick Drake tunings and tabs (I was more interested in the tunings than the transcriptions themselves), which is where I came across tunings like CGCFCE.

Any Drake-loving guitarist will probably recognise that as the tuning he used on Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, Hazey Janes I and II, and Introduction, the instrumental that begins Bryter Layter.

It’s a lovely tuning for the keys of C, Am, Dm and F, and isn’t really very adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as is practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.* The tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on – an approach that works equally well strumed or picked. In this tuning, those two shapes will give you a D minor and F respectively.

D minor, you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! And no F! But that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create wide, harmonically extended chords that would be near-impossible to play in standard, and have fingers left over for melodic ornamentations. Purists who insist that no chord you can’t play fretted in standard tuning is worth playing (and that a capo is cheating, and similar nonsense) are dead wrong about this. And fortunately this kind of idiocy is rarer now than it was when I was 18, but you used to hear from a lot of people that open/altered tunings were Not Proper Guitar Playing.

Anyhow, in the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears 222000 as a more-or-less minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, the ear hears D9sus4, as no minor third is present, but interprets it the chord as minor rather than major – closer to Dm9add13. The beautiful expressiveness of these kinds of chords – richly sonorous and full of harmonic ambiguity – is what made Drake’s guitar playing so influential, and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

I picked up other tunings along the way, but these days I pretty much only use two, other than standard, to write in: DADEAD (or it’s step-down equivalent CGCFGC), which I learned as a variation of DADGAD, and CGDEAD, which I came to via open G, first tuning down the lowest string C to extend the bottom end, then tuning down the G string to E to facilitate minor keys and suspended seconds. Nowadays, CGDEAD is my de facto standard tuning if I’m playing acoustic, and I’ve found (and used) improbable voicings for chords that would make a classical guitar teacher wince, using my left thumb to fret as many as three strings.

Tunings are a rabbit hole for many a guitarist. I got pleasantly lost down mine nearly 20 years ago. I’m still down here, still burrowing.

011 crop
Don’t look now, classical guitar teachers: I’m coming to your town with chord shapes like this! [insert evil-laugh sound effect. Photo from my recent duo show with Mel at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent]

*Some sources list the tuning as DADGDF# (with the capo two frets lower, where used) but I find the idea that Drake routinely tuned his B string up to D and E to F# a little improbable.

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals on Music Row. They know how to make records. They certainly know a thing or two about recording acoustic guitars. High-string tuning is so closely associated with the capital of country music that a majority of guitarists refer to it as Nashville tuning.

To reassure those of you who aren’t really down with endlessly retuning your instrument, Nashville tuning isn’t really an alternate tuning, per se; it’s more about the strings you actually put on your guitar. The tuning involves taking the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the E, A, D and G) and putting them on a regular six-string guitar. That gives you a guitar with only one wound string (the low E), and means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings respectively, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. D’Addario and Martin both sell high-strung/Nashville tuning sets (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too*. All you need to do is maybe adjust the neck on your guitar. I have a spare acoustic I often Nasvhille-ise; saves a lot of hassle when, as now, I’m looking to add a few jangly touches to a nearly complete recording..

So what can you do with it?

I’m very fond of the massed – but unobtrusive – overdubbing of acoustic guitars. I love the tonal colours you get by blending tracks of different guitars, different tuned, and so routinely track two to four acoustic rhythm tracks of various types, with the aim of blending them together so it sounds essentially like one instrument, but with a richer sonority and wider frequency response than you get from a single track of one acoustic guitar.

Sometimes they’re all in standard tuning but I use a capo to play each track with different chord shapes (e.g. a song in E is played with open E shapes, and in D with a capo on the second fret, or C with a capo on the fourth). Sometimes it’s a mix of standard- and alternate-tuned performances. Sometimes it’s a mix of six- and 12-string guitars, and sometimes a Nashville-tuned part is in there, too. Adds a lovely shimmering brightness to a bed of acoustics.

But that’s just the easy stuff. If you don’t have access to a 12-string guitar but you want the effect on a recording, you can also try tightly doubling a six-string part in Nashville tuning to create an effect that’s very like a 12-string. Experiment with panning the parts  left and right in stereo as well as together down the middle for different effects.

If you’re really into making work for yourself, try doubling a fingerpicking part. If done perfectly and panned down the middle, voila, instant 12-string effect. And again, you can pan the parts off on opposite sides for a striking stereo effect.

To hear examples of Nasvhille tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think). Or for something a bit more mainstream, try Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. There’s a high-pitched fingerpicked part panned centrally, fairly low in the mix but audible between Stevie Nicks’s vocal lines. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s a 12-string or a Nashville-tuned six string, but the more I hear it, the more the thin-ness and clarity of the part suggests Nashville tuning to me.

nashville tuning
My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

*When I bought a set of Martin 10-25s the other day, the dude in the shop told me he hasn’t been able to reorder them and thinks that Martin may have discontinued them. Nonetheless, you can still buy single strings of the appropriate gauge: to replicate the Martin set, you’d need the following gauges: E: 0.025; A: 0.017; D: 0.013; G: 0.008; B: 0.012; E: 0.010.