Monthly Archives: April 2020

Tenderness – Jay Som

Of course lo-fi yacht rock is a thing.

It’s not the only style that Melina Duterte essays on Anak Ko, her most recent album as Jay Som, but in the shape of the second single Tenderness, it is perhaps the most striking.

Duterte started uploading home-recorded bedroom indie rock to Myspace in 2006 at the age of 12, progressing to uploading bedroom shoegaze to Bandcamp in 2012. Her previous albums – 2016 debut Turn Into and Everybody Works from 2017, both entirely self-played and self-recorded – are charming enough, and promising from a young artist. Duterte is a fine multi-instrumentalist and a creative producer, and writes appealing, slightly Juliana Hatfield-ish melodies. And if her drum tracks are sometimes a little wonky compared to her assured guitar playing, that’s all part of the records’ DIY vibe and feel.

On Anak Ko, though, Duterte’s gets her self-recording methods down to a fine art, and widens her songwriting palette so that, while everything still sounds a little bit like the Sundays or the Cocteau Twins, a wider array of influences creep in from outside the dream pop universe: the huge, J Mascis-like solo at the end of Superbike, for example, or the Steely Dan chords of the aforementioned yacht rock jam Tenderness.

Anak Ko features a wide cast of musicians on a Jay Som record for the first time, including members of her live band. On Tenderness, the contributions of drummer Zachary Elsasser are key. As I said, Duterte’s own rhythm tracks on her first two albums are integral to the vibe, but even lo-fi yacht rock has to be impeccably smooth or it’s not yacht rock but something else entirely; Elsasser’s hi-hat patterns, triplet figures gesturing towards a shuffle without quite coming out and playing one, is straight out of the Jeff Porcaro playbook. Duterte’s own bass and guitars are similarly smooth.

Tenderness isn’t the only impressive track on Anak Ko. I’m hugely fond of Superbike, (which I heard for the first time while Mel and I were having coffee in KEXP’s gathering space during a trip to Seattle last September) and Devotion’s intricate tapestry of chorused guitars and almost gamelan-like keyboards; the latter is also an example of how to successfully use heavily reverberant vocal tracks in the context of a generally drier overall mix.

Duterte’s work is still perhaps stronger on texture and atmosphere than it is on melodies that stick (the best part of the title track is the 90-second instrumental section in the middle; the vocal sections either side are slight in comparison), but each Jay Som record  seems to me to be getting stronger and more focused. Duterte is an artist to keep an eye on.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

Highway 61 at 55 (recycled bonus content)

Casting around in my archives, I found this, the start of a piece I wrote in 2015 about Highway 61 Revisited to mark its 50th anniversary but never published. Well, this year it turns 55, and Dylan released a new song this week, so I guess it has some kind of relevance. Guh, who am I kidding? Here’s an old thing because I couldn’t think of a new thing.

*

This August, Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan turned 50. With the possible exception of A Hard Day’s Night, it’s the first true masterpiece of the rock era (by which I mean, I guess, the post-Beatles era) to reach that milestone. Which makes the record’s continuing vitality even more remarkable. Highway 61, unlike, say, The Times They Are a-Changing does not feel like a museum piece – it still explodes with life, from the very first snare crack of Like a Rolling Stone to the final refrain of Desolation Row.

Writing about this record is hard. The stories have been told and retold a thousand times (Google any one of these phrases if you want them: “it’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you”; “long piece of vomit”; “that cat’s not an organ player”). The songs, the lyrics in particular, have been analysed by everyone from the callowest teenage rock critic to the sagest literary professor. Normally I look for stuff that’s either less well known or something that’s not usually picked to the bone by music critics, often because it had a truly mass audience and so hasn’t been become the sole domain of Mojo and Uncut readers. What more is there to say about Highway 61, 50 years on?

Here are a few stray observations. I can’t make a coherent post out of them or find a through line, I’m afraid. They’ll have to remain disconnected little comments.

1.

Much of what has been said about Highway 61 and about Dylan in general is less than helpful. The Christopher Ricks tendency to treat Dylan as a poet rather than a songwriter divorces his words from the music and from the sound of Dylan’s voice as he performs. Most of the key pleasures of Highway 61, for me at least, are musical. The shuffle of Bobby Gregg’s drums on It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, that crisp organ sound on Like a Rolling Stone, the interplay of tack piano and pianet, the grain of Dylan’s voice. Highway 61 is not a text; it’s vibrations in air. To receive it and interpet it solely through its words is to miss out on at least half of the experience.

2.

As an adjunct to that, Highway 61 is the best-sounding record Dylan ever made. Sure, we know he was looking for that “thin, wild mercury sound”, and that he felt Blonde on Blonde captured it better. But isn’t Blonde on Blonde a bit too thin? Doesn’t it sound weedy, placed next to Highway 61‘s big meaty snare sounds and R&B-flavoured bass?

3.

Bob Dylan was not big on rehearsing the band before they cut tracks. But if you record songs with people who are still learning them, there will be mistakes and fumbles and hesitations, and the results will have an edge, a tension, that comes from the fact that it all might fall apart at any minute.

Highway 61 has more than a few moments where the players are unsure: Gregg turns the beat around briefly in Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Mike Bloomfield struggles to wring more than one idea out of his guitar on Tombstone Blues. But that same approach also brought us small miracles like Al Kooper’s Like a Rolling Stone organ riff, and this rough-around-the-edges aesthetic (is there any other record where the guitars are so out of tune so much of the time?) is a huge part of what makes it charming and engaging.

4.

Highway 61‘s stylistic diversity is its strength, yet it hangs together so well as a coherent whole. Ballad of a Thin Man may take its cue, and piano riff, from Ray Charles’s gospel number I Believe to My Soul, From a Buick 6 may sound like a thousand garage-rock bands about to plug in on the West Coast, there may be a hint of Mexican cantina to Charlie McCoy’s lead guitar on Desolation Row, but the songs are a natural fit for each other, and the album is Dylan’s most satisfying long player.

Bob with Strat

Bob in Columbia Studios, New York, 1965. Acoustic guitar lays symbolically on the floor behind our newly electrified troubadour.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s decision to bring forward the release of her new album from August to Good Friday may have been motivated by altruism or a canny instinct on her part (or her advisors’) that a UK in lockdown constitutes a captive audience, desperate for new entertainment. Either way, it’s we who benefit, as it’s an excellent piece of work.

Previously, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about Marling’s music. She’s a very accomplished guitarist, writing serious and thoughtful music, with a high level of intelligence and craft on display. Yet, I’ve found her habit of adopting different accents, sometimes affecting Estuarial English vowels and glottal stops on her early work, singing with a mid-Atlantic twang since her third album and subsequently developing a vibrato strikingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s, distracting at best and annoying at worst. More seriously, I’ve sometimes wondered if Marling’s ability to mimic her heroes so accurately – I remain unconvinced that Nouel from Semper Femina is actually Laura Marling at all, and not an outtake from Mitchell’s For the Roses sung by Joni herself – is impeding the development of a genuinely idiosyncratic songwriting voice.

Song for Our Daughter doesn’t dispel these concerns, so much as beneath a crop of really strong new songs. There are four of five here that are pretty stupendously good, and nothing at all that’s a throwaway.

The album begins with Alexandra, a kind of meditation on Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving from Ten New Songs. With strummed acoustic guitar chords (I’m not sure of the tuning, but I’m guessing not standard) and a slight country-rock feel, it’s a breezy opener, but one that leaves a series of unanswered questions hanging in the air: “what kind of woman gets to love you?”, “where did Alexandra go?” and “what did Alexandra know?” Annoyingly, neither Discogs nor All Music have the credits for the record yet, but I guess producer Ethan Johns is playing drums (it sounds like him anyway). Though there aren’t many instruments in the arrangement, it’s full-sounding rather than sparse, with interest created by some runs on bass, a little bit of atmospheric Hejira-esque volume-pedal guitar and some prominent vocal harmonies.

Whoever the drummer is, he or she is on similarly great form on second track Held Down, playing double-stroke sixteenths on the hat and giving a lot of propulsion to a very cool groove. The rising-and-falling bass fits in nicely, the player using a pick and, I think, a mute, with a hollow-body kind of tone. Marling’s vocal is slightly drawly in the the verses, which isn’t a style I love from her, but the pre-chorus and chorus are so great, especially when she goes high register on the line “and I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down”, that I’m more than happy to live with it. It’s probably my favourite track on the album’s first side, in fact, for that moment alone. Nice harmonised electric guitar in the choruses, too.

The next track, Strange Girl, is built on a cool rhythm track: a sort of shuffle on the drum kit, with percussion overdubs to create a Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard kind of effect. Again, Marling is in drawly mode in the verses – more Lou Reed than Dylan this time; “never fit the playahn”, indeed – but again the chorus redeems it. In fact, it’s been bouncing round my head for the last five days straight.

The drum kit is present again on Only the Strong, but the song is led off by a Blackbird-like foot tap – one of several nods to McCartney on the album. Marling’s fingerpicking, on classical guitar this time, is really nice. She has great time and consistency when picking. It never sounds hurried or uncomfortable.

While I have a lot of time for the song musically, I’m less sure about what Marling is getting at lyrically here. In the press materials for the album, Marling speaks of how the songs are written to an imagined daughter:

“I’m older now, old enough to have a daughter of my own, and I feel acutely the resonsibility to defend The Girl. The Girl that might be lost, torn from innocence prematurely or unwittingly fragmented by forces that dominate society. I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself. This album is that strange whisper; a little distorted, a little out of sequence, such is life.”

In which case, should we read all the lyrics in all the songs as Marling’s lessons to a daughter, or a younger version of herself? “Only the strong survive” is a shopworn observation, one that I don’t believe is even true or helpful. Some strong people don’t survive; they get broken. Some weak people don’t just survive – they thrive. It’s not down to how “strong” you are; it’s how much life throws at you, and your ability to cope is a function not of character or strength, but of health, money, class, race, gender – everything.

To believe that being “strong” can save an individual from all the deprivations and depredations that may befall any one of us is a curiously conservative notion. Marling seems rather too intelligent to believe such nonsense, so I feel like she, or the persona she adopts for the song, has to be setting it up as an empty platitude we’re supposed to see straight through. Yet, we come up against this idea expressed in press materials and interviews that Marling is genuinely trying to impart lessons in these lyrics. The song makes me a little uncomfortable, purely because I can’t yet figure out where it’s coming from.

But let’s leave that to one side now and move on.

Blow by Blow is piano based and beautiful. The simple piano accompaniment highlight the strength of melody and Marling’s vocal, while the string arrangement, especially the high violins in the second verse, is spine-tingling. The arrangement is by Rob Moose, who’s also worked with the National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his work here is subtler than that might imply. Marling’s atmospheric high harmonies are also effective.

The title song leads off side two. Its verses are in 9/8 time, with strummed acoustic guitar in, I think, some kind of C tuning (or G with a C bass – a tuning I’ve used a lot personally). The arrangement, featuring another great string part, simple piano and bass and drums, is once again perfect for the song – just what’s needed and nothing more. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Marling is evoking Judee Sill’s Lopin’ Along  Thru the Cosmos in the line “So you wished for a kiss from God” (compare with Judee’s “I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from God”), but then, as you might guess from the name of my blog, I’m always hyper-aware of possible quotes from Judee Sill.

Fortune is my favourite track on the album. The fingerpicking, in waltz time, is gorgeous, and there are some lovely suspensions and movement in the bass. (This live video shows what’s involved in playing it.) The lyric, with its repeated evocations of running and “unbearable pain”, is one of the record’s most poignant. Musically, it’s probably the most Joni Mitchell-derived song (like Nouel from her previous record, it’s particularly reminiscent of For the Roses), but Mitchell rarely wrote in waltz time, which does give Fortune something of its own thing, as does the string arrangement.

Beginning with an atmospheric drone, The End of the Affair (which seems to riff on the Graham Greene novel) is another track that nods at Paul McCartney’s acoustic work on the White Album and his early solo records. In fact, there’s some movement that specifically recalls Blackbird, when Marling sings “I’d let you live your life” and the guitar descends stepwise under each syllable. Again, the use of reverb-laden harmonies is hugely effective, and on the line “I love you, goodbye”, as the “aahs” rise up to meet Marling’s lead vocal at the end of the song, it’s positively spine-tingling.

Hope We Meet Again sees Marling playing with some of the same chordal ideas as The End of the Affair. In the verses she alternates semi-spoken with higher-register sung lines, in a curious range of accents, with vowels from all over the map. There’s no way around it, it’s a little distracting*, but the song is still a good one, and the arrangement – bowed double bass on the left channel, pedal steel on the right, bass guitar and drums coming in late in the song – is creative and surprising.

Closing track For You feels like the only dud on the album to me right now, more due to the arrangement than the song itself. It’s a simple descending sequence strummed on acoustic guitar, with a sung bass line. Whoever the male singer is, it’s out of tune in a way that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. The whole thing is just a bit twee musically, in a way I think some fans will really embrace, but I can’t really get on board with.

Still, nine good songs out of ten is an excellent hit rate and, while I’m no expert on her career as I’ve said, there are a few songs here – Blow by Blow, The End of the Affair, Fortune, Held Down – that seem to me to be up with the best work she’s done. The record is probably stronger in its quieter moments, although the more band-oriented tracks showcase a developing interest in rhythm and texture. All in all, I’d say it’s the best record I’ve heard by her. It’s taken a while for me to get on board with Marling’s work, but this one’s convinced me.

laura-marling

*I half expect her to, Jagger-style, launch into a mockney rap about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Reverb, echo & delay revisited

Seven years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about how frustrated I was with the ways I heard reverb and echo being used in recorded music, particularly indie rock. It really ground my gears, which I think you can tell when you read the thing, but I also think I did a pretty poor job of explaining why. Unless the reasons it annoyed me then are different to now but the change in my thinking has been gradual enough that I’m not even conscious of there having been a change. I guess that’s a possibility.

The damn piece still gets traffic, though, so I feel like I want to put a more nuanced take out there for anyone passing who might, for whatever reason, be interested.

Ultimately, what I found – and sometimes still find – annoying about the overuse of reverb and echo is that they’re a shortcut to a gravitas and weightiness that the music may not have earned. The application of reverb and echo puts a sound source in a (simulated) large acoustic space. The sound source is thus received by the listener with a bunch of signifiers we habitually attach to sound heard in those types of spaces.

In the real world, unless we happen to hang out in aircraft hangars, we encounter spaces big enough to produce prominently audible echoes rarely: churches, most obviously, but also arenas, theatres, warehouses, town halls and other types of communal and assembly halls. Spaces in which someone who has something important to say speaks, while the rest of us merely listen. Spaces in which sermons are delivered. Spaces in which musicians transmit and the rest of us just receive.

That’s what always got me about prominent reverb. It always sounded to me like the musician getting above themselves, blowing their inconsequential thoughts and words up to giant size, and inviting you to receive them in awe. When the music isn’t good, the effect can be pure bathos.

Now, there are all kinds of things going on in that response, and a lot of them come down to my own prejudices about what music, particularly alternative music, should be.

In my teens, I acquired a bias against self-consciously grand and epic music that’s taken years to shake off, and reverb and echo are such obvious signifiers of that kind of stuff that I’ve tended to hear all uses of reverb and echo as being informed by a sort of sonic will to, not power exactly, but a sort of will to importance.

In fact, a lot of time these kinds of exaggerated reverbs, echoes and delays are used by artists who don’t want to be made big but rather made indistinct. Again, that’s not high up my lift of desirable sonic qualities, as it tends to diminish a lot of the physical excitement I get from listening to music. But wanting to hide behind a 5-second reverb trail is something I can understand, even if it’s not the way I cope with being a basically shy and undemonstrative person who unaccountably also wants people to hear the music I make. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

So these days, when listening to music, particularly indie rock, that’s still swathed in an omnipresent reverb haze, I try to focus on effect rather than intention. OK, I wouldn’t make this aesthetic choice, but is it being executed effectively? And the answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You do hear records where the guitarist’s insistence on using their EHX Cathedral pedal absolutely all the time puts the band in a sonic box; if the guitar sounds like it’s in being played in the nave at St Paul’s, it’s going to sound a bit weird if the rest of the band sounds tight and dry. Records where each element seems to exist in different, overlapping sonic spaces remain a bugbear of mine, because it’s distracting and amateurish. If you create different sonic spaces within a mix, you have to learn how to blend them to make a coherent whole. Equally, though, I hear records that would be very different, inferior, experiences if mixed dry and close.

I’m still not keen on Sun-style tape delay, though.

west cath
Singer in the pulpit, band on the sanctuary, guitarist can take a solo from on top of the baldacchino. Perfect tracking environment.

The Very Greatest Best Hits of… – the single-artist compilation album

This began as a piece to mark the 40th birthday of R.E.M., which I gather from Twitter was on Sunday. It went somewhere else.

I’ve spoken before, many times, about growing up as a music fan in the pre-internet era. I don’t know how many readers I have who are younger than me – probably only a very few regulars – but it can’t be stressed enough how different it was to now.

New music was a scarce commodity then, at least if you were a kid like I was. I earned £11 a week from a paper round when I was 14, so if I wanted to buy a new record while also keeping a bit of cash aside for stuff like guitar strings and my share of band rehearsal costs (a very reasonable £21 for a five-hour session at Maple in Southend, Essex), I’d have to squirrel away a few pounds here and a few pounds there for maybe three or four weeks to afford a new CD. Since not every store had a listening post, purchases were often blind, and if you didn’t immediately like the record you chose, you’d have enough invested in it to really work at getting it.

Being impatient to get my hands on new music more often than a dozen or so times a year, libraries, record fairs and second-hand record stall Gumbi’s (which stood in a covered market on an insalubrious road close to Southend high street) became important resources to me. I was definitely not above getting CDs from the library and taping them, but I was enough of a completist about the bands I liked that if I was into an album I taped from a friend or a library copy, I’d eventually buy it anyway.

In this world, the single-artist compilation disc – a form that is practically obsolete now – was a really useful way to get a handle on an artist’s body of work without blowing all your cash on one abum that may be patchy at best, or overhyped and rubbish at worst. Consequently, I picked up more than a few as a teenager, from wherever I could get them cheap.

It was at Gumbi’s that I found a copy of The Best of R.E.M., released by the group’s former label IRS after the band’s success with its second Warner Bros. release, Out of Time. It was £7, near enough half the price of a new CD (which tended to retail at around £12 back then in HMV or Virgin). Not having any alternate versions or rarities like Dead Letter Office and Eponymous, The Best of R.E.M. was greeted with a sniff and a shrug by reviewers and long-time fans, and probably bewilderment by newer fans, who wondered why the only song on it they’d even vaguely heard of was The One I Love, but to me it was a godsend. It handily distilled R.E.M.’s here-be-dragons IRS era into 16 songs – one from the EP Chronic Town, and three each from the five albums they released between 1983 and 1987.

Murmur, the first of those, would go on to become an absolutely foundational record for me, one of my favourite albums ever, with Fables of the Reconstruction close behind. I’d still put Murmur in my top ten favourite records ever. It pulls of an absolutely stunning trick – while a fully formed work in its own regard that captures the band’s absolute quintessence, it pulls all over the place, with influences drawn from folk-rock, country, gospel, post-punk, bubblegum and straight-up, honest-to-goodness 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll.

Representing such a record as Murmur or Fables in just three tracks is a tough job, and if I was going to pick three songs to encapsulate Murmur I’d drop Talk About the Passion and replace it with Sitting Still or Shaking Through. And yeah, the Fables picks give little hint of that record’s bone-deep weirdness. And I Believe but not Begin the Begin or These Days? Huh? But still, the compilation did more than just open up the band’s back catalogue to me; it was a window on a world that seemed distant and strange because I had few first-hand memories of it.

Single-artist compilations are held in low esteem by many music fans; if an artist’s work is worth hearing, it’s worth hearing as they intended, goes the argument. Album by album, perhaps even in the order they came out. But actually, that’s not how most music fans engage with music, and never has been. For Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 in the second half of the seventies, read Spotify’s This is Eagles* playlist now.

A Spotify playlist has the same utile value for the consumer as the single-artist compilation album did, in that it gives him or her a simple way to get the measure of an artist that they’re not familiar with. But what the compilation has over the Spotify playlist – or indeed those double-CD best ofs that became common in the late 1990s – is concision. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 has 10 songs in it. Spotify’s This is Eagles playlist has more songs on it than I can count, and one of them is Chug All Night**. OK, so some great single-artist compilations were long (Neil Young’s Decade ran to three discs for its vinyl release), but they were the exception; most avoided doing the skilled compiler’s work of reducing an entire oeuvre to a dozen or so songs. A well-compiled best-of on one disc or two sides of vinyl is the platonic ideal of the form for me.

Ultimately, even the most perfunctory, will-this-do compilations raise a fascinating question for the listener: are these songs just the tip of the iceberg, or do they represent everything this artist did that’s worth hearing? For a music fan just getting to grips with an artist’s body of work, what could be more exciting than getting the chance to find out that answer for themselves?

Best of

*Spotify becoming the only person/thing that has ever referred to the band as simply “Eagles” and not “the Eagles” other than Glenn Frey.

**Anyone who lived through A Good Day in Hell – The Official ILM Track-By-Track Eagles Listening Thread on I Love Music remembers Chug All Night, an otherwise forgotten Frey song from their debut, with a combination of hilarity and horror.

Bill Withers RIP

Bill Withers died today of complications related to a heart condition.

Just 14 years separated Bill Withers’s 1971 debut studio album, Just As I Am, and his final record, Watching You Watching Me, which has been more or less written out of history (Withers referred to his career as only being seven years long). His life as a professional musician was neither abbreviated by tragedy like Marvin Gaye’s and Donny Hathaway’s, and nor did it comprise dozens of albums over five or six decades like that of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. At a certain point, after his relationship with his label Columbia had soured to the point that he didn’t enjoy it anymore, he just walked away.

That makes him essentially singular. Fred Neil, who Withers covered on Just As I Am, pulled a similar move, but Neil was never famous like Bill Withers was. Withers would have known that he’d have been welcomed back any time he chose to make a comeback, and been certain of a recording contract and sell-out theatre tours. He chose to stay home. The documentary Still Bill, released in 2009, showed that he still made music, but he was content to share it just with those closest to him. He professed not to miss performing.

No popular musician, it seems, was as unaffected by his success as Withers. He grew up in a West Virginia mining town, a childhood stutter setting him apart and making it hard for him to make friends. His father died when he was 13, and his grandmother helped raise him, as he explained when introducing Grandma’s Hands on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and in several performances on TV. He spent a spell in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer when Sussex Records released his first album and its deathless single Ain’t No Sunshine broke. He was in his mid-thirties, a fully formed adult, sure of himself and not liable to be taken in by anyone’s bullshit. The cover of that first record shows Withers standing outside the factory with his lunchbox in his hand, like knocking off an album with a couple of instant classics was something he just did over a couple of lunchtimes.

That average-Joe quality is key to Withers’s enduring appeal. As Questlove said in a Rolling Stone profile of Withers, “He’s the last African-American Everyman… Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” His music was, like the man himself, without pretension or fuss. He’s the only major soul figure (at least, the only one I can think of) whose music is based primarily on (and is reducible to) strummed acoustic guitar, and his melodies were seldom ornate or intricately decorated. Anyone can sing Lean on Me or Grandma’s Hands. OK, there was that famed lung capacity that gave us the 18-second held note in Lovely Day and the “I know, I know, I know” bridge in Ain’t No Sunshine, but Withers’s voice was not virtuosic. It was warm, soulful and profoundly relatable. It spoke truth, and made that truth powerful through its restraint and simplicity.

We need that voice right now, more than ever. It will live on.

Here’s a truly wonderful performance of Ain’t No Sunshine from the BBC’s archive. Everything about it is perfect. It is, I should say, my profound and long-held ambition to one day be as cool as the bass player we see 1.15 into the song.

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.

Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.