Author Archives: rossjpalmer

Elliott Smith’s 50th birthday – 10 underrated songs

A few days ago I played guitar for Mel at the Betsey Trotwood in London. She was doing a set of Elliott Smith covers at a charity gig for Mind. Tuesday 6th August would have been Smith’s 50th birthday, and the gig was one of several in London marking the anniversary.

It was a fun night, though it was nerve-wracking playing Elliott Smith’s songs for an audience of deep fans – people to whom these songs are clearly very important.

That was what came over more than anything, actually: especially for the performers, but obviously many audience members too, Elliott Smith means a great deal. Pretty much everyone who played shared stories about how they first heard him, and which songs they love most, and why.

I didn’t do that (it was Mel’s gig, so not really my place), but I did mention that Clementine was the first song I ever played for an audience, at the Milestone in Rochford, Essex, in the summer of 2000. I was 18, and I guess it went well enough, as I still play music for people.

I’ve written about Smith a few times here, but I’ve never given my grand unified statement on his music. To be honest, I tried writing it over the weekend, but what I wrote stubbornly refused to cohere into anything worth publishing. I’ve only been able to write about him at a smaller scale, which is often the way when writing about favourite artists.

So I decided that instead of giving you my thesis on Smith, I’d do a small piece on some songs that I feel are a little overlooked within his canon, personal favourites that are not among his most played, covered or celebrated works. If you have an underrated favourite, I’d love to know what it is, so do leave a comment.

Lowlife – Dead Air
Go here for my thoughts on Heatmiser’s Dead Air as a whole, but to cut a long story short, I’m a lot keener on it than many.

Lowlife, built on drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffing and a vocal delivery more Ian MacKaye than Paul Simon, is the sort of track that appears to have pained Smith a few years down the line. What I love about it, and much of Dead Air, though, is the full-bore commitment with which the song is delivered, which suggests he wasn’t half-heartedly playing a role in Heatmiser, whatever he said later. It’s not the thing he became known for, but at his best, it was a thing he was rather good at.

Wake – Yellow No. 5
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening track from the Yellow No. 5 EP sees Smith and Heatmiser exactly halfway between Dead Air‘s distortion-heavy guitar attack and the leaner Cop & Speeder. Again, Smith’s vocal delivery is urgent, compelling and unselfconscious, and the band never sounded better – the reduction in sonic real estate taken up the slightly cleaner guitars allows space to Tony Lash’s snare drum to really sock it home.

Condor Ave – Roman Candle
I’ve written at length about Elliott Smith’s first couple of solo records here, so go there for detailed thoughts on his early solo work. Condor Ave is one of the strongest pieces on Roman Candle, musically and lyrically, with deft fingerpicking, and some striking lines. I’m usually more of a fan of Smith’s lyrics when he stays away from imagery and sticks to the language of the everyday,  and I love it when a writer finds a phrase that just perfectly inhabits the notes and rhythm of a melodic line, so every time Smith sings “She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue”, I smile. It just goes together so well.

Nightcap – Cop & Speeder
A rather patchy record, Cop & Speeder ends on a strong note. Nightcap inverts alternative rock’s usual quiet-loud dynamic shift with a chorus that that brings down the volume and sees drummer Tony Lash playing cross-stick while Smith sings quietly, low in his range. Full marks for the odd time signatures in the verses, too; a reminder that the teenage Smith and Lash bonded over their love of Canadian prog kings Rush.

Satellite – Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith is its author’s first great record, containing loads of songs that stayed in his set until his final shows in 2003. Satellite is a perfect distillation of the album’s nocturnal urban world. As I said above, I usually prefer Smith’s lyrics when he stays away from imagery, but the lyric to Satellite works well, and his fingerpicked chords – ornamented, extended and jazzy – make this one of his one of his most attractive pieces.

Half Right – Mic City Sons
The hidden track from Heatmiser’s last album suggests a sound that they might have pursued had they not broken up. Gentler and more acoustic than just about anything else the band did in its short recording career, it’s not a million miles away from the sound of Either/Or. While Smith’s solo career suggests he had difficulty trusting other musicians to contribute to his work, Tony Lash and Neil Gust always added important details to his Heatmiser-era songs, and it would have been really interesting to hear their takes on, say, Rose Parade, Sweet Adeline or Amity.

Punch & Judy – Either/Or
Either/Or was a breakthrough for Smith, the moment when he found a way to marry the soft-spoken menace of his early records with the expansive pop melodies he loved in the Beatles, while bringing his DIY, home-recorded aesthetic to a kind of perfection, too.

The songs were recorded in a variety of locations with different equipment, and some of the results were definitely rougher than others; Speed Trials and No Name No. 6 have audible hum that suggests a basement recording, done in a hurry. Punch & Judy, by contrast, is the lushest recording Smith had created to date, with a full low end, crisp electric guitars and a drum sound that balances the whole kit rather than favouring the snare drum (as on, say, Alameda). Which wouldn’t matter much if the song, accusatory as it is, wasn’t heart-stoppingly lovely, but it is.

Oh Well, Okay – XO
Smith’s major-label debut is a key text in his career, the home of many of his most recognisable, portable songs; the sorts of things you’d play someone as an introduction to the man and his music: Baby Britain, Waltz No. 2, Sweet Adeline and Bled White. My favourites from the album are Tomorrow Tomorrow (a fleet-fingered picking song I still hope to be able to play cleanly when I grow up), the Paul Simon-ish Independence Day, the mournful Waltz No. 1 and Oh Well, Okay.

Mel and I played this one last week and relearning it in F# minor on guitar for the occasion (I worked it out in G minor on the piano 10 years ago) brought home again what an extraordinary facility Smith had with chords, partly learned through obsessive listening to the Beatles, partly a result of his own fecund musical imagination.

Pretty Mary K – Figure 8
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 (Pete Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud, Can’t Make a Sound and Junk Bond Trader; Joey Waronker on Stupidity Tries), 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.

Memory Lane – From a Basement on the Hill
Written about his time in rehab following an intervention by his friends some time between XO and Figure 8, Memory Lane is sarcastic and very obviously wounded, but also incredibly well crafted, with a nimble fingerpicked accompaniment (unfortunately DI’d on the recording, and so rather sterile and plastic sounding) and perky vocal melody that sweetens, but doesn’t mask, Smith’s sense of betrayal. Not comfortable listening, but then, nothing on From a Basement on the Hill is.

 

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Mix techniques

I’m not a professional mix engineer. However, I see so many articles of the “Five Tips to Improve Your Mixes” type that are just filled with bad advice (or at the very least poorly worded advice) that I sometimes feel like the last sane adult out there. So much reliance on processing. So little attention paid to the integrity of the recorded performance.

So, here are my tips. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, this is the stuff I pay attention to when mixing. But first, a disclaimer: I’m only talking about rock, indie and acoustic music mixes, here; I don’t do EDM or pop productions, and little of what I have to say would be relevant if those are the fields you’re working in. If you’re working with acoustic instruments, though, maybe I have something useful to teach.

The spine
The key to mixing an arrangement involving vocals, drums and a bass instrument – that is, almost all rock, indie and pop music – lies in the relationship between the lead vocal, the kick drum, the snare drum and the bass. These instruments and sound sources constitute the spine of your mix, the trunk of the tree.

For backbeat-oriented music, it’s standard practice to mix the drums so the kick and snare have equal weight within the aggregate mix. This doesn’t just mean putting the faders for both at unity and leaving it at that. We’re concerned with their level within the drum mix as a whole; if you have a pair of stereo mikes on the kit, they’re contributing, too, so the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within that stereo pair will also be a factor (if you’re using spaced overheads, typically the snare is prominent and the kick, while present, is more distant and clicky). Pay less attention to the visual level of the transient and more to the felt volume of the meat of the drum. And don’t compress those transients into nothingness – those transients provide energy and excitement.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived “lowest” portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the song and what the bassist is doing. If the material features the bass being played mainly in the second octave, the fundamental of the kick drum will live below the bass’s centre of energy. If the bassist and the kick drum are competing with each other, try rolling off the kick’s low end a little and emphasise the beater (more of that later) to give the kick more clarity and audibility.

I like to think of the vocal as sitting on a platform created by the kick and snare drums. Mix it too loud and the voice seems to float above the music, creating what I call “big giant head” syndrome. To check you’ve got the balance about right, here’s a hack that actually works: slowly turn the master volume down until the music is only just audible. If the last things you can hear are the vocal and the snare drum, that’s usually a good sign.

A lot of rock records have the vocals sunken a little further in the mix (an aesthetic that goes back at least as far as the Rolling Stones). If that’s your thing, make sure the vocal is still legible. You can drop it a long way back (e.g. the Police, early R.E.M., Dire Straits, etc.), but don’t bury the vocal entirely; i

Balance – panning
They used to call recording engineers “balance engineers”, and the term is an instructive one. Achieving a balance between all the elements in the mix on a second-by-second basis is what we do.

That means getting the relative volume levels right, of course, but it also means placing the elements within the stereo field to acheive a pleasing spatial balance. We’ve already discussed the relationship between the kick, snare, bass and vocal. These elements are almost invariably centre panned, and have been since the late 1960s. But what to do with harmonic instruments? Where do they go?

It’s going to depend a lot on what has been recorded for the production, as well as the panning scheme you favour as a mix engineer.

I’m a proponent of LCR panning, meaning elements are panned 100% left, 100% right or centre (except close tom mikes, which I pan to the places that the toms appear in the stereo image). Panning this way means that the instruments retain their relative positions in the stereo field wherever you may be standing in relation to the speakers; a guitar panned 18% left will be perceived as 18% left only as long as you sit right in the middle of the speakers. Move away from that point, and you change your perception of where all non-centre-panned instruments are.

Now, some mix engineers don’t care about that, and they happily pan elements slightly off centre, or nearly all the way left but not quite. Me, I prefer the clarity and stabililty of LCR.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar) as live, it might make sense to pan the two guitar tracks left and right, but what happens when the lead guitarist plays a solo? Do you move it to the centre? Keep it out wide? Have the guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All are defensible strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking. If you’re just mixing and you’ve had no say in what was tracked, don’t try to force a panning scheme on the track that the arrangement doesn’t support. Better to have a narrow mix with everything in the centre than a completely wacky mix with the acoustic rhythm guitar left and the bass guitar right, simply because you want to make the mix “more stereo”.

Balance – volume
So programme-dependent it’s hardly worth talking about, but here’s one thought. One of the biggest differences I hear between modern mix topologies and those from the 1960s and 1970s is the treatment of simple rhythm accompaniments on acoustic guitar or piano.

There’s a tendency towards giving everything a big sound these days (largely because instruments are usually all tracked separately with close mikes), which tends to make mixes feel cluttered and airless. To compensate, engineers end up carving loads of lows and low-mids out of, say, an acoustic rhythm guitar and adding lots of top end to give it “air” and reduce the sense of clutter. Consider miking simple acoustic rhythm guitar parts a little more ambiently and mixing them lower. If the acoustic is the main instrument, that’s different, but if it’s just providing harmonic glue and texture, does it need to be prominently audible in every single moment of the song? Probably not. If you’re after a 1970s feel, listen to how the acoustic rhythm part is treated on (just to think of a few artists from across the spectrum) Pink Floyd, Van Morrison or Eagles records, and try treating it similarly.

Compression
Ah, the great Satan of modern mix. The humble compressor. So many ways for them to kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this usually. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic, and use it on the stereo master outs. If you’re going to go down this road, be careful not to overdo it: medium attack and release times and a relatively gentle ratio (1.5:1 or 2:1) will probably sound more transparent  than more extreme settings, and remember you can destroy a song’s feel really quickly by not paying attention to the tempo and groove, and applying inappropriate attack and release settings for the song.

Channel compression
I tend to be looking for a classic rather than contemporary sound, so I don’t like to hear a compressor working (certainly not when listening to the sound source within the aggregate mix). Depending on the instrument – and certainly for vocals – I like to apply post-fader compression and solve some of the bigger dynamics issues with automation. The compressor then gently reduces dynamic range of a slightly more idealised version of the performance. I’m working digitally (and therefore not limited by needing to have lots of expensive hardware), and one upside of that is that you can chain compressors a lot more cheaply than you can in the physical world! If I need a lot of gain reduction and don’t want to choke the life out of a source entirely, I’ll set up a couple, typically pre- and post-fader, and let fader moves and the compressors split the work between them.

Buss compression
All engineers approach this differently. I typically set up a buss for drums (minus toms), toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I may buss single instruments like piano and bass guitar, but usually only if they’ve been recorded with several mikes or, say, DI and amp for the bass. Drums I tend to hit with a few dB of gain reduction, vocals likewise (again maybe post-fader – it depends on the dynamic of the performance). Electric guitar is very programme-dependent; distorted guitar I likely won’t compress at all, anywhere down the line. Acoustic guitar and clean electric, I’ll probably use a little to glue things together a little tonally, rather than for significant gain reduction, and use fader moves to make the guitars sit where I want them to.

Equalisation
There’s a long- and widely held belief that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. It is, I think, a myth. Those who counsel against additive EQing on the grounds that you’re trying to boost what isn’t there have a point – but only if that is actually what you’re doing, which is rare for anyone who isn’t a total newbie. Trying to add brilliance to a bass drum track by boosting 10k is absurd. Trying to emphasisr the beater impact of a kick drum by making a boost somewhere between 2k and 4k (depending on tuning and beater material) is just emphasising what self-evidently is there.

On the whole, I probably do subtract frequencies more often than boost them, but I’m always happy to make small boosts where needed. For example, I often add a little high end to vocals (above the range of sibilance so things don’t get spitty) and, within a dense mix, I’ll look to give a boost to the audibility of toms by bringing out the stick impact rather than the drum’s fundamental.

In terms of subtractive EQ, I work in fairly conventional ways. I’ll look to take some low mids out of boomy acoustic guitar tracks, and often emphasise the low end of a tom by cutting a little into the mids. If a bass drum is moving a lot of air but feels a little less present than I want, sometimes rolling off below ~60Hz can be helpful (I often do this in conjunction with the beater-frequency boost mentioned earlier).

I’m usually working in quite naturalistic sound worlds, so I want to get a sound in front of a microphone, capture it, and present it in mix transparently, so EQing is not something done in the box after tracking. Rather, the instrument being played, the pickup used, the pedals and amps used, the position of the mike, the choice of mike – all of these are factors in whether I use lots of EQ or none at all.

Hand in hand with the natural-sound thing, the ideal situation, if I’ve been recording a good player on a good instrument and done my job with mike positioning, is that I apply no EQ at all. If I liked the sound in the room, there really should be no reason not to like it on tape, so to speak.

Which I guess leads us to…

Conclusion
The biggest issues I have with a lot of the “5 best tips to help you mix like a pro!” nonsense I see all over the internet is that so many of them present techniques that are sometimes useful (often as hail Marys more than anything) as regular, staple techniques that you “should” be using. I read one guide the other day that said something to the effect of “You’re going to want to high-pass filter all your tracks to remove the low end”. But why? Can’t I listen to the track first to see if that’s necessary? What if the band knows how to arrange their music and the tracking engineer recorded them in such a way that there is no build-up of clutter down there?

The best tip I could give anyone is this: do nothing simply for the sake of doing something; leave well alone if you can’t account for your intervention; resist the temptation to process just because you can. A good 80% of mixing lies in the performance and tracking – if a performance is captured well and is solid in terms of sound and technique, the results mix themselves. Any engineer who works as a tracking and mix engineer and doesn’t simply mix would, Steve Albini style, benefit from putting most of their efforts into improving their miking techniques and gain structuring. The mix will then be an infinitely simpler process.

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

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*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker

Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929 on 23 December. So he and I share a birthday. I wish I also shared his musical talent and movie-idol looks, but oh well.

Baker was raised in a musical family. His father, Chesney Sr, had been a professional guitarist, but was forced by the Depression to take a regular job. His mother was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. Their son gravitated to the trumpet. Not initially planning a life as a working musician, Baker left school at sixteen and joined the army. After two years in Germany between 1946 and 1948, Baker returned to the US, planning to study music theory, but he soon dropped out of school and re-enlisted, and was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco as a member of the Sixth Army Band.

During this time, he began playing at San Francisco jazz clubs, which led to dates with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually a recording contract for his own quartet. In 1954, Baker released Chet Baker Sings, his first record featuring his vocals as well as his trumpet. Many jazz critics, while admiring his playing, gave him short shrift as a singer. They viewed his vocal recordings as a cynical move by his label to mould a gifted musician but marginal singer into a teen idol off the back of his James Dean-like image.

It’s true that Baker’s voice was unlike many heard within jazz up to that point in the music’s history. His voice was very small and intimate, with only the tiniest hint of vibrato. More troublingly for purists, he didn’t sing with a jazz sensibility. Knowing and working within his limitations as a vocalist, he played no games with the melody or phrasing of a tune, singing each song as one might sing a lullaby to a baby, or to a lover in the middle of the night. His own lack of experience as a singer is foregrounded: when he reaches the big note (“stay, funny Valentine, stay“), Baker hits it, but seems somewhat surprised, and lets it trail off where a confident singer would have held it and added vibrato as a flourish.

My Funny Valentine has been recorded by basically every singer who has ever worked in jazz or vocal music. There are classic versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, underappreciated recordings by Matt Monro and Johnny Mathis (anticipating no one so much as Jeff Buckley) and head-scratchers by Seal and Nico. Baker’s may still be the definitive version, though. Its vulnerability, partly born from Baker’s lack of experience as a singer, partly just a function of who he was, makes it utterly unlike the assured versions by Frank and Ella, but all the better for it.

Baker’s story, unfortunately, is not a particularly happy one. He began taking heroin in the early 1950s, which led him into some unfortunate places. In 1966, a drug deal he was trying to make went wrong and he received a severe beating from the dealer. Several of his teeth were knocked out, ruining his embouchure and leaving him needing dentures and forcing him to learn a new technique – more or less from a beginner’s level – in order to play at all. Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, Baker was again a working jazz musician, but now working and living almost exclusively in Europe.

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Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

10 more of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented once again without comment or context, 10 more magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

“Sure, he’s a jolly roger, until he answers for his crimes”
My Rival (Gaucho)

A tower room at Eden Roc, his golf at noon for free/Brooklyn owes the charmer under me
Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Watch the sun go brown/Smoking cobalt cigarettes
King of the World (Countdown to Ecstasy)

I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
Deacon Blues (Aja)

She takes the taxi to the good hotel/Bon marché as far as she can tell
Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)

Alan owns a chain of Steamer Heavens/And Barry is the software king
What a Shame About Me (Two Against Nature)

Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go/I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said “oh no, Guadalajara won’t do”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)

When Black Friday comes I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook/Gonna strike all the big red words from my little black book
Black Friday (Katy Lied)

You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later/Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
Everything You Did (The Royal Scam)

Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for some more killer suggestions.