Author Archives: rossjpalmer

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

Cortez the Killer/Through My Sails – Neil Young

Zuma (1975) was the first Neil Young album to feature the second line-up of Crazy Horse, with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals in place of Danny Whitten, who had died a few years earlier of a heroin overdose.

Whitten had been a strong guitarist, with a rhythm-guitar style that still bore traces of the soul and doo-wop he had played when Crazy Horse had been Danny and the Memories. His contributions on guitar and harmony vocals were crucial to the success of Evetybody Knows this is Nowhere, the first record Young cut with Crazy Horse. While Young did include Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on his records after Whitten died, they weren’t Crazy Horse records. Crazy Horse is a particular thing, and with Whitten gone, it didn’t exist.

When Talbot met Poncho, he had a hunch that he would click with Neil, and so he hyped Neil on him, insisting that Poncho could fill Whitten’s shoes. While Young did indeed like him, he quickly realised that Poncho was inexperienced and his guitar playing was still rudimentary, so he’d need to keep things simple for Poncho’s benefit. Zuma accordingly became an album of big, simple songs with big, simple chord changes, ideal for breaking in the new guy.

Fortunately simple suits Neil Young. He can take three or four chords and build a world out of them. He can make Cortez the Killer, for one thing. If you’re in any way a fan of Neil Young’s guitar playing you’ll probably know it, but if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. It may be his finest moment as an electric player: throughout the song’s seven minutes, Young’s playing is edge-of the-moment, incandescent.

Behind him, Crazy Horse rise to the occasion, as they always seemed to when Young’s songs demanded it. It’s a return to the sort of hypnotic, churning groove they patented on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Ralph Molina in particular plays a blinder; it may be his finest moment on any of Young’s records.

Cortez fades out and gives way to Through My Sails. The emotional transition is so perfect, you’d think that the two songs must have been designed to fit together this way: Cortez, the shattering end of something important; Through My Sails, the sound of someone summoning the strength to begin again.

In fact, Through My Sails had been recorded at an entirely separate, earlier recording session with Crosby, Stills & Nash for an aborted second CSNY album, to be called Human Highway.

Accounts differ as to what scuppered the record. Some say that Nash and Stephen Stills were still uneasy with each other having fallen out a couple of years earlier over Rita Coolidge; others put it down to the drugs (in his book, Wild Tales, Nash said they fell out over “some business, some cocaine thing”). Accounts even differ as to when Through My Sails was recorded – some sources say that it was recorded on Young’s ranch in 1973 as part of the first Human Highway session; others that it was cut during the rehearsals on Neil Young’s ranch for the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.

Most agree, though, it features Young on acoustic guitar, Stills on bass and Russ Kunkel on congas, with Crosby, Stills and Nash all adding their harmonies, and for a band not always known for their restraint (Stills is an incorrigible overdubber), it’s a sparse, beautiful performance. The four may have produced more technically impressive, tighter group vocals, but they never sounded more human.
Human Highway.jpg
No, this is not a real album cover, but it is the picture that was intended as the cover, and it’s a pretty impressive mock-up

 

 

Fade Out

No, this isn’t a cryptic way of announcing that the blog is going to end. I’m not stopping. Ever. In fact, things are about to get exciting round here. I want to talk about actual fade outs.

I miss the fade out. Last night I was walking home listening to Jon Auer’s quite wonderful You Used to Drive Me Around, enjoying the long, slow fade, and thinking about how little of the newer music I listen to actually makes use of the technique. Then I started wondering if anyone else had noticed.

Turns out I’m not imagining this, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Actually, people who pay more regular attention to proper pop music than I do noticed years ago:

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro Blurred Lines. Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now…, Slate (2014)

The reasons for the decline of the fade out are fairly obvious and don’t take a lot of unpacking. Artists are terrified of fans skipping their song and moving on to the next, so they need to stuff them full of anticipation or incident until the moment they stop, so no one reaches for the skip button. A trend towards songs that build continually until they stop is the inevitable result.

For years, I thought fade outs were a “pop” technique, a cheap trick that my lo-fi, alt. and indie-rocking heroes were better than. If you can’t work out a way to bring your arrangement to a proper close that’s reproducable in real time on stage, then what kind of musician are you? And for sure, anyone who’s seen that famous live clip of the Eagles doing Hotel California at the Capital Center that ends with them just suddenly all hitting one chord four times and stopping – cha-cha-cha-cha – will attest to the difficulty of coming up with a “live” ending to a song that faded out in its studio recording. Whether you like the song or not, you’d have to admit that the way the Eagles closed out Hotel California live was lame as hell and undercut the whole thing.

But of course, there are no hard and fasts here. The fade out on Hotel California is effective, and on the whole it was worth ending the studio recording that way, even with the knowledge that they’d not be able to do it the same way live, rather than compromising the recording by ending it in a way that they could be replicated. And when you start thinking about some of the truly great fade outs – Sara by Fleetwood Mac, for example, which ends with Stevie Nicks calling out into infinity about a “heartbeat that never really died” while an ocean of Lindsey Buckingham’s multitracked vocals and guitars swirl around her – it becomes clear how effective an emotional tool the fade out can be.

You Used to Drive Me Around works the same way. The sort of situation that Jon Auer is singing about is not an easily resolvable one, so the long fade out isn’t just an excuse for Mike Musburger to play some more expansive drum fills; it’s actually wholly appropriate to the subject and the mood of the song itself.

I hope that some enterprising artist or other starts championing the fade out and it catches on again with this generation of musicians. They’re missing out on a potentially really powerful technique through letting it fall into disuse.

 

 

 

Spoon @ the 100 Club, 27/02/17

Over more 20 years and eight studio albums, with another about to drop, Spoon have been a marvel of consistency. There’s not a weak record in their discography, not even the by-their-standards callow debut, Telephono (which leaned heavily on a Pixies influence long since outgrown). Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction, the group’s mid-career masterpieces, are as good as indie rock has gotten in the band’s lifetime. They’re one of my favourite bands, but I caught on late, and still rue the fact that I never got to see them on their way up, at small venues where I could all but reach out and touch the band.

Oh yeah, until Monday night, when I saw them play at the 100 Club in London.

For the unfamiliar, the 100 Club is a semi-legendary basement venue in an unlikely location on the north side of Oxford Street. Wrong, because it belongs by temperament on the other side of the road, in Soho. To get to it, you have to enter what looks like an office building, dodging the tourists and shoppers as you go. It’s a low room, wider than it is long, with bars at either end of the room, well away from the stage (what a joy not to have your enjoyment of the gig affected by the noise from the bar). The crowd in front of the stage can only be maybe 10 people deep. It’s not the perfect rock venue (the pillar right in front of the stage is not ideal), but it’s a pretty damn good one, and the smallest place Spoon have played in the UK in many a year.

The band were warming up for a tour that begins in the US in a week or two and returns to Europe in the early summer, when I’ll be seeing them from the balcony of the Kentish Town Forum. I like watching bands from the balcony – you can see more, and I love watching drummers from an elevated angle. But if you can’t be up high, the next best thing is to be up close, and at the 100 Club, I was really close.

Spoon were superb, and could as easily have been midway through a tour than warming up for it. It’s sometimes said that the hallmark of someone who’s really good at something is that they make it look really easy. I don’t know if it’s always true but I’d lean towards maybe not on Monday’s evidence.

I watched the band members carefully through the set, looking for the cues they were giving each other; the eye contact and little gestures, sometimes even shouted instructions. What was clear was how hard they all worked, all the way through; there are no passengers. All five men break into a sweat within a few songs, but even given the high work rate of all involved, some contributions stood out. Alex Fischel, who plays guitar, keyboards and percussion, conspicuously worked his arse off all night. Jim Eno – possibly the world’s greatest drummer – hits the drums a lot harder than I perceived from the balcony at Shepherd’s Bush. Finally, Britt Daniel – by most accounts a quiet and focused individual offstage – is a charismatic frontman and a well-practised engager of audiences. He held the audience in the palm of his hand, and his voice, hoarse and congested-sounding though it is, is capable of surprising purity and vulnerability on quieter songs.

The new songs – Hot Thoughts and Can I Sit Next to You plus two others I didn’t know, sounded great, just as good as anything they’ve done before, so I’m pretty excited about the prospect of a new album and another London show in the next few months. God bless Spoon. May they live another 20 years.

spoon

*On penultimate song My Mathematical Mind, the cymbal-crashing finale of the song was rawly, viscerally thrilling. Eno so rarely draws attention to himself in his playing that when he does it’s a proper treat.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Aimee.jpg
Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”