Author Archives: rossjpalmer

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss-America

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High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

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

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

So what can you do with it?

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

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

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

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

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

nashville tuning
My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

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

Classic Openers & Closers

Not all classic albums have classic opening tracks. Very good openers, sure, but not genuinely arresting, heart-stopping brilliant ones. The same is true – truer, even – for final songs. And then there are those strange few classics that have bad last songs.

Why is this? Well, part of what makes a record a classic is its overall shape: the play of one song into another, how a low-key opener explodes into an incredible second song, or how a tumultuous album goes out on a calm, understated note.

An opening or closing song might absolutely do its job but not be, outside the context of the album, a classic. Any rap record that begins or ends on a skit or audio collage (I immediately thought of Illmatic, but insert your own favourite) would, I suppose, be an example of this phenomenon. Or records where the opener or closer is very good, but just not quite stone-cold brilliant: hi there, Second Hand News (Rumours) and Something in the Way (Nevermind).

Or perhaps the artist just didn’t quite sustain their brilliance all the way through to the final track, like Joni Mitchell, who frequently ended her records on a ponderous note*, or Judee Sill, whose debut album is still the best record of all time (yes, it is) even though her usual lightness of touch deserted her on closing track Abracadabra. Or maybe the artist wilfully chose bizarre final songs, like the Byrds so often did.

Perhaps a classic album begins or ends on a track that loads of people think is classic, but actually is really overrated (You Can’t Always Get What You Want from the Stones’ Let it Bleed is my choice, but as I’ve said before, I feel the same about Taxman and the title track from Sgt Pepper as openers).

So, here’s my highly personal, completely-off-the-top-of-my-head, not-entirely-serious, definite-not-exhaustive list of classic (or semi classic) records with amazing opening and closing tracks. As I think of more, I’ll add them.

  • Pet Sounds – Beach Boys (Wouldn’t it Be Nice; Caroline, No)
  • Liege & Lief – Fairport Convention (Matty Groves; Crazy Man Michael)
  • Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (Revelator; I Dream a Highway)
  • One World – John Martyn (Dealer; Small Hours)
  • Red – King Crimson (Red; Starless)
  • IV – Led Zeppelin (Black Dog; When the Levee Breaks)
  • What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On; Inner City Blues)
  • Dirt – Alice in Chains (Them Bones; Would?)
  • The Boatman’s Call – Nick Cave (Into My Arms; Far From Me)
  • Small Change – Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues; I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work)
  • Dust – Screaming Trees (Halo of Ashes; Gospel Plow)
  • Happy Sad – Tim Buckley (Strange Feelin’; Sing a Song For You)
  • The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (Excursions; Scenario)
  • Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (Only Shallow; Soon)
  • A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night; I’ll be Back)
  • Please Please Me – The Beatles (I Saw Here Standing There; Twist & Shout)
  • Talking Book – Stevie Wonder (You Are the Sunshine of My Life; I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever))
  • The Band – The Band (Across the Great Divide; King Harvest Has Surely Come)
  • Music from Big Pink – The Band (Tears of Rage; I Shall be Released)
  • Inside Out – John Martyn (Fine Lines; So Much in Love With You)
  • Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch (Strolling Down the Highway; Angie)
  • Bringing it all Back Home – Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues; It Ain’t Me Babe)
  • Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (Like a Rolling Stone; Desolation Row)
  • Younger than Yesterday – The Byrds (So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star; My Back Pages)
  • Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Frank Sinatra (You Make Me Feel So Young; How About You?)
  • Workingman’s Dead – The Grateful Dead (Uncle John’s Band; Casey Jones)
  • Sail Away – Randy Newman (Sail Away; God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind))
  • Never for Ever – Kate Bush (Babooshka; Breathing)
  • Melt – Peter Gabriel (Intruder; Biko)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water; Song for the Asking)
  • There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – Paul Simon (Kodachrome; Loves Me Like a Rock)
  • Gaucho – Steely Dan (Babylon Sisters; Third World Man)
  • Forever Changes – Love (Alone Again Or; You Set the Scene)
  • Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays – Nat King Cole & George Shearing (September Song; Don’t Go)
  • Everybody Knows this is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Cinnamon Girl; Cowgirl in the Sand)
  • Harvest – Neil Young (Out on the Weekend; Words (Between the Lines of Age))
  • MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana (About a Girl; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)
  • Doolittle – Pixies (Debaser; Gouge Away)
  • Murmur – REM (Radio Free Europe; West of the Fields)
  • OK Computer – Radiohead (Airbag; The Tourist)
  • Scott 3 – Scott Walker (It’s Raining Today; If You Go Away)
  • Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon (Don’t Make Me a Target; Black Like Me)
  • Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison (Fair Play; Country Fair)
  • There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone (Luv & Haight; Thank You for Talking to Me Africa)

Bachelor Kisses – The Go-Betweens

I wrote about Robert Forster’s memoir, Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a piece I wrote after a few days spent revisiting the band’s music.

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

Formed in Brisbane in the late 1970s, the Go-Betweens began life as founder Robert Forster’s concept. Obsessed by rock ‘n’ roll and its history, he desperately wanted to be a musician, but he found bandmates who shared his vision hard to come by. He suggested to his closest friend, Grant McLennan, that maybe he should get a guitar and join the band. McLennan, though, was a film nut and wanted to concentrate on that passion, not become distracted by music. Not to be deterred, Forster kept working on him until McLennan agreed to give bass guitar a go.

To Forster’s delight, his friend had a natural ear for melody, quickly developing a bass style that complemented Forster’s terse guitar chords. McLennan soon started writing songs, too. Always a hard worker, he was prolific and – more so than Forster – tuneful. McLennan wrote the band’s early masterpiece, Cattle & Cane (a reflection on childhood from the point of view of a young man on a train bound for the parental home), and followed it up one album later with the first song by the Go-Betweens that sounds like it should have been a hit.

Bachelor Kisses, from 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, is built on one of those open-string tricks that guitarists love*. In the verses, McLennan shifts bass note while playing an almost-arpeggio on the open B and G strings. The implied chord sequence (C / D / G / A minor) is standard stuff, but the reliance on the open strings extends the harmony into something more like C major 7 / D6 (add11) / G / Am (add9). His vocal melody, while fairly static, avoids obvious root notes (he frequently sings yearning ninths), and is complemented by a graceful counter-melody in the chorus by the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva.

Another telling detail is the performance of Lindy Morrison. The band’s drummer was also Forster’s girlfriend, and her relationship with McLennan was uneasy and tense, yet she produced much of her most inspired work on McLennan’s songs, as on the tricky 11/4 time Cattle & Cane. Here, her decision to play the verses in half-time, only shifting to tempo for the bridges and choruses, and moving back to half-time for the middle eight, is astute and key to the song’s balance of tension and release.

Despite the efforts of producer John Brand to shine it up, Bachelor Kisses is perhaps still too skeletal to have been a genuine commercial hit in 1984 (maybe a couple of years earlier it might have been a contender), but it remains one of the great treasures of the Go-Betweens’ catalogue.

 

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

iPod, still – phone storage, streaming

Last week, while I was on holiday in the US, my iPod Classic (about 12 or 13 years old now) finally gave up the ghost on me. It would no longer charge or recognise that it was plugged in. I tried replacement cables and different USB sockets, all to no avail.

It was the end. But the moment had not been prepared for.

I’ve hung on to an iPod this long as it’s invaluable for carrying around 16 bit/44k mixes of recordings I’m working on (at the moment, that’s an album I’m finishing off with James McKean, an EP Mel and I are recording, and a bunch of random stuff of my own). If I’m working on mixes and test driving them, so to speak, as I travel around, I don’t want to hear them as MP3s – if I could store them at 24 bit, I would. But without a working iPod, I thought I’d try bowing to the inevitable: I’d use Spotify for general listening, and took about 20 mixes that I have on the go, reduced them to 256kbps MP3s and put them on the phone itself.

iPhone storage full.

Not a good start.

At the same time, I wanted to listen to some Go-Betweens records, as I’d just read Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens and it’s been a few years since I went through all their stuff. Spotify doesn’t have their first two albums, or the records they made after they reformed, or their US- or UK-market best-of compilations.

Sigh.

Off to eBay, then, for a second-hand iPod Classic, hoping I don’t get ripped off.

This is the problem that streaming boosters don’t seem to recognise. I get the convenience of having one device. I get that if you live in a big town or city, your Wi-Fi and/or 4G (or 5G, or even 3G) connection is going to be more or less constant, and I get that if you listen to contemporary music mainly, you’re always going to find what you want on Spotify.

But if your interests lie elsewhere, you’re reliant on deals being struck to get legacy artists’ catalogues up on Spotify (or Apple Music, or Google Play, or wherever) and kept there. And that’s far from a sure thing. The Go-Betweens are not a marginal group — they were well known enough to get national coverage in the UK, and are even better known in their native Australia – yet most of their albums are not streamable on the biggest online music platform.

As I’d long argued, there is still no truly viable alternative for carrying around a capacious hard drive stuffed to the brim with music if you want to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is why, even if I didn’t also need a device to store work-in-progress mixes at a half-decent audio quality, an iPhone and a Spotify account still doesn’t cut it, and why I’m the satisfied owner of a 12-year-old reconditioned iPod Classic bought off eBay.

Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens – Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens (published in 2016) is as good as rock memoirs get.

Its focus on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan is key to what makes it so fascinating. There are no shortage of rock bands built on the relationship between two key creative protagonists, but books about them tend to focus on their rivalries, disagreements and power struggles. McLennan and Forster had a period of estrangement in the 1990s, during which they made solo records and Forster lived with his new family in Germany, but the Go-Betweens didn’t break up because McLennan and Forster no longer wanted to work together. Their relationship stayed fairly harmonious all the way along, and the pair picked up again pretty seamlessly in 1999 to make The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster, then, has no axe to grind, and his love and respect for McLennan is evident from the first page until the last.

So much so, it should be said, that he pulls a few punches. While his accounts of McLennan’s drinking and depression shed a great deal of light on his death of a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster doesn’t discuss MacLennan’s heroin use, which has been well documented elsewhere (most notably in David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens), and which may have contributed to his later physical and mental ill health. Perhaps Forster wanted to spare McLennan’s family and former partner, but it is a notable omission in a book that’s otherwise so candid.

What I loved about the book, though, and what kept me reading it more or less in one sitting on an overnight flight from Portland to London during which I couldn’t get to sleep, was Forster’s retelling of the band’s early years – their hopping back and forth from Brisbane to Melbourne to London, their alliances with like-minded Scottish indie groups Orange Juice and Josef K, their adventures in the West London demi-monde with Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party, and their struggle to ever stay on the same label for more than one album cycle. Forster brings it all alive vividly in precise but engaging prose, and shows how one good song by either of them could compensate for cold and uncomfortable lives lived in squats and Dickensian shared houses.

Forster’s a sound judge of the band’s best work, and his willingness to highlight McLennan’s work rather than his own speaks well of him, as does his his honesty in admitting to sometimes feeling envious of McLennan’s greater musical facility. McLennan was, I suppose the better melodist, and on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane his hookier songs were more natural choices as singles, but Forster was always the heart of the band, and it’s fascinating to read about the songs he wrote, and how he views his process. The passages about Forster’s relationship with drummer and former partner Lindy Morrison (who emerges as a difficult, somewhat domineering figure in Forster’s telling) are similarly illuminating.

It’s rare to find a book about a band, especially ones by musicians, that I’d recomment to a non-fan, but Grant & I is a rare exception. It’s funny, wise and humane, and a priceless look at the world of 1980s indeoendent music from a man who lived it.