Category Archives: Music

Heidi Berry

I’ve been reading Martin Aston’s history of the record label 4AD, Facing the Other Way, which in its admirable dedication to telling the whole story of the label focuses almost as intently on artists that are now rather obscure and forgotten as it does on the more notable successes. I’m going to listen to some of them and give a quick, from-the-hip appraisal, all written in one lunchtime.

First up, Heidi Berry’s self-titled album from 1993, her second on the 4AD. I’ve not heard any other records by her, and my only reference tool is the discogs listing that has given me the names of the players. Although, there was one that I could identify from his first note…

In 1993, not many artists were making records this obviously indebted to British folk rock from the 1970s. But then, few artists have been as obviously influenced by British folk rock from the 1970s as Heidi Berry.

Occasionally, this is to the record’s detriment. On For the Rose, a co-write with her regular bass player Laurence O’Keefe, Danny Thompson turns up to play double bass on what is a virtual rewrite of John Martyn’s Solid Air. I imagine the great man was a little nonplussed. The problem is, it does rather raise the question of whether Berry’s music can claim an identity of its own. I’m not sure I’d call For the Rose the album’s weakest moment, but it is the one that makes the record easiest to dismiss if you’re familiar with Martyn and the records of his contemporaries.

Elsewhere, there are fewer problems. Berry has an attractive, serious-sounding voice: a little quivery, like Natalie Merchant’s, but warm, agile and true in pitch. She sings strong harmonies with herself, with a good sense of which lines to harmonise and which to leave bare. The musicianship is very good throughout, with particular strong work by drummer Jon Brookes and pianist/string arranger Christopher Berry, Heidi’s brother. Hugh Jones’s production and mix is largely warm and intimate, with the right kind of woodiness to the drum and acoustic guitar sounds, which is vital for doing this stuff well.

Highlights for me include Little Fox, which has a lovely string arrangement, the Moon and the Sun, which is in sprightly triple-time and sounds a little more indie-pop than the rest of the record, Darling Companion (not the Lovin’ Spoonful song) and the opener Mercury, which sets out the album’s stall as one focused on relationships, but with frequent nature imagery, which I guess is the lingua franca of non-traditional folk music.

Later on, the record gets a little more ambient/dream poppy, with Follow having something of a Talk Talk feel, and Ariel sounding very much like the Cocteau Twins (did they have a song called Ariel? Surely they did) – while competently done, it’s a strange choice for a record that otherwise sounds like its been hewed from the soil.

I like this record. It’s very… likeable. It only really comes a cropper when it wears its influences a little too obviously on its sleeve, as on For the Rose. Well worth checking out if British folk rock is your thing.

R-389682-1153496860.jpeg

 

Iron and Wine & Calexico @ the Royal Festival Hall, 23 November

I’ve gotten a lot from the recent records by both artists, so was really excited to see them play live together, especially after hearing their new collaborative album Years to Burn, which came out in the spring, and rating it pretty highly.

The set began with Follow the Water, which may be my favourite track from the album. The band immediately swung into gear, and if Joey Burns hit a bad note on lead guitar and Sam Beam’s vocal was a little quiet as the sound guys worked out the level, it was no big.

Next was He Lays in the Reins, with Burns taking lead vocal. I guess this was so Beam could cover the harmony, which lies above the range of the melody. It kind of makes you wish that they’d recorded the song as a duet originally, but In the Reins was much more an Iron and Wine EP with Calexico backing him than a 50/50 collaboration.

Next was Father Mountain, on which the Beam/Burns harmonies again sounded great, and Glimpse, a Calexico song.

The centrepiece of Years to Burn is The Bitter Suite, which is made up of two slow songs bookending a jam featuring some great Miles Davis-style trumpet from Jacob Valenzuela. Other than the trumpet not sounding as echoey and cool as it does on the recording, the band handled the demanding 9-minute piece well. Valenzuela’s lead vocal on Pajaro was mournful and moving, and John Convertino powered through band through Evil Eye, the instrumental section, from behind his drum kit. Tennessee Train, the slow, mournful Sam Beam song that ends the suite, is spine-tingling on record, but live demonstrated what would be my one gripe about the show.

Beam has a particular type of voice: soft, sad and consistent in timbre across his range. He began as an Elliott Smith-style whisperer and evolved into a real singer from there. But he’s not a singer who can adapt the timbre of his voice and sing louder and more open throatedly without his tone becoming hard and brittle. At times on Saturday I felt he over-decorated the melodies of certain songs and sang more strident, arena-sized melodies that didn’t quite suit his voice or the moment. On a song other than Tennessee Train, it might not have mattered, but it did slightly mar one of his best songs.

Next was a really good cover of Lucinda Williams’s I Lost It, and Midnight Sun, which I liked more than its studio recording, but it was maybe a weaker moment in the set in terms of the writing.

Sixteen, Maybe Less was an odd one. Beam botched the lyrics one line in and laughed it off while carrying on the song rather than starting again. The band slid in after the first verse and I soon forgot about Beam’s early flub, but he also forgot lyrics in the second set of verses and instead began talk-singing the verse. Now, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t still a little misty at the end of the song, but as with Tennessee Train, some of Beam’s performance choices took me out of a song I’d expected simply to get lost in.

No problems arose from Flores y Tamales, though. The Spanish-language, cumbia-inflected song from Calexico’s 2018 album The Thread that Keeps Us, sung by Valenzuela, was a real set highlight, as was the short sequence of songs that Beam and Burns sung as a duo.

They began with the old Iron and Wine favourite Naked As We Came, a vehicle for Beam’s deft fingerpicking and the harmonies the pair have perfected (see video above for a radio session). They followed that up with a pair of covers: Chris Gaffney’s Frank’s Tavern, which Calexico have been playing for years and which fits them like a glove (they brought Valenzuela back to the stage to join in on trumpet, and it was great), and the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream, for which they brought back opener Lisa O’Neill. Personally, I didn’t feel that O’Neill’s rough, gnarled voice was a brilliant fit for such a gentle song and would rather have heard Beam sing lead. It was a nice inclusive gesture though.

The band came back on and went into the bluesy Red Dust from In the Reins, on which bass player Sebastian Steinberg played a long double bass solo. Steinberg is an excellent player, but it went on a few minutes too long for my liking, given that it was basically unaccompanied and with no harmonic context. Next was a nice cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses and Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin, on which the band nodded at the arrangement of the recording while taking it somewhere different and cool. Definitely a set highlight.

The final three songs of the set were an absolutely lovely version of Years to Burn, which had all the weary delicacy of the studio recording, a fun version of History of Lovers (never liked the nursery rhyme-ness of this song all that much, but enjoyed it on the night) and What Heaven’s Left, the opening track of Years to Burn, which worked well as a set closer – nicely celebratory, with a cool outro jam featuring lots of John Convertino’s drum fills and Valenzuela’s trumpet.  The encore, short and sweet, was In Your Own Time, which they stripped back compared to the album recording, losing some of the barroom swagger. Still, it was a good song to end on, and the natural, inevitable closer since it hadn’t appeared in the main set.

I’ve seen Calexico a few times now, and they’re never less than impressive. Their collective musicianship is just so good. Convertino is a joy, and Burns has developed into a really effective singer and focal point for the band. Beam was a little more hit and miss. Possibly it was an end-of-tour thing, but I think I’d have enjoyed a couple of the songs more if he’d played them a little straighter, singing the melodies as written and keeping his voice in the dynamic range where it sounds best. Nevertheless, having not seen an iron and Wine gig yet, I’d not hesitate to go next time he’s over here with his band.

A final word about Rob Burger – I’ve not really mentioned his contributions on keyboards and steel guitar, but he was absolutely crucial to the success of the gig. The guy is completely gifted and brilliant.

 

All Hands on the Bad One – Sleater-Kinney

All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album, seems nowadays not to be one of their most highly thought-of records, but it’s always been my favourite of theirs. Any number of Sleater-Kinney records give you righteous anger, interweaving guitar lines, the interplay of Corin Tucker’s ferocious wail and Carrie Brownstein’s nasal sneer, and powerful, inventive drumming from Janet Weiss, but no other S-K album is leavened with as much humour and stylistic playfulness.

Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 by Tucker and Brownstein as a side project from their main groups, Heavens to Betsy (Tucker) and Excuse 17 (Brownstein). Heavens to Betsy, particularly, were a well-known and influential riot grrrl band, so Sleater-Kinney were a supergroup of sorts. (I listened back to Heavens to Betsy’s album, Calculated, while working on this. It’s startlingly visceral; you don’t hear indie music so obviously angry these days. We could do with more of it.) Their first couple of records were scrappy affairs – the songwriting was still fairly primitive, and the band a little shaky.

Shakiness disappeared entirely when powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss joined. Weiss had been in a San Francisco band called the Furies, then formed Quasi with her husband Sam Coomes. A self-taught drummer, she evolved a frantic style built to fill out the sound of the skeletal bands she usually played in (both S-K and Quasi had no bass player and were lacking in low end compared to other bands). By the time of All Hands on the Bad One, Weiss had been with Sleater-Kinney for two records already, and the band was essentially fully evolved and as wide-ranging as it would ever be. While Was it a Lie and #1 Must Have (which explored the way that riot grrrl was discussed by mainstream media) could have been on any S-K album, the likes of Leave You Behind – the sweetest, most vulnerable ballad, the group ever wrote – the self-explanatory You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun and Milkshake & Honey, the group’s riff on the idea of modern-day Sun Also Rises-style expats in Paris, could only have appeared on of All Hands on the Bad One.

One Beat and The Woods, the last albums the group made before going on a 10-year hiatus, were responses to 9/11 and Bush-era America, and as such, they were defiant, largely humourless affairs. While they had half a dozen great songs each (and, it should be said, found favour with a lot of people who hadn’t been into their earlier music), I found myself disappointed by them as albums. I loved the band most when they mixed the goofy, the heartfelt and the furiously political. All Hands on the Bad One is, for that reason, essential.

I’ve not really investigated the music the band has made since they reformed. Lots of bands that have gotten back together recently have made great records, so I’m sure I’ll catch up at some point. I’ve followed the furore about their new album and Janet Weiss’s decision to leave the band, and what I’ve heard of the new music suggests it’s a fair way away from the sound of the band as I knew it. Nevertheless, I’m open to it. After all, they already showed on All Hands On the Bad One that they could cover a lot of stylistic territory.

Honey Down a String – Krista Detor

A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.

Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.

As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.

It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.

 

64 Quartets & Dreams of Orgonon

When I started this blog six and a half years ago, one of my models for the kind of writing I wanted to do was Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song exploration of David Bowie’s work, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, which was later published by Zero in two volumes.

O’Leary has a new project that I hadn’t come across until a couple of days ago: 64 Quartets. So far, O’Leary has covered Booker T & the MG’s and the 4AD Boston/Newport crew: the Pixies, the Breeders, Belly and Throwing Muses.

It’s as good as any long-time reader of O’Leary’s work could hope for, and it’s great to read his thoughts on artists other than Bowie. He puts in hard yards as a researcher (I can’t think of many other bloggers who include proper bibliographic citations) so he’s super well informed, and he’s an astute critic of actual music: the difference it makes that the singer sings this note rather than that note, or the effect of adding the 9th to the harmony.

It’s really good stuff.

While I’m here, I’d also like to mention Christine Kelley’s Dreams of Orgonon, which is a song-by-song exploration of Kate Bush’s catalogue, as well as works by and/or featuring Kate-adjacent artists like Peter Gabriel. Like O’Leary, Kelley combines biographic detail with formal and technical analysis of Bush’s music. It’s fantastic stuff, and is doing for me exactly what Pushing Ahead of the Dame did 10 years ago: giving me a proper grounding in the work of an artist I knew, but not comprehensively.

If you’re not following either yet, you’ve got a treat in store.

Once More into the Multiverse – R.E.M.’s Monster remixed

Warner Brothers’ ongoing programme of 25th-anniversary editions of R.E.M. albums has reached 1994’s Monster. Part of the package is a remixed version of the album. Let’s see what a reconsidered 2019 mix from original producer Scott Litt can do for the band’s divisive, guitar-heavy used-bin staple.

Monster always was quite an odd-sounding record.

Coming out in 1994, it seemed like a slightly delayed reaction to the dominance of alternative rock, most of which up to that point had been based on scorchingly distorted guitars. In truth, it was more of a reaction to inter-band politics. At some point in 1993 or so, Peter Buck had put his mandolin and dulcimer in the cupboard, turned up the tremolo and distortion on his AC30, grabbed a Les Paul and rediscovered the joy of simple, swaggering rock riffs. Drummer Bill Berry had already threatened to leave the group if the next album wasn’t louder than Automatic for the People and Out of Time, and if the band didn’t go out on tour to promote it. R.E.M.’s follow-up to Automatic was going to have be a loud rock record or there would be no follow-up at all.

The band cut the basic tracks for Monster live on a soundstage, and Scott Litt’s finished mix always suggested to me a degree of overthinking. Having the guitars forward in the mix was a good thing, given how crucial Buck’s tone (and on a few songs temolo) was to the sound of the record, and I’d argue that dropping the level of Michael Stipe’s vocal was a sensible thing to do too, but on some of the songs the weight of the guitars pushed the drums so far back that they became tiny. I’ve always felt the masters contained a more energetic and more satisfying mix, with the drums a bit more prominent.

Sadly, Scott Litt’s remix isn’t quite that, and goes a long way to convincing me that what might seem “wrong” with Monster when listened to critically is actually right in a greater, more fundamental way.

We can surmise from Litt’s new mixes that he felt his original mixes left the vocals too quiet and the drums too processed and too quiet. The new mixes correspondingly give us a whole lot more Stipe, and a less polished drum sound.

For evidence of the latter, A-B the intro of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream – the EQ-ing on the toms in the 1994 mix is absent (or reduced), giving them a perceived higher fundamental, and less detail in the range of stick impact; they boom less, and they cut less. Of course, these decisions are personal, but I prefer the 1994 mix as far as the tom sounds go, and it’s not even close. On the plus side, the snare is EQ’d differently, with a less present, less hyped-sounding top end. It’s an improvement.

Unfortunately, on many songs you don’t really get the benefit of it. One of the issues with distorted guitars is the amount of sonic real estate they take up. Monster‘s guitar sound is crazy huge. This necessarily leaves less space for the drums. Perhaps the top-end hype on the snare on the 1994 mix was to try to bring it out against the guitars. In the 2019 remix, Litt goes a different way: he adds more compression, to flatten the transients, turn up the sustain of the drum and position the reshaped snare as a solid block in fixed audibility against the guitars. But he goes rather too far for me. On What’s the Frequency Kenneth, the drums actually feel like they lag behind the beat due to the heavy compression as they fight against the wall o’ Buck and the newly prominent Stipe. They have no transient left at all. I’ve never previously heard an R.E.M. record and felt like Berry was dragging. If anything, he tended towards being a little early. The new mix is, on the loudest songs at least, extremely unflattering to him. The decision to take off the little bursts of tremoloed guitar in the choruses, meanwhile, merely removes one of the song’s best supporting hooks. A strange choice.

Other weird choices abound. The main guitar and drums crushed into the middle on Crush with Eyeliner, while the sides are crowded with clean overdubs and Thurston Moore’s backing vocal is drowned out by multi-tracked Stipes? Definitely odd. Anchoring Tongue with a tom-heavy drum track right from the intro? Yep, strange again. Other choices, such as remixing of the guitars on Let Me In, are just misguided. The whole point of Let Me In is that incandescent distorted guitar sound, presented so ambiently that actual strums are hard to make out. With only a minimum of pick attack and volume change to tell you where the beats were, the guitar sound became disortientating and weightless, but also uncanny and beautiful. The new version sounds all too earthbound, with Stipe mixed so dry it sounds like he’s singing into your earhole from six inches away. Being brutal, it almost suggests Litt didn’t get what worked about the song first time round.*

Of course, this is just a bonus-disc remix, a parallel-universe version (a Bizarro World remix, if you like). It doesn’t replace the actual album mix of Monster. But it does spotlight the choices made by the band and Litt 25 years ago, and reinforce to the non-audio-engineer fan that so much of what we hear when we listen to recorded music is mediated by mix engineers and producers. When different choices are made, the result is a different album.

monster

*Just to prove how subjective all this stuff is, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott talked about the remix on their podcast, R U Talking REM Re Me? Both preferred the remixes to the album mixes for the majority of songs, and both felt Let Me In is the biggest improvement. To which all I can say is, whaaaaaaaaaaaa?

 

Holding On to You – Nick Frater

…and now for another post about new music.

Nick Frater, Croydon’s resident power-pop maestro, recording nerd and chord-sequence genius, has released a new record, Full Fathom Freight Train, which you can download from Bandcamp, stream/download in all the usual places or buy on 12-inch from his website.

Nick makes music in the vein of Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Eric Carmen and Todd Rundgren, or their Gen-X disciples like Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish: expansive, frequently irregularly structured pop that’s enlivened by harmonically adventurous chord seqeuences that allow his melodies to go to surprising places. There’s always the sense that they could take a hard left turn at any moment. That makes the more straightforward pieces like the lovely Andrew Gold-like Holding On to You even sweeter, and even this one has chewy surprise chords in the middle eight. I’ll get him to take me through it one day.

When you listen to Nick’s songs, you’ve always gotten well-considered arrangements that are detailed without being cluttered, and excellent musicianship from Nick and his small cast of additional players (on this record: guitarists Paul Ryan, Ian Granton and Mike Randle, drummers Tommy Shotton and Ben Handysides, vocalists Nicolai Prowse and Alex Lewis*). Full Fathom Freight Train might be his best work yet, though, sonically speaking, with its mastering job by Simon Francis and Jon Clayton-engineered drum tracks.

Frater has been remarkably productive in the last few years. Go to his Bandcamp page to catch up with his past work, including all 18 minutes of The Sombrero Fallout Suite.

Frater
Spot the Beatles ref…

Alex Lewis, Nicolai Prowse and Tommy Shotton are former members of Do Me Bad Things. Lewis and Prowse were later in the Rosemary Works, with Frater and drummer Ben Handysides. Mike Randle plays guitar in Baby Lemonade and Johnny Echols’s line-up of Love, while Paul Ryan plays guitar in Super 8.