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The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.

 

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Home at Last – Yo Zushi

My friend and long-time musical compadre (seriously, we’ve got something like 18 years behind us now) Yo Zushi has released a new single, Home at Last, with a new album (King of the Road) to follow shortly.

Home at Last was recorded around two years ago, I think, at One Cat in Camberwell, with Jon Clayton engineering. It was the last song we cut during that day at the studio, but at this point I can’t remember what else we did during that session. I can remember that I played drums on the live take, and that Dan McKean played piano. I then took the basic tracks home and did what I do, adding electric, acoustic and bass guitars, while Yo worked up a vocal arrangement.

It’s a great song (one of the best Yo’s ever written, I think, and he’s written some doozies) and I absolutely love the way the recording turned out. There’s a bandcamp link at the bottom of the post, and it’s also available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music and all the other usuals. The cover features Yo and his friend Jazzman John Clarke, a performance poet well known in London, who sadly passed away last week. I only met Jazzman a few times, but he was a lovely man with music and rhythm inside him.

Yo will be playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston on Sunday 16th September, and I’ll be supporting, in what is for me a rare solo show. Nowadays I mainly play as part of a duo with Melanie (something we’ve been doing increasingly often, and dare I say, are now getting pretty good at), so this will be something different, by virtue of being something old-school.

New website up; EP to follow

Hi everyone. Just a quick one to let you know, if you’re interested, that I’ve got a new website up for my musical doings. You can find it at https://www.rosspalmermusic.co.uk/

I’ve also finalised the mixes for an EP that I’m going to actually release on physical media, which is the first time I’ve done this. Over the last year or so, I’ve frequently found that I’m the only guy at every show I play who doesn’t have any CDs for sale, and I figured it’s time I remedied that, so I’ve brought together a couple of songs I had up on Bandcamp as standalone tracks with two other songs never previously released in any format, one old and one new. The EP will be available on Bandcamp, Spotify and iTunes (if iTunes is still a thing – word is it may not be soon) as well as on CD. I imagine that most of the CDs I sell will be at gigs, but it’ll be available to order as a CD from Bandcamp too, just in case.

I asked an old friend of mind to do the cover art for me (the brief was for something autumnal and rural), and he obliged with this beautiful drawing of Belfairs Woods, near where we both grew up:

Last swallow mock-up

Exciting times! An album will follow later in the year – this EP is the first CD I’ve released, so as well as it being a good thing to have something I can sell at gigs, it’s also great to learn how to do all this stuff.

Back soon with a real post. Take care.

Fleetwood House? Crowded Mac? Lindsey Buckingham leaves FM; Neil Finn is in

So, Fleetwood Mac have reportedly fired Lindsey Buckingham.

As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I’d be the first to admit that they are a living, breathing rock’n’roll soap opera; nothing that they can do to each other would surprise me or any other FM fan. I fully expect Buckingham to rejoin them within the next couple of years.

In the meantime, it’s Buckingham out and Neil Finn in, along with former Tom Petty sideman Mike Campbell. Which tells you all you need to know about how special a talent Lindsey Buckingham is: it takes two people to replace him, and even then you’ve not replaced his production and arrangement talent.

That said, Neil Finn kind of makes sense. Kind of. There are definitely moments in Finn’s discography that have that spooked Fleetwood Mac vibe, that introspective mood of dusk and twilight bordering on the mystical that almost all the writers who have passed through the band have tapped into – the mood you find in Peter Green’s Man of the World and Albatross, in Danny Kirwan’s Dragonfly, in Bob Welch’s Hypnotized, in Buckingham’s I’m So Afraid, and in countless Stevie Nicks songs. Catherine Wheels from Together Alone fits, 2007 reunion single Don’t Stop Now definitely fits. I can imagine it working reasonably well.

But I just don’t think it’ll have to for long.

Dinosaur Jr @ The Roundhouse, 23/03/18

When Dinosaur Jr spluttered to a halt in the late 1990s after touring the unenthusiastically received Hand it Over, it seemed unlikely that 20 years later the band would be celebrating a decade, and four strong albums, back together in its original form. If they’re not Exhibit A in in defence of the idea of old bands reforming (I’d maybe cite the Go Betweens, who I think made their best album right before Grant McLennan sadly passed away), they’ve certainly proved that a group can get back together and rival their best work.

Having never seen them back then, and always being short of money in the early years of their reformation, I’d never seen Dino play live, although I did catch a J Mascis solo show a couple of years ago, and I thought it was about time I made the effort. The gig was originally scheduled for December last year, but J Mascis had a throat infection and the band had to cancel. So last night, finally, I went to the Roundhouse to be deafened by Mascis’s mighty wall of Marshalls.

In the event, the band weren’t the all-out sonic assault I’d read about in Our Band Could Be Your Life and sundry other places. It was perfectly safe to be without earplugs, though I found that keeping them in attenuated some of the high frequencies from Mascis’s guitar and made Murph’s snare drum more audible. Certainly they never got into My Bloody Valentine territory, which is kind of what I was expecting.

So today, with hearing intact, thinking about the gig, I feel like the band put a shift in, but something didn’t quite take off for me. I think fundamentally, Dinosaur Jr are a small-room band. So much of the pleasure of their music is the physical sensation of the J Mascis guitar sound and Lou Barlow’s distorted bass (which is strummed more than anything), and hearing it in a large room changes your relationship to that sound. It’s very noticeable that the band make their records in Mascis’s home studio and they seem to use small iso rooms to track drums and guitars, which makes their records sound very close and upfront.

Still, while I never felt immersed in the music in the way I’d hoped to, the band played well. They opened with Thumb from Green Mind, which is a very different experience live from the Mellotron-based studio version with the weird drum sound (what was going on there? It sounds like a drum machine. It couldn’t be, could it?), and followed it with three strong songs from new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. I was particularly happy that Barlow and Mascis swapped instruments and Lou got to take a lead vocal; if you’ve been on my blog before, you’ll know that Lou’s my guy.

Watch the Corners from the last album was one of the set highlights (Mascis’s solo at the end was great), then they went back to the mid-1990s for Out There and Feel the Pain. Those aren’t, if I’m honest, favourites of mine, but the crowd loved them, especially the latter. In fact, the audience was pretty energetic throughout (first time I’d seen anything that could be described as a mosh pit at a gig I’ve been at in about a decade and a half), and Feel the Pain got them pushing and shoving like it was 1993. One clown kept trying to crowdsurf, even as he kept being dropped to the floor. There’s always one.

Then came a pair of key early tracks: the mighty Sludgefeast and Raisans, from You’re Living All Over Me. They sounded as weird and heavy and claustrophobic as they ever had. With some key exceptions I’ll get to, I respond to early Dino much more than the group’s major-label material, made after Barlow was fired. Mascis isn’t the world’s most expansive melodist, so the twisty-turny structures of the early songs make them more compelling to me. It provides the interest that for me isn’t there on something like Out There.

But there is one mid-1990s Dinosaur Jr song I love. Start Choppin’. And so when Mascis hit that oddly Nile Rodgers-like guitar intro, I was delighted. They did a good version, but this was one of those occasions where I’m so into the studio recording that any live version that doesn’t copy it exactly is going to disappoint me slightly. The tempo seemed a bit too fast, and Mascis’s solo didn’t have the tension and release of his studio effort, which begins as noise and then takes flight when he suddenly breaks into a glorious melodic section that shows off the flashier end of his technique.

Budge and Freakscene went over as well as you’d expect them to, and were delivered coolly, with no fuss, then there was a real treat as they finished the set with Forget the Swan, from their debut, Dinosaur. Mascis-penned but Barlow-sung, Forget the Swan is one of their best early songs, but it’s always been better live than on its anaemic studio incarnation. I wasn’t expecting them to play it, and they pretty much nailed it. Barlow’s delivery is of course massively more assured than it was in 1985, and he and Murph were brick-wall solid as Mascis wailed on top for four minutes or so to end the set, leaving his guitar screaming as the band walked off.

The versions of Tarpit and Raisans during the encore were a little perfunctory, as in honesty, they couldn’t top the way they’d ended the regular set.

So while it was maybe a notch or two below what I’d hoped for, a lot of which I’d put down to the venue just not being right for them, I enjoyed finally seeing them play, and I love the fact that Dinosaur Jr are still together with Barlow and Mascis are working side by side when for years there was such animosity (at least on Lou’s part), and that they’re making records that stand proudly with the work they did in their youth. So few other bands can say that.

Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

Chris Cornell RIP

A lot has been written about Seattle and grunge over the years – too much, probably – but something that really doesn’t get remarked upon enough is how unlikely it was for so many great vocal talents to emerge from that one city at the same time: Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell, to say nothing of transplanted Californian Eddie Vedder, or those harmony-singing maestros Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies, or of charismatic, characterful yowlers like Mark Arm and Andy Wood. All of them, all at the same time.

It wasn’t an unprecedented flowering of talent or anything (Detroit and Motown provides an even more staggering example of the same phenomenon), but it’s not recognised and celebrated in quite those terms. Nowadays we remember the heavy guitars, the drugs, the media hype and if we’re lucky we remember the great songs, but not enough attention is paid to how much sheer vocal talent came to the fore in the service of those songs.

None of these singers, not even Chris Cornell, emerged fully formed, but once he hit his peak on Badmotorfinger, Cornell matured into one of the absolute greatest rock singers ever. He could do anything. He could outscream Cobain and outwail Gillan and Dickinson. He could sing with a vibrato-heavy operatic intensity that Freddie Mercury would have envied. The sound of Cornell really going for it was addictive. On Rusty Cage, his slide up to the high note on the word “cage”, which he held with a powerful vibrato, is the main hook of the song. It’s why Johnny Cash’s cover – cute as it was as a concept – was so disappointing in practice. Cash couldn’t do the thing that made everyone love the song.

As time went on, as we heard Seasons, Black Hole Sun, Blow Up the Outside World, Preaching the End of the World and the wonderful When I’m Down – on which Cornell proved that Mark Lanegan wasn’t the only singer from Seattle who could conceivably make a move into jazz and blues – it became clear just what range this guy had, not merely in terms of pitch, but it terms of range, mood, feel, timbre.

Chris Cornell died today aged 52. We don’t know yet how he died, and it would be impertinent to speculate when the facts will make themselves known soon enough. Compared to his friends Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, he lived a long and productive life. Hopefully it was mostly a happy one too. What’s certainly true is that his music made an awful lot of people happy, me included.

Like most any other day, today I listened to KEXP’s morning show, and it was pretty much wall-to-wall Cornell. What a body of work the man leaves behind. It will be remembered, and so will he.

Soundgarden perform at The Palladium in Worcester, MA on May 15, 2013