Tag Archives: #1 Record

Would? – Opeth

Jerry Cantrell knew more about the layering of guitars than any of his contemporaries, maybe with the exceptions of Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. But whereas Shields (and often Corgan) made heavy use of overdubbing to create a wall of sound that was soft and dreamy – an aural comfort blanket – Cantrell wanted his guitars to smash your face in. They were huge and aggressive. They dominated the mix, crowding everything else out, leaving Layne Staley and Sean Kinney having to fight to be heard. The reunion album that AiC put out in 2009 attempted to give the vocals and drums a little bit of extra focus while making the guitars even bigger – the results proved the old audio engineer’s saying: If everything is big, nothing is big.

Opeth are a Swedish group who started out playing death metal, but have got more multi-dimensional (and to my ears more interesting) as time has gone on. Most of their recent music foreswears death grunts, double kick-drum rolls and blastbeats in favour of acoustic guitars, twisty time signatures and a haunting, more pastoral vibe. Opeth’s main man Mikael Åkerfeldt is in the tradition of guitar layerers that runs through Cantrell, Shields and Corgan, back through Bob Mould, Tom Scholz and Lindsey Buckingham and all the way back to Les Paul, so it’s no surprise he’d be an AiC fan. Opeth’s version of Would? (a B-side from 2008) is mighty fine and extremely well played, particularly by drummer Martin Axenrot, who can drum rings around Sean Kinney, or anyone else. But it’s great in a different way to the original, in a way that leads you to appreciate the original more.

Opeth’s version is precise and clean, and sounds like it was probably played to a click track. As much as a record like this can, it grooves. Alice in Chains’s version is a barely restrained race to the finish, with an ear-grabbing tempo increase over the course of the first verse and chorus. This is not necessarily a negative thing at all; listen closely to some Led Zeppelin if you think rigid adherence to a fixed tempo is necessary for good-feeling rock music. Åkerfeldt sings the song calmly; he sounds like a man taking a detached, almost scientific, interest in his physical and emotional disintegration. Layne Staley sang it like he sang everything else: like a man in agony, someone in way too much pain to be able to get any kind of distance from or perspective on himself. Similary, Åkerfeldt’s guitar sound is heavily distorted but clinical and cleaner than Cantrell’s, which has more midrange content and is a little “messier” and less controlled tonally.

While it’s likely that Dave Jerden (the producer and engineer on Facelift, Dirt, Sap and Jar of Flies) had input into the structure of the songs, Cantrell is nevertheless recognisably a master of song structure (try to think of any similar rock song as tightly wound and economical as Them Bones). Åkerfeldt inadvertently proves as much by removing the last repetition of the chorus in order to double the length of his solo; without that last vocal chorus, the sense of unstoppable momentum that we carry into the killer last section (‘Am I wrong?’ with its huge, disorienting plunge from C to F#) is reduced, and with it goes a little of the song’s emotional wallop. And that’s what I dig about AiC – for all the distortion and dissonance, they were a rock band with great, tightly written songs, not riffs for riffs’ sake. If you’ve never given them a go (and for years I didn’t – they seemed “too metal” to teenage me), you may be surprised.

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Alice in Chains (left), Opeth (right)

New song (that is, a song that I wrote in 2012 re-recorded)

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My Life is Right – Big Star

There are two ways to approach the music of Big Star these days. The first is through the rock-canon myth of the Unruly Genius of Alex Chilton, Big Star’s singer-songwriter. In that case, start with their third album Third (also known as Sister Lovers), released in 1975, and work back. This is the standard rock-critic take on the record:

To listen to it is to be plunged into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Songs are drenched in strings and sweet sentiment one minute, starkly played and downcast the next. No pop song has ever bottomed out more than Holocaust, an anguished plaint sung at a snail’s pace over discordant slide-guitar fragments and moaning cello.

Parke Putterbaugh, Rolling Stone

Here’s my take on Third. It’s a mess, and only a couple of songs reach the standards of the band’s best work. The myth of Alex Chilton the Unruly Genius is just that, a myth: in the early years of Big Star at least, Chilton was a disciplined craftsman, but that was an image he didn’t care to project (and besides, that image doesn’t appeal to jaded music critics). But it was Chilton the craftsman who gave us the Ballad of El Goodo, Give Me Another Chance, Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise, all of which are absolute classics of their type. Songs like Ballad of El Goodo don’t happen without work. A lot of it.

Which brings us to the other way to approach them: through the first album, #1 Record, from 1972. This is the one that the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles and Elliott Smith owed so much to. This is the one that first made cool the idea of mixing 1965-era Beatles-style songwriting with big drums and guitars that were jangly, but loud, with an edge to them, guitars so sparkly they’re almost harsh. This version of Big Star were responsible for the lion’s share of the band’s enduring songs.

This version of Big Star had two singer-songwriters, and it was the push and pull between Chilton and Chris Bell, author of My Life is Right, that made #1 Record such a fine record. Without Bell to bounce off and to provide nearly half the songs, Chilton struggled to pull together enough strong material for a whole album. Bell shared Chilton’s Beatles obsession, but was a more damaged, less hedonistic, individual. Depressed by the commercial failure of #1 Record, dependent on heroin and, it has often been said, conflicted about his sexuality, he seemed destined for a bad end.

He met it, at the wheel of a Triumph TR-7.

He cut a classic single after leaving Big Star (I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister), which is  known to later generations though This Mortal Coil’s cover of the B-side (with vocals by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly) and the inumerable covers of I Am the Cosmos. But not enough people talk about how great his contributions to #1 Record are: his vocal on Don’t Lie to Me is the album’s most startlingly aggressive moment; Try Again is a beautiful, weary song, beaten down but ready to start over, refusing to give in; My Life is Right is his most joyful song, and maybe the band’s. There’s nothing more grin-inducing than Chilton and Bell straining to hit their high notes on the line “You are my day” in the chorus while drummer Jody Stephens plays bubbling triplet fills on his snare and rack toms. And what a great drummer Stephens is – I could write a book!

I can’t recommend #1 Record highly enough. Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers certainly have their moments, but for me they’re the work of another, inferior, band. The first version of the group were less mythic, but a lot more consistently rewarding.

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Alex Chilton, Chris Bell