Tag Archives: 1970s

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin – Carly Simon

Other than You’re So Vain and Nobody Does It Better (both of which I love, though I have a few reservations over some of the former’s more convoluted lyrics), I’d never given Carly Simon much thought until last year when Mel and I watched a Classic Albums documentary on No Secrets that a friend of mine recommended.

It’s rare that I watch one of those without my respect for the artist increasing (even Duran Duran went up in my estimation after watching the one on Rio), and Carly Simon was no exception. If I’d scoffed a bit about the idea of a Carly Simon episode of Classic Albums when none exists for Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, I wasn’t scoffing 55 minutes later. Maybe No Secrets is not After the Gold Rush or Blue, but it’s a really sturdy early 1970s pop-rock record, with three or four excellent songs aside from the obvious picks (The Right Thing to Do and You’re So Vain) that were released as singles.

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is foremost among them. Piano-led and intimate, with Simon’s gentlest vocal performance, it’s a beautiful, quiet interlude on No Secrets, which otherwise tends to be a little more grandiose. Simon’s producer Richard Perry was fond of bigness and stuffed Simon’s songs with chugging cellos, big undamped tom-tom fills and multitudinous overdubs of lead and backing vocals. Wisely, Perry let His Friends are More than Fond of Robin breathe, and Simon responded with what must be her best released vocal performance.

Even more than the arrangement, though, what’s really noticeable about the song is how stylistically at odds this kind of writing is with that practised by her contemporaries. The pre-rock reference points for most singer-songwriters were folk, blues and country, and there were also a few who dabbled a little with jazz (or more truthfully, with some of the signifiers of jazz). But His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is not jazz – rather, it’s a sort of Broadway art song (the sort of thing that Stephen Sondheim might have written, as Barney Hoskyns observed in the Classic Albums doc). That’s a tradition that, among her contemporaries in 1970s rock, only Randy Newman ever worked in, although he’s not tended to write such vulnerably romantic material to perform himself.

All of which brings up an interesting question: why isn’t Carly Simon held in higher esteem than she is among the critics, fans, writers and bloggers who’ve shaped the singer-songwriter canon if she was capable of delivering pop hits as well as something with the depth of His Friends are More than Fond of Robin? Certainly there’s an element of sexism to it, and class is definitely an issue too (Simon is the daughter of Richard L Simon, co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster – a fact that critics such as Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis repeatedly held against her), but on the whole I think it’s that you can’t attach an obvious narrative to her, and canon formers love a narrative.

She didn’t have a prolonged streak of artistic brilliance of the kind that gave Neil and Joni their cred, or the history in music and compelling life story of Carole King, or the doomed-outsider cool of Tim Buckley or Judee Sill. Unlike, say, Jackson Browne, she didn’t even stop having hits – through the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, every time she seemed to be done commercially, she came back again with a successful single: Nobody Does it Better, Jesse, Why (written and produced by Chic, from the soundtrack to the movie Soup for One), Coming Around Again and, as late as 1989, Let the River Run (from the soundtrack to Working Girl). She didn’t have a gigantic, era-defining album hit like Paul Simon did with Graceland, but she never really went away. Not forgotten, just simply there, in a lot of people’s homes and hearts. Not obscure, not cool, not a genius, not a beautiful loser. Such artists are all too easily overlooked when canons are constructed.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Advertisements

Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King

Shame is one of those rare things: a disco song without a disco beat.

The essence of disco is the bass drum played on each beat of the bar: one-two-three-four, boom-boom-boom-boom. This straightforward rhythmic chassis is what made disco so successful, so appealing and so democratic; with a beat that simple, just about anyone could dance to it. It’s what also made it possible to produce for enterprising and/or cynical souls to knock together a disco version of pretty much any piece of music, from Walter Murphy’s ingenious rearrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth to Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business like Show Business over a thumping 4/4 beat, any piece of common-time music could be underpinned with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and, just like that, instant disco.

Many producers, writers and performers surely felt this rhythmic simplicity to be a creative straitjacket, but few of them were brave enough to buck the trend when disco was such big business and DJs were in constant need of new records. Evelyn “Champagne” King and her team – songwriters John H Fitch Jr and Reuben Cross and producer Theodore Life – were up for the challenge though. Shame forgoes that standard four-to-the-floor kick drum pattern in favour of a “heartbeat” rhythm more usually employed in rock music (it’s a Fleetwood Mac signature, particularly associated with Dreams, but you hear it frequently).

This rhythm, playing constantly underneath the bassline, would undoubtedly have made the song feel different on the dancefloor, even if the dancers weren’t necessarily aware of what exactly set the track apart. But that’s not the only thing that the song does differently to its peers. It also goes without the orchestral arrangement that disco routinely employed to create a lush, luxurious and aspirational sound. Shame is small-band music: bass, drums, guitar, a tambourine and a saxophone. King herself sings all the backing vocals. Were it not for the glorious depth of sound – Raymond Earl’s bass guitar as deep as an ocean – you’d almost call it lo-fi disco.

This depth, notably, is not present in the standard album mix, but was created by remixers Al Garrison and David Todd for the 12-inch version, which today is much more widely known than the 3-minute album cut. It’s an example of the power of a mix engineer to completely change the feel of the music with judicious use of equalisation, compression and even the simple act of panning a signal to a different point in the stereo field; the 12-inch mix is notably wider mixed and more spacious than the album.

In its original form, Shame is a decent, slightly unconventional disco track. As a remix, it’s an undisputed dancefloor classic.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.

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.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 5 – Fearless by Pink Floyd

Everyone has their own opinion on what makes a great drummer. Some revere Keith Moon for his energy, his invention. They hear passion and a love of music in his gonzo style. His playing does absolutely nothing for me. In fact it drives me up the wall. I hear ego and a wilful deafness to the needs of the song. It makes me physically uncomfortable. I’m tense and on edge whenever anyone puts the Who on, and it’s all Moon.

My kind of drummer says less and means more. Breathes. Leaves spaces. It was a lesson hard learned in my own playing. When I listen back at my own early drumming performances on recordings – and god help me, some of them have been released – the thing that mortifies me most is the overplaying, the desire to fill every space with something, whether necessary or not. So maybe my Moon antipathy is a reflection of what I hate most in my own drumming.

Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, around the time of Meddle, became one of the kings of saying less and meaning more. He’s never been a flashy drummer (although he was a master of atmosphere), but even so, as Floyd’s music being more conventionally song based, Mason simplified his playing to suit the songs his bandmates were writing.

Fearless is a great case in point. It’s one of those great slow-groove songs that Floyd did so well. At bottom, Mason is just playing boom-boom bap. But it’s the little things that really make the song: his gorgeous ride cymbal sound, that rat-a-tat snare fill in the verses after every second line, the occasional extra bass-drum stroke, knowing when to switch between the hats and ride and, especially, that cymbal crash in time with the snare when Dave Gilmour’s ascending guitar riff lands back on an open G chord. That cymbal hit alone would allow a Floyd fan to know what song Mason was playing if all they could hear was the drums on their own.

Asked about Mason’s playing, Gilmour once said, “Nick’s the right man for the job”. That’s exactly it. He was. Mason suited Pink Floyd and Pink Floyd suited him. Further, Mason had the ability to play for the song while also creating instantly recognisable, even iconic, drum parts. That’s not easy, and Mason did it repeatedly. Fearless is just the example we’re looking at today. I could as easily have chosen Time, Shine On You Crazy Diamond or Wish You Were Here.

nickmason3
Mason in the early 1970s. Note the see-through perspex kit with two bass drums

Final songs

The following post probably shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. Just a few thoughts I’ve been kicking around for a couple of days.

There is a difference between a great collection of songs and a collection of great songs. Revolver is a collection of (mostly) great songs. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great collection of songs. Pepper’s songs themselves may not be as strong individually as those on Revolver, but the way they work with each other, flow into and out of each other,  mutually support and reinforce each other make Pepper into something greater than the sum of its parts. Revolver may be the consensus choice Best Beatles Album these days, but maybe consensus was right when it lined up behind Pepper.

The Beatles are far from the only band we can play this fun game with. Let it Bleed is a collection of great songs; Exile on Main Street is a great collection of songs. Nevermind is a collection of great songs; In Utero is a great collection of songs. Aja is a collection of great songs; Gaucho is a great collection of songs.

I’ll stop now.

So just as there’s something more to the great collection of songs than just putting together the 10 or 12 best songs you have – something to do with the relationship between the songs themselves that means an objectively “weaker” song might make for a stronger overall collection (in mood, theme, tempo, whatever) – there’s something more to a great final song than just putting a really strong song last on an album.

Now, any discussion about great final songs that doesn’t conclude that A Day in the Life is the best final song ever has reached the wrong conclusion (suggesting Good Vibrations on the basis of Brian Wilson Presents Smile is cheating – it’s not the real record, and you know it). But there are loads of others. Yeesh, just among the Beatles’ catalogue you’ve also got I’ll Be Back and Tomorrow Never Knows.

Bob Dylan gave us It Ain’t Me Babe, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue and Highlands (my favourite “long” Dylan album closer).

Joni never quite managed it – sometimes it felt like she was trying to hard to make grand statements and missing the mark: Judgement of the Moon & Stars and The Silky Veils of Ardor give away their ponderousness in their titles. Shadows & Light in its Hissing of Summer Lawns incarnation is musically too abstract to feel like it belongs with the rest of the record. Both Sides Now deserves to end a better record than Clouds.

Radiohead had a good streak, with Street Spirit and OK Computer‘s The Tourist – particularly the latter, when Jonny Greenwood’s rampant guitar bursts in from nowhere, blasting away the unease and knotty tension of the previous 50 minutes, and ending the record on a note of hard-won liberation.

Spoon, too, with New York Kiss, Chicago at Night and the endlessly wonderful Black Like Me, a winner from its first line on – “I believed that someone’d take care of me tonight”.

R.E.M. did it repeatedly: West of the Fields, Wendell Gee, Find the River, You, Electrolite.

Here’s a list of some favourites. I’ve tried to limit it to records that really stand up as substantial. A good song tacked on at the end of a so-so record isn’t quite what we’re looking for here. You’ll probably notice the usual 1970s and 1990s biases.

Would? – Dirt (Alice in Chains)King Harvest (Has Surely Come) – The Band
Caroline No – Pet Sounds (Beach Boys)
Someone to Watch Over Me – My Gentleman Friend (Blossom Dearie)
Love Has No Pride – Give it Up (Bonnie Raitt)
We’re All Alone – Silk Degrees (Boz Scaggs)
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman – Tapestry (Carole King)
Subterraneans – Low (David Bowie)
Say Yes – Either/Or (Elliott Smith)
Crazy Man Michael – Liege & Lief (Fairport Convention)
Gold Dust Woman – Rumours (Fleetwood Mac)
I Dream a Highway – Time (The Revelator) (Gillian Welch)
Pacific Street – Eveningland (Hem)
Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Electric Ladyland (Jimi Hendrix)
Small Hours – One World (John Martyn)
The Donor – Heart Food (Judee Sill)Starless – Red (King Crimson)
When the Levee Breaks – IV (Led Zeppelin)
Frozen Love – Buckingham Nicks
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler – What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)
Soon – Loveless (My Bloody Valentine)
Words (Between the Lines of Age) – Harvest (Neil Young)
Through My Sails – Zuma (Neil Young)
Far From Me – The Boatman’s Call  (Nick Cave)
Saturday Sun – Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake)
All Apologies – In Utero (Nirvana)
Gouge Away – Doolittle (Pixies)
Glory Box – Dummy (Portishead)
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) – Sail Away (Randy Newman)
Davy the Fat Boy – Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun
Gospel Plow – Dust (Screaming Trees)
Thank You for Talking to Me Africa – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sly & the Family Stone)
Like Suicide – Superunknown (Soundgarden)
Sing a Song For You – Happy Sad (Tim Buckley)
Come On Up to the House – Mule Variations (Tom Waits)
I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work – Small Change (Tom Waits)
Scenario – The Low End Theory (A Tribe Called Quest)
Time of the Season – Odessey & Oracle (The Zombies)

Have I missed your favourite? Let me know.

bob-with-stratWhen Bob got it right, he really got it right