Tag Archives: 1970s

Veteran artists who went new wave

Jim Messina (the fictional version from Yacht Rock, not the real one) called it charming the snake. What does that mean, asked fictional Michael McDonald. “It means reinvent your image in a desperate attempt at relevance!” cried fake Christopher Cross, bursting through the garden gate with a pastel jacket and a Keytar.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, how else could you charm the snake but by going new wave? The odd thing was, some of those who did had the pop smarts to pretty much bring it off. (Yes, I am serious. No, you’re not reading Buzzfeed.)

Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
The crassness of Robert Palmer’s populist moves grate all the more in the knowledge that beneath the immaculate tailoring Palmer was an omnivorous music fan, with interests from across the spectrum; as well as securing the Comsat Angels a record deal, he covered songs by Gary Numan, Toots & the Maytals and even Hüsker Dü. That’s a deep music fan with broad tastes.

On his 1980 album Clues, Palmer hit the sweet spot between his commercial and experimental impulses. Apart from the aforementioned Numan cover (I Dream of Wires), it featured a Numan co-write as well as two of his strongest self-written efforts: the hyperkinetic Looking for Clues, which is close in spirit to McCartney’s similarly restless Coming Up and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (all three were released within months of each other), and Johnny and Mary, which is a singular proposition indeed.

While punk in its first wave had been about aggression, many of the bands that came after the initial explosion (whether you call them new wave or post-punk or something else entirely) found much of their effect by stripping away overt shows of emotion, aggression included. It’s in its blankness that Johnny and Mary is most obviously new wave influenced. With no true bassline (there’s a synth playing a low register-ish line, but it’s quite trebly and thin), Palmer fills up the low end with his voice, never emoting, forcing his words to fit the mechanical metre and reaching down to his very lowest note halfway through each verse. There’s no chorus, so the tension never breaks.

Had Palmer allowed himself to sing more demonstratively, trying to force us to empathise with these two lost souls, the delicate spell would have been broken. Johnny and Mary is powerful because he sings the whole song in the same detached way, as if he was a scientist observing and recording human behaviour, or as the video suggests, an author who is making his creations behave this way. It’s a great, well-judged vocal performance for what is maybe his finest song.

I Know There’s Something Going On – Frida
In 1982, during the last few months that ABBA were still a functioning group, Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) was recording her third solo album, and her first in English, in Stockholm’s Polar Studios (which was also ABBA’s based). Lyngstad had approached Phil Collins about producing her after falling hard for Collins’s debut Face Value, and its atmospheric single In the Air Tonight.

It was a wise move. Collins was a coming force in music (not quite yet the world conquering megastar), and working with him put stylistic clear blue water between her music and ABBA’s. The single I Know There’s Something Going On, with its huge gated drums and raw guitars, was an uncompromising statement of intent: sort of heavy rock, kind of new wave, a little bit whatever the hell In the Air Tonight was, and only pop music in as much as it was made by a popular recording artist.

You have to wonder what Bjorn and Benny, then hard at work with Tim Rice on the songs for Chess, made of it. Did they admire its nerve or disapprove of its lack of refinement?

Young Turks – Rod Stewart
OK, I always try to be positive here, and maybe if I’d been there in the early seventies, I’d hear his leering grossness more tolerantly. But I can’t think of a bigger star in rock of pop with less worthwhile music to his name than Rod Stewart.

Which is what makes Young Turks all the more surprising. Near miraculous, in fact. My basic problem with Stewart’s music is that his sexist public persona – which, we shouldn’t forget, he knowingly cultivated – doesn’t make his moments of sensitive balladry all the more touching. It merely makes them less believable. You don’t have to like a singer to like their music, but while you’re listening to them, your distaste for their public image can’t overwhelm the song. The only time I can listen to Stewart’s music and not find myself appalled by Stewart personally is when I’m listening to Young Turks. Apart from The Killing of Georgie, it’s the only time I ever truly believe him. When he sings “Patti gave birth to a 10-pound baby boy” and shouts “yeah!” afterwards, it’s the most human he ever sounded.

It’s the contrast between that humanity in the vocal and the semi-mechanised music that makes it work. Like Johnny and Mary (which many have cited as the obvious inspiration for Young Turks), it’s pretty much all played by live musicians, but they play it clean, precise and dead on. The band Stewart assembled after ditching the ramshackle Faces and moving to the US, featuring Carmine Appice on drums, was more than capable of playing it that way; indeed, Appice is one of the listed writers on Young Turks, and he’s the band’s MVP on this recording, no question.

How Do I Make You – Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt, like Palmer, was a musical omnivore whose genuine enthusiasm for new music was too easily taken for ambulance-chasing cynicism by her detractors.

Ronstadt wasn’t the only member of LA’s music establishment who wanted a musical overhaul in the late 1970s. But unlike, Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t have a band to push and pull against. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is fascinating precisely because Buckingham wanted to do one thing while his bandmates were happy doing the same old thing. The tension between his songs and the exquisite, intricately woven likes of Sara and Over and Over are exactly what makes Tusk so compelling. Ronstadt, in contrast, was sole ruler of her musical domain. She hired musicians, told them how to play and they’d play that way.

So Mad Love, released in 1980, gets arguably closer than anyone else of her generation to an authentic punk/new wave sound. Yet something like How Do I Make You, while a pretty accurate facsimile of Blondie in Hanging on the Telephone mode, remains just a little too cleanly played*, and Ronstadt is a little too studied vocally. She downplays her vibrato and tries to leave some rough edges, but she’s singing against her instinct.

Three years later she’d try her hand at the Great American Songbook with more mixed success.

Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – The Korgis
The Korgis formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a more-or-less progressive British band who’d been around since the early seventies. Its principal members by then in their early thirties, the Korgis in 1980 were a little too old, a little too paunchy and their hairlines a little too receding for their new threads and shiny updated sound.

They managed quite a good trick in sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is plain pastiche), leaving Yoko to adjust to contemporary music on her own. The band’s James Warren, with his pudding bowl haircut, long nose and round glasses even looked like Lennon.

If, in the long term, Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (the band’s biggest hit) has endured in a way that leaves many music fans unsure who recorded the original, the Korgis’ reinvention was an example of how veteran artists can reinvent themselves without total artistic compromise of the Starship/Asia variety.

*Ronstadt’s band consisted of Russ Kunkel, Bob Glaub, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Payne, and the record was produced by the fastidious Peter Asher, so of course it was never going to be messy.

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The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits

We’re suffering through a heatwave over much of the UK at the moment. OK, I’m suffering through it. I find genuine heat in the UK tough to take. We’re not set up for it, with our non-air conditioned houses and public transport. In London at least, the heat lingers late into the night. It’s not the daytime temperatures I can’t take; it’s the nights where it never gets below 20 degrees. We’ve now had nearly two months of this and I’m about to turn into Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

But however much I hate it right at this moment, I know it could be worse. It’s not yet at 2003 levels, when we had the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK (38.5°C). That summer, having just taken my finals and waiting to graduate and figure out what the hell to do next, I was working as a labourer in the maintenance department of Westminster Cathedral and listening to Tom Waits’s mid- 1970s records. So despite Waits’s music being self-evidently best heard at night, I associate those Waits records with bright sunshine, hot pavements and torrents of sweat running down my back as I weed pavements, move office furniture and scrub bricks.

James McKean had got me into Waits 18 months previously via Small Change, so I was well familiar with that already. The records that really had my attention in the summer of 2003 were The Heart of Saturday Night and the new-to-me Nighthawks at the Diner. Nighthawks I’ve written about before here. It’s spotty, and the more song-based material can feel a little underwritten at times, but at its best it’s tremendous fun, and the looseness of the set gives Waits the opportunity to just explore the furthest reaches of his drunken-beatnik persona. The best tracks, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission) are hilarious, riveting – full of dazzling wordplay, indelible imagery and surreal juxtapositions. Sure, Waits wasn’t inventing anything with this style of music or lyric writing, but he had become an expert practitioner of it, and he’s so charismatic that there’s a lot of joy in just hearing him do his thing. It’s never just about the writing with Waits; it’s just as much about the delivery, and the delivery is brilliant:

Well, it was a nickel after two. Yeah, it was a nickel after two
And in the cobalt steel-blue dream smoke
Why, it was the radio that groaned out the hit parade.
And the chalk squeaked and the floorboards creaked
And an Olympia sign winked through a torn yellow shade.
Old Jack Chance himself leaning up against a Wurlitzer,
Man, he was eyeballing out a five-ball combination shot.
Impossible, you say? Hard to believe?
Perhaps out of the realm of possibility?
Naaaah.

Cause he be stretching out long tawny fingers
Out across a cool green felt in a provocative golden gate,
He got a full-table railshot that’s no sweat.
And I leaned up against my banister,
I wandered over to the Wurlitzer and I punched A2…

The bridge between the rather earnest songs on Closing Time and this cinematic piece of scene setting is of course The Heart of Saturday Night. Waits’s second album saw him partner with Bones Howe for the first time and dive deeply into jazz. Closing Time has its virtues, and its share of strong material, but it didn’t represent Waits in his totality, the Tom Waits who loved Kerouac and Lord Buckley and who’d already debuted Diamonds on My Windshield as a poem was hardly evident at all.

Jerry Yester had produced Closing Time, but David Geffen (owner of Waits’s record label, Asylum) didn’t think Yester was the man to take on the next one, and that Waits needed someone with a deeper grounding in jazz. Geffen was friends with Bones Howe, who’d been making jazz records since the 1950s with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and had even edited recordings of Kerouac reading his poetry.

Howe assembled some heavy-duty players for what would become The Heart of Saturday Night – pianist Mike Melvoin had worked with Sinatra, Peggy Lee and the Beach Boys; tragic drummer Jim Gordon The Byrds, Derek & the Dominoes, Joe Cocker and George Harrison; bassist Jim Hughart played with Joe Pass, Duke Ellington and Chet Baker. Those were just the core players: the sessions also featured Arthur Richards, Tom Scott and Oscar Brashear.

From the off, Saturday Night is a more authentically jazzy record than Closing Time. Opener New Coat of Paint sees Waits finding his way towards the vocal style he’d become known for: more hoarse, and half an octave lower than on his debut, but not quite the full-on Louis Armstrong rasp he’d develop over the next two albums. The song itself has a New Orleansy quality that has as much R&B in it as jazz. Tracks two and four, San Diego Serenade and Shiver Me Timbers, are a slight return to Waits as San Diego folksinger, although his character sketches are more sure-footed than they’d been before.

It’s the third and fifth tracks, though, that really serve notice that The Heart of Saturday Night is an evolution from his debut. Semi Suite, a woozy late-night shuffle with a sleepy horn riff, sees Waits’s delivery get overtly jazz-influenced for the first time on record (check how he plays with the melody during the line “his trou-sers are hang-ing on the chair”), while Diamonds on My Wind is a poem Waits had written a few years earlier recited over a walking bass line from Jim Hughart and an agile, uptempo shuffle from Jim Gordon.

Side one ends with the title track. It’s sometimes hard to hear The Heart of Saturday Night with fresh ears, so often (and so poorly) has it been covered in the last 15 years or so. It remains a lovely, touchingly optimistic song, though. In his twenties, Waits often appeared to want to be older, so this simple and rather naive exploration of the great American Saturday night (which feels much more like a small-town experience than an LA one) stands out all the more.

Side two is, if anything, even better. Fumbling with the Blues, as Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns points out, sounds like a standard of the St James Infirmary school, but it’s also another piece of Waitsian self-mythology: he’s “a pool-shooting shimmy-shyster”, known by name to all the bartenders. Please Call Me, Baby is the album’s great ballad. While it’s always a risk to read Waits’s lyrics as autobiographical, it does seem to have had as its genesis a row between Waits and a former girlfriend who took an extra shift at work without telling Waits she’d be late home, which led to him waiting up all night worrying. What makes the song great, though, is how Waits takes that feeling and universalises it.

Tom Waits’s 1970s records have a way of taking mundane features of city life and making them sound impossibly cool, bohemian and exciting. Depot, Depot, built on the laziest of shuffle-feel horn riffs, manages to do this even for a bus station. I loved, still love, the playfulness of Waits’ delivery, the pleasure he takes in the sounds of the words. Drunk on the Moon and The Ghosts of Saturday Night are like two sides of the same coin. Drunk on the Moon is a postcard from the middle of a night’s revelries. The moment in the middle of the song when the band just takes off in double time is one of the album’s loveliest passages.

The album ends with The Ghosts of Saturday Night, another spoken-word piece, pointing the way to similar works on Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change. Like so many of Waits’s mid-1970s songs, it’s set in a late-night eatery. The difference is that this time it’s the one he himself had worked in, Napoleone’s Pizza House in San Diego (Napoleone’s would appear again in I Can’t Wait to Get off Work from Small Change, in which Waits namechecks the owners, Joe Sardo and Sal Crivello). Waits’s eye for detail, and his ability to conjure a living, breathing city from just a few characters, is hugely impressive:

A cab combs the snake, tryin’ to rake in that last night’s fare
And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers
Paws his inside peacoat pocket for a welcome 25 cents
And the last bent butt from a package of Kents
As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
Her rhinestone-studded moniker says “Irene”
As she wipes the wisps of dishwater blonde from her eyes.
The Texaco beacon burns on.
The steel-belted attendant with a Ring and Valve Special cryin’
“Fill ‘er up and check that oil.
You know it could be your distributor and it could be your coil.”

It’s easy to look at this song and Diamonds on My Windshield and recognise in them the ideas that Waits would pursue further in the next few years. But The Heart of Saturday Night is more than just a signpost towards achievements to come. Taken on its own terms, it’s one of the strongest collections of songs that Waits ever put out. Perhaps with the exception of Shiver Me Timbers, there’s not a weak song on it. Indeed, there was a time I’d have pointed to it as my favourite album by anyone ever. If you’re a Waits agnostic, it’s definitely a record to check out. It’s great in its own right, and it’s a good way into his mid-seventies work.

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.

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.

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.