Tag Archives: 1990s

25 Years of Adventures in Hi-Fi

On its release in September 1996, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt like an event.

R.E.M. had just re-signed with Warner Bros. for a then staggering $80 million dollars, and had a legitimate claim to be the biggest band in the world. They’d released a five-minute single featuring Patti Smith, on which Michael Stipe recited poetry rather than sang. The cover of the record was monochrome, serious-looking – an empty landscape – a far cry from the cartoon bear and bright-orange cover of Monster. It was 14 songs and 65 minutes long. This was a clearly a Big Statement.

Album opener How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, with its brooding, repetitive bassline and what I didn’t realise at the time was a jazz piano solo by Mike Mills (unaquainted as a 14-year-old with Thelonius Monk, it sounded to me like a cat walking across a keyboard), only confirmed it. Neither embracing and melodic like Out of Time or rocking and semi-ironic like Monster, this was, rather, Automatic for the People‘s older, more introspective brother.

Except, it’s not that. Not exactly, anyway. Because no sooner does How the West Was Won fade out than Michael Stipe launches into The Wake Up Bomb, in which – camper than ever before – he lists all the ways in which he looks good, like an alt.rock Richard Fairbrass, before expressing a desire to “Get drunk and sing along to Queen/Practice my T.Rex moves and make the scene”. It’s goofy, it’s silly, it’s a little embarassing, like your dad at a wedding disco, but it’s completely winning.

It’s also a radical hard-left turn from How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, not just in mood but in sound as well. How the West Was Won sounds like a controlled studio recording. The Wake Up Bomb sounds like it was recorded in a hangar. In both cases, that’s because they more or less were. While touring with Radiohead in 1994, the members of R.E.M. noted how a soundcheck recording of the band playing My Iron Lung had become the basis of the final studio version, and wondered what it would sound like if they were to do the same. It put them in mind of Neil Young’s 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which consisted entirely of new material and kept audience noise to a minimum.

With those twin inspirations, they began recording their own new songs at soundcheck. The Wake Up Bomb was recorded at the North Charleston Coliseum, with touring musician Nathan December adding extra weight to the guitar attack. It’s a similar, but I think more successful, approach to the one they’d taken on Monster, for which basic tracks were cut on a soundstage then sweetened with overdubs.

Scott Litt’s mix had left that album a little too guitar-heavy, lacking drive and punch from Bill Berry’s drums. Correcting that mistake, New Adventures‘ louder songs, like The Wake Up Bomb, see Berry and Buck leading the charge together. Yes, Buck’s SG Junior* is huge, but he’s not burying everyone else with it; Berry’s toms have a lot of thump, and his pre-chorus snare flams are practically a hook by themselves.

The record continues in a similar vein, ping-ponging between the studio-recorded acoustic lament New Test Leper and the live-at-soundcheck Undertow, which was frequently played on the 1995 tour. New Test Leper is one of the album’s most successful pieces. A callback to the funereal, acoustic sound of Automatic, it features Stipe in character as a guest on a talk show, trying to communicate something serious and personal while facing down insults and hostility from the audience. I’ve always assumed Stipe had in mind the way people with Aids, particularly gay men, were treated, but I’ve not found anything online where he’s said as much. Even in 1995, though, society’s treatment of people with Aids was often one of fear and hostility, so it’s a reading that fits even if it’s not Stipe’s intended one. Either way, it’s a lovely song, with one of Stipe’s best vocals: gentle, semi-whispered, and a beautiful change of pace on a record where he’s often hoarse and grainy.

That long tour in support of Monster does represent something of a dividing line in Stipe’s career as a singer. A smoker and vocally untrained, he seems to have suffered during the 18-month tour, coming out the other side of it permanently raspier, and for me, never as a good again as he was in the early 1990s. Undertow is the sort of song that appears to have done the damage – he belts the chorus dangerously close to the top of his range and audibly struggles at times. It’s hard to hear the effort as worth it. It’s not a disaster (Mills is on good on bass), but it’s a long way from the quality of the opening triptych.

Things immediately pick up with E-Bow the Letter, though. Five and a half minutes long, with Stipe in Beat-poet mode, supported by Patti Smith’s low-register backing vocals in the choruses, it sounded unlike anything else on the radio at the time. It’s a triumph for all involved: Stipe’s lyrics are a continuation of Monster‘s explorations of gender indentity, sexuality and pop culture, while Mills and Buck are at their most resourceful as instrumentalists; Buck plays the titular E-Bow throughout, also adding acoustic guitar and electric sitar (the chorus riff is played on both instruments), while Mills handles Moog synth, organ and Mellotron (the string parts that get a little more audible with each chorus) as well as his usual bass. But familiarity with it can obscure the memory of how weird it sounded at the time, and it’s a sign of the band’s clout that Warners agreed to release it as the opening single. The chart positions don’t tell the whole story; in the UK it hit number four, but failed to find support on radio, and dropped like a stone, out of the Top 40 in three weeks.

This, though, more than any other album R.E.M. had released to date was the sound of the band doing whatever the hell they wanted, recoupable advances from Warner’s be damned. Little else explains Leave, perhaps the most sonically extreme record they’d made to date. Its minute-long acoustic instrumental opening gives way to a blaring siren effect (played on a synth, I think), a thunderous drum track from Bill Berry, and the opening acoustic melody recast for Buck’s E-Bow guitar. Stipe meanwhile is in self-flagellating mood (“I suffer dreams of a world gone mad/I like it like that, and I know it”), his desperation mirrored by that brutally unyielding siren, which plays without relief for six minutes until the end of the song. Even more than E-Bow the Letter, it’s the album’s haunted centrepiece, and it’s a final triumph for Bill Berry as a creator within the band. When he left, they didn’t just lose a drummer but also the man who’d written the music for Perfect Circle, Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon.

The band presumably knew that the mood needed lightening after Leave, so they follow it with the driving Departure. It’s another Beat poetry-style vocal from Stipe, but this time over a heavily distorted Peter Buck riff with a tone that sounds oddly like Mark Knopfler on Money for Nothing. The band attack it audible enthusiasm and Stipe is at his most animated. He’s mainly mining a seam of word association (“Win a eulogy from William Greider/Car crash, ptomaine, disposable lighter/A bus plunge, avalanche, a vinegar cider/Free-fall, motorcycle, hang-glider”), but he ends the song on a note of (perhaps) personal revelation, repeating the line “There is so much that I can’t do”. But in context it’s not a self-reproach; it sounds more like a moment of liberation. It’s not a song I tend to revisit out of the context of the album, but whenever I do hear it, it makes me smile.

Bittersweet Me, the second single from the album, feels like a missed opportunity to me. The promising verse and pre-chorus are let down by a chorus that’s just a little too static and lacking in development. The criticism R.E.M. have come in for in some quarters that their songs lack proper choruses is overstated on the whole. But there are a couple of examples of R.E.M. songs where the chorus fails to pay off the verse in a way that lifts the song, and Bittersweet Me is one of them (the other one I would put forward is Bang and Blame, which has an absolutely belting verse). The mix, too, feels slightly off. When the disorted guitars come in (firstly on the left during the pre-chorus, then a more obviously overdubbed part in the middle for the chorus), they seem to sit on top of the track, rather than feeling like they’ve been integrated into the mix. It’s a shame, as the song could have been a great one with a stronger chorus and better mix.

Be Mine is a ballad, and in a different world could perhaps have been a hit. In some ways, it’s a warm-up for Up‘s At My Most Beautiful, which applies similarly idiosyncratic but sincere-sounding lyrics to classic ballad form. But while At My Most Beautiful is a very well-observed and executed Beach Boys pastiche, Be Mine is more like a power ballad played by a band that are a little too self-conscious to go for the sonic jugular. It’s structured like a power ballad – opening verses and chorus accompanied by solo guitar, band coming in element at a time until they all hit together for the second chorus – but the payoffs aren’t quite big enough to really satisfy. The drum sound is suprisingly small and contained, and the solo, such as it is, isn’t expansive enough. I tend to think if you’re going to underplay a song like this, underplay it more. Just keep it to acoustic guitar and voice. Otherwise, go for broke. There’s a good song here, but it’s not quite the record it might have been.

Ten songs in, the length of New Adventures in Hi-Fi starts to become a little bit of a problem. Binky the Doormat – another song played during the 1995 tour and captured on Road Movie – revisits the trash-glam gender games of Monster and The Wake-Up Bomb, but without the same panache. Mike Mills’s “go away, go away” backing vocals, which I’ll charitably describe as deliberately whiny and annoying, tend to grate, and at this point in a 65-minute, 14-song album we didn’t really need a 5-minute track of only average quality retreading stylistic and lyrical ground covered elsewhere.

What we did need is something like Zither to refresh the ears: a two-and-a-half-minute acoustic instrumental recorded backstage in Philadelphia, featuring Scott McCaughey on autoharp (sometimes known as a chord zither, hence the track name). R.E.M. were always rather good at instrumentals, and this is another nice one, slighter than Endgame or New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, perhaps, but still very welcome in context.

So Fast So Numb seems to me a bit of an overlooked gem. Taken at a brisk tempo, the music is matched by a forceful performance from Stipe. As Matthew Perpetua noted in his long-ago survey of R.E.M. songs, Pop Songs 08, much of the album sees Stipe (or, rather, whatever persona he happens to be adopting for the song) reaching out in his lyrics to people in need of some “confrontational tough love” (to borrow Perpetua’s phrase). The singer’s barely contained frustration is evident in his impatient interjections (“Listen! This is now, this is here, this is me, this is what I wanted you to see”), and his cleverly rapid-fire delivery in the choruses (“you’re coming on to something so fast, so numb that you can’t even feel”).

Musically, it’s one of the most expansive tracks on the record, made up of four distinct sections: verse in D, pre-chorus in F, chorus in E minor, and a solo that’s also in F but finds its way back to D by moving up through a B flat that isn’t elsewhere present in the song. Berry is in authoritative mood on drums, and perhaps the only negative comment I might make is that if it had been recorded a couple of years later, the distorted guitar might have been deemed unnecessary. Underneath the fuzz is a rootstier instrumental bed of acoustic guitar and piano, which was perhaps all that was needed. Still, a really good piece that buoys the second half of the album.

In comparison, Low Desert feels minor. There are several things I like about it musically. Stipe takes a similar approach to the vocal as he does on How the West Was Won, singing much of it in a soft mumble then occasionally jumping up an octave to ramp up the intensity. I like the drum sound, Berry making the unusual choice of playing what’s essentially a rock song with Hot Rods. That distinctive slappy sound was so much a part of post-MTV Unplugged music, but is seldom heard today. And, speaking of things that are slappy, the track is another one of Mills’s occasional forays into slap-bass, which always seem to work better than they should, given that R.E. M. were very far from a funk band. The track, with its talk of driving through the desert, builds on the imagery of the cover and ties back into the album’s main themes: movement, travel, departure. But if we’re looking to cut some songs from the tracklisting to reduce New Adventures’ unruly length, this would be another casualty, though I’d miss it more than Binky and Undertow.

An album about movement ends with a song firmly located in one place: Los Angeles, where Stipe lived for a couple of years in the mid-nineties. Based on a piano line written by Mike Mills, the song is a paean to the city: its geography, its history and its icononography. Famously guarded in his younger years, Stipe has over time become willing to discuss his once-opaque lyrics, and he’s spoken quite extensively about Electrolite, and his initial inspiration: a trip he took up to Mulholland after his home was damaged in the 1994 Northbridge earthquake:

“Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid.”

The song is, of course, a farewell to the 20th century, albeit one written several years ahead of time, though it feels, too, like a farewell to the band itself, ending as it does on the repeated line “I’m not scared/I’m outta here”. And if Buck, Mills and Stipe had decided not to soldier on without Bill Berry after he left the band, it would have been the perfect note to go out on, as it is one of their warmest and most generous songs, and among their finest – certainly from the Warners period.

Musically, it’s about as countrified as the band ever got. Banjo had figured in the band’s arrangements occasionally (as had pedal steel), but there’s little precedent in R.E.M.’s oeuvre for anything quite as stone country as Andy Carlson’s fiddle on Electrolite, unless I’m forgetting something. After a record dominated by thick walls of distorted guitar, it’s a nice note to go out on – the instrumental bridge may be the most purely pretty 30-second stretch on the whole album. While reconnecting the band with the sounds and textures of their early nineties records, it sounds like the end of an era.

*

New Adventures in Hi-Fi isn’t quite the masterpiece it seemed to me at the time. Its length, which once made it seem important, now merely seems long, and I can’t help thinking a 50-minute version of the record would have been better. But it does contain everything the band could do sonically and stylistically, across a set of mostly strong songs performed with a dynamism the band hadn’t exhibited on record since the days of Lifes Rich Pageant and Document (even the muscular likes of These Days and The One I Love sound fairly puny next to The Wake-Up Bomb and Leave). But that arena-ready sound is leavened by softer, more pensive or atmospheric moments like New Test Leper, E-Bow The Letter, How the West Was Won and Electrolite. I rate it, in case you weren’t able to tell, highly.

Since I always end up doing this with long records, here’s how I’d edit it to make it slightly more streamlined**:

  1. How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us
  2. The Wake-Up Bomb
  3. New Test Leper
  4. E-Bow The Letter
  5. Leave
  6. Departure
  7. Bittersweet Me
  8. Be Mine
  9. Zither
  10. So Fast So Numb
  11. Electrolite

* It may have been a Les Paul, but Buck uses an SG Junior in the Road Movie performance of the song.
**I’d also edit out some of the repeated choruses on tracks including New Test Leper, Bittersweet Me and So Fast So Numb, as well as trim the acoustic intro off Leave, since that doesn’t really work as a fakeout and isn’t needed as a scene-setter.

I’ve Never Heard… Falling Into You by Celine Dion

We’re back! And no – this is not an April Fool. Here’s another one of my occasional posts on canonical and/or huge-selling records that I never got round to hearing in full. This time, we’re shunning the critical canon and going pop.

At one point, this was going to be a post on Garth Brooks – to really plug a gap in my knowledge of ultra-successful music. I mean, regarding Brooks I knew nothing at all other than: Stetson, stage shows, millions of records sold, Chris Gaines.

But Chris Molanphy on Hit Parade did a Brooks episode that filled those gaps in my knowledge, and frankly left me uninterested in hearing any more. So I decided to go with an ultra-successful pop record instead. Whitney I discounted – at least for the time being – on the basis of her having pretty widespread critical appreciation, especially now. So it was a toss-up between Shania and Céline. I went with Céline. Seemed like there’d be more to dig into. Let’s dig in, then.

*

Well known and widely read it may be, but Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love, an examination of Celine Dion’s 1997 album of the same name, feels like a period piece these days.

As he says himself, Wilson is not a poptimist by instinct. Not, at least, when he first wrote his book as part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of slim volumes on classic albums. Wilson grew up an indie kind of guy, and his dislike for Dion and her music was sharpened by the fact that he lived in Montreal – in Dion’s Francophone heartland – when the success of Titanic made her truly inescapable. His book, then, was a critique of his own tastes and that of self-declared indie hipsters as much it was as a critique of Dion’s music. It was an attempt to reach a poptimistic position on an artist that indie fans routinely held in contempt by a writer to whom it didn’t come naturally.

Now, to generalise hugely for a second, music fans who are younger than me – which is to say Millennials* and Zoomers – don’t have a rockist indoctrination to shake off that Wilson and I had (or have – it’s always a work in progress). They like what they like, and that’s frequently a bit of everything, from pop to progressive metal. Now they’re at an age where they have achieved media prominence and get to write books, books such as Wilson’s don’t need to be written anymore.

That Celine Dion’s music needs no aesthetic defence in 2021, then, is one of two starting points for this piece. The other is that – obviously – I’m not familiar with her music at album length, despite the album I’ve picked to write about, 1996’s Falling Into You, having sold somewhere around 22 million copies, including possibly one to my mum, if I’m not misremembering. It was certainly in the house.

Of course, saying something needs no critical defence doesn’t mean that I’m going to like all of it. Simply that, I won’t be discussing where pop sits in an aesthetic hierarchy compared to rock, jazz, folk or any other kind of music, because that whole idea is dumb. And in 2021, that much shouldn’t need saying.

So here goes. Let’s fall into Falling Into You.

*

It starts big. Really big. Jim Steinman big.

Chris Molanphy, the aforementioned writer and presenter of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, recently did a deep dive on Steinman. He’s a braver man than I. Steinman’s songs are high-calorie confections, too rich to be enjoyed in quantity, in sequence or on repeat. Even getting through It’s All Coming Back to Me Now once for this piece was a bit of a slog for me, unused as I am to the Steinman diet. The unedited version that begins Falling Into You – seven and a half minutes long – is a minute or two more than I needed, and the five-minute radio edit is an improvement.

That said, there’s much to be admired here. Dion’s voice is a subject we’re going to return to again and again in this piece, but if you want to hear one song that shows off what she can do, pretty much her full range is here, and it’s incredibly impressive. Most importantly for an artist who’s often been accused of peddling fake emotion, I believe her: on this song, every howl and every whisper lands as sincere.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that I believe Dion has experienced such operatic emotions in her own relationships. It’s always a mistake to assume the artist necessarily writes or performs from personal experience (another subject we’ll come back to) or that the first person “I” in a song is the same as the singer’s own perspective. But while I’m listening to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, I don’t experience a disconnect between text and performer. It never rings false to me. That is, I think, pretty key to selling a Steinman song, and it’s a real skill – one that Dion’s detractors have never really credited her with.

The production and playing are as impressive as Dion’s vocal. Obviously, everyone featured on a Celine Dion record is going to be a top-drawer musician, but it’s interesting listening to this so soon after doing one of these posts on Springsteen – one of Steinman’s all-consuming influences – to compare Bruce’s and Jim’s music.

Springsteen’s songs may be epic and stadium-sized, but they always sound like they’re being played by a bunch of doofy bar-band guys. Take Bruce’s pianist Roy Bittan out of the E Street Band, though, and give him Tim Pierce, Eddie Martinez, Jimmy Bralower and Kenny Aronoff to play with, and the effect is very different. From the opening basso-profundo chord, Bittan is here less doofy bar-band guy, more Wagnerian piano-forte overlord. Since they were recording in late 1995 and not, say, 1987, the drums and guitars commit no grave lapses of taste. But Martinez does do something rather adventurous and flashy with his whammy bar early on – it’s a detail, not featured loudly, but it’s a reminder that this is the guy who had widdly-widdly-widdled all over Run-DMC’s Rock Box, fifteen years before.

I’m not sure when the phenomenon of multiple producers on a single album became a thing, but it’s evidently something that began a little earlier than I’d imagined; Falling Into You lists eight different production teams. After It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bittan, Steinman and Steven Rinkoff (Steinman’s long-time recording engineer) exit the stage for a while, and David Foster takes over.

Now, Foster has had a hand in some great records. As great as Boz Scaggs’s Jojo. As great as Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. But on the whole, Foster’s discography, especially as a producer, is a dispiriting list. This is a guy who worked with Michael Bolton multiple times.

On Falling Into You, his first production vehicle is a Diane Warren song. My cup runneth over.

Because You Loved Me, from the film Up Close and Personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the sort of song that gives Celine Dion a bad name. She agreed to record it, I suppose, and so is author of her own misfortune, but still. Of course, I knew the song – have heard it hundreds of times, in fact – but it’s even more oppressive when listened to closely than it is heard on the radio in the background.

This record does not have a hair out of place. The sheer amount of industrial effort that goes into making a record like this is evident in every note, and you can’t help but think: all that expertise, all that time, all that work, for this? There is, as with every Warren love song, no reality here. No musical jagged edges, no lyric that suggests a genuinely human point of view – nothing personal or idiosyncratic. No sentiments that haven’t been worn smooth like a shiny pebble. Dion does a professional job with it, as you’d expect, but the overall effect is emetic. Let’s move swiftly on. We’ll have to deal with Foster again later, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.

Falling Into You, the title track, is one I had mixed feelings about at the time. On the one hand, it sounded very, very different – in a good way – to the rest of pop radio in 1996, with its Latin American percussion, martial snare rolls and prominent cavaquinho, and I appreciated the fact that Dion was willing to undersing for an entire song if the moment called for it (those who criticise her for oversinging – which she is guilty of at times – seldom praise her when she doesn’t).

On the other hand, its intimacy was bound to make a 14-year-old boy go “urgh”, and the fact that this was Celine Dion – only in her twenties, but clearly not an artist aimed at teenagers – getting all sensual and breathy made it all the more uncomfortable. That the song featured a Careless Whisper-style saxophone solo just added to the problems.

Today, saxophone apart, I think the song is really quite lovely. The backing track is, apparently, the same one as the Marie Claire D’Ubaldo original, including her backing vocals. There’s not a lot to choose between the two recordings. Dion’s vocal is, as you’d expect, smoother and more virtuosic; D’Ubaldo is a little more fragile, occasionally just slightly flat. What a contrast, though, to the vacuous Because You Loved Me. Wilson talks a couple of times in his book about how much more comfortable Dion seems when singing in French – how much better a singer she sounds – and we’ll put the hypothesis to the test later. But listening to Falling Into You, I wonder if it’s not as much to do with having a text she relates to as it is simply a French/English thing. Dion’s said herself how much she loved these lyrics, and you can tell that from her performance of them.

Make You Happy is by Andy Marvel [insert Andrew Marvell/To His Coy Mistress joke for the Eng Lit majors], who’d scored a big hit a year before as producer and co-writer of Diana King’s Shy Guy. It starts with a florid piano fakeout, but Make You Happy is, like Shy Guy, a reggae song, or a species of it. It’s reggae as understood by groups like Ace of Base: programmed R&B-ish drums, an offbeat guitar skank and just enough syncopated movement in the bass to suggest Jamaican music, while remaining at heart a Euro-pop record. Dion sounds like she’s having quite a good time singing it, particularly the verses, during which she gets to stay low in her range, where her rather pointy voice is at its fullest and warmest.

It’s hard to feel strongly about this kind of thing one way or another. It could do with a middle eight, or losing a minute of its length, but perhaps what this kind of record really needs is the blank affect of a Linn Berggren vocal; Dion’s effervescence gets a little wearying after four and a half minutes, which include a chunky 30-second fadeout.

Seduces Me, all sincerity and Spanish guitar, finds Dion back in breathy mode. Written by John Sheard and Dan “Sometimes When We Touch” Hill (I know. We won’t go there), its main problem seems to me a mismatch between performance and text. Halfway through the song, the softly picked guitars are joined by drums and bass. They’re not ’80s-style enormo-drums, as you may have expected, but they still act as a cue for Dion to ramp up in volume and intensity.

The thing that can make much of Dion’s music predictable and a bit samey (and this is true of many artists’ music, in all honesty) is the predictable shape of the recordings in terms of arrangement and vocal delivery. It doesn’t matter how hushed the opening is when you know that three minutes later, Dion will be projecting at full volume, drums will be crashing and reverberating, and politely distorted guitars will be chugging away in the background, while strings saw portentously on top. I like Falling Into You (the title track) precisely because it rejects this template for something less generic. The arrangement of Falling Into You (for which Marie Claire D’Ubaldo and her production team deserve most of the credit, in fairness) grows organically from and is thematically appropriate to the song, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps Seduces Me was intended to play to the Think Twice audience. The difference is that, while Think Twice is a breakup song where a degree of melodrama is natural, or even welcome, Seduces Me is a come-on. It’s rarely a good idea to get your partner in the mood by screeching at them about how hot they make you. Frankly, that’s red-flag behaviour.

Next up, a cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – one of the ur power ballads. The Carpenters’ Goodbye to Love was released three years before All By Myself, granted, but where the Carpenters’ record married sentimental ballad and distorted rock guitar solo (for which inclusion Richard Carpenter received hate mail), Carmen brought together sentimental ballad, big drums and solid, four-square weight. It’s a slow and stately trudge of a song. Bring all those elements together, and you have the power ballad as we know it today.

By the time Dion recorded her cover of All By Myself, the form had long since been codified. The key to a successful power ballad in the 1990s was to strip back some of the excesses the form had been subjected to in the 1980s: underplay the “power” aspect a little – dial back the reverb and processing on the instrument sounds, and keep it a little more raw and organic. In other words, to blur the distinction a little between power ballad and plain old ballad.

Unfortately, that’s not what happened here. Instead, producer David Foster (sigh) empties his bag of studio goo all over the song, mixing together sounds and techniques that had long since become cliches through overuse. There are some ghastly choices here: synth sounds that were dated when the record was released and are laughable now, drums that are cavernous but too undermixed to support Dion’s skyscraping vocal, choirs (or god help us choir pads) that are wholly extraneous and do nothing but signpost their own unreality. It’s bewildering this record got made this way in 1995.

When evaluating a commercially successful but artistically disappointing record, there will always be some whose rebuttal is: well, it sold a gajillion copies, you can’t argue with success. And that’s true up to a point. But I’m sorry, this is Celine Dion singing All By Myself. Any producer – I really do mean any producer – could have paired this artist with this song and had a massive hit with it. Some would also have made a decent record at the same time. Foster didn’t.

What he did do was to go for the iconic. To which end, he challenged Dion to hit that note. And what a note it is: a throat-shredding half-tone climb from E5 to F5 on the “more” of “anymore”, as the key rises from A to Db. Her voice clearly suffers under the strain, and she has always dropped the key substantially in live performance to avoid damaging her vocal cords, but as a once-and-once-only moment, it’s certainly impressive. Perhaps other producers wouldn’t have dared her to go there (Carmen’s original stays in the same key for the outro) and we wouldn’t have that moment, but one note doesn’t redeem an entire track, and ultimately Foster made a barely passable record out of a great song, despite having a singer of fearsome technical ability to work with.

We move on from that dissapointment to probably the album’s nadir. Declaration of Love sounds like someone called in Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band to play the backing track. Ric Wake, who produced Make You Happy, is back as producer and, boy, does he have a stinker. The R&B-flavoured horn-rock sound of imperial-phase Phil Collins seems to be the template here, with the brass credited to “George Whitty & the G.W. Horn Machine”.

Fantastic name apart, these people (if people they be, not synth patches – I’m not wholly convinced they are real, so plastic and tame do the horns sound) are not the Phenix Horns by a long chalk, and the production choices betray no indication that Wake had listened to any new music since 1990 at the latest. The bass tone is that horrid, super-hyped mega-deep but annoyingly clicky active tone you used to get on Sting and Seal records in the nineties, while the lead guitar sounds like a bad Clapton impression.

Saddled with a lemon of a song and a pudding of an arrangement, Dion falls back on her worst instinct as a singer: if the material isn’t there, go big in the performance. From her opening “Come on, wooooh!” to her adlibs during another long fadeout, the effect is punishing. It’s the inverse of her work on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: she completely fails to sell the lyric or the emotion of the song. Granted, she was given lines like “Just like Juliet belonged to Romeo/You can stay prepared that I won’t be letting you go” to work with, but still. I’m amazed this one got through preproduction with no one binning it.

At the halfway stage, then, we’re not doing so well. Despite my best efforts to be generous in my assessment, we’ve seen Dion and her team hit the mark squarely only with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and Falling Into You, and score a glancing blow with Make You Happy, while notching up a lot of misses. How will we get on with Side B?

A promotional single in Mexico and Germany, Dreamin’ of You leads off side B. It’s an adult-contemporary love song, written and produced by Canadian guitarist, songwriter and producer Aldo Nova. With Nova programming the drums and playing much of the arrangement himself, it’s a little airless and lacking in interaction, but the song is a solid construction that gets a lot out of its parade of E major chords. Again, it’s a little dated in 1995, but it pretty much nails what it’s going for.

Another Aldo Nova song, this time produced by David Foster, I Love You is a doo-wop pastiche that might have fit on one of Mariah Carey’s early records. Foster’s production is once again a disgrace: what would otherwise be a sweet little retro album track is pumped up with steroids and made pretty tough to take.

Nova’s song is knowingly silly; in 1996, no one wrote a chorus like “I love you, please say you love me too” without their tongue at least a little bit in their cheek. It’s practically Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. A small-band arrangement of this song to complete the old-school vibe would have worked fine. It could have been done a cappella, even. But Foster won’t do subtle and he won’t do small, so all the sounds are huge and fake and airless, with nothing organic in the mix save for Dion’s vocal and some electric guitar by Michael Thompson. Even all the harmonies are Dion’s, so there’s no human interaction in the arrangement at all. Nova throws a key change into the middle eight, and another one going into the final repeat choruses, but it’s not enough to stop the song feeling hugely over-extended at five and a half minutes long, and the mismatch between form and content sinks the song entirely.

If That’s What it Takes allows us the opportunity to test Wilson’s hypothesis about Dion being a better singer in French, as it’s an English-language remake of her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore (So that You’ll Love Me Again), which was released on her 1995 Francophone album D’Eux (About Them – I’m learning French at the moment. Can you tell?).

There is a difference. Her singer is gentler, more lyrical, more legato. And yes, I prefer the French version. It’s not even close. But, how much of that is ascribable to the differences between how the two languages must be sung and how much is specific to Dion herself, I can’t untangle. An expert in Francophone pop may be able to tell you more.

(Surprisingly, the song was a hit in its French version in the UK; as a rule, UK record buyers haven’t always been that receptive to non-Anglophone songs until recent years. I suppose, being fair, a lot of Jamaican music with lyrics that aren’t immediately intelligible to most white British listeners have been successful in the UK, going back at least as far as Desmond Dekker. But the only other hit I can think of in the 1990s with lyrics in French is one verse of Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s 7 Seconds, unless you count Encore Une Fois by Sash, which I wouldn’t.)

Anyway, to get back to If That’s What It Takes, it’s fine. Its melody is perhaps a little nursery-rhymeish (which I find much less of a problem in French), but it’s undeniably hooky, and writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s production – a sort of adult-contemporary dance pop – works a lot better than David Foster’s attempts to pass off his programmed backing tracks as the work of a band.

I Don’t Know is another song from D’Eux translated into English. This is one of the most musically interesting pieces on the record. It’s in 12/8 time, but with a percussion track from a drum machine that suggests 4/4 and a simple synth pad providing the only harmonic backing, the chord changes seem to fall at odd moments when you first hear the song. It takes until the chorus comes along to get used to what’s happening and or the entry of a guitar playing arpeggios in the second verse to properly orient the ear.

From there, it gets ever more stadium-epic, sounding oddly like Wall-era Pink Floyd; Dion’s evocation of “Brutal machines, unbending laws” even sounds like a Roger Waters line. It’s way over the top, but Dion sings it with customary full-bore commitment and pretty much gets away with it. She’s never averse to going big, in French or English, and whether it succeeds or fails seems to rest so often on whether she feels a personal investment in what she’s singing. As with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, the litmus test is whether you believe her – and I do.

It’s followed by another cover. A biggie. River Deep, Mountain High.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of people, I don’t regard covering River Deep, Mountain High as sacrilege. Far from it. I’ve never been a fan of the Phil Spector wall of sound, and always felt that the song was a comparative trifle, completely buried under Spector’s murk, the whole enterprise only partially redeemed by the ferocity of Tina Turner’s vocal. A Céline Dion version produced and arranged by Jim Steinman sounded, actually, like quite a good idea; a smart marriage of singer, song and production sensibility.

Better, unfortunately, in theory than reality. The whole thing has an unpleasantly synthetic unreality; despite the presence of human musicians Tim Pierce on guitar, Kasim Sutton on bass and Jimmy Bralower on drums, it sounds like it was all done on MIDI keyboards. The horn stabs and sound effects are a very bad idea. Once again, you have to give Dion credit for a full-tilt vocal, especially in the last minute or so of the track, but this is not the version to make me finally get this song. It still seems to me to be held in unwarrantedly high regard.

Another Jim Steinman production, this time in partnership with Jeff Bova, Call the Man was written by Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, the team behind Dion’s English-language breakthrough Think Twice. Hill and Sinfield are an interesting pair. Sinfield had been King Crimson’s lyricist (and occasional synth player) in the early seventies, but tacked towards pop in the early 1980s after hooking up with Hill. As a partnership, they then wrote songs for such non-avant-garde pop acts as Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Dollar and Bucks Fizz, gaining a number-one single with the latter’s covertly anti-Thatcher Land of Make Believe.

There’s not much that’s subtle about Call the Man, however. The “man” seems pretty plainly Jesus, a point underscored by Dion’s performance of the song at the 1997 World Music Awards with a 30-piece gospel choir. As big gospel-pop songs go, it’s definitely not a bad one; Sinfield and Hill write their pop with a certain level of intelligence, and Sinfield’s opening verse contains the striking image, “across the floor, dreams and shadows play like wind-blown refugees”, so he was at least trying. The guitar solo by Ottmar Liebert is rather nice too. Another decent effort.

And so, with Celine at 6-6-1 for the album, we come to Fly, the closing track. This is another translation of a song (Vole) from D’Eux. Halfway between a Disney ballad and chanson, with a very late-1980s bell-like synth piano sound, this one also sounds better in French. That said, the sheer range of Dion’s vocal here is impressive, and the arrangement and vocal sensibility are in harmony with each other in a way that’s not always the case elsewhere on Falling Into You. I’m feeling in a good mood, so reckon Dion finishes the album 7-6-1 – a winning season, if only just. She’s not making the play-offs with that kind of record.

*

Why did I pick Falling Into You rather than Let’s Talk About Love? Not because Falling Into You celebrated its 25th birthday a week or so back. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the release dates when I picked the record to write about to notice that it was shortly to hit that landmark. It was purely a coincidence.

There were, instead, three reasons, really. First, there’s already a discourse around Let’s Talk About Love, thanks to Carl Wilson’s book. He concentrates on the record as a cultural artefact rather than a musical one, but nonetheless I couldn’t come to it completely fresh having read his work on the album. The other reason is that, as big as Falling Into You and its singles were, they don’t have the continuing cultural omnipresence of My Heart Will Go On and, by extension, Let’s Talk About Love. I didn’t want to deal with all that baggage: Titanic. The Oscars. Elliott Smith. Falling Into You represents a period where Céline Dion had already become one of the most successful musicians on the planet and so was in something akin to a business-as-usual phase of her career, as much as sales of 20 million can be considered “usual”. That phenomenon was interesting to me. Finally, and this may be a suprise, it’s her biggest-selling studio album, in terms of both verified units and estimated total sales.

So, as a business-as-usual mega-selling Céline Dion record, how does it hold up?

It’s not a wholly satisfying, cohesive listening experience. It’s too long, for a start; 14 songs and 67 minutes long, in the version I heard, with eight out of the 14 songs lasting more than four and a half minutes. This kind of bloat was common in the second half of the 1990s, once the record-making habits instilled by the limitations of vinyl had been shrugged off and forgotten by the industry.**

The inclusion of so many songs in so many different styles that contributes to that bloat was presumably a deliberate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. Those who liked their Dion big and epic got the Jim Steinman tracks; those who liked her singing adult-contemporary ballads got the David Foster songs; those who liked Ace of Base-style Swedish reggae got Make You Happy.

The record is at its best, though, when there’s less sense that the songs are going for a precisely defined target market, and are instead a little more idiosyncratic: the title track and the English translations If That’s What it Takes and I Don’t Know. These are good enough, particularly Falling Into You, to bump the overall score up a mark or two, to slightly more than five out 10.

What’s a shame is that it’s always evident, when listening to Falling Into You, how a sympathetic producer could have made a really good record with Céline Dion. Not by forcing her into a non-pop box, excising the silliness, goofiness and occasional lapses of taste that make her who she is, or by making her ultra-contemporary and cool, but by being more selective with material, more ruthless with editing, and avoiding the kind of sickly arrangements favoured by David Foster.

Falling Into You is not, I suspect, a record to convince the non-fan. It didn’t convince this non-fan, at least. But it did show me that Dion’s music has more aspects to it than I’d realised.

Still from the Falling Into You video

*Millennials are getting on a bit now. The oldest millenials – hi! – will soon hit forty.

**Running times of records were for many years circumscribed by the physical limitations of the medium when releasing albums on vinyl. You couldn’t fit more than around 23 minutes on one side of a record without sacrificing an excessive amount of low end. As a consequence, most classic rock-era double albums fit comfortably on one CD and are only a few minutes longer than 1990s “single album” releases like Falling Into You.

“Like Friendly Wine”: California Stars – Wilco

Sometime around 1996, Nora Guthrie contacted Barking-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and asked him if he’d be interested in going through her father Woody’s archive of unused lyrics to see if any could be turned into completed songs. Despite initial reservations (this is Bob Dylan’s gig, thought Bragg, or Steve Earle’s or Springsteen’s or someone), Bragg agreed to take on the challenge.

However, he felt that as an Englishman, he couldn’t do the work of creating new Woody Guthrie songs on his own, and he contacted Wilco to ask if they wanted to collaborate with him. Wilco were hot off the success of Being There, and were still principally an alt. country band, with occasional West Coast influences. Not Okies, admittedly, but undoubtedly with more American soil on their boots than Bragg, however long he had been touring the US and making connections.

As documented in Kim Hopkins’s feature-length documentary, Man in the Sand, the sessions for Mermaid Avenue became fractious towards the end. There were some disputes over writing credits, and Jeff Tweedy wanted final say over the mix of the record, which Bragg felt was a bit much given Tweedy’s status as invitee to the project. A quote Tweedy gave to Greg Kot is revealing:

“I enjoyed working with Billy. He had a good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself. And at the same time, I was always suspect of him, as being somewhat full of [expletive]. I never did understand why we were recording songs about brown-shirted fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the ’30s. […] For Jay [Bennett], it was an atrocity that some of Billy’s mixes would make the record. Instead of balancing instruments and allowing it to be an environment where it sounds like a singer and a band, his was very much a vocal solo mix, with a very far-away, easily palatable band. So squishy and soft and perfect. To me, the recordings we did for Volume 1 were very raw, almost crappy sounding. Whereas his didn’t sound crappy, they sounded chintzy. This faux glitz was on them, and to us that was antithetical to the idea behind the record.”

Bragg and Tweedy’s uneasy compromise was that Bragg would give Wilco the tapes to produce their own mixes, and Bragg and his long-term producer, who glories in the name Grant Showbiz, would mix it too. If Bragg preferred their own mixes of Bragg’s songs, those would be the mixes used on the record.

Once both parties had created their mixes, Bragg felt that he and Grant Showbiz had put together a great mix of Wilco’s California Stars, too, and he wanted that to be used on the album, rather than Wilco’s. The finished record does not indicate which mix was used for California Stars, but whichever it was, the song still stands as a highlight, along with Bragg’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Ingrid Bergman, Birds & Ships (for which Bragg brought in Natalie Merchant to sing the lead vocal) and Another Man’s Done Gone, which Bragg wrote, Bennett arranged for piano and Tweedy sang. If the songs written by Tweedy and Jay Bennett aren’t quite up to the level of Bragg’s (which could just be a personal-taste thing, or perhaps Wilco had bled themselves a bit dry working on Being There), California Stars stands up alongside any of Tweedy’s work, and quickly became a fan favourite that they still play at just about every gig.

It’s a lovely song, with a weary lope. At the same time that it gains a spring in its step from the idea of being home in California, it contains in its heart a sadness that the singer is not there but must keep working, keep moving, keep staying away. It may be a song about California by an Okie, but it’s a song for anyone, anywhere, who is not where they most want to be.

You Won’t Need to Cry – new single out today

Well, I have to apologise for having made no progress on the last More Live Gonzos piece I was planning. Coronavirus has made this a very strange, quite stressful couple of weeks (at work, not for health reasons), and I’ve had no spare mental energy at all. I do plan to get back to it, but it may be a couple more weeks.

A few months ago, before any of us had heard of Covid-19, I recorded a couple of songs I’d written that leaned more towards indie/power pop than the kind of thing I normally do. I liked both songs and, more importantly, liked the recordings I’d made of them. They didn’t seem to fit on the EP I’m making with Mel or the album I’ve been working on forever, so I thought I’d release them as the A and B sides of a single.

The A side is called You Won’t Need to Cry. I wrote it very quickly just before new year. Mel gave me a new effects pedal for Christmas (a Leslie speaker-style modulation pedal by TC Electronic) and the song’s main riff/chord progression was pretty much the first thing I played when I sat down with it for first time. As sometimes happens when you’re playing around with ideas, it didn’t sound like a few strung-together chords – it sounded like an actual song’s intro, so I got to work.

The washy modulation effect on the guitar sounded a bit early 1980s to me, so I was thinking in those terms aesthetically, and went for a different kind of treatment than usual: a drum loop (taken from my actual live playing on Make it Last and slowed down a little), palm-muted bass and guitars, and double tracked vocals and harmonies. Mel added some extra oohs with me in the middle eight, and supplied the cover image (taken from the top of St Paul’s one night last summer).

The other song, Hard to Begin, is slightly older, written in late August last year and recorded in, I think, October or November. This one has a live drum track, quite loose and Ringo-y. I like the extended chord sequence in the verses and the general McCartney-ness of some of the changes. I guess if it sounds like anything, it’s a bit Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.

The songs are available on my Bandcamp for streaming and download (player embedded below), and you can also find them on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music and so on.

I hope you have a chance to listen, and if you like them, please do share them.

Stay safe, everyone.

 

 

 

 

Someone to Pull the Trigger – Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet’s devotion to his song structures and chord sequences – should the solo come before or after the middle eight? What’s the perfect secondary dominant chord to enliven the verse progression? – sometimes sounds like the work of a guy desperately using craft to keep darkness at bay.

While this tendency is present on Girlfriend, it becomes more marked on the follow-up, 1993’s Altered Beast. Sweet named the record after the late 1980s arcade game instantly familiar to kids of that era (like me!) as the game that was bundled with the first version of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known outside the US) until the world-conquering success of Sonic the Hedgehog gave Sega a plausible rival to Mario and Luigi at last. The game – both laughably basic and in its final level infuriatingly difficult. Damn boxing goat warriors – sees you playing as a Greek warrior resurrected by Zeus to rescue the kidnapped Athena (quite why a goddess needs a mortal’s help is not explained. Because patriarchy, I guess). Sweet picked the title because, in his words, “you have to find these little power-up things, and when you eat them you become the Altered Beast, this other creature that’s really powerful and violent.”

So it’s a record about carrying the capacity for darkness inside you – how we cover it up and how it manifests itself anyway. Musically, it’s all over the map compared to Girlfriend, the heavier and more fuzzed-out 100% Fun and the Beach Boys-ish late 1990s duo, Blue Sky on Mars and In Reverse. Sweet tapped producer Richard Dashut, a veteran of Fleetwood Mac’s classic albums, as well as a troupe of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s: Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, who play drums on a track or two each; Byron Berline, who’d played with the Byrds and the Band, who plays fiddle on the country-rock Time Capsule, and the great Greg Leisz, who’s played with just about everyone, on pedal steel. This intriguingly multi-generational band was completed by Sweet’s three regular lead guitarists, Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, all veterans of late 1970s punk bands, all cast for their virtuosity and their ability to subvert Sweet’s classicism with sheer squalling noise when the moment demands.

Lyrically, the songs are frequently despairing, with the album’s prettiest song being the darkest. I’ve tried constructing readings of Someone to Pull the Trigger where the song isn’t simply a plea for someone to put the singer out of his misery (in which pulling the trigger is a way of saying “commit to doing something”), but ultimately the text doesn’t support them, and neither does Sweet’s vocal performance. He sounds lost, devoid of hope.

This song and the gorgeous Reaching Out, with Fleetwood on peerless form on drums, are the album’s sad, desperate heart. The more I listen to Sweet’s music, the more I hear the darkness below the Beatlesque chord changes, sunny harmonies and the goofy pop-culture references (in 2020, a record called Altered Beast may as well be called Pong). The clarity, as Sweet puts it, is chilling.

David Roback RIP

David Roback has died aged 61.

Between the records this most reticent and enigmatic of musicians made as part of the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star, his legacy as the master of Lynchian, gently psychedelic, neo-classic rock is assured.

Roback started out in LA’s Paisley Underground scene – a close network of post-punk bands whose response to punk was to return to the past, to mine records by the Byrds, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, the Velvet Underground and Love, as a way of moving beyond the musical limitations of much first-wave punk.

Roback was guitarist/vocalist in the Rain Parade, having already been in a band called Unconscious with his brother Stephen and Susanna Hoffs, later of the Bangles. There are traces of his later songcraft on the Rain Parade’s album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, but it was missing something: a great voice to sing the songs. Perhaps Roback knew it, as he left the Rain Parade to form Opal with Dream Syndicate veteran Kendra Smith (a feature of the Paisley Underground was the extent to which everyone played in bands with everyone else – hence the existence of this).

During the tour to promote Opal, Smith left the band, and looking for a replacement singer, Roback called on a vocalist whose folk duo he had produced. No disrespect to Kendra Smith, but when David Roback met Hope Sandoval he found the perfect singer to bring his songs to life. To mark the break from Smith, Roback and Sandoval abandoned the Opal name, and called their revamped duo Mazzy Star.

Mazzy Star got their sound down right off the bat. Halah, the opening track from their debut She Hangs Brightly, will sound immediately familiar to anyone whose only exposure to Mazzy Star was seeing Fade Into You on 120 Minutes: strummed acoustic guitar in the key of A, drums augmented by tambourine, simple Neil Young chord changes, simple Neil Young melodies, and Roback’s slide-guitar swoops, all of them bathed in cavernous reverb*.

Halah is my favourite track from She Hangs Brightly, but it’s not the only good one. Ride It On is also great, and I’ve got a soft spot for Be My Angel, which anticipates the 6/8 swing of Fade Into You.

Which, of course, it does come back to. Fade Into You is Mazzy Star’s legacy. It has a sort of alchemy. It’s one chord sequence all the way through. Its verse is one melody line repeated four times. Its chorus is a different line repeated three times with a slightly different closing tune. It could have been written in five minutes. But that’s entirely unimportant. What matters is the tone of Sandoval’s voice. The swooning slide guitar. The hushed, almost tentative drums. The narcotic reverb that swaddles the whole song. It’s a romantic song. People fell in love to it, and in love with it.

Mazzy Star had excellent timing, and they were beneficiaries of the alt rock boom. OK, their work seldom featured the wind-tunnel distortion and aggro vocals of Nirvana, Soundgarden, AIC and the rest, but perhaps the best thing about Nirvana’s success was the space it opened up on MTV and radio for semi-popular indie bands, especially female-fronted ones, at a time when Top 40 radio programmers still argued vehemently that only one record by a woman could be in heavy rotation at one time. Fade Into You and its parent album So Tonight That I Might See emerged into a new world where people like Roback and Sandova, shy and undemonstrative people, could be successful musicians, not just indie cult figures working a day job or two to keep a roof over their heads.

After Around My Swan, released in 1996, the band wound down, with Sandoval releasing solo records and guesting on records by Massive Attack and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Roback got into production (including work with Beth Orton), moved to Norway and made arty, experimental music for installations and films. The band reformed and released Seasons of You in 2013. While the band had never worked quickly, a new record seemed more likely than not until Roback’s death from cancer was announced on Tuesday.

 

 

 

More Live Gonzos, Part 3 – Live at the Paramount by Nirvana

Here’s one I really go back a long way with. Don’t worry – I do have a couple of posts planned on artists I didn’t write about this time last year.

Shortly before the release of Nevermind in September 1991, Nirvana began a tour of theatres and clubs in North America, culminating in three West Coast shows with Mudhoney in Portland, Vancouver and their hometown of Seattle, where they were joined by Bikini Kill. They played their homecoming show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween, Thursday 31 October.

The show was filmed (on 16mm cameras) and recorded for possible future release, and the audio was bootlegged for years. I swapped my old Nintendo Gameboy for a copy in, I don’t know, 1996 maybe, which tells you a) how old I am, and b) how long the bootlegs were doing the rounds before Interscope Geffen A&M finally released it on DVD, Blu-Ray and CD in 2011, on the DGC imprint for old time’s sake.

Of course, bootlegs of the other shows from the tour are probably available if you look hard enough, but the Paramount show was a special one for the band, who were still having a blast and hadn’t yet hit a level of fame that they couldn’t deal with, and it’s the only one that was recorded properly with high-budget gear and mixed by Andy Wallace. Whether the band were in such transcendent form as this in Portland and Vancouver, I couldn’t tell you. But at the Paramount, they were really something else.

As the gig begins, Cobain seems in an unusually good mood. He wishes the crowd happy Halloween, before introducing the first song as being by a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, who are “very punk rock” (in Cobain’s world, the highest praise that can be bestowed).

I’ve written before about my impatience with Nirvana’s cover of The Vaselines’ Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam, and the electric arrangement the band were playing in 1991 does even less for me than the Unplugged version, which at least had the novelty of Krist Novoselic playing accordion. What you can hear, though, is a throat-tearing intensity from Cobain from the off, a really good guitar sound (not always the case for Cobain live – sometimes his guitar sounded a bit rubbish. Here, especially, when playing his humbucker-equipped Fender Jaguar, it sounds amazing) and excellent sound quality. This is what good gear and a pro mixer can do for you.

Dave Grohl’s last cymbal crash hasn’t died away before Cobain breaks into the opening riff of Aneurysm. This is one of the greatest live versions of the B-side and fan favourite, and the intensity is palpable. Grohl is clearly giving the drums a mighty pounding (dig the way he smacks both his crash cymbals and keeps time with huge smacking quarter notes as Cobain plays the ascending part at the end of the intro; he addresses the brass like a boxer working the speed bag), and if you watch the video, you’ll see Cobain and Novoselic throwing themselves around the stage like marionettes being pulled by their strings. It’s as if the music’s playing them, not the other way round.

Then there’s the sound of Cobain’s voice during this era, before the constant screaming took it’s toll on his throat. Jayson Greene wrote well about the Cobain’s vocals in his review of the album for Pitchfork:

He sang in a way that was obviously unsustainable, even with the aid of heavy cough syrup, and there’s a thrill, although a slightly selfish one, of hearing his voice rip the air before he had begun to scream it down to the threads. His peculiar, yowling phrasing may have been a deliberate choice, or it might have been the only way he managed to wrangle those notes from a constricted voice box, but there is a terrible, riveting intensity to it: Words feel torn from him, bearing fishhooks on their way out. “Aneurysm”‘s “Love you so much/ It makes me sick” becomes “Laahve yeww sowl much et makes me SECK.” It physically hurts to hear, as it always has, but it gives you some of the most committed, clear performances of Nirvana’s canonical songs as you’re likely to get.

There’s a thing I value in some recordings that seems to me somewhat overlooked by many music fans. I suspect it’s something that musicians themselves value more than fans and it’s probably controversial idea anyway, because it takes us into the realms of an individual’s own subjective experiences, memories and perceptions, but I love when a recording really truly sounds like the thing being recorded. It’s much rarer than you might think. I love drum sounds that sound and feel like my own experience of having sat behind a drum kit, listening to myself give a snare drum a good solid clonk, with my ears maybe two feet away. Or what it sounds like to be in a rehearsal room with a drummer, my ears at about the level of the cymbals and have them swirling around me. I love recordings of electric guitars that capture the full frequency range, that slight sag of a tube amp being pushed hard. These types of recordings feel alive to me.

Live recordings are more likely to convey some of this sense memory than studio recordings, at least since the late 1970s. I once heard Ron Saint Germain say that once production gets beyond the initial bass and drums tracking, it’s the beginning of the shrinking process. A really well produced record, like for example Nevermind, may sound great, but it will have lost at least some of the power that was there when the band played in the room. You sacrifice size for detail.

Live at the Paramount retains a lot of size, a lot of power – more than even most live albums – and it can make you hear songs as if for the first time again. Drain You, the third song in the set, is like that for me. It’s not a song I tend to seek out much these days, and not one of my favourites on Nevermind. But here it’s such a thrilling mix of rawness – the force of Grohl’s kick drum, the dynamics of the noise section in the middle as Grohl plays those 8th-note build-ups and Cobain wrestles with his Jaguar – and sheer melodic and harmonic craft (the way the unconventional chord changes are totally justified and reinforced by the vocal melodies and Grohl’s harmonies) that it connects me back to how I felt about this band at the age of 12 or 13. It also shows that, if we needed reminding, the band’s members were craftsmen, not the primitives they liked to paint themselves as in interviews.

But, as if to show the crowd that they still enjoy playing up that image, the band follows Drain You with two cuts from Bleach, School and Floyd the Barber, the former getting a huge sweaty roar of approval as soon as Cobain plays the intro. Grohl is a pretty good double for Melvins drummer Dale Crover on the latter (though why he didn’t sing the prominent harmonies on the song’s chorus is a bit of a mystery – sure he had a lot on his plate already learning his predecessers’ parts on the early material, but they’re really quite obvious and do improve the song), and if he doesn’t replicate the double-kick-powered groove that Chad Channing played on School, he is a lot more steady, and the song doesn’t quite threaten to come apart at any moment as it does on the Bleach recording.

On later tours, Nirvana could play Smells Like Teen Spirit as if it were a painful duty, or not play it at all, but in autumn 1991 they were still giving their performances of it everything they had. They take it a quick tempo, with Grohl smashing the life out of his cymbals and playing every fill with authority and power. Cobain’s voice gets increasingly ragged with every chorus, and on the final held “a denial” it gives way entirely. While the studio recording works so well because of the tension between the song’s message and the polished presentation of that message, live versions from this era strip that gloss away, leaving edges jagged enough to cut yourself on. You hear it as the alien interloper within mainstream rock that it always was.

About a Girl is also taken briskly, so much so that Grohl pulls them back to a more workable tempo after he comes in. Listened to in conjunction with Teen Spirit, the two songs seem to end up in a similar place via different routes: on Teen Spirit, the band strip the song down to its rawest essentials, spotlighting the adrenalized, punky side of themselves; on About a Girl, they inject into it an energy and spirit that wasn’t there on Bleach, giving it greater edge and making it sit naturally with songs like Teen Spirit.

Polly is an extraordinary song, if you can strip away your familiarity with it to hear it as if for the first time. Sung from the point of view of a man abducting and raping a teenage girl, it’s a harrowing listen – the more so because it’s one of the softest pieces Cobain ever wrote. Yet, playing it straight, without going into a big rock ‘n’ roll chorus, Cobain keeps the crowd completely engaged. His willingness to explore these kinds of subjects, to speak up for causes that mainstream rock musicians wouldn’t go near, is an inextricable part of Nirvana’s greatness and importance, and you could easily make a case that he didn’t write a more important song than Polly. As Bob Dylan remarked after hearing it, the kid had heart.

Breed is a series of explosions, a frenzy of drum rolls and power chords, but with a pin-sharp melody that won’t leave you alone. The band play it with precision. Like In Bloom, which Dave Grohl has explained is him playing drum parts devised by Chad Channing, Breed was first demoed before Grohl joined the band. While Grohl’s drumming on the song is its most crucial musical feature, it’s worth remember that the parts he’s playing are Channing’s, and that he deserves a lot of the credit.

Sliver has an important place in the band’s history. Released in 1990, and the only song in the Nirvana canon to feature Mudhoney’s Dan Peters on drums, Sliver was self-consciously written as a break with the band’s Bleach-era songs, said Cobain: “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written to prepare people for the next album.” Thing is, that places more weight on the song than, for me, it can bear. It’s a trifle, paling next to even the least of Nevermind‘s songs. Whether on Incesticide or in a live performance, it never feels substantial to me, and coming between the casual brilliance of Breed and the band’s genuinely thrilling update of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz doesn’t help it.

The studio recording of Love Buzz is mostly about the bass and guitar, and features possibly Cobain’s finest solos on record. Live, his playing was always scrappier, and he tended to adapt the pull-off riff to make it simpler to play. This version, it’s Novoselic and Grohl who impress most. Novoselic gets plenty of space during the mono-chordal solo to explore the upper reaches of his fretboard, while Grohl playing Channing’s parts is, again, a revelation. There was always something of the funk drummer in Grohl – a propensity to absolutely explode on the one, with huge cymbal crashes and a mighty kick drum. You can hear that – and on the DVD or Blu-Ray see it – here. A particular Grohl tic is to hit both his crashes simultaneously on the one for added power and excitement, and it sounds so right here: every huge open A chord reinforced by an explosion from Grohl’s cymbals. It’s so much fun.

Lithium is a mixed bag. The choruses sound great, but the verses are a bit messy, with Novoselic’s bass feeling like it’s behind the beat, or at least behind the guitar. It’s a bit of a shame. I’m not sure who the guilty party is but it does undermine the performance a bit if you’re listening at home; the folks in the audience may not have been aware of it.

Been a Son is one of Nirvana’s best minor works. Recorded by Steve Fisk for the Blew EP with Chad Channing on drums, then re-recorded with Grohl at a faster tempo for a BBC session (the version that’s on Incesticide), it has great mid-sixties John Lennon harmonies, here supplied by Grohl, and a really cool semi-distorted and flanged bass guitar sound. Written in 1987, it may have been Cobain’s earliest feminist statement, but its pithiness is still effective. Its verses are a laundry list of things the unnamed girl “should” have done but didn’t, before her disappointed parents simply state in the chorus that she should have been a son. This ability that Cobain had to distil a message is still underrated, as some of his lyrics work essentially as collage and resist line-by-line readings of them. When he wanted to make a simple point, he could do it as well as anyone.

(Sidenote: why is it that the similarly melodically simple Sliver kind of annoys me, while I think Been a Son is great? I wish I could expain it. The harmonies maybe.)

Next, after some screaming feedback, Cobain launches into Negative Creep. This is a fascinating one. There’s a quality to the original that I love: it’s incredibly claustrophobic and heavy, but as with so much early Nirvana, the band (especially Channing) are barely in control. That increasing sense that they are only just hanging together is mirrored in Cobain’s vocal, which gets more hysterical and ragged with every verse. It’s great, but it’s so over the top it’s a little comedic.

Live, Cobain’s vocal doesn’t have the same mounting hysteria. He sort of manages to get the notes out, but the effort is clear, and by this point in the gig his voice is starting to get a little thin and tired-sounding. So while the song gains a lot from Grohl’s brutal but very controlled performance, it suffers a little in comparison with the studio cut, which is basically made by Cobain’s crazy vocal.

No such issues exist with On a Plain, one of Nevermind‘s most uncomplicatedly pop songs, complete with middle eight and prominent harmonies. It’s basically a piece of rather meta (lyrics about writing lyrics, and in-jokes between the band members) power pop, buoyed by a bouncy bass line from Novoselic and a brilliant, very composed drum performance from Grohl – every fill is just so, all repeated until they become just as much a part of the song as the chord changes and melody. The band are perfect, and give the impression they could do this in their sleep. It’s really impressive.

The set ends with Blew.  The first track off Bleach, it can’t help but sound a little rudimentary next to On a Plain, but the crowd clearly love it, and the band, particularly Cobain, invest it with a lot of fire – his solo is nicely squonky, with loads of energy.

The encore begins with an early version of Rape Me. “This song is about hairy, sweaty, macho redneck men,” Cobain explains, before adding, “who rape.” Some critics (Michael Azzerad in his book Come as You Are, for example) have seen the song as a comment on his own media notoriety, but given that he’d already written it in late 1991, before he had become a household name and before any unflattering press coverage, that reading should be resisted. It is what it appears to be – a condemnation of rape culture. What’s striking, hearing it in 2020, is the lyric Cobain sings in the chorus: “I’m not the only one”. In other words, “me too”. Cobain’s repeated cries of “rape me” at the end of the song are hair-raising.

Territorial Pissings is taken at an absolutely furious tempo, before collapsing into a version of Endless Nameless to finish the gig off. If the encore is a little anticlimactic, it’s only because the band have blown through 16 of their best songs in the set proper and don’t have much left except a noise jam, a new song and a punky thrash. It’s fine, but the magic has already happened.

And what magic it is. Live at the Paramount captures Nirvana at the early peak of their powers. You could argue that the Reading set from 1992 is as good or better – I wouldn’t want to take sides – but this one’s my favourite. I first heard it in full when I was about 14, and didn’t hear the Reading set in full until much later, so I’m more sentimentally tied to this one.

The energy throughout the whole thing is so infectious that the album totally transcends the issues that sometimes negatively affect live albums, especially rock records. When you’re not there in the room with the band and the audience, flubs and missed notes and the rawness of the moment are obviously all more noticeable, and they can distance you from the song. The Paramount gig is raw: over the course of the show, Cobain’s voice becomes tired; in the loudest sections, his and Novoselics’s propensity to throw themselves around means they make mistakes and are not as tight as on record.

None of that matters. Tehcnical proficiency was never what the band were about anyway. What matters is the fire, the passion, with which they played their songs, the connection they forged with their fans by being so human up there, and the way melody and power were welded together by Cobain’s white-hot guitar.

Paramount_Theater_in_Seattle

The Paramount Theatre. Last September, Mel and I spent four nights in Seattle. We had a packed itinerary and didn’t have time for me to go looking for venues, but in the course of our wanderings we chanced upon The Crocodile, the Tractor Tavern, the Showbox, the Comet Tavern, Neumos – maybe more that I’m forgetting. Seeing the Paramount on our way to dinner at Quinn’s Pub in Capitol Hill was a genuine “oh it’s you!” moment.

Happy birthday, old friend

Apologies. Still can’t confront what happened last week. Still, this piece is a lot less whimsical than it may seem.

Twenty years ago today, on a cold Saturday just before Christmas, I took the train up London with a schoolfriend. We got off at Limehouse, changed to the DLR, got off at Shadwell, changed for the East London Line, as it was then called, and got off at Wapping.

I’d never been to Wapping before, and its cobbled streets and warehouses delighted me. This was London like I’d never seen it. So was Shadwell, come to that, and little did I know that less than three years later I’d be living there.

We were heading for the Acoustic Centre. I’d been left some money by my granddad, who’d died earlier in the year, and I’d decided to use it on something that I could keep, something that would be worth spending money on. After all, £500 was more money than I’d ever had in my life up to that point, and I wanted to use it wisely.

I had an idea that I might go for a Takamine. I’d heard of them, seen them being played by musicians in bands on TV, and I’d seen them advertised in music magazines. I knew Takamine made very high-end stuff, but also guitars that were more affordable. They seemed a good place to start.

When I got there, I said my budget was £400-ish (maybe I felt a bit sheepish about spending all that money on a guitar when I was still a comparative novice) but the guy in the shop didn’t have anything at that kind of price point. He did, though, have an EN10 priced a fair bit higher that he said he could probably let go for £500 at a push. At that point, the EN10 and EN10C (the same thing, but the latter had a cutaway) was a popular model that you’d actually see pro and semi-pro musicians using, so as a 17-year-old I could hardly have been more impressed by it. It looked great – matt finish, simple decoration around the soundhole, red cedar top, mahogany back and side – and it sounded great too. I loved it.

Long story short, I still play that EN10. It’s what I’m talking about if I refer to “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, assuming Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. 90% of all the songs I’ve ever written were written on this instrument. It fits my hands, it sounds like me. More than that, it’s a part of me.

In the years since I bought it, I’ve sometimes thought about potentially getting a vintage Martin or Gibson, but I never have. I can’t really imagine ever playing another acoustic guitar. It wouldn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t sound the same. Yeah, good tone is 90% in the hands of the player, but what about that last 10%? I’ve put in twenty years on this guitar, and it’s aged and matured with me, mellowing and letting go, to the point where its sound is fundamentally and inextricably part of my sound. If I were to buy a vintage guitar, someone else would have done that work, and it could never be mine in quite the same way.

This probably sounds ridiculously sentimental to anyone who’s not a musician, but to me a good guitar is so much more than an assemblage of wood and metal. There’s a part of me in it. It’s not a tool, it’s a partner.

I’ve got other guitars I’ve had a long time (Seagull S12+, purchased in 2001; Fender USA Stratocaster, bought in 2007), but there’s something about your first. Happy birthday, old friend.

003aMe and my guitar, always in the same mood, as James Taylor put it. On stage at the Harrison in London, a couple of years ago.

 

 

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.

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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?