Tag Archives: 1990s

Bright as Yellow – The Innocence Mission

With its soundtrack by and cameo appearances from all the big-name Seattle bands with the exception of Nirvana, Cameron Crowe’s Singles is basically the official movie of the grunge era. Reality Bites, the good-on-paper, shit-on-celluloid rival-studio response that starred Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke (and was directed by Stiller), is all but unwatched these days, and is anyway all but unwatchable.

Then there’s plucky little Empire Records. It bombed on its release, receiving universally negative reviews. When I saw it, it did indeed seem to me unexceptional, and notable only because it featured a scene where Liv Tyler sexy-danced to Throwing Muses’ Snakeface until being disturbed by the doorbell (notable not because of Ms Tyler’s performance, but because of the unlikely choice of song, you understand). Yet Empire Records has a thriving cult that still enjoys the film and celebrates 8th April every year as Rex Manning Day – Manning being a washed-up ’80s pop star whose in-store appearance on that date forms the backdrop to the movie’s events. For its fans, Empire Records is more than just a don’t-they-look-young time capsule (as well as Tyler, the film features Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia as put-upon store owner Joe – the only character who merits much sympathy); they really love it.

Empire Records the movie may not be a favourite of mine, but I have still have pretty strong memories of seeing it in college as my brother had bought the soundtrack, and knowing the tunes before I saw the film seemed to help it lodge in my memory. Likely he bought it because Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You was on it, but apart from that it also featured a decent cover of The Ballad of El Goodo by Evan Dando, the Gin Blossoms’ lovely Til I Hear it from You (co-written with power-pop pioneer Marshall Crenshaw) and the Innocence Mission’s equally lovely Bright as Yellow.

My first thought on hearing the Innocence Mission was that they had to have been opportunistic second stringers that the soundtrack supervisor settled for after not being able to secure a first choice. In the early 1990s, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belly and Juliana Hatfield were all indie favourites, and Innocence Mission singer Karen Peris seemed to owe something to all of them.

But, I think now, that was very unfair. By the time Empire Records came out in 1995 and the Innocence Mission got the closest thing they ever had to a mainstream moment, all of the above artists had seen their commercial waves crest and recede. Whatever you did to try to get big in 1995, it sure as hell wasn’t rip off the Sundays. In fact, the Innocence Mission had been going for as long as any of those artists whose sounds theirs resembled. Furthermore, they were a Christian band from a completely different milieu to those groups, and on close listening, I can’t help but feel their sonic similarity to other acts that had enjoyed recent critical and/or commercial success just had to be a coincidence. I don’t hear Karen Peris as capable of that kind of cynicism.

Bright as Yellow takes its time, builds slowly and may not sound like much initially, but each time that chorus comes around, it lands with greater force, and that middle-eight section (repeated twice) in which her singing becomes increasingly urgent and staccato is a wonderful bit of writing.

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I Wish that I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger

I hate that Faces song, by the way. The tense of the lyric in the chorus should be conditional.

This last week, an old high school friend of mine posted some photos and even a video clip of some of our teenage musical endeavours. The earliest of these photos is 20 years old. A sobering thought, indeed.

I’ve been doing what I do a long old time now; long enough that, of the guys I was in that high-school band with, I’m the only one still playing music seriously – writing, recording and gigging – and that’s been true for a decade now. It’s still a huge part of my life and I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop.

Which means, I guess, I see something different to what the other guys see when they look at these old photos. They see something they used to be; I see a younger version of the thing I am now. And blimey, there are some things I could tell younger me that might have helped him (other than just, “For god’s sake, sort your hair out”).

I probably couldn’t persuade younger me to ditch his ambitions to be a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter producer and recording engineer in order to just focus on doing one thing and doing it as well as possible. Trying to bite off more than can be chewed is too big a part of who I am. And besides, playing drums is fun. Recording is fun. Mixing is fun.  I wouldn’t want to give any of it up.

The one thing I’d tell him, I think, that he might actually listen to is play less, play it clean, play it in time. When I listen back to recordings I made before around 2007 or 2008, what bugs me about them is the lack of attention I paid to tempo. My voice-and-guitar recordings from back then can fluctuate pretty wildly in tempo, and are generally speaking too fast, with subsequent guitar flubs I’d never live with today. I could have benefitted hugely from taking the time to experiment with tempo before trying to record the song – working out what was best by playing it at different speeds, then practising at the tempo that felt best and committing to it.

Similarly, my rhythm guitar playing and bass playing often sounded rushed and ahead of the drummer. It took seeing my tracks on screen (something that comes from recording digitally and is not always a great idea to focus on, though in this case it was) for me to realise that I had a pattern of being ahead of the beat, especially when playing bass with fingers – it took several years to correct that to the point where a bass track I put down might be listened to soloed against the drums without causing me acute embarrassment.

Of course, when you’re playing in a kid band, it’s unlikely the drummer is putting the one in the same spot every time anyway, but I wasn’t even aware that it was an issue and wouldn’t have been able to tell you who the guilty party was.

The older I get, the more I’m impressed by players who play what’s required with a good feel and nothing more. Maybe one day I’ll be one of them. If I’d have learned the lesson in my teens rather than my mid-twenties, I might have been already. But it’s a journey, and getting to the destination is all that matters.

Mesh

1997 (on bass, to the right)

CFF live

2017 (on guitar, to the left)

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 1: Sad But True – Metallica

It’s back, again. Fourth year running. Let’s talk drums.

Lars Ulrich has been a figure of fun for so long I can’t actually remember a time when anyone took him seriously. He’s the doofus who took a very public anti-Napster stand when his audience didn’t want to hear it; the wound-up little guy who roared “Fuck” for about eight seconds right into James Hetfield’s face, on camera; and, of course, the drummer in the world’s most famous metal band, known among drummers everywhere for his virtuosic, almost heroic, near-total lack of swing. Listening to Lars, it’s as if disco, funk and R&B happened in another universe. Years before snapped-to-grid drums were the norm, Ulrich paved the way.

None of this was really apparent when Metallica were a thrash band. By virtue of tempo, thrash doesn’t swing. At 200 beats per minute, it’s enough work just keeping it together. Ulrich did that. He played fast, he played aggressive and he played double kick. What he couldn’t do as a drummer only became obvious or problematic on the Black Album, when the band slowed down and Hetfield’s started bringing along riffs that allowed for syncopation in the drum track, particularly in the kick drum pattern, only to be greeted by Lars’s patented my-first-drumbeat boom-bap-boom-bap. I remember listening to Enter Sandman with my friend Rob and the pair of us roaring with laughter at Ulrich’s drumming.

Which is all great fun, and in the context of the heavy editing that was employed to create that metronomic end result and Lars’s corresponding deficiencies on stage, not entirely unfair. But in the end, Ulrich doesn’t get enough credit. His playing is instantly recognisable, and on the Black Album‘s Sad But True it was completely perfect for the song.

It’s another one of his big, smacking two-and-four performances, but it’s briliantly composed. The first time you hear him play that iconic snare fill to lead into the first verse, you know you’re listening to one for the ages. The track is full of cool little details – those snare-shots-with-cymbal-smashes that respond to Hetfield’s “Hey”s and “You”s; the kick drum variations; the huge tom fills; the reuse of that five-stroke snare fill to follow the “Sad but true” triplet. It’s a drum part that’s obviously been thought about (perhaps some of the ideas came from producer Bob Rock), but it’s still got loads of attitude and aggression, and is the song’s defining musical element. Anything less would have been not enough; anything more would have been too much.

It’s a difficult thing to craft an instantly recognisable drum part – one that would be recognisable to anyone (not just drummers) just from hearing the drums, without any vocals or other instruments – while serving the needs of the song and not overplaying. On Sad But True, Ulrich did this, and many of his more-lauded drumming contemporaries frankly never have.

larsSubtle, tasteful. Lars Ulrich

*Ulrich has always maintained his argument was about control, not money. But to his band’s fans, Ulrich’s criticism of Napster sounded like a guy who had been made very rich by the old system trying to defend that system at his fans’ cost.

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.

 

Final songs

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

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

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

I’ll stop now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have I missed your favourite? Let me know.

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

Belly @ Kentish Town Forum, 21/07/16

I don’t write about every gig I go to, but of course I had to post some thoughts about this one…

Belly were one of my favourites when I was a teenager. I loved both of the band’s albums, Star and King, and listened to them hundreds of times. I loved Star‘s mix of beguiling tunes and unsettling fairy-tale imagery, and King‘s intimate, band-in-a-room vibe. But as I didn’t hear either record until after Belly had already broken up, I didn’t have a chance to see the band play live – until they announced a reunion tour earlier this year. I picked up my tickets pretty quickly.

Belly’s slim canon was something of a blessing in the context of a reunion show. The band played for two hours, with a short intermission and no support act (hallelujah), so there was nothing I really wanted to hear that they didn’t play, and no key text (other than maybe Angel from Star and the title track from King) that was omitted. The band, laughing and joking between songs, were clearly having a blast and thankful for an audience that still cared twenty years down the line.

They’re still a tiny bit rusty (they played a couple of warm-up shows in Newport, RI, then came over here for the British leg of the tour; by the time they go back to the States, I expect they’ll be up to full speed), but they played really well. White Belly from Star (much underrated song, that – there’s a whole novel in the lines “Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco; worked my way back in a hallway in LA”) was an early highlight, Red got the crowd jumping (time signature changes confounding most of them), Gepetto was a joyful sing-along and Full Moon, Empty Heart showed Tanya Donelly’s voice is no less elastic than it was in her twenties.

To my delight, personal favourites The Bees and Thief (both King era, the latter a B-side) both got an airing. The Bees (played halfway through their first set) was a bit of a moment for me, actually; it was during the first verse that it really came home that I was watching a favourite band play a favourite song for the first and probably only time. If I had to pick one stand-out moment, that’d be it – even more so than the obvious live favourites and singles (Dusted, Feed the Tree, Gepetto, Now They’ll Sleep, Super Connected, Seal My Fate). Pat, the old friend from high school who lent me his copy of Star all those years ago, felt similarly about eerie gothic melodrama Low Red Moon, one of the centrepiece tracks from Star, which the band played halfway through their second set and absolutely nailed. Chis Gorman on drums was on particularly commanding form on that one, holding the band to a perfect tempo and giving his snare drum an authoritative pounding; at the song’s end, Donelly turned to him and made some sort of gesture of appreciation. It was typical of the warm spirit of the whole evening.

It wouldn’t be a Songs from so Deep gig review if I didn’t mention the sound mix. It was, I guess, adequate. The drums were solid and powerful, partly due to Chris Gorman, who as I said gave his drums a determined thumping throughout, but his brother Tom Gorman’s guitar didn’t fare so well – it was a murky and barely discernable presence for the entire first set, and an uncontrolled feedbacky presence for the second (he was playing a Gretsch semi-acoustic and every time he stopped playing, it started to feed back). It was far from the worst live mix I’ve ever heard, but I was very worried during the opening track (Puberty), as only the drums and Donelly’s vocal were audible. Thankfully, things improved a bit for the rest of the first set, and some tweaks seemed to be made during intermission, so the sound didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the gig.

With reformed bands, I try to go in with no expectations. It’s worked pretty well this last couple of years, where many of the gigs I’ve seen have been forty- or fifty-something muscians getting the old band back together and playing their old songs. But still, I’d have been disappointed if the show had been only OK. It was much, much better than that.

78Well-preserved Belly