Tag Archives: 1990s

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?

 

Woodbine

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me the first album by Woodbine, a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop, and asked if I wanted to go and see them live.

I found the record interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music. So I was up for going to see them play, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter, David Gedge, had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. (I was so young!) My friend and I were by some distance the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good 15 years older than we were.

Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever seen play live, I think. It didn’t help that they were all drunk (their drummer was really drunk – falling-down drunk. He was half asleep in charge of a drum kit), but I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Even at on their best day, they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at a small boozer (the Crown & Anchor down the road, maybe), it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two of their own and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage (the venue now called Thousand Island) later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to singer Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed rather embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy, narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising – to be untidy – is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, wouldn’t feel the same at all. Would be all wrong, in fact. There is a rightness to the analogue wrongness of Woodbine.

Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want and Tricity Tiara* will do you.

tricity tiara
This is a Tricity Tiara, or more correctly a Tricity-Bendix Tiara. Not many of these about any more, but a landlord’s favourite cheap oven for donkey’s years.

 

Dummy at 25 – Portishead’s masterpiece

The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”

The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.

Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.

A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.

Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.

Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.

 

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.

 

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.