Tag Archives: 4/4

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s autumn. Time to talk about folk-rock. Here’s a sort-of repost from a couple of years ago to get us underway

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what The Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and Fairport parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave, too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again, to form the Albion Band with the folkiest of English folk singers, Shirley Collins.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s patronage of Trevor Lucas, the band spent half of its time backing a singer and songwriter of no more than average ability, the likes of whom you could find any night of the week in a provincial folk club. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them something to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny did what Boyd had wanted to her all along and went properly solo. Partly this was a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job with Warner Brothers, but during the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album they cut Silver Threads & Golden Needles, an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers, too. While most have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version, Fotheringay slowed it down, put it in waltz time and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

If you were to call Sandy Denny the finest interpreter of British folk song who ever lived, I’d not argue. With this track, she stakes her claim as one of the finest interpreters of song full stop. She gives a completely authentic country performance without ever softening her southern English accent – Patsy Cline would have understood and recognised the emotions Denny expresses here.

NYC-born Jerry Donahue, meanwhile, comes at this country-folk blend from the other direction. Most of what you hear in Donahue’s playing is country-music derived, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him “the string-bending king of the planet”) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

His string-bending is rarely better showcased than on Silver Threads: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw a completed album’s worth of stuff recording for that second album (2, which came out in 2008). If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be.

The track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway, formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band (and later to join Fairport). Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on the four) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

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Fotheringay l-r Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway, Trevor Lucas, Sandy Denny, Pat Donaldson

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Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears

No artist has control over how their music is received, and any work that catches on big will attract an audience that’s probably a good deal wider than its author intended or envisaged, and will likely include a whole swathe of people the author doesn’t really relate to all that strongly.

For proof, let’s look at Tears for Fears, at once one of pop’s most serious-minded, interior-looking groups and a shorthand for lol big 80z muzik. While I’ve known Everybody Wants to Rule the World since I was a child (and have liked the band since becoming consciously aware of who they were when Sowing the Seeds of Love came out), my response to it has changed a little over time, and I’m aware that how I take it, and what I get from it, is not the same as what someone else might.

A few years ago I watched an old mid-1990s Adam Curtis TV series called Pandora’s Box. The League of Gentlemen, an episode that dealt with economics and the dangers inherent in treating it as a science, began with some footage of (presumably real) city workers in a karaoke bar, bellowing out the chorus of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, lagers in hand. OK, so the characterisation of all city boys as beered- and/or coked-up louts entirely deaf to the subtext and irony of what they were singing was heavy handed, but it made Curtis’s point forcefully enough (and I assume from the general tenor of his lyrics that Roland Orzabal and Curtis would find a reasonable amount of political common ground). And now, of course, I can’t help but see those two beery karaoke singers whenever I hear the song. Thanks for that, Adam.

That’s the thing. Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a song so big, and so universal, that it can encompass many meanings, can mean almost anything to anyone, in fact. It can be a go-on-my-son nod of encouragement to the lairy and megalomaniacal, or a sigh of acceptance that, yes, this is how people are, and it’s confusing as hell, but we aren’t alone. It can be travestied by Lorde in her bewildering goth remake for a Hunger Games sequel, placed at the end of a mid-1980s Val Kilmer sci-fi comedy (Real Genius) about super-smart college kids destroying their tutor’s house through the ingenious use of popcorn, or simply used as an all-purpose 1980s signifier in Peter’s Friends.

The song isn’t just interesting at a textual level though. If I were a music teacher, and I almost entirely lack the theoretical knowledge to ever be one (as this next section is likely to prove), I’d pull it out to explain to students how common time and triple metre can be laid on top of each other.

The sheet music for Everybody stipulates 12/8 time at brisk 112 beats per minute. Yet what’s going on here is more subtle than that – it doesn’t really have the 1-2-3-1-2-3, 1-2-3-1-2-3 feel that 12/8 time would imply, at least not in the drums. The hi-hat part plays a shuffle (first and last beats of the triplets only), with the second beat of each triplet merely ghosted. The opening guitar riff is determinedly in triplets, but the melody of the chorus is square on-the-beat crotchets (replace the lyrics “most of freedom and of pleasure, nothing ever lasts for ever” with “one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, one two three four” to see what I mean). So there’s really three feels present at the same time, with the 4/4 shuffle coming out as the dominant feel (for me, at least – others will feel and play it differently, and if anyone versed in these things can explain it better, please do leave a comment) because the vocal melody insists on those four strong beats.

It’s a masterly piece of writing, a great arrangement and one of the finest moments of a group not short of great songs.

Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears

Not a shuffle feel in sight:

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

JW
Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!: