Tag Archives: Abbey Road

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.

Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

 

 

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 9 – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – The Hollies

I hope you’ve been enjoying our series deconstructing some of the less heralded great drum performances. Our 2014 series is nearly at an end. I’ll do one more this weekend, then it’ll be back to business as usual

As we noted in the last installment, a truth known to record-makers through a process of deep listening and bitter experience yet understood by the majority of pop fans by instinct is that popular music is about rhythm first and foremost. Successful pop records are, in the main, built on great rhythm tracks. Even songs you might not think of as particularly rhythmically driven are often enhanced by and even built upon really good-feeling rhythm tracks, whether they were played or programmed.

For an example of this, we might take a perennial favourite like He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in its most famous version, by the Hollies. Sure, the track is defined by the group’s vocal harmonies (even after Graham Nash left, the group remained a formidable harmony-singing collective) and by Alan Clarke’s passionate lead vocal, in which his commitment to the material is audible and moving. Music trivia fans might point to the piano — played by a pre-fame Elton John — as the crucial element in the arrangement. But this is my blog and I’ll say it’s the drum track, played by the group’s drummer Bobby Elliott.

The song is a taken at a slightly brisker tempo than you might remember if you haven’t heard it for a while. For a song with a weighty lyric, it’s light on its feet, by turns authoritative (those build-ups on snare and floor tom going into the second and final choruses) and graceful (the middle eight, where the canny Elliott plays dancing triplet rolls while Clarke proclaims that he’s not laden, or if he is it’s only with the fact that people don’t feel the same love he does). It’s a drum performance that’s as full of emotion as the vocal and a huge part of why it’s such a great record. If you can hear that 4-stroke snare fill and the five mighty cymbal crashes that accompany the line “and the load doesn’t weigh me down at all” without getting a little misty-eyed, you’ve got a harder heart than me. This song gets me, has always got me.

Produced by Ron Richards and recorded at Abbey Road in 1969, He Ain’t Heavy has an of-its-time mix, with of-its-time wide stereo panning. The drums are out hard right, the piano’s hard left and the bass is soft left. Listen to the song with the right channel only and you’ll be able to hear just the vocal, strings, harmonies, drums and a little bit of bass. It’s a really instructive way to hear the track’s most compelling elements, as well as Elliott’s little stumble at around 1.40 – a neat reminder that a drum track doesn’t have to be perfect to be a perfect drum track.

Bobby elliott hollies
The Hollies, c.1968 (Bobby Elliott w/hat)

Some of my recent work:

The White Album – The Beatles

Yesterday evening I caught up with my friend Yo Zushi on the phone. As usual, we went through a bunch of subjects: jazz harmony, songwriting processes, logistical stuff related to this. But the bit of the conversation that got me thinking the most was about the creepy atmosphere of certain late sixties’ artists, particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We talked about the White Album and discussed that thorny old issue: would it have been better as a single record?

For me, the answer’s no. There are, to be sure, a lot of albums that are simply too long, that could have done with a few songs being removed and the remaining edited somewhat to trim their running times. The bloat of the late CD era (roughly c.1998 to c.2005) is a well documented phenomenon, caused by the slow realisation that the technical deficiencies of vinyl no longer applied and so running times didn’t need to be kept to around 22 minutes a side. People stopped making albums as if the delivery medium would be the LP, and simply filled the CDs up. Probably most music fans can think of a bunch of albums from that era that just feel bloated and distended, particularly hip-hop/R&B fans; Yo and I spoke particularly about R.E.M.’s Up, which we both agree is their final interesting album, with a bunch of strong, atmospheric, slightly loungey songs that did something that was new for them, and was a brave response to Bill Berry’s departure. At 65 minutes, though, it’s too much of a slog to sit through in one sitting without the attention wandering. I’d excise Lotus and Sad Professor and would be happy to have had shorter versions of most of the remaining; Airportman, Daysleeper and At My Most Beautiful are fine at the lengths they are, but why on earth is Diminished six minutes long?

Then the White Album question. Yo’s in the camp that would prefer a single-album version. I’m not. When we went through out preferred tracklistings, I concluded that I could make a case for removing 11 of out of 30 tracks, but that the record would then not have worked as a single LP in the vinyl age (it would still have been too long), and that a lot of the context that make the great songs great would be missing. To misquote Greil Marcus on Electric Ladyland, the White Album is a mess, but it’s a sprawling, fascinating mess. To take away The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (and I understand why many want to) may make the record ‘better’, but at the expense of changing what it is, its character, its shifts in mood, which combine to create one very singular mood.

The interest in listening to the White Album derives from how those songs play with each other, how McCartney’s raucous Birthday is succeeded by Lennon’s despairing (or faux-despairing) gutbucket Yer Blues, which in turn gives away to McCartney’s solo acoustic Mother Nature’s Son, before being unceremoniously followed by Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, with its frantic bell and babbling voices. The White Album may not be the finest demonstration of songcraft in the Beatles’ career, but it showed how expertly they constructed songs into albums.

The White Album has so many facets to it that it prompts debates between fans as to what its strongest elements are. Yo is a fan of Lennon’s acoustic fingerpicking songs, written during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh: Dear Prudence and Julia. Both songs have pretty big reputations, Prudence’s at least partly based on the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover. I don’t care that much for either of them. The slippery, elusive Lennon of Happiness is a Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and Cry Baby Cry interests me far more. Similarly, of McCartney’s rock songs only Back in the USSR stands up as a composition, and it’s hampered by the author’s ham-fisted drum track (recorded while Ringo was absent, having temporarily quit band and session). McCartney’s acoustic songs, on the other hand — Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, I Will, Martha My Dear — are all beautiful little miniatures, with all of his talent for expressive, expansive melody intact. Blackbird may be a weighty metaphor, and Martha My Dear may start out being about a sheepdog and end up being about nothing at all, but all these songs share a lightness of touch that’s completely disarming. (Junk, which appeared on McCartney’s first solo album, was demoed at this time too, and is almost impossibly lovely. I wish it had made the cut).

Which leaves George Harrison to encapsulate the White Album issue. He has four songs on the record, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. He never wrote anything better than the hushed, devotional Long Long Long; he never wrote anything worse than Piggies, which is without a single redeeming feature. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is ponderous, and hampered by El Clappo’s deep-as-a-puddle ‘blues’ guitar, but it succeeds on the strength of its chorus, and certain live versions down the years have caught fire and shown the song’s underlying robustness; Savoy Truffle (about, rather than featuring, Eric Clapton) would be the worst entry in his Beatles songbook if Piggies hadn’t got there first. Played four: won two (one by a whisker); lost two, ignominiously.

Ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with the White Album. In the iPod playlist era, with any amount of alternate versions and demos available, we can all create our own favoured White Album (or Smile, or whatever), but I can’t believe any other tracklisting could create the fragile spell the unedited White Album weaves over the course of 94 minutes. And if the concluding trio of Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9 and Good Night don’t leave you feeling a wordless, inexpressible panic and leave you looking over your shoulder into the shadows in the corner of the room, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

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You know who these people are and which one’s which, don’t you? Good.