Tag Archives: acoustic guitar

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

beast epic
*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic. A very talented mimic, to be sure, but self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

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Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

Image result for bert jansch it don't bother me
Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Happenings

Hi everyone.

One of my many projects at the moment is kicking the songs I’ve been working on into finished shape and determining the tracklisting for the album I’ve been trying to make over the last couple of years.

I’ve finally determined a pool of 15 songs, which I’m now trying to cut down to a final 10, with the others to be used as B-sides for singles or EP tracks. It’s a slow process for me as I’ve never done an actual physical release before, and want to take the time to get it right, and I was inspired to really take the time to do it well after seeing how well my friend James McKean’s record No Peace for the Wicked, came out: it’s brilliantly sequenced, and the artwork is also amazing.

In the meantime, I continue to write, and help Melanie and Yo bring their own projects (a second EP and a new album respectively) to completion.

On Sunday 21 August I’ll be playing solo at The Gladstone Arms in Borough, London (probably my favourite venue in the city, so I’m thrilled about finally doing a solo show there), and on Sunday 18 September I’ll be playing the Acoustic Folk Highway night at the Harrison near King’s Cross.

So there’s lots going on as ever. If you’re interested in hearing some of the completed mixes for the album, you can find them in the embedded Soundcloud player below:

Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

Automatic

*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.

 

Twice the strings, twice the fun

I’ve had my Seagull S12 since 2001. No guitar I own has put in more hard yards for me. It was my main acoustic guitar in both the bands I was in between 2006 and 2011, so it went to every rehearsal and every gig, it got tuned and retuned endlessly, it got dropped, dinged, scratched and beaten up, and I went through more high Gs than you can count. It’s a pretty great-sounding instrument and, by the standard of 12 strings, pretty easy to play too. The neck is wide enough that you can actually use it for fingerpicking, but not so wide that barre chords are problematic, and the action is reasonable too. You can’t really ask much more from an acoustic guitar

I should play it more really – these days I pretty much only get it out for recording. I’m still, years after I started doing it with my old band (the Fourth Wall, god rest them), really into the tonal effects you can get by overdubbing acoustic guitars, especially 12 strings against 6 strings.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you can do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are from each other or – worse – the snare drum, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open-tuned part can be super fun. Imagine using a C-based tuning like CGCFGC on a 12-string guitar in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

Coolest of all, but oh so difficult to do even vaguely well, is blending 12- and 6-string fingerpicking parts. I think that’s what Lindsey Buckingham’s up to on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, the first album the band made with Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). The part on the right sounds like it’s got octave notes in it, but it might be some clever psychoacoustic trick. However he did it, it’s super-cool, and it definitely sounds like a 12 string is in there.

 

Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil