Tag Archives: acoustic guitars

Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Pacific Street – Hem (repost)

Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.

I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.

Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.

I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.

Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.

Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.

I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.

That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.

Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.

Image

Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden