Tag Archives: alt.rock

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

We’ve talked before how the sonic trends we identify as belonging to a given decade don’t magically spring into being fully formed when the ball drops and a year ending in 0 begins. Forgive me for a lengthy self-quote, but this extract from an old post summarises my argument better than I can manage right now:

[Boz Scagg’s] Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before), came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town at the Record Plant New York and Damn the Torpedoes at Sound City in Van Nuys, and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure, Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums. That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave.

Aimee Mann’s solo debut, Whatever, sounds like it wants to be a 1990s album, but can’t quite let go of the eighties. There are some really strong songs on it – Mr Harris and 50 Years After the Fair are as good as anything she did before or has done subsequently. But Bob Clearmountain’s mix* still has some of his 1980s big-room sheeniness, which was old hat in 1993, and some of the instrument sounds are a little unfortunate, particularly on album opener I Should Have Known, which aims for Posies-like power-pop heaviness but lacks the gargantuan drum sound the Posies had, and has pretty wimpy guitar sounds, too.**

Don’t let me put you off investigating Whatever, though; these are nitpicks. If you’ve ever liked any of Mann’s work, Mr Harris, 50 Years After the Fair, Stupid Thing, Say Anything, Could’ve Been Anyone and I Should Have Known are songs you should hear.

I’m With Stupid (1995) is an intriguing mess of an album, her least coherent, but still one I’d recommend over some of her later more streamlined and tidier records. The obvious things first – this is the album where Mann got comfortable with singing mostly in the middle and lower reaches of her register, it makes extensive use of drum loops, and it’s also her most Anglophile record: Mann lived in London in 1995, during which time some of these songs must have been written. She became friendly with the late Tony Banks MP, cowrote Sugarcoated with Bernard Butler (it’s about his departure from Suede) and reportedly penned You Could Make a Killing about Noel Gallagher.

Like her next two records,  I’m With Stupid features numerous collaborators: co-writers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers and mixers. But unlike the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No.2, I’m With Stupid is a little weakened by its variance in texture, feel, mood and sonic topography. Unlike Whatever, it definitely sounds like a ’90s record. Unfortunately it sounds like two or three different ’90s records, with the feel and textures changing from song to song, despite being mixed mainly by one engineer: Jack Joseph Puig.

Quality-wise, it’s a little up and down, too. Long Shot and Choice in the Matter begin the record well, but most of its rock moments veer between forgettable and regrettable; it’s tough to think of a less essential song in her discography than Superball, and All Over Now and Frankenstein are similarly nondescript. I’m With Stupid‘s best moments, largely, are its quietest moments: Amateur is one of Mann’s finest songs, and You’re With Stupid Now and You Could Make a Killing are both first-rank, too.

Next time: Mann hits Hollywood and gets Lost in in Space

*Quite why Whatever sounds the way it does is something of a mystery. Clearmountain’s work on, say, Crowded House’s Together Alone in the same year was stellar, and pretty much bang up to date sonically.

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.

 

Belly @ Kentish Town Forum, 21/07/16

I don’t write about every gig I go to, but of course I had to post some thoughts about this one…

Belly were one of my favourites when I was a teenager. I loved both of the band’s albums, Star and King, and listened to them hundreds of times. I loved Star‘s mix of beguiling tunes and unsettling fairy-tale imagery, and King‘s intimate, band-in-a-room vibe. But as I didn’t hear either record until after Belly had already broken up, I didn’t have a chance to see the band play live – until they announced a reunion tour earlier this year. I picked up my tickets pretty quickly.

Belly’s slim canon was something of a blessing in the context of a reunion show. The band played for two hours, with a short intermission and no support act (hallelujah), so there was nothing I really wanted to hear that they didn’t play, and no key text (other than maybe Angel from Star and the title track from King) that was omitted. The band, laughing and joking between songs, were clearly having a blast and thankful for an audience that still cared twenty years down the line.

They’re still a tiny bit rusty (they played a couple of warm-up shows in Newport, RI, then came over here for the British leg of the tour; by the time they go back to the States, I expect they’ll be up to full speed), but they played really well. White Belly from Star (much underrated song, that – there’s a whole novel in the lines “Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco; worked my way back in a hallway in LA”) was an early highlight, Red got the crowd jumping (time signature changes confounding most of them), Gepetto was a joyful sing-along and Full Moon, Empty Heart showed Tanya Donelly’s voice is no less elastic than it was in her twenties.

To my delight, personal favourites The Bees and Thief (both King era, the latter a B-side) both got an airing. The Bees (played halfway through their first set) was a bit of a moment for me, actually; it was during the first verse that it really came home that I was watching a favourite band play a favourite song for the first and probably only time. If I had to pick one stand-out moment, that’d be it – even more so than the obvious live favourites and singles (Dusted, Feed the Tree, Gepetto, Now They’ll Sleep, Super Connected, Seal My Fate). Pat, the old friend from high school who lent me his copy of Star all those years ago, felt similarly about eerie gothic melodrama Low Red Moon, one of the centrepiece tracks from Star, which the band played halfway through their second set and absolutely nailed. Chis Gorman on drums was on particularly commanding form on that one, holding the band to a perfect tempo and giving his snare drum an authoritative pounding; at the song’s end, Donelly turned to him and made some sort of gesture of appreciation. It was typical of the warm spirit of the whole evening.

It wouldn’t be a Songs from so Deep gig review if I didn’t mention the sound mix. It was, I guess, adequate. The drums were solid and powerful, partly due to Chris Gorman, who as I said gave his drums a determined thumping throughout, but his brother Tom Gorman’s guitar didn’t fare so well – it was a murky and barely discernable presence for the entire first set, and an uncontrolled feedbacky presence for the second (he was playing a Gretsch semi-acoustic and every time he stopped playing, it started to feed back). It was far from the worst live mix I’ve ever heard, but I was very worried during the opening track (Puberty), as only the drums and Donelly’s vocal were audible. Thankfully, things improved a bit for the rest of the first set, and some tweaks seemed to be made during intermission, so the sound didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the gig.

With reformed bands, I try to go in with no expectations. It’s worked pretty well this last couple of years, where many of the gigs I’ve seen have been forty- or fifty-something muscians getting the old band back together and playing their old songs. But still, I’d have been disappointed if the show had been only OK. It was much, much better than that.

78Well-preserved Belly

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Beeds can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and its obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

belly stephen dirado

Contractually obligated Donelly-related picture of Belly on the beach (Nassau, 1995)

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive military snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be fended off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of Low. 50 Foot Wave were all frantic energy and scabrous attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating, and fans of the light and shade on Muses records (let alone those her solo debut classic Hips & Makers) wouldn’t have found much to console them. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was difficult – unvaryingly loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

She Said – Longpigs

In my office, the nineties never ended. The radio’s on almost all of the time. Most of the time it’s tuned to a certain station that plays mainly rock music from the last twenty-five years, with a sprinkling of other, non-rock, things, which always sound very strange by comparison – Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax sounds positively avant-garde in the context of endless Stereophonics and U2 and Kings of Leon.

Most of this rock music is, in the end, polite. Even the fiercer-sounding bands (Nirvana, say) are somewhat neutered in this context; the huge wall of guitars of the majority of nineties rock being less likely to jump out of the speakers as something spindly and angular, the music ends up sounding somewhat samey.

But now and again a song does poke its head up and demand to be heard by virtue of sounding different. Such a song, which I’ve only heard a couple of times on this station since starting in this job four months ago but which has been a delight on each occasion, is She Said by the Longpigs.

The ambition held by Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt in 1996, it seemed, was to have a band that sounded as much as possible like Radiohead, with whom the Longpigs toured in 1995. In the context of their later work, Radiohead’s The Bends sounds like a conventional mid-nineties rock record, but it’s worth remembering that no one else at the time was ploughing quite the same furrow as them. Yes, you could hear debts to R.E.M., to U2, to Nirvana, to Jeff Buckley, and going back further, to Magazine* and to David Bowie, but it added up to a sound that was the band’s own, which is why it was notable how much the Longpigs’ sound owed to The Bends. Vocals that jumped suddenly up an octave? Yep. Squalling, trebly Fenders? A general sense of over-caffeinated nerviness? Songs that were anthemic, bombastic and over the top, but still managed to sound genuine and personal? Yep, yep and yep.

But despite being somewhat derivative, Longpigs made a couple of great records in their short career, and She Said is the pick of them. What’s so great about it is its lack of restraint. Hunt, sounding more than a little unhinged,  yelps and screams his way through the song while the band clatter along behind him, drummer Dee Boyle’s performance being particularly inspired. I love his playing during the bridge, just before the stop, and in the last chorus and coda – it’s not showy, it’s not spectacular, but he sounds fully inside the song and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. With the success of Travis and Coldplay, this kind of messy abandon would disappear from British indie rock within a few years.

The second Longpigs album flopped, and flopped hard. Nothing more was heard of them as a band. But the cultural reach of the band’s members is surprisingly long. Of course, the most famous former Longpig is guitarist Richard Hawley, who went on to a spell in Pulp (replacing Russell Senior), before releasing records under his own name, which are pleasant, if sometimes in need of a dose of whatever Crispin Hunt was taking in 1996. Bass player Simon Stafford has played with Joe Strummer and Jarvis Cocker. But Hunt has perhaps the most intriguing post-Longpigs story: he’s now a behind-the-scenes guy, co-writing with or producing Jake Bugg, Florence + the Machine, Newton Faulkner, Cee-Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Natalie Imbruglia, Fighting with Wire, Ron Sexsmith, even Mark Owen.

Image

*Longpigs could, however, claim their own post-punk influences that didn’t come through Radiohead: drummer Dee Boyle was a former member of Cabaret Voltaire