Tag Archives: alternate tunings

Alternate tunings

I’m in recording mode at the moment, and thinking a lot about the use of acoustic guitar in recording, which is what prompted the post about Nashville tuning the other day.

Altered tunings are where I live as a guitarist. For the first few years after I discovered them, they felt like my secret thing. I became serious about songwriting and extending my range as an acoustic guitarist in the late 1990s. At the time, the biggest band in the UK was still Oasis, and Noel Gallagher took a decidedly meat-and-potatoes approach to the acoustic guitar: strummed open chords and barre chords all the way. Consequently, that’s how kids of my generation learned to play acoustic guitar. Gallagher and Cobain between them offered up 90% of what 90% of young guitarists wanted to know.

While some more adventurous electric players went down the prog/metal route to learn about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and so on, young guitarists looking to learn about fingerpicking and alternate tunings had a harder time of it finding teaching materials. I can’t even remember where I first learned about using open tunings for fingerpicking rather than slide, but I do remember that the first songs I wrote in non-standard were in open G, and it would have coincided roughly with picking up my first Nick Drake album in 1999 or early 2000 (it was before I went to university in September 2000, I know that much). After finding alternate tunings, I felt a sort of ownership of them; easy, when no one else I knew used them, and few songwriters I ran into at open-mike nights did either.

But of course, it wasn’t just me learning about this stuff. For me, and I suspect many others at the same time, Nick Drake opened up a new world of tunings. The increased profile of his music that came as a result of the Volkswagen ad that used Pink Moon meant that he was now being discussed by mainstream guitar magazines (again, this was still an analogue world – in 1999, only 13% of UK households had an internet connection).

One of the first things I did when I got online was go to OLGA (the On-Line Guitar Archive – again, the hyphen in “online” tells you how long ago this was) and find a list of Nick Drake tunings and tabs (I was more interested in the tunings than the transcriptions themselves), which is where I came across tunings like CGCFCE.

Any Drake-loving guitarist will probably recognise that as the tuning he used on Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, Hazey Janes I and II, and Introduction, the instrumental that begins Bryter Layter.

It’s a lovely tuning for the keys of C, Am, Dm and F, and isn’t really very adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as is practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.* The tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on – an approach that works equally well strumed or picked. In this tuning, those two shapes will give you a D minor and F respectively.

D minor, you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! And no F! But that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create wide, harmonically extended chords that would be near-impossible to play in standard, and have fingers left over for melodic ornamentations. Purists who insist that no chord you can’t play fretted in standard tuning is worth playing (and that a capo is cheating, and similar nonsense) are dead wrong about this. And fortunately this kind of idiocy is rarer now than it was when I was 18, but you used to hear from a lot of people that open/altered tunings were Not Proper Guitar Playing.

Anyhow, in the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears 222000 as a more-or-less minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, the ear hears D9sus4, as no minor third is present, but interprets it the chord as minor rather than major – closer to Dm9add13. The beautiful expressiveness of these kinds of chords – richly sonorous and full of harmonic ambiguity – is what made Drake’s guitar playing so influential, and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

I picked up other tunings along the way, but these days I pretty much only use two, other than standard, to write in: DADEAD (or it’s step-down equivalent CGCFGC), which I learned as a variation of DADGAD, and CGDEAD, which I came to via open G, first tuning down the lowest string C to extend the bottom end, then tuning down the G string to E to facilitate minor keys and suspended seconds. Nowadays, CGDEAD is my de facto standard tuning if I’m playing acoustic, and I’ve found (and used) improbable voicings for chords that would make a classical guitar teacher wince, using my left thumb to fret as many as three strings.

Tunings are a rabbit hole for many a guitarist. I got pleasantly lost down mine nearly 20 years ago. I’m still down here, still burrowing.

011 crop
Don’t look now, classical guitar teachers: I’m coming to your town with chord shapes like this! [insert evil-laugh sound effect. Photo from my recent duo show with Mel at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent]

*Some sources list the tuning as DADGDF# (with the capo two frets lower, where used) but I find the idea that Drake routinely tuned his B string up to D and E to F# a little improbable.

High-strung fun; Nashville tuning

You’ve got to hand it to the guys and gals on Music Row. They know how to make records. They certainly know a thing or two about recording acoustic guitars. High-string tuning is so closely associated with the capital of country music that a majority of guitarists refer to it as Nashville tuning.

To reassure those of you who aren’t really down with endlessly retuning your instrument, Nashville tuning isn’t really an alternate tuning, per se; it’s more about the strings you actually put on your guitar. The tuning involves taking the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the E, A, D and G) and putting them on a regular six-string guitar. That gives you a guitar with only one wound string (the low E), and means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings respectively, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. D’Addario and Martin both sell high-strung/Nashville tuning sets (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too*. All you need to do is maybe adjust the neck on your guitar. I have a spare acoustic I often Nasvhille-ise; saves a lot of hassle when, as now, I’m looking to add a few jangly touches to a nearly complete recording..

So what can you do with it?

I’m very fond of the massed – but unobtrusive – overdubbing of acoustic guitars. I love the tonal colours you get by blending tracks of different guitars, different tuned, and so routinely track two to four acoustic rhythm tracks of various types, with the aim of blending them together so it sounds essentially like one instrument, but with a richer sonority and wider frequency response than you get from a single track of one acoustic guitar.

Sometimes they’re all in standard tuning but I use a capo to play each track with different chord shapes (e.g. a song in E is played with open E shapes, and in D with a capo on the second fret, or C with a capo on the fourth). Sometimes it’s a mix of standard- and alternate-tuned performances. Sometimes it’s a mix of six- and 12-string guitars, and sometimes a Nashville-tuned part is in there, too. Adds a lovely shimmering brightness to a bed of acoustics.

But that’s just the easy stuff. If you don’t have access to a 12-string guitar but you want the effect on a recording, you can also try tightly doubling a six-string part in Nashville tuning to create an effect that’s very like a 12-string. Experiment with panning the parts  left and right in stereo as well as together down the middle for different effects.

If you’re really into making work for yourself, try doubling a fingerpicking part. If done perfectly and panned down the middle, voila, instant 12-string effect. And again, you can pan the parts off on opposite sides for a striking stereo effect.

To hear examples of Nasvhille tuning used outside a country context, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer-guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think). Or for something a bit more mainstream, try Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. There’s a high-pitched fingerpicked part panned centrally, fairly low in the mix but audible between Stevie Nicks’s vocal lines. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s a 12-string or a Nashville-tuned six string, but the more I hear it, the more the thin-ness and clarity of the part suggests Nashville tuning to me.

nashville tuning
My old spare acoustic, Nashvillized

*When I bought a set of Martin 10-25s the other day, the dude in the shop told me he hasn’t been able to reorder them and thinks that Martin may have discontinued them. Nonetheless, you can still buy single strings of the appropriate gauge: to replicate the Martin set, you’d need the following gauges: E: 0.025; A: 0.017; D: 0.013; G: 0.008; B: 0.012; E: 0.010.

How Do You Stop – Joni Mitchell

My apologies for taking so long to post anything new. I had this almost complete last weekend, then, attempting to read the draft on my phone, I managed to overwrite it with nothing, and couldn’t work out how to revert to the saved draft. So with heavy heart I started again. Guh. There’s nothing like doing the same work twice.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of England’s current Test series against India is the form of opening batsman Alastair Cook. Now a 33-year-old veteran, Cook has been struggling for runs this year and the aura of impregnability he had at the crease seven or eight years ago is long gone.

Cook, the national side’s former captain, is the highest run scorer and leading century-maker in the history of English cricket. By really quite a long way. At his peak, he was concentration, patience and self-discipline incarnate. A back-foot player, he knew his strength lay on the leg side and so he simply left anything outside off stump alone. Frustrated by his unwillingness to take risks on the off side, bowlers who erred too much to leg in their attempts to force him to play a shot would simply find themselves cut away for four. As his technique and footwork were then sound enough that he could play forward defensively when necessary, eventually all bowlers became frustrated and bowled too straight to him. He was remorseless and indefatigable. The sheer length of his biggest innings beggars belief: it wasn’t his highest score, but in 2011, he scored 263 against Pakistan off 528 balls in 856 minutes. I’ll leave you to work out how many hours of batting that is.

Many would argue that his late-career struggles are simply a result of the sheer amount of batting he’s done for England over the last 12 years or so. That, quite simply, he’s gone to the well so many times that there’s nothing left down there. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would love to see him score just one more century before this series against India ends. He’s never been as beloved by English fans as he should have been, not being a swashbuckling sort of player, but surely that hundred if it came would be the most warmly received of his career – one last big success to savour before he’s gone for ever, as he surely soon will be.

Why do I mention all this?

Because I’ve been when listening to and thinking about Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, and it strikes me that the way it was received in the media and by many of her fans was somewhat similar to the way in which that notional final test hundred by Alastair Cook would be.

Joni Mitchell was by then in her fifties, and seemed to have come to some kind of accommodation with the changing of fashions and the passing of the era in which she was a mainstream figure. Her synth-heavy mid-eighties records, Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, had alienated old fans without attracting new ones, but even more so than 1991’s Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo was the sound of Mitchell simply being who she was in 1994. Most reviewers praised the album generously, glad to hear the veteran Joni Mitchell being recognisably Joni Mitchell again, and doing it rather well.

It being the 1990s and not the 1970s, there were some hurdles that simply couldn’t be gotten over. Her voice had already coarsened from smoking, leaving her unable to hit high notes without belting and neccessitating ever-deeper guitar tunings – Last Chance Lost sees her tune down to Bb, and even then there’s an unattractive hollowness to her vocal timbre in that key, a sort of paperiness that’s particularly noticeable on headphones.

Then there were the rods she made for her own back. Nobody forced her to use the sterile guitar sound that features on around half the tracks (it’s too early for it to be her Parker-Fly-plus-Roland-VG8-guitar-synth set-up, so I assume it’s just a processed, DI’d acoustic), and we have to assume she signed off on Larry Klein’s clinical bass guitar sound: active bass, tight strings, hyped EQ, loads of low B string – a “hi-fi” sound that was big in the early nineties on high-budget singer-songwriter records by people like James Taylor and Sting. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t like that sound, but urgh, I really don’t. The whole mix is soggy with reverb, too – a slightly baffling choice in 1994 when mainstream rock mixes tended to be quite dry.

Sounds are one thing, though. Songs another. And on Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell had a pretty good strike rate. Opener Sunny Sunday (decorated with Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Jim Keltner’s drums), David Crosby co-write Yvette in English, the title track, Borderline and The Magdalene Laundries are all successes, and all stand comparison to her work at her peak. Yet the song that I come back to most often, and that for me contains the biggest emotional charge, is not a Mitchell originall.

In 1986, James Brown released an album called Gravity. The previous year, Brown had had a hit with Living in America (as featured in Rocky IV), a song written for him by Dan Hartman* and Charlie Midnight. Whether because of Brown’s well-documented troubles with drugs (PCP and cocaine) in the mid-1980s or simply because Hartman and Midnight seemed to Brown’s label to have a winning formula is realms-of-conjecture stuff, but for whatever reason, Gravity was entirely composed of Hartman-and-Midnight co-writes.

Among them was a ballad called How Do You Stop. Stiff and clogged with synths, and with a vocal performance by the great man that could barely be called perfunctory, How Do You Stop was still the album’s standout song, and Mitchell evidently heard in it a diamond in the rough. She recorded her own version for Turbulent Indigo, replacing the stodgy synths with her strummed acoustic, Larry Klein’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and electric guitars by Steuart Smith and Michael Landau. Pitched in a key that suited her new range, How Do You Stop was probably the finest vocal performance from Mitchell on Turbulent Indigo, but guest singer Seal (a publically acknowledged Joni fan), did her one better. His tightly harmonised interjections in the choruses function as the song’s main hook, and his ad libs in the final chorus – a wordless falsetto cry and a descending moan of “too late” – are the single most goosebump-inducing moment on the album. At the peak of his own commercial success, he nevertheless agreed to appear in a video for the song.

Its success at least partly driven by How Do You Stop, Turbulent Indigo was received by its audience as that notional final Alastair Cook century would be. It even won a Grammy for Best Pop Album – ludicrously over-generous for an album that’s in the bottom half of its creator’s list of accomplishments, but indicative of how we love to see veterans come back and score one last big success.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

* Dan Hartman of I Can Dream About You, Instant Replay and Relight My Fire fame. Dan Hartman who was in the Edgar Winter Band and played bass guitar on Frankenstein. I like Dan Hartman.

 

 

 

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.

 

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

Lou Barlow @ the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen – review

If you’re wondering why I’m taking time out of our annual contemplation of British folk rock to discuss the new album by king of lo-fi acoustic balladry Lou Barlow, it’s because it’s been a very Barlow-focused few days. Last Friday I picked up the new record in advance of seeing him play at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen on Monday night.

A good call as he played eight out of its nine songs.

It was a low-key and intimate show in front of a couple of hundred people, with a solo Barlow playing acoustic guitar, a baritone (?) ukulele and his vintage synth, on which he played some wobbly solos, using a loop pedal to keep the guitar/uke accompaniment going.

This was the type of Lou Barlow show I’ve always wanted to see. When I caught the New Folk Implosion playing at Reading 2001, they were great but they stuck to songs from the Dare to Be Surprised and The New Folk Implosion eras, the material from One Part Lullaby being untranslatable to the live stage by a three-piece band. Sebadoh at Dingwalls last year were good but scrappy, long on their more aggressive material and short on the mid-tempo love songs that has been their strongest suit from Bubble & Scrape onwards. It’s arguable, though, that Barlow’s greatest contribution to pop music is all those four-track acoustic records he’s made (Lou B’s Wasted Pieces, Free Sentridoh: Songs from Loobiecore, Most of the Worst & Some of the Rest, The Original Losing Losers, Winning Losers, et al.) – just banging it out quickly and cheaply and meaning it: a parallel, acoustic path to his early post-hardcore heroes Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. Barlow has always been one of the most plain-spoken of songwriters, and at times his earnestness has been hopelessly out of step with trends in mainstream pop and indie, but it sure seems refreshing to me right now.

His gig on Monday night was in that spirit. There was no support band. He set up his own stuff, manned his merch table before and after, and wandered on to the stage through the audience, briefly ducked behind the curtain then plonked himself on to his stool, hiding all the time behind his big curly mop (I’m sticking with Jerry Garcia rather than Jeff Lynne as my point of visual comparison, but the consensus appears to be hardening behind 1970s-era Lynne).

He played about 20 songs in his 90 minutes, a mix of “Lou Barlow” songs, three or four Sebadoh songs and a couple of Folk Implosion tunes (including Natural One, accompanied by a hilarious story about singing it at a karaoke bar that he went to with Sleater-Kinney). He’s become a pretty useful guitar player down the years, but he remains endearingly unsure of himself, occasionally fumbling intros and starting again (a recurring between-song riff centred on the idea of the Folk Police finding his fingerpicking technique wanting). His work on the synth and loop pedals was, as I say, wobbly, but Lou is not the right guy to expect technical perfection from.

Highlights for me included C + E, which is my favourite from the new record and embodies pretty much everything I’ve loved about Barlow’s music since I picked up my first Sebadoh album (III, bought second-hand from Gumbi’s in Southend in 1998); Boundaries, which really should have been a Sebadoh song; and Too Pure, which actually is a Sebadoh song, and one of the very finest. But the show was compelling all the way through, and it’s a joy to see a guy who’s been doing this a long time still working at the top of his game. I went with Mel, Yo and Kit. Yo, a long-time fan but someone who’s stayed less engaged over the last decade than me, was pretty much blown away. Mel’s a newcomer to Barlow, only being familiar with the new record and a few songs I’ve put on mixes for her, but she really liked it too.

If he could now make a sequel to One Part Lullaby (my push-comes-to-shove favourite Barlow record: 13 doozies, all brilliantly constructed and arranged) with John and Wally, I’d be the happiest long-time fan in London.

Lou & Justin
l-r Justin Pizzoferrato
and Lou Barlow