Tag Archives: arrangement

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

The Lookout – Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs’s new album, The Lookout, begins with a run of four very strong tracks. Opener Maragret Sands, which features backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is built on Veirs’s strummed nylon-string guitar, with delicate touches of piano and lead guitar. A minute and a half in, though, the song takes a more menacing turn during an instrumental passage underpinned by a low, droney synth (I think it’s a synth, anyway). This subtly experimental sonic approach extends into single Everybody Needs You, where Veirs’s voice is multitracked, modulated and processed with echo. Tucker Martine (Veirs’s husband and long-term producer) surrounds her with the pingy delays of analogue keyboards and snatches of electric and acoustic guitar, topped off with a descending violin phrase that answers the chorus melody. Earlier Viers songs have played with these textures, but I’ve not heard anything from her that jumps so confidently into this territory.

More traditionally Veirsian, if perhaps a little more 1970s country rock than usual, is the lovely Seven Falls. This time, the arrangement is based around pedal steel and electric guitar arpeggios (it’s a little R.E.M., actually), showing how adaptable Veirs and Martine’s approach is – each song is given just what it needs and no more, by players who have been cast for their ability to play the right thing for the song. Seven Falls itself is probably my favourite on the record, not least for the indelible line “how can a child of the sun be so cold?” The matching of a resonant, evocative phrase to a melody line that seems to amplify the lyric’s meaning, as if the phrase always existed within the tune and was just waiting to be discovered, hasn’t always been a feature of Veirs’s writing, and the increasing prevalence of this mode of writing suggests (to me, anyway) a deepening and maturing of her perspective. Writing lyrics that are simple and relatable but simultaneously acute and penetrating isn’t something many songwriters can pull off, so this recent turn in Veirs’s work is impressive.

The next track is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Mountains of the Moon, a somewhat fey piece of acoustic psychedelia from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. It seems Veirs and Martine are both long-term Deadheads: they realised only recently that they were at the same concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, 13 years before they met, which would have been during the late 1980s, when the Dead were at their late commercial peak after the success of Touch of Grey. Rather touchingly, Veirs learned to play the song as a Father’s Day present for Martine, and she does a more than creditable job with it.

The first side ends with the brief, delicately beautiful Heavy Petals. This song feels like something Veirs could have done at any point in her career, but she’d not have sung it this convincingly; for me, The Lookout is the first Laura Veirs record where her voice, previously somewhat monotone and inexpressive, is never a barrier to enjoying the songs.

The title track begins the slightly spottier side two. A stompy, cowboy-chord track, it’s enlivened by a string arrangement that once again has that odd Tucker Martine string sound. How is he doing that? Recording the violins and violas using DIs? Running the acoustic signal through compressors and overdriving them? It’s a completely signature sound that I’ve never heard any other producer create, but it’s all over Veirs’s work from the last few albums (including case/lang/veirs).

The Canyon is a song of two halves: a meandering acoustic verse, performed on what sounds like an open-tuned and amplified nylon-string guitar, that is succeeded by an atmospheric instrumental section with an overdriven guitar riff. A cut-and-shut job like this shouldn’t really work, but actually it’s great – one of my favourites on the album. The waltz-time Lightning Rod compares its subject to Ben Franklin, “drawing fire from the clouds”. It’s another striking image. When it Grows Darkest features what sounds like electric sitar as well as prominent bass guitar and Veirs’s picked nylon-string to create a deceptive, very cool 5/4 groove. Threading a compelling melody over an odd metre, ignoring the bar lines and letting the melody just flow, is really hard; the temptation is to observe the bar lines so rigidly that the melody sounds stilted. When it Grows Darkest sounds very natural, and I didn’t work out that the song was in 5/4 until I’d heard it a few times already.

The Lookout has only a few missteps – and obviously these are just my personal issues with the record, anyway. I’m one of those who think Sufjan Stevens shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone under any circumstances, so his unpleasantly strained, whispery falsetto is a major blot on Watch Fire, which would have been more successful performed by almost any other singer. The Meadow’s sparse piano accompaniment doesn’t really hold my interest, although the song itself isn’t a dead loss. I find the overdriven electric guitar tone of Zozobra distracting and a little overbearing in the context of the song. It tends to fight with the ambient feedback part in the background, which is largely happening in the same octave and carries a lot of the same frequency content as the lead guitar. The result of the two clashing parts is messy, and not in a way that I think Viers and Martine indended.

These are minor reservations, though. Overall, I’d still say this is the best Laura Veirs record I’ve heard (I should say, I’ve not heard all of them – nothing before 2004’s Carbon Glacier). With her lyrics getting more acute and deeper with each record and her voice becoming a more expressive and flexible instrument, there’s really no reason to assume the next album won’t be better still.

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 3: Across the Great Divide by The Band

It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.

The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).

How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.

Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*

To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.

danko-ing

Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.

He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.

The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:

Danko

There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.

As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.

*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

Whiskeytown+colour
Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.

Fade Out

No, this isn’t a cryptic way of announcing that the blog is going to end. I’m not stopping. Ever. In fact, things are about to get exciting round here. I want to talk about actual fade outs.

I miss the fade out. Last night I was walking home listening to Jon Auer’s quite wonderful You Used to Drive Me Around, enjoying the long, slow fade, and thinking about how little of the newer music I listen to actually makes use of the technique. Then I started wondering if anyone else had noticed.

Turns out I’m not imagining this, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Actually, people who pay more regular attention to proper pop music than I do noticed years ago:

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro Blurred Lines. Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now…, Slate (2014)

The reasons for the decline of the fade out are fairly obvious and don’t take a lot of unpacking. Artists are terrified of fans skipping their song and moving on to the next, so they need to stuff them full of anticipation or incident until the moment they stop, so no one reaches for the skip button. A trend towards songs that build continually until they stop is the inevitable result.

For years, I thought fade outs were a “pop” technique, a cheap trick that my lo-fi, alt. and indie-rocking heroes were better than. If you can’t work out a way to bring your arrangement to a proper close that’s reproducable in real time on stage, then what kind of musician are you? And for sure, anyone who’s seen that famous live clip of the Eagles doing Hotel California at the Capital Center that ends with them just suddenly all hitting one chord four times and stopping – cha-cha-cha-cha – will attest to the difficulty of coming up with a “live” ending to a song that faded out in its studio recording. Whether you like the song or not, you’d have to admit that the way the Eagles closed out Hotel California live was lame as hell and undercut the whole thing.

But of course, there are no hard and fasts here. The fade out on Hotel California is effective, and on the whole it was worth ending the studio recording that way, even with the knowledge that they’d not be able to do it the same way live, rather than compromising the recording by ending it in a way that they could be replicated. And when you start thinking about some of the truly great fade outs – Sara by Fleetwood Mac, for example, which ends with Stevie Nicks calling out into infinity about a “heartbeat that never really died” while an ocean of Lindsey Buckingham’s multitracked vocals and guitars swirl around her – it becomes clear how effective an emotional tool the fade out can be.

You Used to Drive Me Around works the same way. The sort of situation that Jon Auer is singing about is not an easily resolvable one, so the long fade out isn’t just an excuse for Mike Musburger to play some more expansive drum fills; it’s actually wholly appropriate to the subject and the mood of the song itself.

I hope that some enterprising artist or other starts championing the fade out and it catches on again with this generation of musicians. They’re missing out on a potentially really powerful technique through letting it fall into disuse.

 

 

 

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Aimee.jpg
Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”