Tag Archives: background vocals

Holiday Harmonies Part 7: My Old School – Steely Dan

Steely Dan weren’t a harmony group in the Everly Brothers sense. A few tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill aside, Donald Fagen always sings lead. The other voices are always subservient to the lead, and few songs have sustained two- or three-part harmony sections other than in choruses, though we’re looking today at a song that does. The band members were there for their musical chops rather than their vocals.*

That said, the band’s first line-up had three strong voices in it beside Fagen’s, in drummer Jim Hodder, bassist Walter Becker and kinda-sorta lead singer David Palmer.** Betweem them, those guys are responsible for all the male backing vocals on Can’t Buy a Thrill (including some stratospheric high parts on Dirty Work), so when they bring in (female) session vocalists on Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) and Kings, it has a very different effect.

And achieving different effects was always the thing with Steely Dan. They used harmony vocals in just about every way conceivable, and they cast the parts unerringly, always making the right call on whether it should be a female trio*** or multitracked Michael McDonalds, or covered by the guys in the band.

My Old School is from the second Dan album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Countdown doesn’t enjoy its creators’ favour all that much, but I’m very fond of it. Recorded during breaks from touring, and featuring songs that were written to be played live (and presumably tried out live on stage before they were cut in the studio), it’s the group’s most “rock” album. That it’s heavy on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar playing just seals it; Skunk was always a rougher, noisier player than the clean, precise and more jazz-inflected Denny Dias.

Famously, My Old School is about a drug bust at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, during which Becker, Fagen and Fagen’s girlfriend were arrested, along with some 50 other students. Dismayed that the school was complicit in this, Fagen nursed a grudge for years, even refusing to attend his graduation.

Accordingly, Fagen sings My Old School in a tone of sustained mock outrage, and the harmony voice, whoever it belongs to****, matches it note for note, getting truly querelous at times by going up on the last syllable of the line (“doing what she did be-fore“; “tumbles into the sea“). In the choruses, the backing trio come in and, as so often, the band milk all the humour they can from the incongruity of the soul revue-style vocal arrangement and the lyrical content – “Woah, no,” the singers interject. “Guadalajara won’t do now,” answers Fagen. It’s tremendous fun.

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Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

*And after a few albums, most of the band were regular session players rather than official members anyway.
**David Palmer sings lead on Dirty Work and the amazing Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me). He was brought in on Skunk Baxter’s recommendation because Fagen wasn’t a confident vocalist, particularly on stage. But Fagen’s vocal persona was so crucial to the songs that he was eventually persuaded to handle the job full time and the band asked Palmer to step aside. He went on to write Jazzman with Carole King.
***Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews were Fagen and Becker’s go-to trio, when available. And why wouldn’t you get them on board if you could?
****And who is that harmony singer? I wish I knew for sure. Judging from his vocal contributions to Turn that Heartbeat Over Again it’s very possibly Walter Becker, but it could be the album’s credited male backing singer, Royce Jones. Or it could even be a second track of Fagen, but the vocal sounds less warm and round than 1974-vintage Fagen.

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Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

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Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing

While You Wait for the Others – Grizzly Bear, ft Michael McDonald

Sorry for the lack of updates since New Year’s Day. I did try to write something yesterday but tiredness and lethargy got the better of me. I was unwell over the weekend, and spent rather too much of it feeling sick, or actually being sick, to be able to focus on writing. On the mend now, thankfully!

In 2009, Grizzly Bear released While You Wait for the Others from Veckatimest. The B-side was a second version of the song – the same arrangement, but with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s lead vocals replaced by Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan).

McDonald is the acknowledged harmony-vocal king of the seventies and early eighties and, if you’re into a certain kind of LA studio rock (and I am), his solo debut, If That’s What it Takes, is the ne plus ultra – we’re talking Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Robben Ford, Dean Parks, Tom Scott, Greg Phillanganes, Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross on backing vocals, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, even Edgar Winter on sax. And Steve Lukather, of course. As a guy who lapped up Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman records, and grew up on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad – of course this record hits me right where I live.

Grizzly Bear don’t, really. Something about them puts me off a little. There’s a certain lack of delicacy about their music that I find unappealing; everything is a little bigger, grander and less intimate than I’d like it to be, than it needs to be. I usually find myself impressed by their music, but seldom moved. Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed only to like Michael McDonald ironically, admire the craftsmanship but find the whole thing slightly synthetic and soulless. But no. Not at all. As funny as it was, and as much as it did to direct hipsters’ attention to music from the late seventies and early eighties that wasn’t punk or post-punk, perhaps Yacht Rock did guys like McDonald a disservice, giving them a revival that was even more deaf to the qualities of the music than the big band/swing revival of the late nineties, if such a thing were possible. Watching Yacht Rock, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that the band they liked most out of all those they portrayed was actually Van Halen (‘More Eddie! More Alex! More David! More of that other guy!’).

McDonald’s power as a performer comes from his passionate engagement with music. This is a guy who brings tremendous soul to everything he sings, someone who can locate the emotional nub of a piece of music, whether it’s an essentially dry and cerebral construction like the Dan’s I Got the News or a piece of second-rate Tempertonia like Sweet Freedom, which speaks the language of soul but gets far more from McDonald than it had a right to expect.

If only the Grizzlys hadn’t needlessly double-tracked his vocal…

What McDonald did for Grizzy Bear was to plug them into something that’s usually slightly beyond their reach. It was a cute concept, sure, but it actually worked on record. I wish more bands did this kind of thing.

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Grizzly Bear

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Michael McDonald