Tag Archives: backing 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.

Steely-Dan
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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Holiday harmonies, part 2: I Know You Rider – Martin & Neil

What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?

When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.

When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?

After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.

The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.

Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.

Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.

“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.

martin neil
Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)

*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)

Graham Nash David Crosby Part 2; or a great-sounding record deconstructed; or a case study in LCR mixing

I’ve seen Crosby, Stills & Nash. They’re groovy. All delicate and ding-ding-ding.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi wasn’t wrong. CSN were delicate and ding-ding-ding; particularly in an era of heavy freakout records, Crosby, Stills & Nash could scarcely have sounded more different. Jimi’s own music sometimes traded sonic clarity for head-turning effects or the raw spontaneity of a captured moment. Such a mindset was pretty alien to the CSN way of working.

How did they achieve this?

When I hear the records the Crosby, Stills & Nash diaspora made together and separately in the early to mid-seventies, the word that springs to mind is lucidity. The parts are largely simple, recorded in a relatively no-fuss manner, with little in the way of trickery, and presented in mix in the most straightforward way possible. They’re bright without being cutting and harsh. They’re warm and intimate but not sludgy and ill-defined. There’s strength and muscularity there, but never in a way that overwhelms the music.

By the time Bill Halverson recorded and co-produced 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby — by which time he’d already worked on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Déjà Vu, Stephen Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name and Songs For Beginners — he’d got the CSN thing down to an art. There are great songs all over the album, as we discussed on Sunday, but there are also great performances and sounds. And while Halverson gives Stephen Stills a lot of credit for the sounds on the CSN debut, Stills does not play on Graham Nash David Crosby; the sounds come from Halverson and from the musicians, who as we noted the other day, comprised the very best players on the West Coast/Laurel Canyon scene: Craig Doerge, Danny Kortchmarr, Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead; CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves; the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason.

Doerge, Kortchmarr, Sklar and Kunkel are known collectively as the Section. When you listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne, it’s the Section you’ll hear. They were a key component of the sounds of the records made in LA for about a decade, starting in around 1971. No wonder they also called these guys the ‘Mellow Mafia’. Peter Asher had brought Kunkel and Kortchmarr in on drums and guitar for Sweet Baby James, looking for players who wouldn’t get in the way of Taylor’s vocal or intricate acoustic guitar playing. After that record’s success, the pair were involved in the recording of King’s Tapestry. Completed by pianist Doerge and the truly remarkable bassist Lee Sklar, the Section appeared as a full unit on the Jackson Browne and Nash and Crosby records, and later with Ronstadt and Carly Simon too.

On Graham Nash David Crosby, it all came together. A great group of musicians, playing strong songs and recorded by one of the best in the business at the top of his game.

Let’s look at a couple of songs. One thing you might notice listening to pre-1980s records is that the stereo image tended to be wider. There’s an approach to mixing often called LCR. LCR stands for left, centre and right. What it means is that elements within the stereo image are panned to those points only. Nothing is panned a little bit left, or a little right, or to 10 o’clock, rather than 9. There are advantages to this method. It’s bold, it clears a lot of real estate in the centre of the stereo image for the stuff that sells the song or holds it together (usually bass drum, snare drum, bass guitar, principle rhythm instrument if there is one and lead vocal), making the mix feel spacious, and it tends to provide a stereo image that feels stable even if you move around relative to the fixed positions of your left and right speakers. It’s something of an old-school technique, a legacy of an era where some mixing desks allowed you to rout tracks only to the left or right channel or both. It started to disappear a bit in the 1980s, an era where – coincidence or not – the craft of record making began its slide into the rather dispiriting mess we have today.

When you listen to say, Girl to be On My Mind, which has some fairly big drum fills from Russ Kunkel, you can hear a drum sound that appears to be a very narrow stereo (probably an XY overhead pair with close tom mics, breaking the LCR ‘rule’, panned to the positions where they appear in the overhead image), with an LCR mix constructed around it. Piano on the left, rhythm guitar on the right, bass and lead guitar in the middle, a stereo organ, and all vocals in the middle. It’s well balanced and extremely spacious. Everything has its place. It is, as I said up top, lucid, with a great sense of depth. While allowing for some lovely details – the manually ridden vocal delay at the end of the bridge for example – it’s extremely unfussy. Bold Southern European brush strokes, if you will.

Here’s the rub: a mix this good is not achievable with a half-assed arrangement. Pan LCR with an arrangement that didn’t balance in the rehearsal room and it won’t balance on record either. A lot of young mix engineers are scared of LCR mixing as they haven’t worked with musicians that give them arrangements that create this natural internal balance. Or they’ve tried to create a wide stereo mix out of two or three elements (in a sparse mix, you’ll have a hell of a time creating a coherent whole if you insist on panning the acoustic guitar out on the left and the vocal in the middle, with a mono echo on the right – but then, there are some complete wingnuts crashing around out there).

If you’re into the details of record making, and God me help I am, Graham Nash David Crosby is a treat. It sounds so good, it’s actually a little depressing hearing a modern record after it. I don’t think I’m simply romanticising the old-school methods here; I hear few records that are played as sensitively and mixed as lucidly as this now, where the details are all so clearly audible, where the sounds themselves are so rewarding. But then, I’ve never been one for a big, soupy wall of sound. I like clarity and audible detail. Halverson, Henry Lewy, Alan Parsons, Ken Caillat, Roy Halee, Tom Flye, Ron Saint Germain…

Bill Halverson

Bill Halverson

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