Tag Archives: bass

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

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No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

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Vai & Mann

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

Sebadoh @ Dingwalls, Camden, 04/11/14

Until yesterday the only Lou Barlow gig I’d ever been to was a New Folk Implosion show at Reading 2001 where the trio played mostly older songs (Dare to be Surprised-era stuff). It was great, and it was a surprise to me how bloodless the New Folk Implosion’s record was. So I was looking forward to Sebadoh, but with no real expectations. They’re not young guys anymore. They never really were about reaching out and trying to convert a young, mass audience, and anyway, I’m more than aware of their reputation in the 1990s for being shambolic and inconsistent, albeit with the potential to suddenly transcend their limitations and become spellbinding. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and I was cool with that,

So the first half of the set was a surprise. The frequent swapping of guitar, bass and lead vocals that Barlow and Loewenstein have always had to do at Sebadoh shows has been replaced by extended mini sets, with each songwriter taking six or seven tunes in a row before passing off to the other. At the beginning of the gig, with Barlow stage right at the lead vocal mic, guitar in hand, the band tore through their songs without pausing for breath, heavy on tunes from Bakesale and Harmacy, with a few highlights from new record Defend Yourself (such as album opener I Will).

During Loewenstein’s turn at the mic (even heavier on Bakesale tunes – Careful, Not Too Amused, Shit Soup and Drama Mine all appearing), though, the evening lost its focus. The tuner pedal the bass was plugged into began playing up, a fact which the band and the sound engineer struggled to diagnose for several songs, and Loewenstein abandoned the set list (literally crumpling it up and throwing it away). The band played the rest of the show off the top of their heads, taking requests, swapping guitars and retuning them more frequently, and doodling between songs. They did it in such good humour that they mostly got away with it – that Loewentsein gives good stage patter didn’t surprise me much, but Barlow’s levity was more unexpected – but the pace of the set slowed noticeably and my attention began to wander at times.

Dingwalls is a good venue for them: small enough to be sold out and buzzing, big enough to feel like a for-real gig. The group are pretty well preserved — despite Barlow’s current resemblance, pointed out by my friend Sara, to Jerry Garcia, all curly mop and facial hair and glasses — and played with a level of power and commitment that many younger bands would struggle to emulate. Sebadoh in the 1990s, with the erratic Eric Gaffney and then the barely competent Bob Fay behind the drums, couldn’t play their way out of a paper bag, but with Barlow an improved guitarist and always a solid bass player, Loewenstein competent at any instrument he turns his hand to, and new drummer Bob D’Amico a hard-hitting, no bullshit rock drummer, the latest line-up of Sebadoh was tight and powerful, and far, far louder than I’d been primed for.

I don’t want to be one of those guys always moaning about sound, but it would be nice if more live sound engineers worked from the vocals downwards – as in, if the vocals are this volume, how loud can the drums be without stepping on them? As opposed to, how loud can I make the drums and guitars while still having the vocals be just about perceptible? Indie rock is not blessed with many talented vocalists, but Barlow is one of them. It was a shame his voice was often so hard to discern. As it was, my ears are still ringing from the harsh cymbals and guitar sound, 24 hours after the show ended. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have worried. Nowadays, I curse myself for not having taken earplugs. Yet this was not a balanced mix that happened to be loud, so it’s not just me being a fuddy-duddy; the drums and guitars were too loud.

A bigger issue, and one that I feel like a bit of a heel bringing up, is that Lou did comparatively few of the songs I most wanted to hear. He’s been forthcoming in interviews and in song about the end of his marriage, and given that the majority of the songs I talk about (if not all of them) are love songs to his ex, I can see why he might prefer the bouncier or more aggressive songs from his archive right now, but Beauty of the Ride and Too Pure did hint at what the gig might have been if we’d had just a little more Soul and Fire, so to speak.

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Sebadoh, July 2014: l-r D’Amico, Loewenstein, Barlow

 

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 2

Tigermilk starts with the Belle and Sebastian ur-text and one of their greatest songs: The State I Am In. If you’re curious about the band, have a listen to this shaggy dog story of a song. Your response will tell you whether they are for you or not.

Over the quietest of strummed chords, in the softest of singing voices, Stuart Murdoch delineates the boundaries of his lyrical world and his approach to writing – a combination of knowing ambiguity and mundane specificity – in just a few lines.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day

I heard this song for the first time in 1999, when Tigermilk was released on CD, and was knocked out by it. By this time, Belle and Sebastian were already indie favourites in Britain, big enough for kids like me to know about them without having to work too hard. My enthusiasm for the band was shared by a couple of close friends, but not by my wider social circle, who found them twee, precious and wimpy. My girlfriend Mel also finds them twee and precious, and doesn’t get why I like them (or why I’m writing this post).

Belle and Sebastian were an aural palate cleanser for me then. I’d spent my younger teens listening obsessively to American grunge and alternative rock music, and while I still wanted music played primarily on guitars (I was — am — a guitar player), I needed something other than angry guys screaming and playing loud and hard all the time. I was getting it anywhere I could find it. Belle and Sebastian were just one source.

But what does this music say to me now?

When you listen to music from your youth as an adult, it can be hard to listen objectively. Every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first three albums calls up memories for me. Walking to school; sitting at the side of a public tennis court with my friend in the summer holidays waiting for my turn to play a few games; being driven by my dad to my grandfather’s funeral; walking home from Southend town centre on a cold Sunday evening not long before Christmas; writing a philosophy essay for my theology A Level course. I listened to this band a lot for about a year and a half while at sixth form and pretty much stopped when I got to university. I have almost no adult memories tied up with this band.

I put I Could Be Dreaming on my iPod on the way to work the other day and it was glorious. Belle and Sebastian songs have a tendency towards the brisk. It’s part of their charm, as it makes their songs come over like over-excited kids, an impression strengthened by their primary-colour chord changes and simple arrangements, with Grade III-level touches on cello and trumpet. I Could Be Dreaming drops the school-music-lesson instruments and replaces them with a couple of lightly overdriven electric guitars and some beautifully cheesy 1970s synthesiser and beat-group organ. The group’s playing is spirited. The song is at a tempo that faces drummer Richard Colburn with that tricky decision: do you play propulsive eighth notes on the hats or looser, swinging quarters? He went with the quavers, giving the song an oddly Krautrockian feel; Neu! relocated to the Glasgow suburbs. The twee-est group of the nineties end the song having built up a surprising head of steam; Stevie Jackson thrashes away and Colburn bashes his cymbals, while someone (Isobel Campbell?) reads out a chunk from Rip Van Winkle.

Tigermilk is a fine album throughout, with only one misstep, Electronic Renaissance — not a bad song as such, but one that could scarcely be more out place, with its Boys of Summer drum machine pattern and Pet Shop Boys synthesisers. But even great songs like I Could Be Dreaming are not without their flaws. Something about Murdoch’s lyrics, which I used to think were brilliant, now rub me the wrong way. Other people’s sexual confusion, physical abuse by a partner or sexual abuse as a child are invoked in startlingly throwaway fashion, as if Murdoch’s unaware these things do happen to real people, and that they are not trivial events or mere grist to Murdoch’s lyrical mill. He sounds, being blunt, like a child trying to seem grown up, or a sheltered young man trying to seem wordly. But he was, still, a (fairly) young man then, possibly not knowing too much of where he wrote, and this tendency is less marked in what I’ve heard in his later songs.

This lyrical weakness aside, Tigermilk still sounds charming to me, and stronger than the two albums that followed it in quick succession. If You’re Feeling Sinister is hampered by too many songs of one tempo and key (E) and a drop-off in the album’s home straight (I really don’t get the high regard in which Judy and the Dream of Horses is held). The Boy With the Arab Strap, meanwhile, has some absolute belters (Dirty Dream Number Two, the title track), some charmers (Is it Wicked Not to Care?, A Summer Wasting) and some unbelievable dreck (Chickfactor). So I’d recommend Tigermilk as the only Belle and Sebastian you need to get if you’re only mildly curious, but B&S don’t tend to attract that many casual fans — rather, an equal proportion of haters and devotees who base their worldviews and aesthetics on their favourite band’s. Years after I last listened to them seriously, I can still hear why.

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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