Tag Archives: Britpop

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

Beetlebum – Blur

Popular is a blog on Freaky Trigger by Tom Ewing that reviews every British number-one hit single in chronological order. Ewing started writing it in 2003 – with Al Martino’s Here in my Heart from 1952 – and is now up to 1997. It’s a hell of a project, allowing you to see the context in which a hit becomes a hit, and how it is defined by the hits around it. Over time Popular has become less about Ewing’s reviews and scores, insightful though he is, and more about the debates in the comments section, which is one of the healthiest and most positive on the net (by which I don’t mean that everyone is positive about every record, but that it is remarkably civil, with little time wasted on slanging matches and cheap point-scoring).

I’ve posted there occasionally, but less since I started writing over here. I’ll contribute even less in future, I imagine – while I was at university in the early noughties I listened to the radio very seldom and had little idea what was number one in any given week, and as time went on my estrangement from chart music became almost total.

Right now we’re still in an era I remember first-hand and took an active interest in, even if not all the records are to my taste. The song currently under discussion, Blur’s Beetlebum, is oneI’m very fond of. I’d say it’s Damon Albarn’s masterpiece, even – one of the few times this most dry and cerebral of songwriters succeeded in engaging the brain and heart at the same time.

The two Blur singles that immediately precede Beetlebum, Stereotypes and Charmless Man (released less than a year before Beetlebum), are the dregs of Blur’s Britpop period. The Great Escape isn’t a record I know well, but I do know it well enough to know that there were better songs on it that weren’t as singles. Hearing those ugly – indeed charmless – songs at the time, it felt that that the band, and more particularly Albarn, was at the end of the line with that sound. The jeering, garish aggressive sneeriness of them, while bracing, is cheap and cynical beside, say, Jarvis Cocker’s more thoughtful deconstruction of English class and aspirationism. And as for its success as pop music, well, it’s easy to see why Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was vastly more popular in the long term. Blur had to change.

They did.

Beetlebum was the start of Blur’s second act, in which laddish-geezer Albarn became serious-and-eclectic-songwriter Albarn. It wasn’t necessarily what all his fans wanted from him, or for him, but it did open him up to a different audience than he’d had previously (me, instance – Blur remains the only Albarn record I’ve ever parted with money for, and will likely remain so). But it wasn’t Albarn’s new perceived honesty and soulfulness that sold me on Beetlebum – I don’t know how much honesty or so is really in it. Pulling off the appearance of straightforward intimacy may have been just another of his aesthetic coups. Nor was it the many nods to White Album-era Beatles, few songs from which I knew at the time.

It’s the sound of the record, the textures, the comforting ennui, the sleepiness of the verses, and the way, as Ewing notes, the “surly, choppy verses that ought to flare into rage on the chorus, but instead bloom into sleepy, burnt-out neo-psychedelic harmonies”. It may be easy to forget now, but the quiet-loud, quiet-loud shift in a song’s dynamics was so standard a part of US alternative rock and indie that, since this was obviously a more US-influenced record than anything heard from Blur before, while listening to Beetlebum for the first time, a majority of listeners probably did expect Graham Coxon to step on his Pro-Co Rat and Albarn to start shouting. The chorus’s shift into falsetto, the scrappy semi-clean guitars and the ‘ooh’ block harmonies, then, was unexpected, audacious even.

Not all of Blur was so successful. The only other songs I have much interest in hearing again now are Country Sad Ballad Man and, very occasionally, Song 2 and Essex Dogs. Many of the album’s other songs fall flat: M.O.R., a straightforward Bowie-in-Berlin rip, is embarrassing. Chinese Bombs proved that, whatever else they could do, Blur’s rhythm section couldn’t rock. Theme from Retro had a dub echo and an organ and not much idea what to do with either of them. But Beetlebum is a glorious success, Blur’s finest record bar none, and still the most compelling thing Albarn has done with any of his projects.

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