Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

I’ve Never Heard… Falling Into You by Celine Dion

We’re back! And no – this is not an April Fool. Here’s another one of my occasional posts on canonical and/or huge-selling records that I never got round to hearing in full. This time, we’re shunning the critical canon and going pop.

At one point, this was going to be a post on Garth Brooks – to really plug a gap in my knowledge of ultra-successful music. I mean, regarding Brooks I knew nothing at all other than: Stetson, stage shows, millions of records sold, Chris Gaines.

But Chris Molanphy on Hit Parade did a Brooks episode that filled those gaps in my knowledge, and frankly left me uninterested in hearing any more. So I decided to go with an ultra-successful pop record instead. Whitney I discounted – at least for the time being – on the basis of her having pretty widespread critical appreciation, especially now. So it was a toss-up between Shania and Céline. I went with Céline. Seemed like there’d be more to dig into. Let’s dig in, then.

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Well known and widely read it may be, but Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love, an examination of Celine Dion’s 1997 album of the same name, feels like a period piece these days.

As he says himself, Wilson is not a poptimist by instinct. Not, at least, when he first wrote his book as part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of slim volumes on classic albums. Wilson grew up an indie kind of guy, and his dislike for Dion and her music was sharpened by the fact that he lived in Montreal – in Dion’s Francophone heartland – when the success of Titanic made her truly inescapable. His book, then, was a critique of his own tastes and that of self-declared indie hipsters as much it was as a critique of Dion’s music. It was an attempt to reach a poptimistic position on an artist that indie fans routinely held in contempt by a writer to whom it didn’t come naturally.

Now, to generalise hugely for a second, music fans who are younger than me – which is to say Millennials* and Zoomers – don’t have a rockist indoctrination to shake off that Wilson and I had (or have – it’s always a work in progress). They like what they like, and that’s frequently a bit of everything, from pop to progressive metal. Now they’re at an age where they have achieved media prominence and get to write books, books such as Wilson’s don’t need to be written anymore.

That Celine Dion’s music needs no aesthetic defence in 2021, then, is one of two starting points for this piece. The other is that – obviously – I’m not familiar with her music at album length, despite the album I’ve picked to write about, 1996’s Falling Into You, having sold somewhere around 22 million copies, including possibly one to my mum, if I’m not misremembering. It was certainly in the house.

Of course, saying something needs no critical defence doesn’t mean that I’m going to like all of it. Simply that, I won’t be discussing where pop sits in an aesthetic hierarchy compared to rock, jazz, folk or any other kind of music, because that whole idea is dumb. And in 2021, that much shouldn’t need saying.

So here goes. Let’s fall into Falling Into You.

*

It starts big. Really big. Jim Steinman big.

Chris Molanphy, the aforementioned writer and presenter of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, recently did a deep dive on Steinman. He’s a braver man than I. Steinman’s songs are high-calorie confections, too rich to be enjoyed in quantity, in sequence or on repeat. Even getting through It’s All Coming Back to Me Now once for this piece was a bit of a slog for me, unused as I am to the Steinman diet. The unedited version that begins Falling Into You – seven and a half minutes long – is a minute or two more than I needed, and the five-minute radio edit is an improvement.

That said, there’s much to be admired here. Dion’s voice is a subject we’re going to return to again and again in this piece, but if you want to hear one song that shows off what she can do, pretty much her full range is here, and it’s incredibly impressive. Most importantly for an artist who’s often been accused of peddling fake emotion, I believe her: on this song, every howl and every whisper lands as sincere.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that I believe Dion has experienced such operatic emotions in her own relationships. It’s always a mistake to assume the artist necessarily writes or performs from personal experience (another subject we’ll come back to) or that the first person “I” in a song is the same as the singer’s own perspective. But while I’m listening to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, I don’t experience a disconnect between text and performer. It never rings false to me. That is, I think, pretty key to selling a Steinman song, and it’s a real skill – one that Dion’s detractors have never really credited her with.

The production and playing are as impressive as Dion’s vocal. Obviously, everyone featured on a Celine Dion record is going to be a top-drawer musician, but it’s interesting listening to this so soon after doing one of these posts on Springsteen – one of Steinman’s all-consuming influences – to compare Bruce’s and Jim’s music.

Springsteen’s songs may be epic and stadium-sized, but they always sound like they’re being played by a bunch of doofy bar-band guys. Take Bruce’s pianist Roy Bittan out of the E Street Band, though, and give him Tim Pierce, Eddie Martinez, Jimmy Bralower and Kenny Aronoff to play with, and the effect is very different. From the opening basso-profundo chord, Bittan is here less doofy bar-band guy, more Wagnerian piano-forte overlord. Since they were recording in late 1995 and not, say, 1987, the drums and guitars commit no grave lapses of taste. But Martinez does do something rather adventurous and flashy with his whammy bar early on – it’s a detail, not featured loudly, but it’s a reminder that this is the guy who had widdly-widdly-widdled all over Run-DMC’s Rock Box, fifteen years before.

I’m not sure when the phenomenon of multiple producers on a single album became a thing, but it’s evidently something that began a little earlier than I’d imagined; Falling Into You lists eight different production teams. After It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bittan, Steinman and Steven Rinkoff (Steinman’s long-time recording engineer) exit the stage for a while, and David Foster takes over.

Now, Foster has had a hand in some great records. As great as Boz Scaggs’s Jojo. As great as Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. But on the whole, Foster’s discography, especially as a producer, is a dispiriting list. This is a guy who worked with Michael Bolton multiple times.

On Falling Into You, his first production vehicle is a Diane Warren song. My cup runneth over.

Because You Loved Me, from the film Up Close and Personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the sort of song that gives Celine Dion a bad name. She agreed to record it, I suppose, and so is author of her own misfortune, but still. Of course, I knew the song – have heard it hundreds of times, in fact – but it’s even more oppressive when listened to closely than it is heard on the radio in the background.

This record does not have a hair out of place. The sheer amount of industrial effort that goes into making a record like this is evident in every note, and you can’t help but think: all that expertise, all that time, all that work, for this? There is, as with every Warren love song, no reality here. No musical jagged edges, no lyric that suggests a genuinely human point of view – nothing personal or idiosyncratic. No sentiments that haven’t been worn smooth like a shiny pebble. Dion does a professional job with it, as you’d expect, but the overall effect is emetic. Let’s move swiftly on. We’ll have to deal with Foster again later, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.

Falling Into You, the title track, is one I had mixed feelings about at the time. On the one hand, it sounded very, very different – in a good way – to the rest of pop radio in 1996, with its Latin American percussion, martial snare rolls and prominent cavaquinho, and I appreciated the fact that Dion was willing to undersing for an entire song if the moment called for it (those who criticise her for oversinging – which she is guilty of at times – seldom praise her when she doesn’t).

On the other hand, its intimacy was bound to make a 14-year-old boy go “urgh”, and the fact that this was Celine Dion – only in her twenties, but clearly not an artist aimed at teenagers – getting all sensual and breathy made it all the more uncomfortable. That the song featured a Careless Whisper-style saxophone solo just added to the problems.

Today, saxophone apart, I think the song is really quite lovely. The backing track is, apparently, the same one as the Marie Claire D’Ubaldo original, including her backing vocals. There’s not a lot to choose between the two recordings. Dion’s vocal is, as you’d expect, smoother and more virtuosic; D’Ubaldo is a little more fragile, occasionally just slightly flat. What a contrast, though, to the vacuous Because You Loved Me. Wilson talks a couple of times in his book about how much more comfortable Dion seems when singing in French – how much better a singer she sounds – and we’ll put the hypothesis to the test later. But listening to Falling Into You, I wonder if it’s not as much to do with having a text she relates to as it is simply a French/English thing. Dion’s said herself how much she loved these lyrics, and you can tell that from her performance of them.

Make You Happy is by Andy Marvel [insert Andrew Marvell/To His Coy Mistress joke for the Eng Lit majors], who’d scored a big hit a year before as producer and co-writer of Diana King’s Shy Guy. It starts with a florid piano fakeout, but Make You Happy is, like Shy Guy, a reggae song, or a species of it. It’s reggae as understood by groups like Ace of Base: programmed R&B-ish drums, an offbeat guitar skank and just enough syncopated movement in the bass to suggest Jamaican music, while remaining at heart a Euro-pop record. Dion sounds like she’s having quite a good time singing it, particularly the verses, during which she gets to stay low in her range, where her rather pointy voice is at its fullest and warmest.

It’s hard to feel strongly about this kind of thing one way or another. It could do with a middle eight, or losing a minute of its length, but perhaps what this kind of record really needs is the blank affect of a Linn Berggren vocal; Dion’s effervescence gets a little wearying after four and a half minutes, which include a chunky 30-second fadeout.

Seduces Me, all sincerity and Spanish guitar, finds Dion back in breathy mode. Written by John Sheard and Dan “Sometimes When We Touch” Hill (I know. We won’t go there), its main problem seems to me a mismatch between performance and text. Halfway through the song, the softly picked guitars are joined by drums and bass. They’re not ’80s-style enormo-drums, as you may have expected, but they still act as a cue for Dion to ramp up in volume and intensity.

The thing that can make much of Dion’s music predictable and a bit samey (and this is true of many artists’ music, in all honesty) is the predictable shape of the recordings in terms of arrangement and vocal delivery. It doesn’t matter how hushed the opening is when you know that three minutes later, Dion will be projecting at full volume, drums will be crashing and reverberating, and politely distorted guitars will be chugging away in the background, while strings saw portentously on top. I like Falling Into You (the title track) precisely because it rejects this template for something less generic. The arrangement of Falling Into You (for which Marie Claire D’Ubaldo and her production team deserve most of the credit, in fairness) grows organically from and is thematically appropriate to the song, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps Seduces Me was intended to play to the Think Twice audience. The difference is that, while Think Twice is a breakup song where a degree of melodrama is natural, or even welcome, Seduces Me is a come-on. It’s rarely a good idea to get your partner in the mood by screeching at them about how hot they make you. Frankly, that’s red-flag behaviour.

Next up, a cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – one of the ur power ballads. The Carpenters’ Goodbye to Love was released three years before All By Myself, granted, but where the Carpenters’ record married sentimental ballad and distorted rock guitar solo (for which inclusion Richard Carpenter received hate mail), Carmen brought together sentimental ballad, big drums and solid, four-square weight. It’s a slow and stately trudge of a song. Bring all those elements together, and you have the power ballad as we know it today.

By the time Dion recorded her cover of All By Myself, the form had long since been codified. The key to a successful power ballad in the 1990s was to strip back some of the excesses the form had been subjected to in the 1980s: underplay the “power” aspect a little – dial back the reverb and processing on the instrument sounds, and keep it a little more raw and organic. In other words, to blur the distinction a little between power ballad and plain old ballad.

Unfortately, that’s not what happened here. Instead, producer David Foster (sigh) empties his bag of studio goo all over the song, mixing together sounds and techniques that had long since become cliches through overuse. There are some ghastly choices here: synth sounds that were dated when the record was released and are laughable now, drums that are cavernous but too undermixed to support Dion’s skyscraping vocal, choirs (or god help us choir pads) that are wholly extraneous and do nothing but signpost their own unreality. It’s bewildering this record got made this way in 1995.

When evaluating a commercially successful but artistically disappointing record, there will always be some whose rebuttal is: well, it sold a gajillion copies, you can’t argue with success. And that’s true up to a point. But I’m sorry, this is Celine Dion singing All By Myself. Any producer – I really do mean any producer – could have paired this artist with this song and had a massive hit with it. Some would also have made a decent record at the same time. Foster didn’t.

What he did do was to go for the iconic. To which end, he challenged Dion to hit that note. And what a note it is: a throat-shredding half-tone climb from E5 to F5 on the “more” of “anymore”, as the key rises from A to Db. Her voice clearly suffers under the strain, and she has always dropped the key substantially in live performance to avoid damaging her vocal cords, but as a once-and-once-only moment, it’s certainly impressive. Perhaps other producers wouldn’t have dared her to go there (Carmen’s original stays in the same key for the outro) and we wouldn’t have that moment, but one note doesn’t redeem an entire track, and ultimately Foster made a barely passable record out of a great song, despite having a singer of fearsome technical ability to work with.

We move on from that dissapointment to probably the album’s nadir. Declaration of Love sounds like someone called in Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band to play the backing track. Ric Wake, who produced Make You Happy, is back as producer and, boy, does he have a stinker. The R&B-flavoured horn-rock sound of imperial-phase Phil Collins seems to be the template here, with the brass credited to “George Whitty & the G.W. Horn Machine”.

Fantastic name apart, these people (if people they be, not synth patches – I’m not wholly convinced they are real, so plastic and tame do the horns sound) are not the Phenix Horns by a long chalk, and the production choices betray no indication that Wake had listened to any new music since 1990 at the latest. The bass tone is that horrid, super-hyped mega-deep but annoyingly clicky active tone you used to get on Sting and Seal records in the nineties, while the lead guitar sounds like a bad Clapton impression.

Saddled with a lemon of a song and a pudding of an arrangement, Dion falls back on her worst instinct as a singer: if the material isn’t there, go big in the performance. From her opening “Come on, wooooh!” to her adlibs during another long fadeout, the effect is punishing. It’s the inverse of her work on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: she completely fails to sell the lyric or the emotion of the song. Granted, she was given lines like “Just like Juliet belonged to Romeo/You can stay prepared that I won’t be letting you go” to work with, but still. I’m amazed this one got through preproduction with no one binning it.

At the halfway stage, then, we’re not doing so well. Despite my best efforts to be generous in my assessment, we’ve seen Dion and her team hit the mark squarely only with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and Falling Into You, and score a glancing blow with Make You Happy, while notching up a lot of misses. How will we get on with Side B?

A promotional single in Mexico and Germany, Dreamin’ of You leads off side B. It’s an adult-contemporary love song, written and produced by Canadian guitarist, songwriter and producer Aldo Nova. With Nova programming the drums and playing much of the arrangement himself, it’s a little airless and lacking in interaction, but the song is a solid construction that gets a lot out of its parade of E major chords. Again, it’s a little dated in 1995, but it pretty much nails what it’s going for.

Another Aldo Nova song, this time produced by David Foster, I Love You is a doo-wop pastiche that might have fit on one of Mariah Carey’s early records. Foster’s production is once again a disgrace: what would otherwise be a sweet little retro album track is pumped up with steroids and made pretty tough to take.

Nova’s song is knowingly silly; in 1996, no one wrote a chorus like “I love you, please say you love me too” without their tongue at least a little bit in their cheek. It’s practically Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. A small-band arrangement of this song to complete the old-school vibe would have worked fine. It could have been done a cappella, even. But Foster won’t do subtle and he won’t do small, so all the sounds are huge and fake and airless, with nothing organic in the mix save for Dion’s vocal and some electric guitar by Michael Thompson. Even all the harmonies are Dion’s, so there’s no human interaction in the arrangement at all. Nova throws a key change into the middle eight, and another one going into the final repeat choruses, but it’s not enough to stop the song feeling hugely over-extended at five and a half minutes long, and the mismatch between form and content sinks the song entirely.

If That’s What it Takes allows us the opportunity to test Wilson’s hypothesis about Dion being a better singer in French, as it’s an English-language remake of her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore (So that You’ll Love Me Again), which was released on her 1995 Francophone album D’Eux (About Them – I’m learning French at the moment. Can you tell?).

There is a difference. Her singer is gentler, more lyrical, more legato. And yes, I prefer the French version. It’s not even close. But, how much of that is ascribable to the differences between how the two languages must be sung and how much is specific to Dion herself, I can’t untangle. An expert in Francophone pop may be able to tell you more.

(Surprisingly, the song was a hit in its French version in the UK; as a rule, UK record buyers haven’t always been that receptive to non-Anglophone songs until recent years. I suppose, being fair, a lot of Jamaican music with lyrics that aren’t immediately intelligible to most white British listeners have been successful in the UK, going back at least as far as Desmond Dekker. But the only other hit I can think of in the 1990s with lyrics in French is one verse of Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s 7 Seconds, unless you count Encore Une Fois by Sash, which I wouldn’t.)

Anyway, to get back to If That’s What It Takes, it’s fine. Its melody is perhaps a little nursery-rhymeish (which I find much less of a problem in French), but it’s undeniably hooky, and writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s production – a sort of adult-contemporary dance pop – works a lot better than David Foster’s attempts to pass off his programmed backing tracks as the work of a band.

I Don’t Know is another song from D’Eux translated into English. This is one of the most musically interesting pieces on the record. It’s in 12/8 time, but with a percussion track from a drum machine that suggests 4/4 and a simple synth pad providing the only harmonic backing, the chord changes seem to fall at odd moments when you first hear the song. It takes until the chorus comes along to get used to what’s happening and or the entry of a guitar playing arpeggios in the second verse to properly orient the ear.

From there, it gets ever more stadium-epic, sounding oddly like Wall-era Pink Floyd; Dion’s evocation of “Brutal machines, unbending laws” even sounds like a Roger Waters line. It’s way over the top, but Dion sings it with customary full-bore commitment and pretty much gets away with it. She’s never averse to going big, in French or English, and whether it succeeds or fails seems to rest so often on whether she feels a personal investment in what she’s singing. As with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, the litmus test is whether you believe her – and I do.

It’s followed by another cover. A biggie. River Deep, Mountain High.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of people, I don’t regard covering River Deep, Mountain High as sacrilege. Far from it. I’ve never been a fan of the Phil Spector wall of sound, and always felt that the song was a comparative trifle, completely buried under Spector’s murk, the whole enterprise only partially redeemed by the ferocity of Tina Turner’s vocal. A Céline Dion version produced and arranged by Jim Steinman sounded, actually, like quite a good idea; a smart marriage of singer, song and production sensibility.

Better, unfortunately, in theory than reality. The whole thing has an unpleasantly synthetic unreality; despite the presence of human musicians Tim Pierce on guitar, Kasim Sutton on bass and Jimmy Bralower on drums, it sounds like it was all done on MIDI keyboards. The horn stabs and sound effects are a very bad idea. Once again, you have to give Dion credit for a full-tilt vocal, especially in the last minute or so of the track, but this is not the version to make me finally get this song. It still seems to me to be held in unwarrantedly high regard.

Another Jim Steinman production, this time in partnership with Jeff Bova, Call the Man was written by Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, the team behind Dion’s English-language breakthrough Think Twice. Hill and Sinfield are an interesting pair. Sinfield had been King Crimson’s lyricist (and occasional synth player) in the early seventies, but tacked towards pop in the early 1980s after hooking up with Hill. As a partnership, they then wrote songs for such non-avant-garde pop acts as Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Dollar and Bucks Fizz, gaining a number-one single with the latter’s covertly anti-Thatcher Land of Make Believe.

There’s not much that’s subtle about Call the Man, however. The “man” seems pretty plainly Jesus, a point underscored by Dion’s performance of the song at the 1997 World Music Awards with a 30-piece gospel choir. As big gospel-pop songs go, it’s definitely not a bad one; Sinfield and Hill write their pop with a certain level of intelligence, and Sinfield’s opening verse contains the striking image, “across the floor, dreams and shadows play like wind-blown refugees”, so he was at least trying. The guitar solo by Ottmar Liebert is rather nice too. Another decent effort.

And so, with Celine at 6-6-1 for the album, we come to Fly, the closing track. This is another translation of a song (Vole) from D’Eux. Halfway between a Disney ballad and chanson, with a very late-1980s bell-like synth piano sound, this one also sounds better in French. That said, the sheer range of Dion’s vocal here is impressive, and the arrangement and vocal sensibility are in harmony with each other in a way that’s not always the case elsewhere on Falling Into You. I’m feeling in a good mood, so reckon Dion finishes the album 7-6-1 – a winning season, if only just. She’s not making the play-offs with that kind of record.

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Why did I pick Falling Into You rather than Let’s Talk About Love? Not because Falling Into You celebrated its 25th birthday a week or so back. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the release dates when I picked the record to write about to notice that it was shortly to hit that landmark. It was purely a coincidence.

There were, instead, three reasons, really. First, there’s already a discourse around Let’s Talk About Love, thanks to Carl Wilson’s book. He concentrates on the record as a cultural artefact rather than a musical one, but nonetheless I couldn’t come to it completely fresh having read his work on the album. The other reason is that, as big as Falling Into You and its singles were, they don’t have the continuing cultural omnipresence of My Heart Will Go On and, by extension, Let’s Talk About Love. I didn’t want to deal with all that baggage: Titanic. The Oscars. Elliott Smith. Falling Into You represents a period where Céline Dion had already become one of the most successful musicians on the planet and so was in something akin to a business-as-usual phase of her career, as much as sales of 20 million can be considered “usual”. That phenomenon was interesting to me. Finally, and this may be a suprise, it’s her biggest-selling studio album, in terms of both verified units and estimated total sales.

So, as a business-as-usual mega-selling Céline Dion record, how does it hold up?

It’s not a wholly satisfying, cohesive listening experience. It’s too long, for a start; 14 songs and 67 minutes long, in the version I heard, with eight out of the 14 songs lasting more than four and a half minutes. This kind of bloat was common in the second half of the 1990s, once the record-making habits instilled by the limitations of vinyl had been shrugged off and forgotten by the industry.**

The inclusion of so many songs in so many different styles that contributes to that bloat was presumably a deliberate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. Those who liked their Dion big and epic got the Jim Steinman tracks; those who liked her singing adult-contemporary ballads got the David Foster songs; those who liked Ace of Base-style Swedish reggae got Make You Happy.

The record is at its best, though, when there’s less sense that the songs are going for a precisely defined target market, and are instead a little more idiosyncratic: the title track and the English translations If That’s What it Takes and I Don’t Know. These are good enough, particularly Falling Into You, to bump the overall score up a mark or two, to slightly more than five out 10.

What’s a shame is that it’s always evident, when listening to Falling Into You, how a sympathetic producer could have made a really good record with Céline Dion. Not by forcing her into a non-pop box, excising the silliness, goofiness and occasional lapses of taste that make her who she is, or by making her ultra-contemporary and cool, but by being more selective with material, more ruthless with editing, and avoiding the kind of sickly arrangements favoured by David Foster.

Falling Into You is not, I suspect, a record to convince the non-fan. It didn’t convince this non-fan, at least. But it did show me that Dion’s music has more aspects to it than I’d realised.

Still from the Falling Into You video

*Millennials are getting on a bit now. The oldest millenials – hi! – will soon hit forty.

**Running times of records were for many years circumscribed by the physical limitations of the medium when releasing albums on vinyl. You couldn’t fit more than around 23 minutes on one side of a record without sacrificing an excessive amount of low end. As a consequence, most classic rock-era double albums fit comfortably on one CD and are only a few minutes longer than 1990s “single album” releases like Falling Into You.

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Five: Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen 

Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!

In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.

Me,  I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.

The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.

The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.

In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.

 

*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Lady-O – The Turtles

On my way home from work tonight I was listening to the Turtles. They are, in truth, not a band I know all that much about. You can summarise my knowledge of them thusly:

  • The two singers – Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – became Flo and Eddie of the Mothers of Invention, and sang backing vocals on a bunch of T. Rex songs and Springsteen’s Hungry Heart
  • Happy Together is a deathlessly great single; Elenore may be a rather smartarse parody of Happy Together, but is actually an even better record
  • Drummer Johny Barbata played with various CSNY folks (Neil Young, Crosby & Nash, and with CSNY themselves – that’s him on Ohio, for example)
  • They signed Judee Sill to their publishing company when she was living out of a car, gave her a weekly wage and recorded her song Lady-O

It is, of course, the last item on the list that’s going to detain us right now. If you’re new to this blog, I’ll just say in brief that I think Judee Sill’s first record is the best album ever made by anyone ever; at the very least, it’s my favourite. So the fact that these guys played a part in her story makes them interesting to me, even without the other good work they did.

(Although by god they were responsible for some insipid folk-rock mush too – was someone holding them at gunpoint to force them to record Eve of Destruction? Who suggested that tempo as the right one for It Ain’t Me Babe?)

Their recording of Lady-O, cut in 1969 (two years before Sill’s was released) and featuring Sill’s acoustic guitar and string arrangement, is a wholly creditable effort, even if it neither jump-started her career nor revived their own flagging one (it would be the band’s last single).

Lady-O, as sung by Sill, is a multi-layered text. Sill’s lyrics often fused erotic and spiritual love in a Song of Songs type of way, and as its author was bisexual, a song such as Lady-O opens itself up to several various, and overlapping, potential meanings. A love song to a woman? A hymn to Mary? A love song to Mary? A hymn to a lover? Lady-O is all of these things when Sill sang it.

When the Turtles performed it (I assume the lead vocal is Howard Kaylan, but if it’s Volman, my apologies), it’s necessarily missing these potential meanings. But Kaylan and Volman do a great job with a winding melody spanning a very wide range, the song in their hands is no less graceful melodically than it is in Judee’s, and the descending bass in the chorus is still heartbreakingly beautiful. In fact, given that the double tracking of Sill’s delicate falsetto softens her voice to the point where it becomes a little weak and warbly, there is at least one way in which the Turtles’ version may be superior. Nevertheless, Sill’s reading, in its rich textual ambiguity, is the definitive one.

turtles
The Turtles – um, yeah. Looking good, guys

A new song for you here:

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song:

Haim, Haerts & the return of gated reverb and sundry other 1980s production trends

I’ve discussed before the move from damped, dead drum sounds to ambient, live drum sounds that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the context of records by Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen. But those artists were relative minnows in the big bam boom game compared to the king of gigantosaur drums: Phil Collins.

But of course you know this, and you may well also know the name of the technique used to create these sounds. Gated reverb was one of the key defining sounds of 1980s rock and pop. It was a solution to a very particular problem. If you record a drum kit in a big room, the whole drum kit gets big, with long decays that muddy and confuse the sound; the faster and more complex the material, the less suited it would then be for heavy reverb.

But what if you could apply this heavy reverb in small doses, snap it quickly on and off to give that snare drum a quick but controlled burst of power? That’s precisely the solution that Hugh Padgham at the Townhouse and, independently, the team at Tony Bongiovi’s Power Station in New York arrived at. Use the close snare mic to trigger a noise gate strapped across a pair of room mics so the huge reverb is applied for, say, a few hundred milliseconds, and then snapped off. If you’re trying to remember what that sounds like, think Let’s Dance (produced by Nile Rogers at the Power Station), think Some Like it Hot (by the Power Station, the other one), think China in Your Hand.

Think Wings by HAERTS. HAERTS are a New York synth-poppy rock band on Columbia. Their debut album has just come out, but it’s been percolating for a while. Wings itself came out in 2012, a debut EP came out last year and the album, HAERTS, has just come out. Yeah, the misspelling and the capital letters are annoying (and from now on, I’m going to drop the all caps). So they’re not off to a great start there.

Not to be cynical, but Haerts seem to me to be an attempt by Columbia to achieve what Polydor has with Haim: same slow drip of material over a couple of years to build a base on college radio (KEXP Seattle has been behind them since the start), similar sounds and influences, taken a step of two further, even an all-capped stylised name.

This is the thing. Production fashions are an arms race. This is how it happened last time gated reverb was the thing. One artist does something, the next one repeats it but takes it further, everyone piles in until a point is reached where someone says, OK, enough, and sets their own trend. There’s some gated reverb on the drums on Days are Gone. Noticeably so, but tastefully so. There are some percussion tracks overdubbed over the backbone drum track — as in, say, the later choruses of Falling — which recall Some Like it Hot. There’s quite a lot of semi-clean palm-muted guitar. Haim, or their producer Ariel Rechtshaid, are expert ’80s glory-moment spotters. To take Falling again, when the song breaks down to a chant of “Never look back, never give up” over handclaps, who’s thinking of Wanna Be Starting Something’s famous “mama-say mama-sa mama-ko-sa” chant section? At least some of us, I’m sure. There’s an attention to detail here: the references aren’t hidden, but they’re not sledgehammer obvious either. If you’re not familiar, they’ll slide right by.

Wings, the aforementioned Haerts single (above), is much less coy about letting you know where it’s coming from. It’s all there in the 4-bar intro of unaccompanied, huge, gated-reverb drums. It’s an extraordinarily confident place to start your debut single from, but the band do have the advantage of knowing that this sound connected with a big audience relatively recently. That being so, why not give them more of the same, but bigger, and louder?

Now, I don’t want to sound too cynical. I like the song. At least, I like the groove, and I admire the construction (for which a lot of credit must surely go to the producer St Lucia, Jean-Philip Grobler). For a record that feels a little like it’s been precision tooled to work in the space created by the success of Days are Gone, it remains a likeable piece of work.

The weird thing for me is hearing the soundworld of T’Pau and early Til Tuesday recreated so painstakingly and then seeing it marketed as indie rock. I genuinely don’t know – do the folks younger than me who are into this remember the stuff that it is emulating? Was it still on the radio in the late 1990s and early 2000s? When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, listening to contemporary rock music and forming my own tastes and preferences, nothing could have sounded older, more tasteless or garish to me than a big, gated-reverb drum sound. It was the preserve of poodle-haired corporate metal bands. Later on when I’d grown up a bit, I had to train myself to put those objections aside, to listen past the obvious signifiers and give the music a fair hearing. But nevertheless, my tastes were formed in the era they were formed in, and despite this being the sound of the popular music of my childhood, it’s not my sound. Perhaps the folks making these records are too young to have these hang-ups.

I fear a gated-reverb arms race is underway, which means the next few years are going to be pretty painful for this Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac fan.

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HAERTS – hi there, suspiciously old-lookin’ dude second from right!

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 2 – Call Me on Your Way Back Home – Ryan Adams

When I first heard Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker I was more impressed than I’d have been if I’d been familiar with the artists he was cribbing from. At that time, I didn’t know that many records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt or Bruce Springsteen, or any of the other acts that Adams was stylistically in hock to. Nowadays, while I can still remember the emotional charge I used to get from My Winding Wheel, My Sweet Carolina and the sparse, charged Call Me on Your Way Back Home, most of the time when I listen to Heartbreaker I find the obviousness of his borrowings crass.

Which says at least as much about me as it does about him. No one said pop music had to be original. A lot of the time the joy of it is precisely its lack of originality, its willingness to repeat the formula exactly, to conform perfectly to expectation. But I had something invested in the idea of Adams as an original talent of the order of Dylan, Morrison or Young, which is absurd, but at 18 I knew know better. If I’d known twice as much then as I actually did, relatively speaking I’d still have known dick all.

So the magic faded somewhat, and when it did I was left with a record that was admirable for the way it replicated the sound and feel of certain rock-history glory moments, most notably producer Ethan Johns’ uncanny reproduction of the sound of Dylan’s mid-sixties work, most notably Blonde on Blonde. The devil is in the details where this sort of thing is concerned, and Johns has a record producer’s ear for detail; an ear schooled by his father, Glyn Johns – producer and engineer for the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin – from an early age

His drum tunings were key to pulling this off. Tune the drums correctly, then leave enough space in the performances for the resonances to really add to the overall sound. Then set the band up right in the room and allow the leakage of the drums into the guitar and vocal mics (yeah, live vocals – scared yet, you Pro Tools kids?) to dictate the overall sound. Johns was the drummer, the producer and the engineer for all this, so there is really is no overstating how important he was to the finished product (he also played bass, organ and Chamberlin – a precursor to the Mellotron).

Johns sits out almost three-quarters of the genuinely mournful-sounding Call Me on Your Way Back Home, finally coming in when Adams’ vocal drops out, allowing the sound of the room – captured in the guitar and vocal mics as well as in his drum mics – to supply a beautiful reverb, taking full advantage in his big, simple tom fills, which owe a lot stylistically to Levon Helm. Nowadays, when I think of Heartbreaker, I think of Johns’ drumming on the album: of the five-stroke intro to Come Pick Me Up; of the pattering brushed drum fills on Sweet Carolina; and of course of those authoritative and strangely uplifting thudding toms at the end of Call Me on Your Way Back Home.

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Ryan Adams

Wide open spaces, tiny little rooms; or, recorded drum sounds in the late 1970s

In the seventies somebody decided that all ambient sound was bad. Studios created this completely unnatural environment with not a hint of any reverberant sound coming off of anything. And if you listen to a lot of records from the seventies, the deadness on them, I find, it makes my skin crawl.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 1976 a long-running, well-respected band with roots going back to the English blues-rock boom of the late 1960s were in a California studio, making the follow-up to their first popularly successful record in the US. While astutely and occasionally adventurously arranged (principally by the group’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is not a sonically radical record and it adheres to the engineering and production orthodoxies of its time in most respects. The drums may be mixed a bit louder than the Eagles had theirs, but they were recorded close and dry, and presented that way in the mix. The snare has a pillowy, plumpy sound: it goes ‘duh’ rather than ‘tssch’. The drums on Dreams go ‘buh duh, buh-buh duh’, not ‘boom tssch, boom-boom tssch’. This dampened drum sound, coupled with the sense of closeness to the band that results from the relative lack of echo and reverb, is the defining sonic quality of seventies records.

In the autumn of 1977, Bruce Springsteen, working at the Record Plant in New York, had had enough of it. Perhaps his band only rehearsed in vast, reverberant spaces, but he felt that the sound of the times was unnatural and that the music should be as big on record as it was at a big show, which, since the success of Born to Run, was the increasingly the sort of show he now played, as he moved out of clubs and into theatres. In particular he wanted a big, reverberant drum sound that was all about body, not attack. This type of drum sound felt “bigger” to him than the standard, damped-and-dry 1970s sound, and he was willing to suffer for it.

In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, bassist Garry Tallent and engineer Thom Panunzio recall ruefully the torturous process Bruce put them through trying to get a drum sound that discarded the sonic qualities that had thitherto been synonymous with high-budget records in the seventies. While Springsteen sat on a couch in the control room, with engineer Panunzio and producer Jimmy Iovine working the desk and attending to microphones, drummer Max Weinberg was required to hit his snare drum. If Bruce could hear the attack of the stick hitting the skin – which naturally enough he always could – he’d drawl “Stick”, and the engineer and producer would be required to do something to lessen the apparency of the stick hitting a skin. But, of course, that’s exactly what was happening. He nearly drove his bandmates and the studio staff crazy with his obsession. Usually it’s engineers and producers driving musicians crazy with their quest for perfect drum sounds.

The result of all this work is a drum sound that is the opposite of close. But Weinberg’s snare drum on Darkness goes “tssch” even less than Mick Fleetwood’s on Rumours. It’s more like a cannonball hitting a crash mat in a cathedral. It’s an absurd sound, and Darkness is one of the records that began a decade and a half of absurd drum sounds (other key influences being Bowie’s Low and of course, a couple of years down the line, Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight from Face Value).

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac’s breakout star Stevie Nicks fell into this enormous new soundworld when Jimmy Iovine (and Tom Petty) produced Nicks’s solo debut album Bella Donna at LA’s Studio 55, recreating the gargantuan Max Weinberg/Darkness on the Edge of Town drum sound on the West Coast. The subtext was clear: This is my own thing. This is not a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s tons of space around the instruments, Russ Kunkel sounds like he’s playing the world’s biggest drums with a pair of clubs – it’s all very impressive. But I do wonder what kind of acoustic spaces Springsteen was used to if this was his idea of a “natural” sound picture when he began work on Darkness. It’s as much an exaggerated presentation of music played within an acoustic space as the damped, small-room sound of seventies clichés. Record-making, after all, is not about documentary depictions, if it ever was; it stopped being that a long time ago, the first time someone panned a drum kit in stereo.

Fleetwood Mac themselves never really went the way of the ambient drum sound, even at the height of the silliness in the late eighties. As much as it was possible for a superstar band to go a different way from the crowd to pursue their own sound, they did, and so Fleetwood’s drums on Tango in the Night are relatively small, relatively close, by the standards of that decade at least. Certainly they are not the musical heavy artillery of, say, Bad or Hysteria from the same era. Listening to Stevie Nicks on Bella Donna, then, represents the sonic road not taken for Fleetwood Mac. It’s a curious experience, not always pleasant for someone like me who loves dry drum sounds and thinks Rumours the best-sounding record ever made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Gypsy, from the 1982 Mac album Mirage, on which the band went back to their little room, where they should be.

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Who’s draggin’ whose heart around? Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, 1977.

Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right