Tag Archives: chamber pop

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

JVDSJVDS

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Long Way Down – Mary Lorson & Saint Low

Once again, I’m a little too busy with freelance work this week to put the time I’d like into the blog. Here’s a repost from around 18 months ago about a song I was listening to and enjoying earlier this week.

Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced as the main component of her arrangements by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous “New Velvet Underground” tag that had been slapped on Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not have won her many new fans but had definite financial upsides).

This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks for Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks for Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 13 years since Tricks for Dawn‘s release.

Tricks for Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Morningless Dreamer and Friends, I Have Been Drinking (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs remain obscure enough that pinning down subject and deciding whether they deserve the condescension they’re shown is often impossible .

That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the comparative open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a 2011 interview picked Anything can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson seems to have most let down her guard. When she and the guesting Evan Dando harmonise on the lines “Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down”, it’s perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with “disortion and Vox organ”, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above the merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.

Mary Lorson b&w
Mary Lorson

*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are noticeably sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album.

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

I wanted to make a really quintessential southern California pop record from the 70s. We made it in our buddy’s basement in Boston on all vintage equipment.

Mandy Moore on her 2009 album, Amanda Leigh

Negotiating the jump from child star to adult artist is difficult. Many have been unable to pull it off. The better known you have been, the harder it is. It’s perhaps lucky for Mandy Moore that she wasn’t a Britney-sized success in the early noughties. In fact, Moore’s debut album, So Real, was received by older commentators, and tacitly by its intended audience, as a rather pathetic attempt by Epic Records to get product out into a marketplace redefined by Britney and Christina. The album peaked at a mere number 31 in the US. In the pop landscape of 1999, where promotional blitzes ensured that albums peaked high in the first week and then dropped away quickly, that was pretty close to being embarrassing. Moore was a second-division teen-pop star at best.

Flash forward 10 years to 2009. Moore released Amanda Leigh, her fifth album and second since her reinvention as a singer-songwriter inspired by the usual giants of the early 1970s: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and so on. By now she was engaged to Ryan Adams and there was an audible country tinge to her work, too, albeit filtered through a chamber-pop aesthetic that sometimes recalled nothing so much as R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (she had duetted with Michael Stipe on a cover of God Only Knows for a film soundtrack a couple of years previously, so perhaps the resemblance was intended). Moore declared – perhaps only semi jokingly – that she’d be willing to give a refund to anyone who’d bought either of her first two records.

So is Moore’s story is a journey from ephemeral teen pop to ephemeral NPR rock? That’s a long way from the whole story. There’s a lot to like on Amanda Leigh. The production is a little too glossy – the compression a touch too obvious, the vocal and instrument sounds a touch too hyped and brittle in the upper ranges – to really make the album sound quite the way I imagine Moore wanted it to, but there’s two or three absolutely lovely ballads on this record. Everblue (co-written with Lori McKenna) is built on subdued, melancholy electric piano, a floor-tom drum part and warm bass guitar that carries the song with fat, sustained root notes. The guitar part on Song About Home explicitly quotes Joni Mitchell’s Woman of Heart and Mind, and the woodwind has a distinctly For the Roses vibe too. Moore and her co-writer and producer Mike Viola have done their homework; when Moore first dabbled with seventies singer-songwriterhood on her 2003 covers album, her song choices (Help Me, Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, I Feel the Earth Move, Moonshadow) didn’t suggest deep knowledge of the style. But someone who’s dug deep enough into this thing to be quoting Tom Scott bass clarinet lines is someone I can do business with.

Still, Merrimack River is the obvious highlight. I first came across it on a live video linked to from the AV Club (the Onion‘s film, TV and music review site). It was just Viola and Moore: one guitar, two voices, lacking the elegantly pensive string arrangement that decorates the studio version. Nonetheless the song was obviously a stunner, with a lovely chorus and enough chewy chord changes in the verse to reward repeat listening. The recorded version is a strange mix – the continuous background hum of the amplified acoustic guitar is an oddly lo-fi touch; the vocals have been rather obviously primped and possibly tuned, and the deep breaths and catches in Moore’s voice are a sometimes-distracting hangover from her pop days – but there is so much audible delight being taken by Moore in the wideness of this song’s emotional territory that it’s quite disarming.

I’m less struck on the Rundgren-/Nilsson-esque single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day, where the double-tracked Moore vocal is annoyingly chipmunk-like, but still, there’s a decent hit rate here. Inevitably, though, the record didn’t get the audience it deserved. ‘Serious’ music fans were sceptical of an adult-alternative move by a former pop star turned (part-time) singer-songwriter (and it’s not as if AAA is a genre that gets automatic critical respect), and Moore didn’t really have that many old fans to pull along with her into her new venture. But it’s worth noting that Mr Mandy Moore – the aforementioned David Ryan Adams – hasn’t written a song this good in a decade.

mandy moore live

The author’s own 1970s-style singer-songwriter doings: