Tag Archives: country music

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s autumn. Time to talk about folk-rock. Here’s a sort-of repost from a couple of years ago to get us underway

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what The Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and Fairport parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave, too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again, to form the Albion Band with the folkiest of English folk singers, Shirley Collins.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s patronage of Trevor Lucas, the band spent half of its time backing a singer and songwriter of no more than average ability, the likes of whom you could find any night of the week in a provincial folk club. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them something to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny did what Boyd had wanted to her all along and went properly solo. Partly this was a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job with Warner Brothers, but during the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album they cut Silver Threads & Golden Needles, an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers, too. While most have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version, Fotheringay slowed it down, put it in waltz time and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

If you were to call Sandy Denny the finest interpreter of British folk song who ever lived, I’d not argue. With this track, she stakes her claim as one of the finest interpreters of song full stop. She gives a completely authentic country performance without ever softening her southern English accent – Patsy Cline would have understood and recognised the emotions Denny expresses here.

NYC-born Jerry Donahue, meanwhile, comes at this country-folk blend from the other direction. Most of what you hear in Donahue’s playing is country-music derived, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him “the string-bending king of the planet”) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

His string-bending is rarely better showcased than on Silver Threads: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw a completed album’s worth of stuff recording for that second album (2, which came out in 2008). If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be.

The track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway, formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band (and later to join Fairport). Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on the four) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

fotheringayPressPic1
Fotheringay l-r Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway, Trevor Lucas, Sandy Denny, Pat Donaldson

Advertisements

Sail On – Commodores

Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.

You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?

For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.

In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.

Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.

Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was.”

The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.

By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.

A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.

commodores

*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

Talking in Your Sleep – Crystal Gayle

My mum was a Crystal Gayle fan and I’ve got a nostalgic soft spot for her music. Heard at the right moment, in the right mood, her music – her voice, more specifically – can plug directly into something in me. I think she’s an amazing ballad singer who would be much more highly thought of if so many of her records weren’t quite so slick-sounding.

To appreciate her oeuvre you’ll have to be OK with a little corn, but frankly, corniness is almost the defining quality of seventies country-pop. Perhaps it’s the defining quality of country music generally. Maybe it’s only the rawness of the delivery of a Hank Williams loves song that makes certain music fans hear it as something fundamentally different to a Crystal Gayle song. Talking in Your Sleep (from the 1978 album When I Dream) is certainly a lyric that Hank would have understood.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that as the records in Nashville began to lose all their rough edges, they started to speak more loudly of opulence and expenses not being spared than of the emotion. It’s a well-worn story, but Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would jingle the loose change in his pocket, with a clear implication. And for sure, the records that he (and other producers such as Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill) made with artists such as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline in the 1950s through to the 1960s played down roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel, and replaced them with massed choruses and orchestras. But they are positively skeletal compared to Crystal Gayle’s ballads in 1970s and early 1980s. (That Gayle’s oldest sister is country queen Loretta Lynn, an exponent of a much rootsier style, only makes Gayle’s place in the history and tradition of this music more fascinating.)

A song like Talking in Your Sleep, then, represents on one level the Hollywoodisation of country music. While the song reaches back into country tradition lyrically (singer lies awake watching sleeping partner, wonders if partner is in love with someone else – as I said, any worthwhile country singer from any era could sell that idea), its arrangement and production – which begins with just Gayle’s voice and string section and ends with harp glissandi – was specifically designed to cross over to a pop audience and capitalise on the success of the jazzified Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue from the previous year’s We Must Believe in Magic. Which it did, with ruthless, targeted efficiency.

That it succeeded so well is down to Gayle’s vocal and the quality of the writing. Talking in Your Sleep may be corn, but it’s very cunningly written corn, by transplanted Bristolian Roger Cook, who also wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and the peerless Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (if you’ve never Gene Pitney’s original recording, you must; it’s astonishing, melodramatic, over the top, and absolutely awesome). Producer Allen Reynolds, meanwhile, certainly knows how to cross over to the mainstream; he produced every Garth Brooks studio album from his debut up to the baffling Garth Brooks… In the Life of Chris Gaines (which was helmed by Don Was – though he probably hopes we’d forgotten that).

crystal gayle
Crystal Gayle, before her hair reached the floor

Harmony-singing heaven – the short and precious career of Tres Chicas

Hi all. It’s a very busy week this week, with my day off tomorrow looking likely to be not very ‘off’ at all. So I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out a post I wasn’t totally happy with about music I really like. Here’s a new and more fleshed-out version to tide you over till the weekend, when I will, I hope, be back.

Where are Tres Chicas? Seven years is a long time not to have put out a new record. Especially when they only made two albums in their initial short burst of activity.

Tres Chicas is the name adopted by its three principal members: Lynn Blakey (Let’s Active, Glory Fountain), Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine). They’re all veterans of the indie country scene of the American south. They met each other and began singing together for fun during the long period where their bands played shows on the same bill, at home and on tour, in various combinations. Their name was coined by the owner of the bar where they performed in public for the first time and it stuck.

In 2004, they released their debut, Sweetwater, on Yep Roc. This label is worthy, not cutting-edge, and has made something of a specialty of signing industry veterans (folks like Gang of Four, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, John Doe, Jim White, Sloan, Soft Boys, Tony Joe White – you get the idea). Sweetwater, recorded and produced by Chris Stamey, was an Uncut reader’s dream come true: a who’s who of alt. country talent. Original Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore (also Caitlin Cary’s husband) was on board, as was pianist Jen Gunderman (who’d replaced Karen Grotberg in the Jayhawks).

And it was a very fine record, too: simple, spare, a little lo-fi, a little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.

Its opening songs (a brace by the normally reliable Lynn Blakey, who is probably the dominant songwriting voice over their two albums) are plodding and somewhat stodgy, which is a shame as Heartbeat especially is a nice song held down by a drum track that trudges rather than bounces, but the album comes alive thereafter. The band work up a little sweat on a high-sprited cover of Loretta Lynn’s Deep as Your Pocket and then brake hard for a beautiful version of Lucinda Williams’ Am I Too Blue, where they’re backed by the members of Chatham County Line. This is where Tres Chicas are at their best: bringing the simplest of songs to life with their peerless harmony singing. If you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, listen on headphones. Cary’s on the left (also playing fiddle), Blakey in the middle and Lamm on the right. Three strong singers breathing with each other, listening to each other, phrasing with each other. It’s not slick, their voices don’t blend into one inseperable whole, but that’s what makes it so powerful

The good songs keep coming: Caitlin Cary’s Desire (written with Stamey and yet another Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly) is clever and funny; In a While (written by and lead-sung by Lamm, with a Cary co-write) splits the difference between Hazeldine and early Gillian Welch. But the album’s highlight is When Was the Last Time, credited to all three band members, and featuring a spine-tingling final section where the singers repeat the opening line and title phrase in the round, their voices popping up in the left, right and centre channels while Gunderman plays a simple churchy piano and the band slowly comes back in. It’s a deceptively artful arrangement, inspired by what is probably the best song on the record, and certainly the one that most captures what’s great about this band: the warmth of the voices, the palpable feeling friendship between the band members, the sense that the stakes here are low and these people have nothing to prove to each other or to anyone else.

Perhaps such an atmosphere couldn’t be captured twice. Their second album Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl (the band’s nicknames for each other apparently – but it’s still a dreadful, unwieldy title for an actual record), recorded in London with Geraint Watkins, Nick Lowe, BJ Cole and a cast of yeoman British musicians, is a less characterful, down-home affair. It does contain a couple of masterpieces (Cary and Blakey’s languorous All the Shade Trees in Bloom and jazzy Only Broken; Blakey’s plaintive Slip so Easily) so it’s worth hearing. The moment when all three singers voices come together to sing the title phrase on Shade Trees is worth the price of admission on its own – a moment that is all the overwhelming for how long Cary’s elongated, sleepy verse has held it back. But, unlike Sweetwater, BR&OG never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, if this is your kind of music, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. Seriously, in the extended hiatus Welch and David Rawlings took during the last decade, no one was making better country music. I’m still hoping there’s going to be more.

Tres Chicas
l-r Cary, Blakey, Lamm

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Pacific Street – Hem (repost)

Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.

I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.

Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.

I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.

Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.

Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.

I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.

That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.

Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.

Image

Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden