Tag Archives: country-rock

Lost in the Cosmos – Sons of Bill

Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is the sound of a man coming apart but desperately trying to hold himself together. “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind,” he croaks as the song begins. While we guess immediately from the sound of his voice that it’s not working well for him, Bell’s next line – “but that don’t get you back again” – is a particularly stark way of confirming it. You can be as vast and complex and unknowable as the cosmos, or as powerful and elemental as the wind, he’s saying, but it won’t mean you’re not alone.

All songwriters try to find ways to encapsulate and universalise feelings like this. The good ones do it now and then. Few can do it repeatedly. Bell was one who could, which is one of the reasons why, with only a small body of work to his name*, he remains an inspiration to musicians more than 40 years after his death.

Released in 2014 on the album Love and Logic, Lost in the Cosmos (Song for Chris Bell) by Sons of Bill is a meditation on Bell’s short, tragic life. Written mainly by the band’s keyboard player Abe Wilson, sung by his brother James Wilson and with a soaring guitar solo by Sam Wilson (the three brothers are, indeed, the sons of Bill – college professor and songwriter Bill Wilson), Lost in the Cosmos is a conscious attempt at myth-making on behalf of the overlooked driving force of Big Star in their early years. “James and I were listening to a lot of Big Star,” Abe Wilson told Rolling Stone, “and we decided that Chris Bell really needed a song of his own. The Replacements have already given Alex Chilton a song, but Chris needed some love, too.”

Slow and stately in 6/8 time, built on the simplest of chord changes and decorated with pedal steel and a melody that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t quite place, Lost in the Cosmos doesn’t sound like a Chris Bell song. It doesn’t share the quicksilver quality that Bell’s best tunes have; rather, it sounds like it’s been dug out of the earth. But it’s a moving tribute to the spirit of a songwriter who’s still sadly in the shadow of his former bandmate Chilton.

*Bell left behind half a dozen songs on the first Big Star album, #1 Record, and a solo record, I Am the Cosmos, that was released posthumously. His songs on #1 Record include In the Street (a cover of which was later used as the theme for That ’70s Show), the joyfully ebullient My Life is Right and the aching Try Again. Alex Chilton may have penned Thirteen and The Ballad of El Goodo, but Bell’s contributions – in terms of writing and arrangement – were critical to #1 Record.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

My Byrds kick continued last week…

At first, the idea was a concept album – a double album, no less – charting the history of American music, beginning with bluegrass and jazz, taking in folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and going forward into the world of electronic, Moog-based music. The problem was that after the dismissals of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the Byrds were down to a two-piece: guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn and bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman. They needed reinforcements, and since they were going to attempt to play jazz, they needed a quality drummer and preferably a pianist, as McGuinn’s 12-string arpeggios didn’t exactly speak the language of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

The man who got the nod was Gram Parsons, a songwriter, guitarist and pianist of Chris Hillman’s acquaintance. I’m not quite sure what Parsons played that convinced McGuinn he was a proficient jazz piano player (what solo piano work I’ve heard by him suggests a decent country player with some gospel licks, but not McCoy Tyner), but that turned out to be irrelevant. Once in the Byrds fold, Parsons immediately began selling Hillman and latterly McGuinn on the idea of an entire album of country rock, along the lines of the work he’d done with the International Submarine Band.

McGuinn took some persuading (producer Gary Usher interceded on Parsons’ and Hillman’s behalf), but eventually consented to follow Parsons’ vision for the album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s influence, in a hard-headed analysis, does outstrip its quality; it’s credited as being the first country-rock album, but that isn’t quite right, as mostly the band plays country as country, and drummer Kevin Kelley plays rock beats only on One Hundred Years from Now and the choruses of Nothing Was Delivered. But nonetheless, this was a famous rock band diving headfirst into country music (making a whole record of it, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry to promote it), whereas for the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and Lovin’ Spoonful, country was just one flavour of what they did.

It’s not hard to pick the weak points of the original album – they’re the songs where Parsons’ recorded vocals were covered over by Roger McGuinn doing a southern accent rather badly (The Christian Life and You Don’t Miss Your Water). But thanks to the inclusion of perfectly good Parsons-sung outtakes on the expanded addition of the album and sundry box sets, that defect is remedied quite easily. The version of One Hundred Years from Now sung by Hillman and McGuinn in harmony is different in feel from the Parsons-fronted outtake, but it’s still pretty good and I don’t think Parsons’ vocal improves it hugely.

There are plenty of strong moments, too. Hickory Wind, obviously, even if Gram Parsons possibly plagiarised it*. Chris Hillman sings I Am a Pilgrim with a winning sincerity, his vocal abetted by John Hartford’s excellent fiddle playing. Parsons romps his way through Luke McDaniel’s You’re Still on My Mind, supported by Earl P Ball on piano and JayDee Maness on steel, and McGuinn’s two Dylan covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered are typically excellent.

Contemporary country music at the poppier end of things does not come from the same branch of the family tree as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No matter how much pop and rock it contains, it’s a product of the Nashville industry, not of interlopers, like the Byrds were in 1968. As I said when writing about Younger than Yesterday, I hear no Byrds influence in much indie music right now, and no one seems to talk about the band, but young fans of country fans might find a lot to please them in this record. Along with Workingman’s Dead, it’s the pre-eminent early country rock album.

*I should say, if he did indeed steal it from Sylvia Sammons, it was a despicable act, but with both dead and Parsons also the writer of enough good songs to make it totally feasible he did write it, I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

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Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

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Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 8: That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart – Aimee Mann

The quality of a drum performance is inextricable from the quality of the arrangement it’s a part of. A great drum part serves the song above all else. Many, many musicians, if asked, will say it. Fewer will live it.

Jay Bellerose lives it. It’s why he’s one of the most in-demand session drummers in the world. He’s played with a dizzying array of names. High-budget singer-songwriter records are his bread and butter (Suzanne Vega, Glen Hansard, Elton John, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, etc.), but his session work takes in everyone from BB King to Mose Allison to Alfie Boe.

Aimee Mann’s been a regular employer of Bellerose since 2002’s Lost in Space (her best, and most underrated, record). It’s easy to hear why. Whether it’s a light waltz or a heavy-backbeat rock song, he’s whatever the song needs. Tasteful and unobtrusive, aggressive and dominant, or anything in between. You can trust Bellerose to size up the song, work out what it needs, then deliver it.

That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is a particularly clear demonstration of this. The arrangement is a slow builder, which works by rewarding the experienced listener’s expectation that with each verse another element will be added until, with glorious inevitability, the drummer comes crashing in to power everything home. It’s very far from subtle, but The Forgotten Arm is Mann’s least subtle album, designedly so. She intended it to be something of a 1970s country-rock record, and producer Joe Henry put together a band to fit that vibe. Nowhere else in Mann’s discography is there anything like Jeff Trott’s cock-rock solo on Dear John (the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether he could possibly be being serious).

Bellerose, too, is atypically swaggering on this album, and his work on That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is characteristic of his Forgotten Arm style: a fat snare sound, lots of whole-kit fills, and a general sense that he can have fun and indulge himself for once. It works particularly well on this song because the arrangement (whether Mann’s or Henry’s idea) is designed to make the listener want him to play this way. By the time the second verse has ended, you’re just waiting for him to come in with that big fill. When he finally does, it feels, as I say, glorious.

jay_belleroseJay Bellerose

Tennessee Jed (live) – Grateful Dead

In 1972 the Grateful Dead embarked on their (at the time) biggest-ever tour of Europe. It was their last major tour with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (he died in 1973) and their first with pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna (whose first-ever studio session had been as a backing singer on Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman in Muscle Shoals). It was the only tour with Pigpen and Godchaux there in tandem.

The triple album that was compiled from the tour starts with a tremendous version of Cumberland Blues and doesn’t let up from there. It’s the Dead at the very top of their considerable game, Garcia audibly fired up by having a new player to spar with in Godchaux. The vocal harmonies that they’d begun to feature under the influence of CSNY*, so tentative on some of the Workingman’s Dead tracks, are now practised, even slick**. The group is expansive while always sounding at ease with what they’re doing. The aching version of He’s Gone (written about Mickey Hart’s father Lenny, who took off with most of the band’s money) is one of my very favourites. The reading of China Cat Sunflower is likewise tremendous.

But the finest moment on the triple-album set is the version of Tennessee Jed that appears on side four of the triple album. Recorded in Paris, this is the definitive version of one of the era’s defining Grateful Dead songs. The group get so close to the spirit of The Band that may as well be The Band; it was no surprise when half a lifetime later Levon Helm covered it on his Electric Dirt album, the last record he ever made. It’s not merely a sonic impersonation either; the lyric mines the same surrealistic old-timey South that Robbie Robertson’s Band songs inhabited (I’m thinking of tracks like Caledonia Mission). Tennessee Jed was a character from an old radio show in the 1940s, sponsored by Tip-Top Bread (hence “When you get back you better butter my bread”).

With Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in their ranks, the Dead were a two-drummer band. But Hart didn’t travel to Europe in 1972, taking a break from the band after the business with his father. Kreutzmann, dare one say it, revelled in the freedom being the only drummer gave him. He only had his own feel to worry about; he could place the backbeat where he wanted it to go. He’s got a serious case of the funk on Tennessee Jed. Garcia, meanhile, has himself a tonne of fun with the chicken’-pickin’ groove, and fires off a great solo. Godchaux just sparkles.

The early 1970s (starting with Workingman’s Dead) is my favourite era of the Grateful Dead. All of my favourite Dead songs were written in this era, and I love how they reconciled the expansive, psychedelic side of the band with the, essentially, folk and country songs that filled up Workingman’s and American Beauty. The Europe ’72 live set is an indispensable document of this era, and Tennessee Jed is its most irresistible moment.

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Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir

*Mickey Hart: “Stills lived with me for three months around the time of CSN’s first record and he and David Crosby really turned Jerry and Bobby onto the voice as the holy instrument. You know, ‘Hey, is this what a voice can do?’ That turned us away from pure improvisation and more toward songs.”
** Like many live albums, some of the vocals were re-recorded in the studio when the band got off the road. Jerry’s lead vocal on Tennessee Jed among them. You can hear traces of his live vocal at times in the background. However, I’ve heard enough of the original audio that it seems fair to me to say that their live harmonies were pretty tight most of the time during that tour.