Tag Archives: countrypolitan

Ritual in Repeat – Tennis

Within pop music (and we’re going to focus for this post on rock music), record-making is a skill distinct from writing and live performance. Some excellent bands have made only mediocre records. Some artists who were true masters of the studio were never all that hot on stage. For some of the first type of artists, learning to make records that contain the essence of their greatness is a process of stripping away the accumulated fashions and traditional techniques of record making in order to make the experience of recording as much like playing live as possible.

Even legendary figures aren’t immune from this. For me, the Rolling Stones would be a good example of this phenomenon – perhaps controversially, I don’t think they made records that got everything right in terms of vibe, performance and sound until they started to work with Jimmy Miller in 1968. Fleetingly before, for a song or two, sure. But not with any consistency.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably be fearing another moan about the evils of modern record production. That’s not quite what this is, I promise. I raise the issue because I’ve been listening a lot to a band called Tennis these last few weeks. It’s the kind of music I’m a sucker for – fleet-footed, airy indie, with a disarming depth to the lyrics. Imagine Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays fronting a version of Camera Obscura that had a thing for yacht rock rather than countrypolitan and you won’t be far away from sound and feel of the music. I heard the band’s single Never Work for Free on KEXP, loved it, listened to a live session on WFUV, loved it even more, went back and listened to the recorded version and loved it a bit less.

It was kind of dispiriting.

Then I heard Timothy (from 2013’s Small Sound EP) on the radio, loved it, downloaded it to listen to it properly and loved it a bit less.

By this time I’d already ordered their latest album, Ritual in Repeat, on import from the US (it’s not out in the UK until February). When it arrived, I liked it, but found it a little flat. The tempos are often just a couple of BPM below what would seem optimal. The filters and effects used on Alaina Moore’s voice are a little distracting, as is the persistent double tracking. Each song has a topline that drills itself into you immediately. Moore and her bandmates write some killer songs. But somehow they haven’t quite got the finished recordings right.

Take Never Work for Free. Each chorus has the same slightly distracting backing vocal part, sung by Moore, mixed prominently and in fixed audibility. This is instead of, for example, introducing it in the second chorus to build the arrangement, and/or using a different singer to create space and a vocal texture with more width and depth. The lead vocal, meanwhile, is double tracked from the first line to last. The band’s done a few live sessions of late, so I’ve heard the WFUV version, the KEXP version, the UO Live version… Absent these little distractions, all in their way are preferable to the studio recording. I love the song – really love it – but the best version of it is somewhere between the WFUV version and a slightly stripped back mix of the studio take. What’s frustrating to me is that I feel the version I’d most want to hear exists on the master tape, or in the ProTools project, to be more accurate. If the song had been given to a different person to mix*, and there it would be.

The Tennis song where this distance between disappointing recording and revelatory live version is greatest is Mean Streets, where the chosen tempo sounds positively sluggish. The consistently much brisker takes they’ve done for KCRW, KEXP and live in store at Twist & Shout in Denver suggest that as they’ve played the song on stage, they’ve realised they cut it too slow. It’s pretty common for bands not to nail a song they record before they’ve had a chance to take a song out on the road, particularly early in their careers.

And Tennis are still a young band, with a lot going for them. The core duo – Moore, who plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Patrick Riley – can write really fantastic songs, and Moore is developing into a terrific singer. The rhythm section – drummer James Barone and, on record, Riley on bass – is as tight as any fan of early-’80s pop-soul could wish for. It’s just a shame that, right now, they’re not quite making the records they seem capable of yet. Get Ritual in Repeat, sure, but watch the above video too, and hit the KEXP session archives to really get a sense of what this band can do.

tennis2
Tennis: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, preppies

 

*What’s amazing is that the mix engineer is Michael Brauer, whose work, while leaning a little to the commercial side, is usually impeccable. His mixes on Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space are all-time for me. Interestingly he was behind the mixes on that HAERTS record I was talking about a few weeks ago.

BTW, here’s a very rough demo of a new song. I don’t usually share songs when they’re at this stage of development, but I’ve got another head cold and it might be a while before my voice recovers enough to do a keeper vocal of anything, so here you are!

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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.

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