Tag Archives: David Gates

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

The sound of Bread

Not The Sound of Bread, which is a 1977 compilation album (subtitled “Their 20 finest songs”). But the sound of Bread. As in, what their records sound like.

Mel asked me last week whether my songs had been influenced by Bread. She knew I have some of their music (I’d put Baby I’m-a Want You on a mix CD of cheesy stuff for her), and I’m sure I’d told her that my parents had owned the aforementioned Sound of Bread compilation and we used to listen to it sometimes on car journeys. She’d been listening to If and the question had occurred to her.

Truthfully, there’s no Bread influence. I didn’t like that album much at all when I was kid (I thought Everything I Own was pretty, but knew and preferred the Boy George cover version), finding the music boring, or samey, or something. I didn’t find their songs speaking to me till I was in my mid-twenties, when I picked up a best-of for a few pennies on Amazon.

Bread, as you probably know, never have been critically revered, and it’s not really my intention to pile on any more than I have to, not least because they’ve tended to be hated for what they’ve been perceived to represent, rather than what they were:

Soft rock, they called the sort of music Bread made, anything to blot out the real world, transient comfort. Rock, it had finally been revealed, had indeed gone soft in the head, indulgent, cosseting rather than provoking

Marcello Carlin, Then Play Long review of The Sound of Bread

Carlin’s not as hard on the band as that sentence suggests, by the way, and his write-up of the record (a UK number one in November 1977) is excellent. (Christgau, for one, has been much more scathing, again for what he assumed the band as its lead member to be: “Even in fun I can’t work up much feeling for an ass man as mendacious as David Gates”.) Carlin does get at the chief flaw of the band: they worked their formula so remorselessly that it gets wearying over the course of one best-of album and leads you to conclude that in order to keep cranking this stuff out, it couldn’t have meant very much to the band’s writers (Gates on one hand, and the team of Jimmy Griffin and Robb Royer on the other; Royer was the band’s founding bassist and continued writing with Griffin after he left). Gates, for all his melodic invention, was a hack lyricist: while If survives its sixth-form similes, Aubrey is strangled at birth by its dogged, incompetent end-rhyming:

And Aubrey was her name
A not so very ordinary girl or name
But who’s to blame
For a love that wouldn’t bloom
For the hearts that never played in tune…

An exasperated Oh for fuck’s sake was my response on reaching the word “blame”. The first time he had to rhyme “name” with something other than “name” and that’s the best he could do? Why didn’t this man get himself a lyricist?

So yeah, I guess I’m not a big fan of David Gates and Bread. But you’ve got to give the man his due: he could certainly write a tune, and his mournful, soft voice was appealling. And I’m happy to go into bat for Baby I’m-a Want You, Make it With You, If, It Don’t Matter to Me, The Guitar Man, Everything I Own and Lost Without Your Love. There’s way, way too much musical invention, sheer melodic facility, in those songs to deny them. The middle section of It Don’t Matter to Me — six bars in which the vocal part suddenly goes into double time (the hi-hats do too, but the kick and snare stay with the feel of the verses) and the key changes after every two bars — is proof enough of Gates’s songwriting craft.

But what really lifts their best songs (and their best songs are so good it’s frustrating how mediocre most of their material was) is how lucidly they were arranged, recorded and mixed. Gates was a former record producer for A&M (he produced the first two singles by Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band), and his work on his own records shows as thorough an understanding as is possible of how to put this stuff together.

It’s stripped to the bone, for starters. Many of their songs make do with just a couple of tracks of guitars, bass, drums and vocals, as if they were a 1964 beat group that just happened to be playing early-seventies soft rock. The mixes unvaryingly make use of LCR panning, too – a technique in which a track is assigned to the left channel, the right channel or the centre of the stereo image, but never anywhere in between. This tends to create a very stable stereo picture, and a wide, spacious-feeling mix, but it’s a technique avoided by a lot of mixers, scared of pushing a crucial element in the arrangement (a vocal, or a rhythm guitar part or – gasp – the drums) out to one side only. Gates was unafraid, though, and his bold approach to instrument placement within the stereo field resulted in mixes that were defined by their clarity, their roominess. The recordings welcome you in, they sound inviting. They’re big, but intimate at the same time (echo on the voices and instruments is perceptible, but subtle – there’s no cavernous, fake-sounding reverb on anything).

These are all things I could say have influenced my own thinking about mixing and production, except they’re lessons I’d already learned well from listening to the work that George Martin (and his engineers, Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott) did with the Beatles. And Gates, even on his best day, was never Paul McCartney.

Bread in the studio. Unless I’m mistaken, that’s Gates on bass

Some of my own, not-influenced-by-Bread work: