Tag Archives: double bass

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

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

I Came in from the Mountain – Roddy Woomble

The extent to which Roddy Woomble’s voice has changed over the last 18 years is always pretty shocking to this casual Idlewild fan when I revisit the band’s early work. The sneering, American-accented vocals of Woomble’s youth are long gone. Eighteen years after the release of his band Idlewild’s debut, Captain, Woomble now has a voice of deep, rich mahogany. He has matured into a terrific singer, and a very fine songwriter, too.

I saw him play last night with Mel and her friend Louise at Kings Place (sic) in London for the first night of the Caledonian Chronicles season. 90 minutes in the company of his band and his solo-career songbook fully convinced me on both fronts. He did play a couple of Idlewild songs (one I knew – an excellent version of You Held the World in Your Arms that for me outdid the original – and one I didn’t know; Mel told me it was Quiet Crown, an old Idlewild tune, after I’d said to her that the band could have segued from that into American English), but he had little need to fall back on his band’s repertoire to keep the audience rapt. I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around, that probably a lot of the people there wouldn’t have known When I Argue I See Shapes anyway, as perversely enjoyable as it might have been to see Woomble in high-energy yelping mode in an austere concert hall.

He had a great band (featuring Sorren Maclean on guitar, Luciano Rossi on piano and Hannah Fisher on fiddle – all three sang harmony vocals), which helps, but quiet, sit-down shows in concert halls live or die on the strength of the material being played. No song demonstrates the quality of Woomble’s mature writing better than I Came In From the Mountain, from his first (now deleted, he revealed last night) solo album, My Secret is My Silence.

It’s built on the simplest chords (I, IV, vi, V) that are shuffled around in progressions that every songwriter has used at least a few times, and the verse melody is fragmentary, a few syllables at a time, as if the thoughts that the singer is searching for aren’t quite coming together. On first listen, by the end of the first verse, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t much of a song, however nice the line “because we affect each other endlessly” may be.

It’s the chorus where it comes together. It’s a simple tune, though with more movement and a wider range than the verse melody, harmonised on the second and third repeats by Kate Rusby, sometime labelmate on Pure Records. Their voices sound great together. This is the intriguing space that Woomble the solo artist inhabits. Headlining the opening night of a folk festival called Caledonian Chronicles, sitting on stage with a fiddle player, accompanied on record by uilleann pipes, duetting with Britfolk royalty, but nonetheless thinking, writing and arranging his songs like a rock/pop songwriter. Comparisons of Idlewild to R.E.M. were overstated back in 2002 when The Remote Part came out, I think. Nevertheless, there is no songwriter whose phrasing of a melody (and way of matching lyric and tune in surprising ways, so that the line contains unexpected caesuras and enjambements) more frequently reminds me of Michael Stipe.

He ruefully acknowledged once or twice yesterday that his solo career isn’t setting the world alight. Perhaps it’s because you can’t fit him neatly into either the folk box or the indie box anymore. But it’s a shame that he can’t quite fill a 500-seat hall as a solo act, as at this point it’d surprise me if Idlewild are making more vital music than he is on his own.

Roddy500-3
A man of the mountains – Roddy Woomble

My recent EP, Little Differences. Available to stream or download

Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

The author’s new EP, for streaming or pay-what-you-want download:

The urge to share

Over the last few months I’ve been working a bit more on my own songs after a stint where I was working primarily on things for the Sumner, Yo Zushi and upcoming James McKean records. I’ve embedded a soundcloud player at the bottom of some posts over the last few months, but if you’re interested in getting a nice shiny download of any of the songs you’ve heard, now’s your chance. Four recently finished recordings are available as downloads in the format of your choosing (FLAC, AIFF, MP3, etc), for the monetary sum of your choosing (including for free):

As ever with my stuff, the songs were all recorded and mixed in my home, and the only musician involved other than me is the excellent Colin Somervell, who played double bass on Beware of Tomorrow and On into the Night. Folks interested in production may note that Crossing Oceans is a live recording: two mics, one take, voice and guitar, no overdubs, no edits. Just straight up, the old-fashioned way. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the thing I’ve done recently that I’m proudest of, precisely because it is so naked. Little Differences, you may remember, I’ve shared before: this version, though, is a brand-new re-recording at a brisker tempo and knocks the old one into the proverbial cocked hat.

If you like these, do share them. I’ll be back with a non-pluggy kind of post in a couple of days.

Inside Out – John Martyn

There can be no mistake there
Can be no mistake there can
Be no mistake
It
Must
Must
Must
Be love

Outside In

In late 2001, my friend, former housemate and long-time musical collaborator James McKean played me John Martyn for the first time. We’d known each other for a year by this point and he’d already introduced me to the music of Fred Neil and Big Star. Over the years there’d be much more to come. But John Martyn was a big moment.

We lived in a large household — six housemates plus the girlfriend of one of the actual tenants — but James and I often seemed to be the first home, giving us the run of the house for an hour or so. We’d put CDs on the DVD player in the front room, using the TV for speakers, and hang out. I imagine it sounded terrible, but I don’t remember that being a problem. What I do remember is hearing Fine Lines and being close to bursting out laughing. I’d never heard anyone sing that way, and I’d heard a lot of people sing a lot of ways. Fine Lines is the first song on Inside Out, the album where Martyn really developed and explored the outer reaches of this vocal style. The title track of Solid Air had seen him slurring his delivery in a way that initially sounds drunken but that you soon realise is imitative of a saxophone and allows him to bend his phrasing and delivery to get inside the lyric and explore its potential for musical and verbal meaning. But Inside Out was something else again. My incredulity soon gave way to fascination. Fine Lines was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d heard before. But the rest took some more work. By the next year, when we’d moved from our big rambling Lewisham house to a smaller one on an estate in Stepney (behind the George, then run down and on the point of closing), we were listening to Inside Out and Solid Air, which I’d purchased, regularly, and it was then that I began to get a handle on this singular pair of records.

To this day they still seem like two sides of the same coin to me: Solid Air is the focused, concise and accessible heads; Inside Out is the digressive, rambling and exploratory tails. While Solid Air has wonderful songs (the title track, Don’t Want to Know, Over the Hill, May You Never), Inside Out marries killer songwriting (Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, So Much in Love With You, Ain’t No Saint) to jazz improvisation and sonic experimentation, containing both Martyn’s definitive Echoplex track (Outside In) and mutant arrangements of traditional melodies (Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill).

It took longer to get but it hit me harder, and I still come back to it, most recently this week. It’s an incredible, utterly idiosyncratic, piece of work. I’ve still never heard anyone else make music that sounds like Ain’t No Saint and Look In. They just crackle with tension and clenched-jawed, barely restrained aggression, yet the rhythm section on both tracks eschew the traditional rock drum kit, instead featuring Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Indian tabla player Keshav Sathe (from John Mayer’s — not that John Mayer — Indo Jazz Fusions). Outside In, meanwhile, is just astonishing, eight and a half minutes long, in two distinct sections: the first is a full-band Echoplex jam in the vein of Glistening Glyndebourne and I’d Rather Be the Devil. Two and half minutes in, though, it collapses into a freeform dialogue between Bobby Keyes’ unusually tender and lyrical saxophone and Danny Thompson’s bass, with Steve Winwood adding atmospheric keyboards and Kabaka punctuating the track with outbursts of astonishing power on the drums. Then out of nowhere, six minutes in, Martyn – off-mic but getting closer – roars ‘Love!’ and the track’s vocal passage reveals the song as what it is: an 8-minute exploration of the idea of love, the conceptual and musical centrepiece of a record that takes love as its very subject. It’s quite a moment. The 18-minute version that opens his Live at Leeds album from 1977 is, if it’s possible, even more astonishing.

Make No Mistake and So Much in Love With You continue the theme. If So Much presages the cocktail-jazz sound that Martyn would adopt for Grace and Danger in the late 1970s, it cuts deeper than the bulk of that album (strong though much of it is) by retaining its rough edges and including an edge-of-the-moment solo from Martyn. He’s such an underrated guitarist: not only a great acoustic picker and a trailblazing experimenter with loops and delays, but a highly effective electric lead player too. Tell Jack Donaghy the news: John Martyn’s work on electric guitar is a real-life third heat.

Make No Mistake, meanwhile, is the album’s third showstopper. It’s always dangerous to assume a performer’s work is reflective of their own lived experience, but in light of his well-documented problems with alcohol (and other substances), it’s safe to assume Martyn knew whereof he sang on this song: “Do you know how it feels / To be dead drunk on the floor / To get up and ask for more? / To be lying in the dark crying?” The song fades out, and back in again, and out again, as the band embark on another jam, the snatches we hear every bit as compelling as those elsewhere on the record. It’s a spine-chilling moment.

Wilfully eclectic and free-ranging, Inside Out only feels coherent as an album when you get to know it. Its unity is in concept and attitude, not in the sonics or the arrangements from track to track. But when you do come to know it well, few albums are as rewarding.

I should admit that hearing Martyn’s “classic trilogy” of albums backwards has surely impacted the esteem I hold them in; I’m sure I’d have got far more out of Bless the Weather if I’d heard it first (veteran Martyn fans reading this will note that I didn’t mention Bless the Weather above when I described Solid Air and Inside Out as two sides of the same coin). As it was, instead of having my mind blown by Glistening Glyndebourne, I heard it as a slightly weak-brew warm-up for Outside In from two years later. A record containing songs as good as Bless the Weather and Head and Heart deserves better from me, but it’s really a tribute to the power of those later records. If you’re a Martyn newbie, do yourself a favour and listen to Bless the Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out in chronological order. But remember when you’re listening to I Don’t Want to Know that, hard as it may be to credit, the best stuff is yet to come.

John-Martyn-770-2
John Martyn, early 1970s

Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Carwyn Ellis
Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009

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