Tag Archives: early 1990s

Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

Automatic

*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.

 

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 8 – All the King’s Friends – Soul Asylum

Sooner or later, every rock band writes a song that one or more of its members doesn’t play well.

In jazz it’s never been a big deal. Players slip in and out of ensembles all the time. If Chick Corea was what Miles Davis felt he needed on a certain tune, Chick was in and Herbie was out. But rock bands, particularly punk rock bands, have always been about the band as an organic, hermetic unit. Everything for the band, nothing outside the band. It’s way more volatile; way more infantile if you want to be harsh.

When a band’s in the studio, the spotlight usually shines most unforgivingly on the drummer. This is because producers know one thing to be true: music is first and foremost about rhythm, and there has been little truly great music made by ensembles with a lousy drummer. The Byrds and early Oasis are the only exceptions that spring to mind (and Tony McCarroll wasn’t that bad – his oafishness suited an oafish band’s oafish material). In recent years, the DAW has made these kinds of problems rarer. You can, almost always, get a drum track up to a point where it is at least steady. You can fix problems in timing with editing and problems with dynamics with sample replacement/augmentation. In the analogue era, before digital editing, if the drummer wasn’t up to snuff, you’d have to cut the tapes up to physically edit an acceptable take together or have a different drummer play the part. Most would opt for the former, as the latter is politically very hard to handle. When Dave Grohl pulled that one on original Foo Fighters drummer William Goldsmith, recutting songs himself behind his back, Goldsmith was understandably hurt and left the band.

But Goldsmith’s wasn’t the most high-profile drummer departure in the 1990s. That would be Grant Young from Soul Asylum, whose sacking halfway through the sessions for Grave Dancers Union dogged the band ever after, severely hurting their cred. That he was fired for not being able to provide the drum track to Runaway Train – a truly ubiquitous hit single – and was replaced by Sterling Campbell (who by his own admission knew nothing about underground rock music and whose credits included Duran Duran and David Bowie, in his least vital era) only added to the problem. Soul Asylum wanted a hit so badly that they wrote an acoustic-guitar sellout ballad like Runaway Train and fired their founding drummer for not playing it right? Fuck those guys.

Ah, the thorny issues of authenticity and credibility in indie rock. I think Runaway Train’s a very good song, for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to deny the band made a bad choice in pursuit of good records. And while they did make a good record (and their good record certainly made them), the cost was probably too high to the band, who never really seemed to have much fire left in them after Young departed. Sure, they had a level of fame for a couple of years that seems incredible now when you look back on it (the band playing on the White House lawn, Dave Pirner dating Wynona Ryder), but when it came time to follow GDU up, the band had lost something vital. Perhaps handled differently, Young could have stayed on board. Perhaps with a different set of personalities involved, Young may have been coached to get the performance Pirner and producer Michael Bienhorn wanted. Because Young was a fine drummer. There’s ample evidence of that on previous Soul Asylum records, from their punkier, goofier, scrappier Twin/Tone and A&M eras.

And that, finally, is what we’re going to talk about. All the King’s Friends is the twisty, turny final track on …And the Horse they Rode in On, the band’s patchy final album for A&M and the one that immediately precedes Grave Dancers Union. It’s a complex song, with time and feel changes all over the place (so much so that it feels like an early essay in math rock), and Grant Young pretty much nailed it. And interestingly, the producer involved was, for a drummer, probably even more off-putting than the trigger-happy Bienhorn*: Steve Jordan (Patti Austen, Neil Young, Eric Clapton Keith Richards, John Mayer and many more). Jordan is an amazing drummer. Yet rather than trying to intimidate his charges into doing it right, he and Joe Blaney created an environment (on a soundstage with a mobile recording unit) where Young could do his best work, which is what producing’s all about. Probably the finest recorded moment by a drummer who’s had to spend the last 22 years being the guy who couldn’t play Runaway Train and a great performance by a guy and a band who’ve been saddled with a bad rep for a long time.

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Soul Asylum with HRC, no big thing (Grant Young left)

*Bienhorn makes fine-sounding records (GDU, Superunknown, Celebrity Skin), but often at the expense of the bands he’s worked with. He had a big hand in firing Young and Hole’s Patty Schemel, he has talked less than flatteringly about every member of Soundgarden who isn’t Chris Cornell, and even temporarily fired Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The producer has a responsibility to the label to get a product into the marketplace on time and on budget and I can understand being driven crazy by an unreliable junkie, but in a personality-driven band like RHCP, if you have no frontman, you have no band. How much, then, would the CD in the racks really matter?

Sebadoh

Yesterday I picked up tickets for Sebadoh’s London show later this year. I’ve never seen them before and Lou Barlow was and remains a pretty major influence on me as a musician, so I’m fairly psyched about this. I caught the New Folk Implosion line-up at Reading in 2001 and they were really good, but that’s the only Barlow-related gig I’ve ever seen. The ‘Doh pulled out of Glastonbury 1999 (as did Elliott Smith, curse my luck), which was the only previous time I was going to see them. I avoided the resissue-promo/nostalgia tours. So this is it. Jason Loewenstein, new drummer Bob D’Amico and Lou Barlow, at Dingwalls. Yeah, looking forward to it.

So I’ve been listening to Sebadoh since Thursday, more than I have in a long, long time.

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on their catalogue and all I really need with each new record is one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all: a couple of songs to add an iTunes playlist. Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a better version of Morning’s After Me (the original was from the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel multi-artist concept/compilation album) and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Yeah, he’s still got it.

Once you’re in this mindset, it changes the way you hear the back catalogue. You get less concerned with creating lists and taxonomies and Top 5s, and more with the overall shape of an artist’s career. You become aware, perhaps, that there are different accomplishments in music. I reckon Barlow’s one of the best songwriters of the last 25 years or so. He’s probably never written a genuinely great song (a Heard It Through the Grapevine, a Strawberry Fields Forever, a Someone to Watch Over Me – something of that calibre), but he’s written dozens of really good ones. I’m not sure whether that’s a greater achievement than managing to focus all your talent into one flawless song. The pop fan in me says it isn’t; the rock fan says it is. No surprise there.

If he ever made a great album, I think it’s the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, a sorely underrated record I’ve talked about here before. The nature of Sebadoh as a band, with its shifting line-ups and sometimes strained attempts to run itself as a democracy, always made it unlikely that they ever would make a sustained, consistent and great work of art. Lou was too likely to mawkishly overshare or indulge in another anti-Mascis rant; Eric Gaffney was too likely to come unglued (working out what distinguishes a good Gaffney song from a bad one is an entertaining, hilariously difficult enterprise) and unleash an Elixir is Zog rather than an Emma Get Wild.

For me, and I think many long-time fans, this is the point of the band. Barlow’s songs don’t work without Gaffney’s, or Loewenstein’s. Repeat sentence, change the order the names appear in. Listening to the band is like listening to the White Album writ large; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the best stuff is made better by rubbing shoulders with the questionable.

But still, somefans are strangely apt to respond positively to one small era of the band’s history and disregard the rest. III is the oft-cited early 1990s lo-fi sprawlathon that launched a thousand home-taping imitations; Bubble & Scrape the last hurrah of the Gaffney era; Bakesale where the band turned up the drive on the guitars and Jason matured into a songwriter capable of providing an energetic, humorously aggressive foil to Barlow. But these fans, whether they champion III, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale or, in those rare cases, Harmacy, will all agree that The Sebadoh was a stinker (I actually like it a lot), and they’ll usually have little time for what came after/before their favoured era, sometimes repudiating it entirely. The band have achieved elder-statesmen status now so the consensus opinion is mellowing a little, but 10 years ago there were a lot of former ‘Doh fans who didn’t want Barlow around reminding them of the confused awkward teenager they used to be when they listened to this stuff.

For me, that’s not what this band was about. If you like Sebadoh, how can you not appreciate Jason Loewenstein, who’s been a far more effective long-term foil to Barlow than Gaffney ever was? A punk-rock kind of guy with a useful sideline in smoky ballads, latter-day band recording engineer and all-round decent dude, Loewenstein got stronger and stronger as the band went on. There’s no one record containing top-level work from the three principal songwriters who have been members, either because they weren’t in the band at the time, or because they had only just joined, or because they were just a kid drafted in at a moment’s notice. Many things made Sebadoh great, not all of them present at the same time, and so there’s no defining Sebadoh record, and neither is there a best one.

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Early Sebadoh: l-r Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein

In the Meantime – Helmet

Helmet were a band apart in their prime. East Coast, not West. Cerebral and detached compared to their Seattle peers, yet capable of the same volcanic aggression. Often labelled ‘avant metal’ by critics, but having nothing in common with commercial pop-metal, and only a passing similarity to thrash. Helmet, then, didn’t fit neatly in anyone else’s box. They seem in retrospect to have been fathers to the heavier math-rock bands. Listen to the way drummer John Stanier changes time from four beats to three under the repeating riff during the middle section of In the Meantime – all of math rock is there, in the same way that all of surrealism is in the first three lines of ‘Prufrock’.

They are, however, a hard band to love. Page Hamilton, Helmet’s singer, songwriter and guitar player, often comes over prickly and defensive in interviews, trying to convince the world to see his music the same way he sees it: as derived from his jazz guitar studies. Hence the reading of the standard Beautiful Love from Betty, which changes suddenly from a clean solo guitar playing in a chord-melody style to squonky heavy rock that seemingly bears no resemblance to the jazz guitar still playing softly in the right-hand speaker. It’s a curious beast, not really a hybrid, more of a superimposition (Hamilton is apt to talk about such concepts in interviews, so conceivably that might have been the point).

Clever though this have been, the band were always at their best when their ferocity was tightly focused, and so their finest moment remains In the Meantime, the near-title track of their album Meantime, released in 1992. Meantime was their first major label record. The band had been the subject of a bidding war the previous year; with labels desperate to find the next Nirvana, industry eyes had simultaneously lighted on a group on Amphetamine Reptile that had the right guitar sound and attitude.

In the Meantime is a furious song, beginning with drummer John Stanier rolling around his toms and bashing his cymbals, while Hamilton makes squealing tremolo-picked noise. Then, over a held D, Stamier plays half-time on the hats while stomping out a syncopated hip-hop kick drum beat. The band then drop in with the song’s main riff, over the same beat as before, before the rhythm section shift to simpler pattern, which Hamilton syncopates against with one D chord. This same feel will power the verses along, but before the first verse has even started, they’ve burned through enough cool ideas to keep many bands going for a whole song.

Key to all this, of course, is John Stanier, now in the experimental rock group Battles, who record for Warp. His reputation as a powerful and inventive drummer is even higher today than it was twenty years ago, but even then he was grabbing the ears of the Modern Drummer crowd. He is typical of a generation of American drummers who have hands schooled in the marching-band tradition and a bass-drum foot schooled by hip-hop. His complex, busy kick drum work throughout In the Meantime is a masterclass. I imagine it’s somewhat galling to Page Hamilton that his old band is known to a generation of kids as the band that the Battles guy with the really high cymbal* used to be in.

Hamilton is fond of saying that Helmet’s heavy rock swings**, but really I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Stanier tends to swing more nowadays with Battles. Twenty years ago, playing heavy rock with his left hand and hip-hop with his right foot, he was more machine-like. Certainly he had less of that back-of-the-beat feel that, say, Matt Cameron had, let alone rock drummers of an earlier era (Levon Helm or Ringo, say). Music that swings feels good. Listening to Helmet is designed to make you feel tense, clenched. If Helmet had swung, they wouldn’t have been so heavy, so claustrophobic. They’re not too well known in their own right now, and Hamilton can never resist an invitation to intellectualise, recontextualise and justify the music he made twenty years ago***, but In the Meantime is one of the greatest records of its era, and you don’t have to listen hard or long to hear their influence on later heavy rock bands of all kinds.

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Helmet live, early 1990s. Photo by Bill Keaggy

 

* Stanier plays with a crash cymbal around seven feet in the air: Modern Drummer: What’s with the super-high crash? John Stanier: I didn’t want any cymbals but the hi-hats at first. Then I was like, “Okay, I’ll use one,” but I didn’t want it near me because I’d use it too much. So I set it high so I’d have to work to get to it. I wanted it to be significant; I use it as a marker. It’s like a master reset button when I go to the cymbal. Plus, it looks cool.

** ‘I’ve had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, “Helmet’s the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There’s a groove to it”.’ Interview with Page Hamilton, Invisible Oranges

***’Then my manager tells me James Hetfield said Helmet is one of his top five bands of all time and you’ve had Elton John and David Bowie say that they love your band. Musicians are still inspired by what you are doing.’ Interview with Page Hamilton by Justin M. Norton, About.com; ‘So many musicians like the band – and I’m talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there’s this other musical mind at work in there. It’s not just hardcore, it’s not just metal. It’s got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it’s interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, “I told you you were going to influence me”.’