Tag Archives: electric guitar

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

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.

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

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Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

Demos revisted – Two versions of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl

Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions

Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.

Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.

Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.

Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.

Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.

The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.

What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.

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This is how they do it.

*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.

Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

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Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing

Halo of Ashes – Screaming Trees

‘What did you think?’

‘They were screaming!’

‘Yeah. They were great!’

‘They were screaming!’

‘They’re from Seattle—’

‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’

‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’

So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.

Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.

That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)

Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.

But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.

The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.

Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.

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Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor

*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).

It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.