Tag Archives: electric guitars

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.

 

 

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

July – Low

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 emptiness implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band were gradually moving beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporating 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. The lyrics, on the page, look like nothing, 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 it may seem lazy to write lyrics that raise questions but provide no actual answer, 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.

low

A new song – it’s good clean alternate-tuning, fingerpicking fun!

Tune-o-matic bridges on Gibsons & Epiphones

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about this evening. Beware – guitar geekery is to follow.

A couple of months back, after spending a while wondering whether it might be nice to have a hollow-body electric guitar in my armoury, motive met with opportunity. I was informed that I’d been entitled to a bunch of annual leave I didn’t know about, and that the company was willing to give me a lump-sum equivalent to the number of days off I hadn’t taken in 2013. So a week or so after that, I took myself of to Macari’s on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime, played a natural-finish Epiphone Casino they had hanging up on the wall and decided on the spot to buy it. It sounded great and was really comfortable to play and I could hear in my head how it would blend with my other electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster (yeah, whatever – you may not think they’re cool, but I do. Mine’s finished in a dark blue stain, the grain of the wood clearly visible. It looks bitchin’).

I got the Casino home, played it a lot, recorded some parts with it and was generally really happy. It felt like great value at £449. However, I soon started to notice a rattling coming from the tune-o-matic bridge, particularly noticeable on the D and G strings. It took a while to pin down the culprit, but I eventually realised that it was a thin retaining wire at the front of the bridge that sits over the threads of the saddle screws (for those of you unfamiliar with Casinos and similar hollow-bodies with tailpieces rather than stopbars, the bridge is properly fitted with these adjustment screws at the front to prevent the strings from snagging on them behind the bridge due to the back angle created as the string passes into the tailpiece). This is a fundamental design flaw in that style of bridge. It wasn’t the end of the world but it was annoying enough that I took it back to Macari’s and asked whether they had any suggestions for a fix.

They directed me to Andy Gibson, a repairer based in the basement of their other shop on Denmark Street. He suggested that as any attempted fix would be a bodge, the best thing to do would be to upgrade to a Schaller or a Gotoh unit, which I was happy with — I figured £30 or £40 for a better bridge that didn’t buzz or rattle was a reasonable expenditure when it would also likely give me more sustain, cause fewer string breakages and have more widely adjustable saddles for finer tweaks to the intonation. In the event, while waiting for the one he ordered to come in, Andy found a TonePros unit in his workshop that he reckoned would fit, so as of this evening I have a brand-new AVR tune-o-matic on my Casino, the buzz is gone, the bridge is locked to the posts (a nice little feature, that) and if anything the guitar sounds better than before.

I’m a happy little chappie.

But here’s the thing. Both Andy and the guys from Macari’s mentioned that fitting one of these bridges (Schaller, TonePros and Gotohs) is a popular mod that a lot of guitarists make, not only to Epiphones but to Gibsons as well. Now, that’s staggering to me. Epiphones are made to a tight price point so spending a little more after the fact to improve certain parts of the hardware is a good investment, no question. Having said that, I think a lot of guitarists would be happy if they put the prices up a little on their more expensive models and included better hardware on them as standard – after all, they’re buying thousands of bridges at bulk trade discounts, so the extra cost to them of using a better bridge (or tuners, or whatever) would actually be very minimal.

This is not some sort of cheap slam on Far Eastern manufacturing, by the way. A lot of lazy, ill-informed, unconsidered and frankly pretty racist nonsense is spouted on that subject. Epiphone guitars are made to specifications laid down by the people at Epiphone headquarters (in Nashville, Tennessee, since you ask) and any deficiencies in manufacturing are all directly attributable to the company’s US management, who are responsible for overseeing the process (however closely they choose) and awarding the contracts. And anyone who thinks Western production is automatically superior needs to read up about Detroit or British Leyland in the 1970s.

But while we’re on the subject of Western manufacturing, here’s another thing. Andy showed me the bridge off a newish Gibson Les Paul Custom he happened to have in his workshop right now. It appeared very similar to the one off my Epiphone, with noticeably less mass than the TonePros unit now on my guitar. It felt flimsy and surprisingly cheap. Andy had attempted to refile the grooves in the saddle once before but the owner was still breaking strings every gig he played and just wanted rid of it. The going rate in the UK for a new, US-made, LP Custom like this is £2999, by the way. Three. Grand.

If the use of such substandard hardware is standard practice for Gibson now, that’s really poor. If it’s a one-off rogue bit of ‘recycling’ by one enterprising member of staff, it’s hardly reassuring, as it doesn’t say much for their QC process. What the hell, Gibson? Show your customers a bit of respect.

The joy of a new guitar; or, I love my Epiphone Casino

I’ve mentioned before that I love recording electric guitar, building up layers of stuff, blending complementary tones. A big part of what makes it so satisfying when you’re happy with your work is how complex a process it is.

Recording one electric guitar rig means assembling a complicated system. When you plug an guitar into a pedal or two and into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier and thence to some sort of recording device (analogue or digital), you’ll be working with preamp and master gain controls on the pedals and the front face of the amp, the tone controls on the amp, equalisers on the mic pre, trims, faders, pads — the variables are endless (and remember, gain is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal). To get one good sound, with one guitar and one amp, is a substantial job of work. To get two or three… that’s a big endeavour.

And more and more, musicians will likely be trying to figure all of this stuff out for themselves. Demo studios exist in fewer and fewer numbers, and if you can’t find anyone local to you whom you trust to record you well, you may be better served by trying to record yourself. That’s why I started; the engineer my band had worked with for a couple of years went into post-production, and no one else in the area was as good as him.

Right now, I’m a pig in shit with this stuff. I recently bought a new guitar, an Epiphone Casino, as a present to myself after I completed the first year in my new job (I still call it my ‘new job’ despite have started nearly 13 months ago). That means I’m working out how it works with the two amps I have with me in my flat in London (a Vox AC15 and a big-ass Peavey half stack, a 120-watt single-channel all-valve behemoth, which I had intended to sell but find it difficult to part with), how it sits in a mix alongside my Strat, what it sounds like with pedals… This all takes time, and it’ll be some months before I’m really on top of it, but it’s a load of fun. So many new possibilities open up to you with a new instrument, and this is one I feel immediately at home with. I’d played Epiphone semis before (mainly Sheratons, possibly a Dot too), but fell quite hard for this Casino when I tried it in Macari’s. The decision to buy it was more or less instant. It has a more open, resonant acoustic-type tone played clean than I had been expecting (probably because it’s all hollow, while Sheratons have a solid centre block), but the thing can also kick like a mule; at higher gain structures, it gets into SG-like territory if you dial in the preamp right, and that’s a tone I can do business with.

Of course, like any guitar geek I’ve been on the net looking into who else has played Casinos. The Beatles — that is, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and most famously John Lennon – are the most obvious, but the list is long and distinguished, with a few favourite players and singer-songwriters among them. Which is nice; it’s cool having your gear choices validated and seeing what company you’re in. I’m looking forward to the day when the tone is so ingrained in me that I can identify a Casino in a dense mix merely from the sound (I’m a pretty reliable Strat spotter). Right now, though, I’m still exploring all the possibilities that this guitar offers, and it’s really inspiring.

Casino small

The Casino, in my flat