Tag Archives: Ethan Johns

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s decision to bring forward the release of her new album from August to Good Friday may have been motivated by altruism or a canny instinct on her part (or her advisors’) that a UK in lockdown constitutes a captive audience, desperate for new entertainment. Either way, it’s we who benefit, as it’s an excellent piece of work.

Previously, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about Marling’s music. She’s a very accomplished guitarist, writing serious and thoughtful music, with a high level of intelligence and craft on display. Yet, I’ve found her habit of adopting different accents, sometimes affecting Estuarial English vowels and glottal stops on her early work, singing with a mid-Atlantic twang since her third album and subsequently developing a vibrato strikingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s, distracting at best and annoying at worst. More seriously, I’ve sometimes wondered if Marling’s ability to mimic her heroes so accurately – I remain unconvinced that Nouel from Semper Femina is actually Laura Marling at all, and not an outtake from Mitchell’s For the Roses sung by Joni herself – is impeding the development of a genuinely idiosyncratic songwriting voice.

Song for Our Daughter doesn’t dispel these concerns, so much as beneath a crop of really strong new songs. There are four of five here that are pretty stupendously good, and nothing at all that’s a throwaway.

The album begins with Alexandra, a kind of meditation on Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving from Ten New Songs. With strummed acoustic guitar chords (I’m not sure of the tuning, but I’m guessing not standard) and a slight country-rock feel, it’s a breezy opener, but one that leaves a series of unanswered questions hanging in the air: “what kind of woman gets to love you?”, “where did Alexandra go?” and “what did Alexandra know?” Annoyingly, neither Discogs nor All Music have the credits for the record yet, but I guess producer Ethan Johns is playing drums (it sounds like him anyway). Though there aren’t many instruments in the arrangement, it’s full-sounding rather than sparse, with interest created by some runs on bass, a little bit of atmospheric Hejira-esque volume-pedal guitar and some prominent vocal harmonies.

Whoever the drummer is, he or she is on similarly great form on second track Held Down, playing double-stroke sixteenths on the hat and giving a lot of propulsion to a very cool groove. The rising-and-falling bass fits in nicely, the player using a pick and, I think, a mute, with a hollow-body kind of tone. Marling’s vocal is slightly drawly in the the verses, which isn’t a style I love from her, but the pre-chorus and chorus are so great, especially when she goes high register on the line “and I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down”, that I’m more than happy to live with it. It’s probably my favourite track on the album’s first side, in fact, for that moment alone. Nice harmonised electric guitar in the choruses, too.

The next track, Strange Girl, is built on a cool rhythm track: a sort of shuffle on the drum kit, with percussion overdubs to create a Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard kind of effect. Again, Marling is in drawly mode in the verses – more Lou Reed than Dylan this time; “never fit the playahn”, indeed – but again the chorus redeems it. In fact, it’s been bouncing round my head for the last five days straight.

The drum kit is present again on Only the Strong, but the song is led off by a Blackbird-like foot tap – one of several nods to McCartney on the album. Marling’s fingerpicking, on classical guitar this time, is really nice. She has great time and consistency when picking. It never sounds hurried or uncomfortable.

While I have a lot of time for the song musically, I’m less sure about what Marling is getting at lyrically here. In the press materials for the album, Marling speaks of how the songs are written to an imagined daughter:

“I’m older now, old enough to have a daughter of my own, and I feel acutely the resonsibility to defend The Girl. The Girl that might be lost, torn from innocence prematurely or unwittingly fragmented by forces that dominate society. I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself. This album is that strange whisper; a little distorted, a little out of sequence, such is life.”

In which case, should we read all the lyrics in all the songs as Marling’s lessons to a daughter, or a younger version of herself? “Only the strong survive” is a shopworn observation, one that I don’t believe is even true or helpful. Some strong people don’t survive; they get broken. Some weak people don’t just survive – they thrive. It’s not down to how “strong” you are; it’s how much life throws at you, and your ability to cope is a function not of character or strength, but of health, money, class, race, gender – everything.

To believe that being “strong” can save an individual from all the deprivations and depredations that may befall any one of us is a curiously conservative notion. Marling seems rather too intelligent to believe such nonsense, so I feel like she, or the persona she adopts for the song, has to be setting it up as an empty platitude we’re supposed to see straight through. Yet, we come up against this idea expressed in press materials and interviews that Marling is genuinely trying to impart lessons in these lyrics. The song makes me a little uncomfortable, purely because I can’t yet figure out where it’s coming from.

But let’s leave that to one side now and move on.

Blow by Blow is piano based and beautiful. The simple piano accompaniment highlight the strength of melody and Marling’s vocal, while the string arrangement, especially the high violins in the second verse, is spine-tingling. The arrangement is by Rob Moose, who’s also worked with the National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his work here is subtler than that might imply. Marling’s atmospheric high harmonies are also effective.

The title song leads off side two. Its verses are in 9/8 time, with strummed acoustic guitar in, I think, some kind of C tuning (or G with a C bass – a tuning I’ve used a lot personally). The arrangement, featuring another great string part, simple piano and bass and drums, is once again perfect for the song – just what’s needed and nothing more. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Marling is evoking Judee Sill’s Lopin’ Along  Thru the Cosmos in the line “So you wished for a kiss from God” (compare with Judee’s “I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from God”), but then, as you might guess from the name of my blog, I’m always hyper-aware of possible quotes from Judee Sill.

Fortune is my favourite track on the album. The fingerpicking, in waltz time, is gorgeous, and there are some lovely suspensions and movement in the bass. (This live video shows what’s involved in playing it.) The lyric, with its repeated evocations of running and “unbearable pain”, is one of the record’s most poignant. Musically, it’s probably the most Joni Mitchell-derived song (like Nouel from her previous record, it’s particularly reminiscent of For the Roses), but Mitchell rarely wrote in waltz time, which does give Fortune something of its own thing, as does the string arrangement.

Beginning with an atmospheric drone, The End of the Affair (which seems to riff on the Graham Greene novel) is another track that nods at Paul McCartney’s acoustic work on the White Album and his early solo records. In fact, there’s some movement that specifically recalls Blackbird, when Marling sings “I’d let you live your life” and the guitar descends stepwise under each syllable. Again, the use of reverb-laden harmonies is hugely effective, and on the line “I love you, goodbye”, as the “aahs” rise up to meet Marling’s lead vocal at the end of the song, it’s positively spine-tingling.

Hope We Meet Again sees Marling playing with some of the same chordal ideas as The End of the Affair. In the verses she alternates semi-spoken with higher-register sung lines, in a curious range of accents, with vowels from all over the map. There’s no way around it, it’s a little distracting*, but the song is still a good one, and the arrangement – bowed double bass on the left channel, pedal steel on the right, bass guitar and drums coming in late in the song – is creative and surprising.

Closing track For You feels like the only dud on the album to me right now, more due to the arrangement than the song itself. It’s a simple descending sequence strummed on acoustic guitar, with a sung bass line. Whoever the male singer is, it’s out of tune in a way that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. The whole thing is just a bit twee musically, in a way I think some fans will really embrace, but I can’t really get on board with.

Still, nine good songs out of ten is an excellent hit rate and, while I’m no expert on her career as I’ve said, there are a few songs here – Blow by Blow, The End of the Affair, Fortune, Held Down – that seem to me to be up with the best work she’s done. The record is probably stronger in its quieter moments, although the more band-oriented tracks showcase a developing interest in rhythm and texture. All in all, I’d say it’s the best record I’ve heard by her. It’s taken a while for me to get on board with Marling’s work, but this one’s convinced me.

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*I half expect her to, Jagger-style, launch into a mockney rap about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

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Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.

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

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 2 – Call Me on Your Way Back Home – Ryan Adams

When I first heard Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker I was more impressed than I’d have been if I’d been familiar with the artists he was cribbing from. At that time, I didn’t know that many records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt or Bruce Springsteen, or any of the other acts that Adams was stylistically in hock to. Nowadays, while I can still remember the emotional charge I used to get from My Winding Wheel, My Sweet Carolina and the sparse, charged Call Me on Your Way Back Home, most of the time when I listen to Heartbreaker I find the obviousness of his borrowings crass.

Which says at least as much about me as it does about him. No one said pop music had to be original. A lot of the time the joy of it is precisely its lack of originality, its willingness to repeat the formula exactly, to conform perfectly to expectation. But I had something invested in the idea of Adams as an original talent of the order of Dylan, Morrison or Young, which is absurd, but at 18 I knew know better. If I’d known twice as much then as I actually did, relatively speaking I’d still have known dick all.

So the magic faded somewhat, and when it did I was left with a record that was admirable for the way it replicated the sound and feel of certain rock-history glory moments, most notably producer Ethan Johns’ uncanny reproduction of the sound of Dylan’s mid-sixties work, most notably Blonde on Blonde. The devil is in the details where this sort of thing is concerned, and Johns has a record producer’s ear for detail; an ear schooled by his father, Glyn Johns – producer and engineer for the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin – from an early age

His drum tunings were key to pulling this off. Tune the drums correctly, then leave enough space in the performances for the resonances to really add to the overall sound. Then set the band up right in the room and allow the leakage of the drums into the guitar and vocal mics (yeah, live vocals – scared yet, you Pro Tools kids?) to dictate the overall sound. Johns was the drummer, the producer and the engineer for all this, so there is really is no overstating how important he was to the finished product (he also played bass, organ and Chamberlin – a precursor to the Mellotron).

Johns sits out almost three-quarters of the genuinely mournful-sounding Call Me on Your Way Back Home, finally coming in when Adams’ vocal drops out, allowing the sound of the room – captured in the guitar and vocal mics as well as in his drum mics – to supply a beautiful reverb, taking full advantage in his big, simple tom fills, which owe a lot stylistically to Levon Helm. Nowadays, when I think of Heartbreaker, I think of Johns’ drumming on the album: of the five-stroke intro to Come Pick Me Up; of the pattering brushed drum fills on Sweet Carolina; and of course of those authoritative and strangely uplifting thudding toms at the end of Call Me on Your Way Back Home.

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Ryan Adams

Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams – a relistening

Listening to Tres Chicas last week in order to put something together on them for this blog led to me to spend some time – for the first time in a long while – with Whiskeytown’s records, Whiskeytown being the band that Caitlin Cary is best known for, the band that introduced David Ryan Adams to the world. These are records I’m well familiar with, having listened to them extensively around a decade ago, when I first became interested in contemporary country-rock music.

I’d heard some country music growing up, on a couple of Music for Pleasure cassette compilations that my parents played on car journeys sometimes: Crystal Gayle, Billie Jo Spears, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Jean Shepherd, Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry, some Willie Nelson (anyone that they could get the rights to, which led to the same artists getting featured over and over). But, being young, I didn’t get the nuances, the difference between the artists, the voices, the arrangements. It didn’t seem odd to me that Crystal Gayle’s ballads entirely forsook fiddle and pedal steel (not that I’d have known what a pedal steel guitar was, let alone what countrypolitan was) in favour of string sections and harps. I couldn’t hear that Anne Murray’s voice was different to all the other singers’ because she was Canadian. And so I grew up with a specific, context-free idea of what country was. Country music encompassed everything from Blanket on the Ground to Talking in Your Sleep, Hello Walls to When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman, and all of this was country, because the cassette sleeves said it was.

I didn’t know then that country was also Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and Slim Whitman. I didn’t know that, say, the Eagles had made a species of country music – I’d heard them, but they weren’t on these cassettes, so evidently they weren’t country. A child’s mind is wonderfully literal.

So when I started looking into contemporary country music I didn’t want to hear the modern equivalent of that old stuff I heard when I was a kid (which probably would have meant Trisha Yearwood or something similarly polished and Nashville) – I was interested in hearing the music that was being spoken of as the carrying on the legacy of Hank Williams, or of the Outlaw artists from the seventies. Music that was rough, gritty, rootsy, melancholy, beautiful but not necessarily pretty. Music that reeked of beer and cigarettes and desperation. A college student’s mind is touchingly romantic.

Whiskeytown were considered one of the foremost examplars of this new old-school country music, so I had to hear them. What I realised soon enough is that Ryan Adams wasn’t the pure-bred country musician I thought he was. He was a former punk rocker who formed Whiskeytown five minutes after being introduced to the records of Gram Parsons and George Jones by Skillet Gilmore, who gave Adams a job in the Raleigh, NC, bar he ran and became the first drummer of Adams’ new country band.

Adams was a consummate student of music, a writer with an extraordinary gift for mimicry. This was already obvious by the time Whiskeytown released Strangers Almanac in 1998, where Adams’ debts to the Rolling Stones and Paul Westerberg began to be revealed as clearly as his Parsons love, and over the course of Pneumonia (the band’s final album, retaining only Adams and Cary from the first record) and his first two solo albums (Heartbreaker and Gold), Adams wrote songs that cribbed from Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. No wonder Uncut loved him.

Many of these songs, to be sure, were great: Adams has a lot of talent, a very keen ear and the sense to surround himself with musicians who can help him get to where he wants to go (a cast list that has included Ethan Johns, Bucky Baxter, Mike Daly, Jennifer Condos, Cyndi Cashdollar, David Rawlings and Catherine Popper). But when I fell out of love with Adams and his work, I fell out hard, as he simply hadn’t given me what I was looking for, and at the same time that I was listening to him I was becoming more intimately acquainted with the work of Dylan, Young, Van and Chilton, to say nothing of Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.

For me, it’s not a damning criticism of Adams to say that he works essentially by emulation. Certainly not at this point, where I’m basically over the idea of authenticity and originality as having much bearing on the quality of art. However, the amount that Adams owes to his influences is often so clear as to become distracting, particularly on Gold, where practically every song is a love letter to one artist specifically. On a couple, Adams even sang the song in an imitation of the inspirator’s voice, to make the debt entirely clear for those who weren’t paying attention at the back. While one had to applaud the scholarship, it became a little wearing.

While his work in the decade since Gold has been uneven, it is surprising how far his critical esteem has dropped, and the degree to which he has receded from the indie consciousness. His 2011 album Ashes & Fire passed me by entirely (its single Lucky Now was essentially Daddy was a Bankrobber played slowly on acoustic guitar, and was pretty dispiriting to sit through) and generated none of the hype and anticipation that a Ryan Adams record would have done six or seven years before (love them or hate them, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Love is Hell got him a lot of press coverage).

And when I saw a video of (and was blown away by) Mandy Moore singing a live-in-the-studio version of Merrimack River, I couldn’t help but think about how long it had been since her husband (Ryan Adams) had written a song half as good, or indeed sang anything with that much emotional commitment.

There’s lots of excellent songs in Adams’ discography and he may yet end up as an Elton John figure – someone who made no faultless albums but who drifted in and out of songwriting form over several decades and cut enough great songs for an excellent double-CD best-of. There are certainly worse fates for a recording artist. Nevertheless it must be somewhat galling for him that he’s now so out of favour critically that when Laura Marling rewrote New York New York (from Gold) as Sophia, with Ethan Johns in the producer’s chair, no one who praised that song thought to mention how big a debt it owed to Johns’ first big-name client.

If you’ve never listened to the man’s work and want to give him a fair hearing, I can recommend Heartbreaker and Pneumonia without hesitation, and give qualified thumbs ups to Strangers Almanac and Gold too. And I do genuinely hope he puts out something to rival them one day.

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Whiskeytown, circa Pneumonia

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Ryan Adams, in a park