Tag Archives: Glyn Johns

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Bees can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that, too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and it’s obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material, too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

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Belly on the beach in Nassau during the recording of King, 1995)

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.

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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.

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

Podcast #4 – Stereo miking of the drum kit

Hi folks. A bit later than planned, here’s another downloadable podcast on recording drums. This time we’re discussing stereo miking the kit using what’s often called the ‘Glyn Johns’* method. Johns is a veteran engineer producer who recorded Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Who’s Next, the first couple of Eagles records, the first Zeppelin record… so you can surmise from that that this is a technique that works. Employed well, it will allow yout to pick up a really clear focused drum sound with a good amount of detail and a stable, mono-compatible stereo image, and use your close kick and snare mics to add focus and low end to those particular drums.

It’s a good choice if you’re recording drums in the home or rehearsal space and you don’t have an awful lot of channels and/or microphones at your disposal.

*Interesting historical note. I’ve heard a veteran engineer or two over at the Womb forumsdiscussing this and saying that the Glyn Johns method was the same way every engineer who trained at a studio in London in the 4- or 8-track era recorded drums. Not everyone panned their kit mikes in stereo the way Johns did, though.

Podcast #3 – How to record the snare drum

Podcast time again! This time we’re talking about the snare drum: we discuss tuning, mic placement and mic choice, compression, EQ and gating. I hope it’s of use to some of you! If you’d like to download it, click on that little downwards-arrow icon.

I’ll be doing a regular post on Thursday, so if that’s your bag, check back as normal on Thursday for a written post.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

 

These are the results I’m getting at the moment using the methods detailed in the podcasts:

Podcast #2 – How to record a bass drum

Hi there. Another podcast for you. This one’s focuses on the bass drum: approaches to take to miking it up, and a discussion of compression, EQ and editing. I hope it’s of use to some of you!

I’ll be doing a regular post over the weekend. I’ve already got a song in mind – it’s one of my favourite-ever records so it may be quite gushy. Just to warn you in advance.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

Podcast #1 – Introduction to recording drums at home

Hi there. So as promised, I’m going to try uploading some podcasts and see if anyone bites. I’m thinking that I’ll start by having a couple of different series: one focused on some of the technical aspects of recording music, and one where I discuss music with various bloggers, writers and musicians. Don’t worry though: I’ll still be doing written posts too. Although in the first week or so while I get off and running, perhaps not quite as many as usual.

Here’s the first of the technical ones. It’s the first in a series about recording drums, aimed at the independent/unsigned musician on a budget. Hope it’s of interest to some of you! As ever, soundcloud embeds in wordpress somewhat erratically, but if you can’t see the podcast link below and you’re getting a grey soundcloud box, refresh your browser and it should appear. It is downloadable (as a mono MP3, about 16MB in size).

Enjoy!

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

Belly – King/Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 3

Talking about her career in music and her final Swan Song EPs in a recent interview with Mouth magazine, former Throwing Muses and Breeders guitarist/Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly described Belly’s second album King as a more ‘lo-fi’ record than their debut, Star.

Strange description, I thought. King‘s not a slick record, but it’s one that sounds like a band in a room playing its songs. It was produced and mixed by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, the Eagles – enough of a track record for ya?) and engineered by Jack Joseph Puig, at the very high-spec Compass Point studio in Nassau: a minimum of overdubs, live vocals, hard-panned guitars, natural-sounding ambiances. Donelly’s voice sometimes cracks. Gail Greenwood’s bass does not always hit the one with Chris Gorman’s kick. You can hear real-time fader and pan-pot moves. It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way.

Star sounds good, too. But it doesn’t sound like a band playing songs together in a room. It sounds like something bad going down in Toytown. It’s a very carefully constructed sound world, one which had little to do with the material reality of Belly-the-band playing instruments in a room. Which brings us back to the discussion of terminology from a couple of months back. If a ‘low fidelity’ record is simply one that isn’t slick, then, sure, maybe King is lo-fi. If a lo-fi record is simply one that doesn’t sound ‘good’, then King ain’t one in my book. If a lo-fi record is one that doesn’t sound like the music sounded before it hit tape, then King is the very opposite. It’s a hi-fi record. One of the hi-est.

And, from King, back to Good Morning Spider by Sparklehorse. GMS‘s centrepiece is a song called Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man. Happy Man is probably the best song Mark Linkous ever wrote. It’s propulsive, urgent, utterly surreal and yet somehow anthemic and universal. Linkous, something of a contrarian, decided to bury the first verse and the chorus under AM radio static and bleepy noise. The song then almost fades all the way in for the second verse, before going the other way, becoming temporarily submerged entirely under white noise and a reprise of the organ chords of Chaos of the Galaxy, the short instrumental piece that begins the track. Finally the song fades in properly in time for the second chorus.

Linkous later admitted in interviews that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage a song he recognised as having commercial potential; he didn’t want it to be extracted and released as a single the way Someday I Will Treat You Good from Vivadixiesubmarine plot had been. I’m sure Capitol were delighted. Still, when you don’t have a producer, you might be able to pull off this kind of thing once or twice before you get a stern talking to from your label.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Linkous re-recorded the song without the radio static and Chaos of the Galaxy sections, releasing it on an EP called Distorted Ghost. The version I knew and treasured was a live version that segued into Pig (called, imaginatively, Happy Pig), which was also released on Distorted Ghost. I’d burned it off a free CD from Uncut before promptly losing the CD and forgetting where the track came from (a BBC session, I think). I loved the rawness of it, and the furious tempo at which the song was played. At that speed, Linkous’ plea (that he only wants to be happy) sounded more real than ever. In 2010, he showed us how real.

But let’s not get caught up in that now. What matters for this discussion is that, for all that Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man is raw and messy, it’s not a faithful document of a real-time musical event. It’s an elaborate construction, an aural sleight of hand. Under a sensible definition of the term, we couldn’t call this track lo-fi. The term simply wouldn’t be applicable. Which only goes to show the difficulty of talking about music. You constantly have to define your terms, almost song by song. When two music fans talk about lo-fi, they may very well not mean the same thing by it. Sometimes this talking at cross-purposes is fun and thought-provoking. Sometimes it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

If I have a conclusion – after a couple of months of kicking around these ideas occasionally – it’s that I have a personal definition of lo-fi that probably isn’t shared by music fans generally, so I have to acknowledge the more general definition too. And regarding Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider is a difficult album to pin down. Superficially it sounds more like a lo-fi album ‘should’ sound, but it achieved that sound in a variety of ways, which didn’t always have to do with just banging out songs in an honest and authentic way, which often seem to be the unspoken connotations of the term ‘lo-fi’. More than simply a rough, raw, ragged album, GMS is an artful album, even if, when exposed to the opening bars of Pig, my brother once proclaimed, ‘But this doesn’t even sound good!’

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Left: Mark Linkous and his brothers in weird, Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Right: Belly on the beach, Nassau, 1995

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, based on the version I refer to above:

Playful, sinister, vaguely surreal – Every Word by Belly

A few days back I spoke about Nino Rota’s Casanova soundtrack playing in ‘that space between the lulling and the nightmarish’ and being ‘playful, sinister, vaguely surreal’. I’ve been searching my iTunes library, trying to find more music that had a similar vibe, but my collection of orchestral/movie music only runs to a couple of dozen records and none of them really had that same feel. But I did remember a record that sparked in me the same kind of associations. It was actually a rock album, Star by Belly.

There’s a moment on Star, more than any other, that most powerfully creates that feeling of the childhood world being menaced by something adult and not fully understood.

Every Word, the fourth song on the record, starts unexceptionally enough, although it sticks with its basic E major to Eb major chord progression long enough for it to set up a palpable tension. But the strangeness really begins after the song’s chorus section (for want of a better term), when the whole things stops and, after the chord is allowed to ring out long enough to make you think the song might be over, it starts again at a crawl. The rest of the song is then taken at a really slow tempo. The sort that you don’t encounter in rock music very often. It’s amazing how you can make something familiar strange by the simple act of dragging it out, slowing it right down.

Over this, a high-pitched melody plays, on an electric guitar doubled by something. A theremin? Tanya Donelly’s voice, possibly, altered, manipulated or repitched? It’s hard to tell, which is the point. Familiar chord changes and rhythms made strange by playing them too slowly. Familiar sounds made strange by combining them with others, by filtering and processing them. Making the familiar strange is what this album does.

Every Word is only the most obvious moment of weirdness on the record. But this is an album that deals over and again with childhood exposure to the adult world, in which everything is weird because of its newness. Or rather, an adult imagining herself as a child, for Donelly was in her mid-twenties and had been a professional musician for seven or eight years at this point. For sceptics of the band, and there were a few, there was something off-putting about the distance between the physical reality of Donelly the grown woman and her child (childish? Childlike?) narrators, a distance made greater by the soft, high-pitched voice she sang the songs in. That vocal tone, which she hadn’t used on previous Throwing Muses or Breeders records and wouldn’t use for Belly’s second album King, was essentially an exaggeration of her normal singing voice. Using her head voice rather than projecting from the diaphragm, accentuating her vocals’ natural airiness and lightness, she made herself sound younger, which perfectly suited the Brothers Grimm world of the album.

But working with these kinds of conceits and affectations without explaining them can lead to misinterpretation, and Donelly came in for some unwarranted criticism from some within the riot grrrl scene for working with metaphor and symbols and allegory (and so obscuring her message), for some of her mannerisms and even for her stage clothes, and above all for failing to make herself and her songs immediately comprehensible.

Whether as a direct result of this flak or not, when Belly next made an album, the tinny, something-bad-going-down-in-Toytown sound of Star had given way to a muscular, live-off-the-floor directness. King was recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas by Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who) and featured minimal overdubs, hard panning, even live vocals. There aren’t many bands with such a small body of work who made two albums so different from each other. The songs were clearly the work of the same writer, but it was as if 10 years had passed between them rather than just two.

I like both albums equally, but Star I tend to listen to less. It has such a particular sound and mood that it doesn’t fit every occasion. When you’re in the mood for it though, it’s just the thing. There is nothing else like it.

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Belly on the beach, 1995. ©Stephen Dirado