Tag Archives: Grammy Awards

Moon over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly remains one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left (after The Real Ramona, one of the Muses very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never as interesting after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, Belly were immediately commercially successful. Very. Top five albums in both the US and the UK, top 20 singles, MTV heavy rotation, radio play and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve long described as ‘something bad going down in Toytown’. One wonders what Hersh thought, seeing her sister playing Letterman and modelling for Gap adverts.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last. Their second album did less well than the first, and the band unravelled. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was the only misstep of her career. Aiming to attract radio play with big shiny hooks, the record instead came over as bland AAA, lacking its author’s usual lyrical ambiguity and disquieting obliqueness. It didn’t catch on and didn’t really deserve to, and when Donelly next put out an album, after a break to have a second child, her music sounded and felt much more her own again; different in its outlook from the songs of the Belly era, but more obviously a product of her peculiar sensibility.

While the Lovesongs era was one to forget, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge it’s the only proper recording of the song, written by Gary ‘Skeggie’ Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and 90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin, and probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side. It’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly all but gave up making music in the mid-noughties, training as a doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement; nevertheless, her involvement in music seems to be winding down now. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. A more driven musician (she here for some of her backstory) than Donelly, Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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That’s the Way Love Goes – Janet Jackson

I wasn’t a huge fan of this when it came out. Janet Jackson has never been a particularly commanding vocalist, and with That’s the Way Love Goes being sung softly against a very prominent groove, the record didn’t seem to contain much Jackson at all. I was, what, eleven at the time, without a good stereo of my own to listen to it on, so I only heard the song on little radios and in my parents’ car; with the low end being inaudible in that context, a lot of the point of the record was lost with it. And truth to tell, the song was thematically a bit adult for the 11-year-old me to really relate to.

Now, I find myself really taken with the sexy, unhurried groove. Musically, the track still contains traces of new jack swing (of which Jackson’s producers Jam and Lewis were early pioneers, along with Teddy Riley) but crossed with the more naturalistic (often sample-based) sounds of the then-infant genre of hip hop soul. The triplet swing is still hinted at, but the drum sound is more natural, more expensive-sounding, less brash, than it would have been in the late 1980s. Early NJS had used the Roland TR-808 to program complex, layered grooves that would have been very difficult if not impossible for a single human drummer to recreate. That’s the Way Love Goes samples its drums instead, from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess, then augments them to make them bigger (the time stretched, quantised, heavily compressed and as a result somewhat shaky Brown groove is clearly audible in the mix though). It sounds more grown-up than true NJS had done; muted earth tones rather than stark primary colours.

The drums aren’t the only signifier of adult sophistication, though. The jazzy guitar, playing lead licks in parallel fourths on what sounds like a big-bodied archtop guitar (an updated Breezin’-style George Benson kind of thing) and chord voicings with 6ths and major 7ths, does much to define the mood of the record.

But ultimately, it’s Jackson’s voice – very confident and intimate, soft and gentle without leaning too heavily on the breathy half-whisper that was already a cliché in slow jams and bedroom records – that really sells it. It deservedly won her a Grammy for Best R&B Song; she’s won six Grammys in total, but That’s the Way Love Goes is the only one to win for songwriting. All things considered, it’s probably her best single, despite strong competition from her Control hits.

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Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)