Tag Archives: grunge

Bright as Yellow – The Innocence Mission

With its soundtrack by and cameo appearances from all the big-name Seattle bands with the exception of Nirvana, Cameron Crowe’s Singles is basically the official movie of the grunge era. Reality Bites, the good-on-paper, shit-on-celluloid rival-studio response that starred Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke (and was directed by Stiller), is all but unwatched these days, and is anyway all but unwatchable.

Then there’s plucky little Empire Records. It bombed on its release, receiving universally negative reviews. When I saw it, it did indeed seem to me unexceptional, and notable only because it featured a scene where Liv Tyler sexy-danced to Throwing Muses’ Snakeface until being disturbed by the doorbell (notable not because of Ms Tyler’s performance, but because of the unlikely choice of song, you understand). Yet Empire Records has a thriving cult that still enjoys the film and celebrates 8th April every year as Rex Manning Day – Manning being a washed-up ’80s pop star whose in-store appearance on that date forms the backdrop to the movie’s events. For its fans, Empire Records is more than just a don’t-they-look-young time capsule (as well as Tyler, the film features Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia as put-upon store owner Joe – the only character who merits much sympathy); they really love it.

Empire Records the movie may not be a favourite of mine, but I have still have pretty strong memories of seeing it in college as my brother had bought the soundtrack, and knowing the tunes before I saw the film seemed to help it lodge in my memory. Likely he bought it because Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You was on it, but apart from that it also featured a decent cover of The Ballad of El Goodo by Evan Dando, the Gin Blossoms’ lovely Til I Hear it from You (co-written with power-pop pioneer Marshall Crenshaw) and the Innocence Mission’s equally lovely Bright as Yellow.

My first thought on hearing the Innocence Mission was that they had to have been opportunistic second stringers that the soundtrack supervisor settled for after not being able to secure a first choice. In the early 1990s, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belly and Juliana Hatfield were all indie favourites, and Innocence Mission singer Karen Peris seemed to owe something to all of them.

But, I think now, that was very unfair. By the time Empire Records came out in 1995 and the Innocence Mission got the closest thing they ever had to a mainstream moment, all of the above artists had seen their commercial waves crest and recede. Whatever you did to try to get big in 1995, it sure as hell wasn’t rip off the Sundays. In fact, the Innocence Mission had been going for as long as any of those artists whose sounds theirs resembled. Furthermore, they were a Christian band from a completely different milieu to those groups, and on close listening, I can’t help but feel their sonic similarity to other acts that had enjoyed recent critical and/or commercial success just had to be a coincidence. I don’t hear Karen Peris as capable of that kind of cynicism.

Bright as Yellow takes its time, builds slowly and may not sound like much initially, but each time that chorus comes around, it lands with greater force, and that middle-eight section (repeated twice) in which her singing becomes increasingly urgent and staccato is a wonderful bit of writing.

Advertisements

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.

 

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 3: Sick of Myself – Matthew Sweet

Of all the supporting players on Matthew Sweet’s 1990 album Girlfriend, it’s his lead guitarists who drew all the attention. Small wonder, when the guitarists in question were Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. That’s some serious fretboard power. On a record that’s somewhat sonically unsatisfying (small-sounding, excessively dry, underwhelming low end), Lloyd and Quine provide most of the excitement and most of the rock.

By the time Sweet made 100% Fun in 1995, the grunge wave had crested and receded, but his sound was still saturated with alt.rock sonic signifiers (similar things happened to the Posies and Aimee Mann in the same period). Compared to Girlfriend, 100% Fun sounds like it’s been pumped up with steroids. Sweet’s Epiphone semi-acoustic grunts and growls rather than chimes, and Ric Menck’s drums are an enormous foreground presence rather than a discreet tapping from somewhere at the back (or worse, the side) of the mix.

Good rock music is all about the energy and power provided by the drums, and it’s Menck who steals the show on album opener Sick of Myself, despite the best efforts of Television’s Lloyd and his squalling Fender. Menck smashes his crash cymbals in the intro and choruses, plays big smacking hi-hat quarter notes in the verses and generally pounds on his snare drum like it’s done him a personal injury. There’s no showiness to any of it. He’s just making as big a noise as possible. He sounds like he’s having a ball doing it. According to Sweet, when they tracked what became Sick of Myself, he hadn’t really written the vocal parts other than the hook line in the chorus, and it was how great the drums and rhythm guitar track sounded together that inspired him to finish the piece and make it into a proper song.

Aiding and abetting him were producer Brendan O’Brien and O’Brien’s frequent partner in crime, tracking engineer Nick DiDia, who cooked up a particularly great drum sound for the album. The snare is absolutely huge (it sounds very wide, if that makes sense – presumably from just the right blend of close snare mike and stereo rooms, but I’m taking a shot on that. Could be wrong), and if the toms are comparatively small, they don’t really play a huge part in the performance; if O’Brien privileged the snare when mixing, he made absolutely the right call. It’s the crucial instrument in the mix. It’s what supplied the song with its attitude. Fittingly, the guy playing it sounded like he was having 100% fun.

sweet casino
Sweet shills for Epiphone  (1996) – and who among us would turn down a free Casino or two?

Pop songs about pop songs: Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish (repost)

Hi all. Sorry for doing the repost thing, but it’s been a very busy week and I’m not feeling all that well. I’m having trouble shaking a cold I’ve had for a week now. In fact, just when I thought I was OK, it came back stronger than before. Hopefully be back with something new on Sunday.

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. Their meta-pop – pop songs written about pop songs, with a pervasive sense of irony and a sense that they weren’t taking any of this too seriously – just didn’t catch on. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC. They looked like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing. They became instead a cult band, loved by a devoted few.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum. Leaving aside the band members and hired players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who had succeeded Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer during their disco-era records and had serious hit-making pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians who shared their outlook, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something breezier and lighter on its feet, in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

Jellyfish

Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

heatmiser
Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta

Jack Endino, recording engineer

Although I’ve spent a lot of hours listening to music recorded and mixed by Jack Endino, it didn’t occur to me until the last few years that the recording and mixing was a big part of what I was responding to in the music.

Casual fans will know of him as the guy the recorded Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, for $600 in 1988. Grunge heads will know him as the man at the desk for Green River’s Dry as a Bone, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, Afghan Whigs’ Up in It, Screaming Trees’ Buzz Factory, the first couple of Mark Lanegan solo records and innumerable Seattle indie records since. As is the case for his Midwestern counterpart Steve Albini, as fewer people have been paying attention, his record-making craft has got better and better.

The Jack Endino sound is not a product of the machinery employed. The Otari MX-5050 8-track analogue tape recorder that he used to record Bleach is in the EMP museum in Seattle, yet the man’s work is still readily identifiable. If I had to encapsulate his sound in a single word, it might be something like “unfussy”, but that would be doing him a disservice and wouldn’t really get to the heart of what I like about his sound and what I hear in it.

So here’s the longer version. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 13, which means I’ve been playing music with other musicians on stage and in rehearsal rooms and recording studios for twenty years. I know what it sounds like to stand a few feet away from a drummer giving the cymbals what for, or from a guitarist whose tone could strip paint off a wall. I’ve sat on a drum stool and given a snare drum an undeserved pounding, my ear maybe a foot and a half away from the drum head, and I’ve been in the presence of bass players seemingly in search of the mythical brown note. Endino’s recordings retain more of this sense memory for me of what this all sounds like than just about any other engineer’s, Albini included. His instruments sound like instruments, not instruments mediated by the tastes of the producer and the production fashions and orthodoxies of the era.

The internal balance of the drums, for example. Many times in recording and mixing, an engineer will dramatically alter the balance of the drum kit – that is, how loud each part of the drum kit is in relation to all the others when the drummer – to get a desired sonic picture. Typically, the snare drum will be emphasised, the close-miked snare jacked up, and various other points of collection gated and/or filtered to achieve the same end result (for example, gating the toms to reduce the amount of bleed from the hi-hat, making the snare seem louder in comparison). Endino’s work doesn’t sound like it’s been fussed over in this way. Not to say that he doesn’t use those techniques, but if he does, it’s not obvious, so the intent isn’t to foreground his own craft.

When you listen to Nirvana’s Bleach you’re hearing the same band-members-in-a-room approach you hear on Slippage’s Tectonica, released twenty years later and featuring Endino himself on drums and bass (along with Allison Maryatt on vocals and guitar and Skin Yard/Gruntruck veteran Scott McCullum on drums). Let’s look at an even more recent track: Storm, by Soundgarden. The track was recorded for, but not used on, a demo tape in 1986 (Cornell was still the group’s drummer). Endino unearthed the original tapes, and on a whim remixed it and sent it to the band. They liked it enough that they decided to get together with Endino and do a new version. Of course, any track with Matt Cameron drumming on it is automatically better than the same track with anyone else drumming on it, but it also gives us a nice demonstration of how little things have changed in Endinoland.

About three and half minutes in there’s a cool breakdown section where Cameron plays tom patterns, laying off the snare for maybe 20 seconds or so, then slowly bringing it back in for emphasis, then going totally hog wild over the full kit, snare, cymbals and all. The drums sound great. It’s not a spectacular sound, not as instantly ear-grabbing as the ones employed on Superunknown, but damn, it sounds like a drum kit, rather than an idealised version of one.

In the meantime, the bass is as rich and full as you’d hope (it’s kind of a 2-layer sound, with a clean-sounding low end and a grindier top that gives it a presence in the track – might be a trick of the ear though), and Kim Thayil’s guitars are frequently hard-panned, shrieking and screaming across the whole stereo image. Cornell’s voice, sometimes doubled in octaves, is subtly modulated but occasionally heavily, obviously delayed. The track’s a great example of how an Endino recording can combine an approach to drums that’s very straightforward and faithful to reality with time-domain effects on vocals and guitars and create a very natural-feeling and coherent whole.

jackendino
Jack Endino, in the studio

Songs, not recorded by Jack Endino