Tag Archives: guitars

OK Computer is 20, part 2 – Guitars

At bottom, the approach to arrangement that Radiohead’s three guitarists developed during the making of The Bends and perfected while recording OK Computer was simply a matter of listening to what each player was doing and then taking a contrasting approach. Jonny’s playing a distorted riff on the low E string? Then Ed plays a high-pitched melody with a clean tone. Neither Ed nor Jonny are strumming chords? Thom can do that, then.

It sure sounds simple, but rock music has seldom been all that big on this method of arrangement, as it requires the restraint to sometimes play nothing, or very little, if one of your colleagues has already filled all the space with a part that works. Far more tempting to join in, to try to create a bigger sound – and in the 1990s, that was the done thing. The era of Nevermind, Dirt, Copper Blue, Loveless and Siamese Dream was the era of the big guitar sound. On Pablo Honey, Radiohead tried to do this too, but as always happens when it’s not done well, the failed attempt to create a big sound resulted in a small sound.

Far better, if you have three good players and the ambition to try to use them, is to abandon that idea of multi-tracking lots of versions of the same thing, and instead craft guitar parts that complement and contrast. Hence Airbag, Paranoid Android and the beautiful overlapping, cascading guitars on Let Down, one of the best recordings that Radiohead have made, on which the combination of melodies and textures was astonishingly rich.

One of the results of this new approach was a greater visibility for Ed O’Brien (his work on, for example, No Surprises – the high-register arpeggio riff that plays throughout, and contrasting stuff in the middle-8 instrumental section – is absolutely gorgeous) but it takes nothing away from him to say that Radiohead’s strongest weapon remained Jonny Greenwood’s trademark squonky lead guitar – the stuff that made so many guitarists of my generation into lifelong worshippers at the church of Jonny. The Bends is probably still the go-to album if your interest in Radiohead derives mainly from a love of Greenwood’s guitar mangling, but there’s lots to get stuck into on OK Computer, too.

I’ve written before about The Tourist, the closing track. I still absolutely love it. When Greenwood’s raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes, it’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. They’re definitely on to something, but how to account for a solo that’s primarily about texture? You couldn’t sing along to Greenwood’s playing on The Tourist, yet it’s a great solo. It’s not that it’s devoid of melody; it’s that the importance it places on being singable is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness and on impurity of form as sonic metaphor for emotion (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very metre resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

As are the two solos on Paranoid Android. The first deploys rapid tremolo picking and that old faithful lead technique, the oblique bend, to ear-grabbing effect, while the latter sounds like Greenwood’s envelope filter pedal has grabbed the guitar off him and started playing itself.

To pick just one more example of cool Jonny stuff, the chorus of Lucky sees Greenwood playing a soaring, swooping melody underneath Yorke’s vocal. The similarities between his approach to lead guitar and that of violin player have been pointed out often enough, but this is another one of those songs that reminds us that Greenwood’s training came from playing viola in school orchestras, and that, coupled with his lack of interest in traditional blues-derived lead guitar, does much to explain his singular style. Full marks, too, for Ed O’Brien’s super creative work on the song, which sees him strumming the strings behind the nut while using delay and modulation to create that pulsing/wooshing noise that runs underneath the intro and verses.

Next time, we look at Colin, again, and Thom Yorke’s bits and bobs.

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Got enough pedals, Ed?

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

Nada Surf live @ the Electric Ballroom, 11/04/16

Let’s start with the stop-press. I went to a gig last night and thought the sound was good.

Yes, that’s right. I have no complaints about the sound whatsoever. It was loud and full and rich and present, but controlled and not at all harsh, despite the volume. My ears were ringing only slightly immediately after the show last night, and not at all by this morning.

(Contrast that with the 48-hour tinnitus symphony I suffered through after last week’s Posies show at the 100 Club.)

Happily the show was every bit as good as the sound mix. Nada Surf’s thing – tightly written songs, vocal harmonies, guitars at that sweet spot halfway between jangly and crunchy – is not the most complicated thing in the world, but nonetheless they make it look so incredibly easy. All four members are very capable musicians. All of them pitch in with harmonies. Whatever tempo they’re played at, songs are dispatched without fuss, one after the other: bang, bang, bang. 18 songs in the set, four more in the encore, and a couple of acoustic singalongs by the merch table afterwards. Not much more than 90 minutes from first note to last. Guitarist Doug Gillard, formerly of Guided By Voices, added unshowy lead guitar and when he and Matthew Caws struck up the chiming harmonised intro of Jules & Jim, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle-pop heaven.

The set contained a good mix of material. New album You Know Who You Are is a bit of a grower, and a more than decent addition to their canon, but they didn’t go too hard after the new material, instead blending it in with established favourites. They opened with Cold to See Clear, but otherwise limited the new songs to the lovely Believe You’re Mine, Friend Hospital (repository of a couple of Caws’s dafter lyrics), Animal and Out of the Dark. Those aside, the songs were drawn more or less equally from Lucky, Let Go and The Weight is a Gift.

Personal highlights for me were Weightless (also a favourite of Mel’s), which saw the band switching impressively between its 12/8 main section and slow 4/4 passages, the aforementioned Believe You’re Mine and Jules & Jim, See These Bones (also a highlight of the Islington show – as Sara remarked to me, though, Caws is now telling the story of his visit to the Capucin monks’ ossuary in Rome as if he’s getting a bit tired of it), What Is Your Secret, Do It Again (cool bass riff, and massive cymbal-smashing awesomeness in the choruses) and Concrete Bed, essayed in the band’s trademark no-fuss style.

Nada Surf are a band I could see play many more times without getting bored. They’re so damn good at what they do, and I like what they do very much.

https://i0.wp.com/theupcoming.flmedialtd.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Nada-Surf-at-Electric-Ballroom-Filippo-LAstorina-The-Upcoming-4-1024x683.jpgMatthew Caws and Ira Elliot, onstage in London, 11/04/16 (photo: Filippo L’Astorina)

 

Things that are happening round here

Just a little update on things related to my own music.

This Sunday, 7th February, I’ll be playing a live session for Doug Welch on his folk show on BBC Kent. It starts at 9pm, and I’ll be doing three or four songs and talking a bit about them. I’m really honoured to have been asked to do it, and am looking forward to it a lot. I’ll put a link up to the podcast once it’s up, which will probably Monday.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a digital-download single, which is a trailer for full album to come out in the spring. It’s a song I wrote just before Christmas called Separated by Water, and I’ve been working on it at home for the last month, which has been slow progress due to a cold I just haven’t been able to shake and which meant it was touch and go whether I was going to be able to get a usable vocal done in time (colds tend to completely destroy my voice and leave me unable to sing properly for a week or so after I actually feel better). Anyway, I’m mixing it tonight and tomorrow, and will let it out into the world on Saturday, so I’ll put a download link up here then.

As for the album, I’ve finished it, I think! Just need to find a mastering engineer, get some artwork, photos, all of that jazz. I’ve never done a full album release with an actual physical product, and I want to make sure I get it right.

Added to that, James McKean’s second solo album, No Peace for the Wicked, is mastered and ready for release on 27 March. I mixed it, recorded a lot of it, played my usual assortment of instruments on it, and will be playing at least one live show with James to launch it (and potentially more), so I’d like leave my release till after his one’s done and dusted. James’s record is wonderful – very well sequenced, with excellent songs and brilliant performances from a pretty substantial cast of London-based musicians, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done on it.

Expect mine to follow it in late April or May.

In the meantime, here’s a bunch of songs more or less certain to be on it.

Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

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Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings

The Sound of The Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of Hüsker Dü

This is a revised and updated version of a piece I first published in July 2013. Excuse the repost, but it’s been a heavy couple of weeks and I’m fried. Back soon!

The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in 1996. He was writing about how to make “a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process”. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.

Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear – and in effect your own studio – and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why hurry? Why not go at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days – or weeks – one element at a time?

In 1984, a punk rock band like Hüsker Dü on a punk rock label like SST couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade‘s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.

Total Access, the studio in Redondo Beach where the album was recorded, was not then, and isn’t now, an amateur facility. But the way the band worked – first takes being used for all but a couple of songs on the album, the whole band tracking live, the use of SST’s house producer/engineer Spot (Glen Lockett) rather than the studio’s own staff – did lead to a record with a somewhat amateurish sound, one that’s certainly had its detractors. Robert Christgau observed drily, “It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.”

The Hüsker Dü sound was at least partly a product of choice not chance, however. When the band left SST and signed with Warner Bros., they didn’t leave their indie-era sonic signature behind them, like their cross-town rivals the Replacements did. The recordings the Hüskers made for Warners were still very spindly, given how crushingly powerful they were live. Hart never had the meaty, powerful drum sound that is the sine qua non of any rock music worth the name. Greg Norton’s bass was always a clanky, indistinct presence in the mix. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s first record for Warner’s, has a little more polish (there’s a more audible echo on the vocals, the hint of a gated reverb on the drums) than Zen Arcade, but compared to the records that Jack Endino would make in a year or so for Sub Pop (to take an example from indie land), it’s still a tame-sounding thing indeed, no matter how ferocious Mould’s guitar sound was.

Ultimately, though, Hüsker Dü were a band that demanded to be taken for what they were. Greg Norton’s bass may have been largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may have sounded like he was playing the world’s smallest drum kit (and possibly a different song to the one Mould was playing), and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.

Huskers
The Dü: l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould