Tag Archives: Harriet Wheeler

Ritual in Repeat – Tennis

Within pop music (and we’re going to focus for this post on rock music), record-making is a skill distinct from writing and live performance. Some excellent bands have made only mediocre records. Some artists who were true masters of the studio were never all that hot on stage. For some of the first type of artists, learning to make records that contain the essence of their greatness is a process of stripping away the accumulated fashions and traditional techniques of record making in order to make the experience of recording as much like playing live as possible.

Even legendary figures aren’t immune from this. For me, the Rolling Stones would be a good example of this phenomenon – perhaps controversially, I don’t think they made records that got everything right in terms of vibe, performance and sound until they started to work with Jimmy Miller in 1968. Fleetingly before, for a song or two, sure. But not with any consistency.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably be fearing another moan about the evils of modern record production. That’s not quite what this is, I promise. I raise the issue because I’ve been listening a lot to a band called Tennis these last few weeks. It’s the kind of music I’m a sucker for – fleet-footed, airy indie, with a disarming depth to the lyrics. Imagine Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays fronting a version of Camera Obscura that had a thing for yacht rock rather than countrypolitan and you won’t be far away from sound and feel of the music. I heard the band’s single Never Work for Free on KEXP, loved it, listened to a live session on WFUV, loved it even more, went back and listened to the recorded version and loved it a bit less.

It was kind of dispiriting.

Then I heard Timothy (from 2013’s Small Sound EP) on the radio, loved it, downloaded it to listen to it properly and loved it a bit less.

By this time I’d already ordered their latest album, Ritual in Repeat, on import from the US (it’s not out in the UK until February). When it arrived, I liked it, but found it a little flat. The tempos are often just a couple of BPM below what would seem optimal. The filters and effects used on Alaina Moore’s voice are a little distracting, as is the persistent double tracking. Each song has a topline that drills itself into you immediately. Moore and her bandmates write some killer songs. But somehow they haven’t quite got the finished recordings right.

Take Never Work for Free. Each chorus has the same slightly distracting backing vocal part, sung by Moore, mixed prominently and in fixed audibility. This is instead of, for example, introducing it in the second chorus to build the arrangement, and/or using a different singer to create space and a vocal texture with more width and depth. The lead vocal, meanwhile, is double tracked from the first line to last. The band’s done a few live sessions of late, so I’ve heard the WFUV version, the KEXP version, the UO Live version… Absent these little distractions, all in their way are preferable to the studio recording. I love the song – really love it – but the best version of it is somewhere between the WFUV version and a slightly stripped back mix of the studio take. What’s frustrating to me is that I feel the version I’d most want to hear exists on the master tape, or in the ProTools project, to be more accurate. If the song had been given to a different person to mix*, and there it would be.

The Tennis song where this distance between disappointing recording and revelatory live version is greatest is Mean Streets, where the chosen tempo sounds positively sluggish. The consistently much brisker takes they’ve done for KCRW, KEXP and live in store at Twist & Shout in Denver suggest that as they’ve played the song on stage, they’ve realised they cut it too slow. It’s pretty common for bands not to nail a song they record before they’ve had a chance to take a song out on the road, particularly early in their careers.

And Tennis are still a young band, with a lot going for them. The core duo – Moore, who plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Patrick Riley – can write really fantastic songs, and Moore is developing into a terrific singer. The rhythm section – drummer James Barone and, on record, Riley on bass – is as tight as any fan of early-’80s pop-soul could wish for. It’s just a shame that, right now, they’re not quite making the records they seem capable of yet. Get Ritual in Repeat, sure, but watch the above video too, and hit the KEXP session archives to really get a sense of what this band can do.

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Tennis: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, preppies

 

*What’s amazing is that the mix engineer is Michael Brauer, whose work, while leaning a little to the commercial side, is usually impeccable. His mixes on Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space are all-time for me. Interestingly he was behind the mixes on that HAERTS record I was talking about a few weeks ago.

BTW, here’s a very rough demo of a new song. I don’t usually share songs when they’re at this stage of development, but I’ve got another head cold and it might be a while before my voice recovers enough to do a keeper vocal of anything, so here you are!

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You’re Not the Only One I Know – The Sundays

It’s spring. Springtime means jangle.

I do a lot of my music listening on the way to and from other places (work, chiefly), on an iPod. Certain times of year tend to push me in the direction of specific artists and styles of music. I always seem to have a period of intense British-folk-revival listening in the autumn (see here, here, here, here, here, and here); shorter days, colder nights, crisper mornings and teeming rain just seem to suggest jazzy folk-rock to me and then only double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums will do.

In the spring, I tend to find myself listening to lighter, airier music – no coincidence, that, I’m sure – and so I always seem to end up spending a couple of weeks revisiting the Sundays. This year is no exception. They’ve scarcely been off my iPod all week.

Partly it’s a matter of the sound fitting the moment. Brisk tempos, jangly guitars, melodic bass, near constant 16th notes on the hi-hat from drummer Patch Hannon – I feel like I’ve needed this airiness and forward momentum to get me through the week. But there’s more to it than that. Most characteristic of the Sundays’ music – particularly on their debut, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (which is, among many other things, a pun on their hometown of Reading) – is a sense of potential, and spring is all about potential, rebirth, what might happen.

The Sundays were a young band, recent graduates, in 1990 when R, W & A was released. Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin had met at university, and written many of their early songs there. It shows. I Won is about the politics of flatsharing. The now-famous chorus of Here’s Where the Story Ends (‘It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore/And I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for’) is archetypal student-in-love stuff. You’re Not the Only One I Know will for ever sound to me like the song of a slightly lost undergraduate, too proud to ask for attention from someone they like or admit that they might be floundering, if only a little, in this new and unfamiliar world.

My own university years were pretty trouble-free, and while I had friends who went through the mill a good bit more, no matter how rough times may seem when you’re going through this stuff the key thing about being 20 is that you’ve got nothing but time ahead of you. Basically nothing you can do at that age is irrevocable; nothing can’t be fixed in the nearish future. That knowledge – and I think we all do know it even as we go through it – lends a different character to our experiences, and if we happen to write songs, a different character to our writing too. A woman in her late forties singing, ‘It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday till Saturday, and what is so wrong with talking out loud when I’m on my own?’ would come off very differently to the way it does when Wheeler sang it on You’re Not the Only One I Know in 1990. The song recognises this, plays on it. It’s aware that, left unchecked for too long, this kind of willed isolation could lead to a life that is no life at all, but just for now, it is perfectly fine.

It’s a lovely song, the saddest, most doubt-filled moment on a record that is otherwise confident and animated by the promise of tomorrow. The Sundays were not particularly sonically adventurous and their early music doesn’t seem to have too many reference points other than the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins, but this song adds another element to the usual sound: a melodic bassline from the Peter Hook school, played with a pick and a lot of chorus in Hookian fashion. It’s this sound – brightly strummed guitars, subtly addictive 16th-note drums*, sinuous basslines – that brings me back to the Sundays whenever the days get longer and brighter, but its the quality of their songs and the idiosyncratic moods they create that keep me listening over and over again.

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The Sundays, early 1990s

*I can never decide how much of the drumming was programmed. I suspect at least a few songs were: the drums on I Won sound a lot more live than the ones on, for example, Can’t Be Sure. But Here’s Where the Story Ends and You’re Not the Only One I Know? Still can’t decide. Hannon could play these songs live, no sweat, so could have been live, but they are remarkably consistent, and a little hemmed in, in a way that could easily be programmed.