Tag Archives: Hüsker Dü

Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

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Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

Lou Barlow @ the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen – review

If you’re wondering why I’m taking time out of our annual contemplation of British folk rock to discuss the new album by king of lo-fi acoustic balladry Lou Barlow, it’s because it’s been a very Barlow-focused few days. Last Friday I picked up the new record in advance of seeing him play at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen on Monday night.

A good call as he played eight out of its nine songs.

It was a low-key and intimate show in front of a couple of hundred people, with a solo Barlow playing acoustic guitar, a baritone (?) ukulele and his vintage synth, on which he played some wobbly solos, using a loop pedal to keep the guitar/uke accompaniment going.

This was the type of Lou Barlow show I’ve always wanted to see. When I caught the New Folk Implosion playing at Reading 2001, they were great but they stuck to songs from the Dare to Be Surprised and The New Folk Implosion eras, the material from One Part Lullaby being untranslatable to the live stage by a three-piece band. Sebadoh at Dingwalls last year were good but scrappy, long on their more aggressive material and short on the mid-tempo love songs that has been their strongest suit from Bubble & Scrape onwards. It’s arguable, though, that Barlow’s greatest contribution to pop music is all those four-track acoustic records he’s made (Lou B’s Wasted Pieces, Free Sentridoh: Songs from Loobiecore, Most of the Worst & Some of the Rest, The Original Losing Losers, Winning Losers, et al.) – just banging it out quickly and cheaply and meaning it: a parallel, acoustic path to his early post-hardcore heroes Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. Barlow has always been one of the most plain-spoken of songwriters, and at times his earnestness has been hopelessly out of step with trends in mainstream pop and indie, but it sure seems refreshing to me right now.

His gig on Monday night was in that spirit. There was no support band. He set up his own stuff, manned his merch table before and after, and wandered on to the stage through the audience, briefly ducked behind the curtain then plonked himself on to his stool, hiding all the time behind his big curly mop (I’m sticking with Jerry Garcia rather than Jeff Lynne as my point of visual comparison, but the consensus appears to be hardening behind 1970s-era Lynne).

He played about 20 songs in his 90 minutes, a mix of “Lou Barlow” songs, three or four Sebadoh songs and a couple of Folk Implosion tunes (including Natural One, accompanied by a hilarious story about singing it at a karaoke bar that he went to with Sleater-Kinney). He’s become a pretty useful guitar player down the years, but he remains endearingly unsure of himself, occasionally fumbling intros and starting again (a recurring between-song riff centred on the idea of the Folk Police finding his fingerpicking technique wanting). His work on the synth and loop pedals was, as I say, wobbly, but Lou is not the right guy to expect technical perfection from.

Highlights for me included C + E, which is my favourite from the new record and embodies pretty much everything I’ve loved about Barlow’s music since I picked up my first Sebadoh album (III, bought second-hand from Gumbi’s in Southend in 1998); Boundaries, which really should have been a Sebadoh song; and Too Pure, which actually is a Sebadoh song, and one of the very finest. But the show was compelling all the way through, and it’s a joy to see a guy who’s been doing this a long time still working at the top of his game. I went with Mel, Yo and Kit. Yo, a long-time fan but someone who’s stayed less engaged over the last decade than me, was pretty much blown away. Mel’s a newcomer to Barlow, only being familiar with the new record and a few songs I’ve put on mixes for her, but she really liked it too.

If he could now make a sequel to One Part Lullaby (my push-comes-to-shove favourite Barlow record: 13 doozies, all brilliantly constructed and arranged) with John and Wally, I’d be the happiest long-time fan in London.

Lou & Justin
l-r Justin Pizzoferrato
and Lou Barlow

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

The Replacements @ the Roundhouse, London

Last night I saw the Replacements at the Roundhouse in London.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

I’m too young for the Replacements to mean to me what they evidently meant to a good few people at the show last night. When the Mats helped to show that not all Midwest rock had to be Chicago or REO Speedwagon in the early 1980s (or rather, that there could be a path between the Speedwagon on one hand and Hüsker Dü on the other), I was toddling around, falling over a lot and picking up things and putting them in my mouth.

By the time I knew about them, the band had been defunct for five years or so, and Paul Westerberg was no longer someone to watch as a potential solo star. He and his career were past tense. Suicaine Gratification (still a dreadful title), Mono, Stereo, Folker – Westerberg/Grandpaboy records came and went and made no impression on me, despite the enthusiasm of my good friend and gig buddy Yo Zushi.

But still, once a fan… I was keen to go to the show, relieved that Yo had got tickets (the day they went on sale, I was ill in bed. Very ill. No-energy-to-even-crawl-to-my-laptop ill) and had been getting increasingly excited over the last few days. But in a low-stakes sort of way. The whole point about the Replacements (as with my beloved Sebadoh) was that they were a chaotic live act, by all accounts capable of jaw-dropping power and buffoonish incompetence within the same show. The same song, even. So if they were terrible, fine – at least I’d know I’d seen a legit Replacements gig. And they might be great.

They were, well, mainly great. The start of the show saw them smashing headlong into their early material, all played at a furious, hardcore-like tempo (they were always too tuneful and interior-looking to be hardcore really, but they did play as quickly as their cross-town rivals the Hüskers in the early days): Takin’ a Ride, I’m in Trouble, Favorite Thing (a thrilling moment, that – the best marriage of melody and heavy riffing during their Twin/Tone era), Tommy gets his Tonsils Out. Bam bam bam. Their drummer, Josh Freese, deserves a lot of credit, for maintaining the energy levels as much as anything.

Achin’ to Be provided a mid-set highlight, but here the limitations of their current approach to their set, and of their touring guitarist Dave Minehan, did start to become apparent. At the moment the Replacements live experience is of a group are plugged in and amped up at all times: an acoustic guitar and some light and shade wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. The ability to move from one to the other, to do Skyway as well as Bastards of Young, was what defined the Replacements. It’s the very thing that made them so great.

Minehan, meanwhile, had been the band’s MVP during the first half of the set, throwing himself around like a man half his age (from my vantage point, the boyish guitarist really did look like a kid who’d won a competition to play on stage with his favourite band) and doing a credible job of filling in for the late Bob Stinson. But he seemed to fade away as the night went on, becoming less and less integral to the songs. On reflection, I wonder whether he simply doesn’t slip as well into Slim Dunlap’s shoes as he does Stinson’s. Dunlap’s single-note lead guitar on a song like Achin’ to Be is simple in effect but tricky to execute: it has to be played absolutely straight, and in the middle of a rock show, with all that adrenaline, it takes a lot of self-discipline to play it that straight (there was more of this to come).

The final third of the set was a victory lap: I’ll Be You, a cover of Maybellene (as sloppy as you could hope from the group that gave us Like a Rolling Pin), Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young (segueing into My Boy Lollipop), Left of the Dial and finally Alex Chilton. You almost had to pinch yourself. Yeah, that man up there who wrote all these songs is singing all these songs on British soil for the first time in 24 years and we’re watching him do it. It was quite something.

The encore, well, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d hoped they’d play Unsatisfied. When they did, I wished they hadn’t. Michael Hann in The Guardian loved it. For me, the song was spoiled by Minehan’s slide guitar (pedal steel does feature on the recording, but subtly: a few swoops here and there, in the background): Minehan was too loud, too busy and sometimes out of key. Westerberg meanwhile sang the song distractedly, pulling the phrasing around until it felt wrong and missing out the key line (“I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”), possibly because it hasn’t occured to him that it’s the song’s emotional crux. It served as a reminder that, as I’ve said before, the record and Westerberg’s vocal performance are essentially the same thing. A moment like that is unrepeatable and I should have realised it would be.

The rest of the set (just a couple of songs) passed me by. I was now thinking about how and why Unsatisfied hadn’t come off but, more happily, of how great the rest of the show had been. I’d feared a cold-eyed, Pixies-style cash-in, where the band’s cupidity threatens to drown out the damn music. It was a long way from that. They were great, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were clearly having a ball and only the most hardened cynic could have heard I’ll Be You without getting a little bit misty. They may even go on from here to do a Go-Betweens or a Dinosaur Jr and make new music in their second life that’s just as vital as the work they did in their first. I wouldn’t bet against them. Alternatively it may all fall apart tomorrow. They are, after all, the Replacements.

Update: It did all fall apart, the day after I wrote this, after their set at Primavera. Thanks, guys.

84PaulWesterberg0306B.jpg
Paul Westerberg @ the Roundhouse, 03/06/15

More bassists to come at the weekend!

Recent work:

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.

ethan-johns-04-eric-pamies
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

Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

*

I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“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 Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

john_grant
John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs