Tag Archives: Jon Auer

Fade Out

No, this isn’t a cryptic way of announcing that the blog is going to end. I’m not stopping. Ever. In fact, things are about to get exciting round here. I want to talk about actual fade outs.

I miss the fade out. Last night I was walking home listening to Jon Auer’s quite wonderful You Used to Drive Me Around, enjoying the long, slow fade, and thinking about how little of the newer music I listen to actually makes use of the technique. Then I started wondering if anyone else had noticed.

Turns out I’m not imagining this, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Actually, people who pay more regular attention to proper pop music than I do noticed years ago:

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro Blurred Lines. Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.

William Weir, A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now…, Slate (2014)

The reasons for the decline of the fade out are fairly obvious and don’t take a lot of unpacking. Artists are terrified of fans skipping their song and moving on to the next, so they need to stuff them full of anticipation or incident until the moment they stop, so no one reaches for the skip button. A trend towards songs that build continually until they stop is the inevitable result.

For years, I thought fade outs were a “pop” technique, a cheap trick that my lo-fi, alt. and indie-rocking heroes were better than. If you can’t work out a way to bring your arrangement to a proper close that’s reproducable in real time on stage, then what kind of musician are you? And for sure, anyone who’s seen that famous live clip of the Eagles doing Hotel California at the Capital Center that ends with them just suddenly all hitting one chord four times and stopping – cha-cha-cha-cha – will attest to the difficulty of coming up with a “live” ending to a song that faded out in its studio recording. Whether you like the song or not, you’d have to admit that the way the Eagles closed out Hotel California live was lame as hell and undercut the whole thing.

But of course, there are no hard and fasts here. The fade out on Hotel California is effective, and on the whole it was worth ending the studio recording that way, even with the knowledge that they’d not be able to do it the same way live, rather than compromising the recording by ending it in a way that they could be replicated. And when you start thinking about some of the truly great fade outs – Sara by Fleetwood Mac, for example, which ends with Stevie Nicks calling out into infinity about a “heartbeat that never really died” while an ocean of Lindsey Buckingham’s multitracked vocals and guitars swirl around her – it becomes clear how effective an emotional tool the fade out can be.

You Used to Drive Me Around works the same way. The sort of situation that Jon Auer is singing about is not an easily resolvable one, so the long fade out isn’t just an excuse for Mike Musburger to play some more expansive drum fills; it’s actually wholly appropriate to the subject and the mood of the song itself.

I hope that some enterprising artist or other starts championing the fade out and it catches on again with this generation of musicians. They’re missing out on a potentially really powerful technique through letting it fall into disuse.

 

 

 

The Posies @ the 100 Club, 06/04/15

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be among the lucky souls who saw Jon Auer play at the Islington, a gig that is probably among the best half-dozen or so I’ve ever been to. It made me reconnect with his music in a big way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years listening to, not just his music, but power pop-type stuff generally.

As a teenager I was really into the idea of bands that mixed “proper” songwriting (meaning, I guess, Beatles-derived chord changes) and vocal harmonies with loud guitars and prominent drums, and the Posies did that as well as anyone since their illustrious forefathers Big Star (so well that Auer and fellow founding Posie Ken Stringfellow became members of the reconstitued Big Star, though if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know that). But that Jon Auer show got me really excited by the possibilities of that kind of music again, so seeing the Posies when they came through London again was hard to turn down.

The press photos that I’d seen used to promote the tour only showed Auer and Stringfellow, so I was half expecting a duo show. Instead it was Jon and Ken with drummer Frankie Siragusa, an LA-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. No bassist, but lots of parts being triggered by Stringfellow from his keyboards (and possibly pedals – I couldn’t see his feet from where I was).

Auer and Stringfellow seem hugely excited by playing with Siragusa, and sure enough, the dude can drum. He’s a bit of a monster, in fact. Unfortunately the mix privileged his playing over everything else, making it hard to hear the guitars and at times even the vocals (the songs where Siragusa kept time on the hats were OK; the ride cymbal was pain-threshold volume, though), which made it a little tricky to follow all the details of the new songs the guys are playing on the tour.*

Even amid the clang of cymbals, the quality of the new songs – and the evolution they represent for the band – was clear. Auer’s Unlikely Places, built on top of a robotic single-note riff, was an early highlight; single Squirrel vs Snake mixed a ’60s bubblegum melody with clever wordplay, and took on greater force than its studio counterpart; The Plague (for which they were joined by singer Gizelle Smith) welded together several hugely different sections into a seamless whole; and The Sound of Clouds was pensive, near-weightless and utterly lovely. All are in their different ways unlike anything they’ve done before.

The older songs were great, too, even without a bass player. Dream All Day got an early airing, Throwaway and Please Return It (two old favourites of mine, and the former a new favourite for Mel) were paired in the middle of the set, and Burn & Shine was a showcase for Siragusa’s fine drumming. He pretty much aced what must have been a hugely demanding song to be playing nearly 90 minutes into a set that had already thrown him some challenging material.

My favourite on the night, though, was The Glitter Prize, from 2010’s Blood/Candy, another song with Gizelle Smith guesting. The 3-part harmonies were glorious, and sent me scurrying off to iTunes to pick up an album I hadn’t got round to yet. The recorded version is superb, too. Its mid-tempo 4/4 groove puts me somewhat in mind of Fleetwood Mac, as does the mix of male and female harmonies – co-writer Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) also sang on the track. It’s an unusual sound for the Posies, who normally rely purely on the Auer/Stringfellow vocal blend.

I’d seen the Posies from far away at the Reading Festival, and I’d seen Auer close up at the Islington, so yesterday I payed particular attention to what Ken Stringfellow was doing. He’s a quite terrific singer, able to push his voice into screamy rock territory, sing full-throated top-line harmonies à la Graham Nash and dial it down to a delicate, intimate whisper, but his versatility last night on the guitar and keyboards was hugly impressive, too. Which reminds me, I should really dig out his first solo album, Touched – a record I’m rather fond of but haven’t listened to in full for a couple of years.

Quibbles with the sound mix aside, it was a fine show, and it’s great to see Auer and Stringfellow playing with so much enthusiasm after what must have been a horrible year for them**. It’s not an easy task to carry an audience with you for 20-odd songs when most of the crowd have never heard over half of them, but the guys managed it. I’m already enjoying spending time with their new record and looking forward to the next time they’re in London.

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Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Never stop, guys.

*The tour is in advance of the release of new album Solid States. They are selling pre-release copies at the merch table though.
**This past year their drummer Darius Minwalla and former bass player Joe Skyward have both passed away.

 

 

Happy New Year (a clip show post)

So, we’re nearly at the end of Songs from So Deep’s first full year! I’m still finding it really rewarding to do this, the number of people finding the blog continues to grow and there are still things to talk about. So it’s looking good for 2015.

One of the things that remains really interesting to me (actually that’s a bit of an understatement) about doing this is seeing which posts prove popular. The majority of my most-read posts come from 2013, which makes sense, as they’ve been on the site longer, and as I don’t tend to write about much contemporary music (though more now than when I started), it seems natural that the posts would have a long tail. My not-very-well-written post on Bobby Caldwell’s What You Won’t Do for Love is still my most-read post, suggesting that a lot of people love this song as much as I do and can’t find much info on it elsewhere on the web.

But some posts I write that I think are an awful lot better than the Caldwell one only get a tiny fraction of the traffic. So for my last post this year, I thought I’d maybe point you in the direction of a few posts from 2014 that I thought were pretty good (by my standards at any rate) on subjects that people just don’t seem to bother Google with.

Enjoy New Year’s Eve, whatever you have planned, and I’ll see you on the other side!

Graham Nash David Crosby by, well, Graham Nash & David Crosby

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

The Persistence of Sentiment – Mitchell Morris

Turnham Green – Colorama

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

You Used to Drive Me Around/review of gig at The Islington – Jon Auer*

*Jon was kind enough to link to this from his Facebook account, which was the highlight of my year as a blogger. It gets in this list on a technicality as it is in truth one of the most-read posts on this blog. But the majority of those views came from that link rather than search engine results.

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Jon Auer live at The Islington/You Used to Drive Me Around

The last time I saw Jon Auer play was with the Posies at the Reading Festival in 2001. They were on in the bigger of the two tents, in front of several thousand people. On Friday night I was among around 100 lucky souls who saw him play in the back room of a pub in Angel, a room where I played drums with Sumner about 8 months ago, in front of not many fewer than were there the other night.

Jon Auer London 4 - photo Katherine Mengardon
Jon Auer, The Islington, 15/08/14. Photo courtesy of Katherine Mengardon/Jon Auer

Auer and his fellow Posie Ken Stringfellow are both very talented singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. That had always been obvious. But while I knew that Auer was a really technically proficient guitarist, I didn’t realise quite how good he was until I watched him play electric guitar for 90 minutes from about 6 feet away, with no band behind him to help him fill space. He played magnificently. I’d been expecting a sit-down, acoustic, sensitive singer-songwriter set. He played acoustic a little, including a wonderful entirely unamplified version of Throwaway, but basically he gave us a rock show — without a band — that still managed to rock. There wasn’t a dull moment all evening.

I figured before the gig that I’d know a decent amount of the songs he’d play, since I’ve got the Posies’ first four albums (Failure, Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace) and one of the reunion discs (Every Kind of Light), and since it seemed that Auer hadn’t been quite as busy as Ken Stringfellow in the years between Posies activity (one solo album to KS’s three). In the event I knew maybe half the songs he played and was perplexed, albeit delighted, to realise that the songs I didn’t know (those off his solo record, the one he wrote for Big Star, a bunch of others — maybe from Posies EPs or that aren’t released yet) were even better than the ones I did.

Jon Auer London 2 - Photo Sue Edmond 2
Photo courtesy of Sue Edmond/Jon Auer

Having met him briefly after the set to tell him it was amazing and to verify that it was indeed him that popped up to school my ass in the comments section here, I dashed home and immediately scoured iTunes for what I’d missed out on. Particularly, I was looking for songs called Josephine and You Used to Drive Me Around. Both of these are on a solo album I was only dimly aware he’d released, Songs from the Year of Our Demise.

You Used to Drive Me Around has been killing me ever since.

It’s not a world away from what Auer used to do with the Posies: he still bases his guitar riffs on surprisingly out-there tunings, making them dark and grindy as much as they are sparkly and melodic; the drums are still prominent (mercifully left intact by the mastering job); he’s still one of the best harmony singers around. But there’s a weariness to his writing, to the performances, that I didn’t recognise from his earlier work.

Sometimes his lyrics are hard to parse, and while I don’t know and wouldn’t wish to speculate on who the subject of You Used to Drive Me Around is, the song seems very much to be going over emotional territory that’s familiar to me personally, which is doubtless one of the reasons it’s hit me so hard. Frankly, the third time I heard it on Friday night (which is to say, the second time I listened to the recorded version, when the line ‘You come clean and I’ll come closer’ suddenly hit me), it moved me to tears.

And I got to thinking, this record has existed for eight years, and I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who Jon Auer was either. Sometimes it’s made clear to you, with all the people in the world making music — all the old favourites, the new favourites, the soon-to-be favourites, the people slogging away in practice rooms, and pub back rooms, the people who died 20 years ago — how much might be getting by you every day, and it’s pretty overwhelming. How much great art do we miss out on when we’re looking the other way?

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The poster from the show – photo of Auer back in his Antonio Banderas-lookin’ days


Some recent work of mine!

I May Hate You Sometimes – The Posies

Before prosumer digital recording gear became available, a home recordist working in rock or pop was a lo-fi artist whether they wanted to be or not. Whether you were working with a Portastudio or some kind of reel-to-reel machine was only part of the story: compared to the folks doing it all themselves at home, an artist hiring a professional studio had access to better tape machines, better microphones, better-sounding rooms, better consoles, the recording know-how of trained audio engineers and the technical know-how of maintenance engineers. A home-recording rock musician looking to get close to what could be accomplished in a pro studio would need to be committed, prepared to lay out some pretty serious money and possess the patience to learn a lot of technical skills that are quite far removed from the ones needed to write and perform music. And even then, they could only get so close. No home recordist ever made Rumours or What’s Going On.

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the guitarists and co-lead vocalists of the Posies possessed the talent and tenacity needed to give it a go, and they had an advantage over their four-tracking peers in that Auer’s father had installed an eight-track home studio in his house (with a reel-to-reel eight-track machine, not a cassette-based one), which Auer and Stringfellow duly made use of to record their debut album as the Posies, Failure.

Between them, the two played all the instruments and handled all the engineering. My sense is that, since Auer was the principal engineer, the drum tracks and many of the bass performances are Stringfellow’s, although Auer is listed as contributing keyboards and bass as well as his usual guitar and vocals. Stringfellow’s work as an R.E.M. touring band member, during which time he handled piano, organ, bass, banjo and guitar certainly proves he’s an adept multi-instrumentalist, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’d be a reasonable drummer too (and since I can’t imagine these guys ever got into analogue-domain editing of drums, which involves cutting the master tapes up and splicing them back together, he’d have needed to be). [See comments below for true credits, from a reliable source]

So Failure is an impressive achievement for a couple of guys barely out of their teens. But for all their skills and hard work, Failure doesn’t sound like a professionally recorded album, doesn’t have the richness, detail and texture that they created for their second album, Dear 23, which was recorded and mixed by John Leckie (who’s perhaps most famous for the Stone Roses’ debut, Radiohead’s The Bends and the first two Muse albums, but whose career stretches back to the early seventies, when he worked as a tape op on Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass).

The sonic differences between the two records – Failure and Dear 23 – are stark. While I’d love to hear Dear 23 remixed a touch drier, it remains a fantastic-sounding record, shimmering and clear as a bell. In comparison, Failure is bass-light and skeletal. But Auer and Stringfellow undeniably caught a vibe on that record, and the immediacy of its best tracks makes Dear 23 sound a little considered, a little fussy. No track on Failure is more immediate than I May Hate You Sometimes, the song from that record with the most mainstream visibility (having been included on Children of Nuggets and used over the credits of a Daria TV movie).

While much more clean and professional-sounding than much of what is traditionally considered lo-fi, like all the best lo-fi material the strongest songs on Failure bust through the limitations imposed on them by the manner of their recording, and seem to be animated from within by the excitement and sense of fulfillment attained by their creators. It was not easy to do what Auer and Stringfellow did in 1988, and for that and much more they deserve far greater credit and recognition than they’ve ever received.

Image

The Posies: Ken Stringfellow (hoodie) and Jon Auer (long hair, glasses), 1996.