Tag Archives: just fi

Experiment, part 2

A couple of years ago my computer was being fixed (blue screen of death, unmountable boot volume – it was a grim) and was in still in the shop when, one evening, I wrote a new song I quite liked and decided I wanted to demo quickly. Without a computer, I had to dig out Old Mr Four Track, who nowadays makes disconcerting clicking, clacking, groaning noises whenever you ask the thing to play something back.

Nonetheless, within ten minutes I was outgroaning it, when I got to the end of a flawless guitar performance, only to have my brain freeze on me. Unable to recall where my fingers should go, they tried to go in a couple of places at once, and I played a chord never before heard by mankind. It dawned on me that – in the analogue domain and with this equipment – I couldn’t begin to make a seamless edit of the correct chord. That kind of edit, on tape, in such an exposed piece of music, would certainly be audible. At least, with my level of skill. Ken Scott could probably do it easily.

I’d only been recording digitally for a few years – five at most – but already I was thinking like a digital recordist. And couldn’t believe how unfair it was that I had to play a whole perfect take all the way through in order to get something I could live with later. That’s the most insidious thing digital recording does to you. But after a few minutes of cursing, I decided to knuckle down and get on with playing the take over, as many times as needed, and that in future I’d work harder on actually playing good parts and resist the temptation to use digital editing like a crutch. My guitar and bass playing have improved a lot from that: a simple, unglamorous improvement that probably no one but me notices.

Boy, has all of this hit me again in the last couple of days, as I prepare to record the drum track of this song for a third time. The first take: solid, but too slow. The second take (to which I already added guitar and bass before deciding I couldn’t live with it): speeds up.

For the third one, I’m resorting to the horror of a click track. So maybe my time hasn’t improved so much after all.

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Despair, Edvard Munch. Four-track recorder not pictured

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Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Neil Young

Each of Neil Young’s first five solo records (Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Goldrush, Harvest and Time Fades Away) reveals a different side to Young and his songwriting, and taken in totality they point to all the paths he’d explore in the future. Well, nearly all: there’s nothing at this stage that predicts Trans, on which Neil and Crazy Horse attempt to do Kraftwerk.

Of that initial burst, After the Goldrush and Harvest are the two most similar records – predominantly acoustic, with songs that are mainly concise (no 12-minute guitar jams). But the two albums have, in fact, significant differences in attitude, arrangement and feel. Harvest is a big-budget studio record with expensive Nashville session players and the London Symphony Orchestra. After the Goldrush was largely recorded in Young’s makeshift home studio in Topanga Canyon with a four-piece band: Young on acoustic guitar, Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse on drums, Nils Lofgren (long-time sideman for Young and Bruce Springsteen) on piano and Greg Reeves (Motown and James Brown) on bass. It’s spare, raw and dry: no echo, no delays, no solos, no frills. It takes a lot of confidence in your songs to resist the temptation to fill them up with stuff (and god knows there’s a lot of choices you can make if you’re in a maximalist, more-is-more kind of mood), but it’s been a very long time since Neil Young’s been short of confidence in himself and his art. The French horn on the title track is the only lead instrument, and one of the few overdubs. Even the cuts that were recorded in real studios* with extra musicians (Stephen Stills, Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Jack Nitzsche) sound lo-fi and sparse.

After the Goldrush is the record where Young starts singing like the public expect Neil Young to sing, pitching his vocals up to the top of his chest range, and starts writing the songs that are most closely associated with him by casual listeners rather than Young fanatics: After the Goldrush, Don’t Let it Bring You Down, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Southern Man (to which Sweet Home Alabama was written as a response).

My personal favourite is Don’t Let It Bring You Down. I love how integrated it is; Young has a really impressive knack of making his guitar and the piano feel almost like one instrument, while at the same time making the guitar and the drums feel like one instrument; a lot has been said about Young’s noise-mongering electric guitar playing, but not nearly enough about his skill as an acoustic rhythm player. I love the rhythm of the chord changes in the intro (One, two, three, One, two, three, four, five).

Most of all though, I love how naked this song is, how much presence it has. When I listen to it, the spatial and temporal distance between him there and then and me here and now are dissolved and I’m there in that Topanga Canyon basement while Young sings in his fragile tenor and Ralph Molina bangs his cardboard drum kit.

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Neil Young, early 1970s, with a Strat this time

*After the Goldrush figures prominently in the promotional hoopla for Dave Grohl’s Sound City movie. I haven’t seen it yet, so I would guess that perhaps After The Goldrush was mixed at Sound City, as McDonough is pretty clear in Shakey that Birds, Oh Lonesome Me, I Believe in You and When You Dance I Can Really Love were tracked with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound, and the rest were recorded at the home-studio sessions.

Playful, sinister, vaguely surreal – Every Word by Belly

A few days back I spoke about Nino Rota’s Casanova soundtrack playing in ‘that space between the lulling and the nightmarish’ and being ‘playful, sinister, vaguely surreal’. I’ve been searching my iTunes library, trying to find more music that had a similar vibe, but my collection of orchestral/movie music only runs to a couple of dozen records and none of them really had that same feel. But I did remember a record that sparked in me the same kind of associations. It was actually a rock album, Star by Belly.

There’s a moment on Star, more than any other, that most powerfully creates that feeling of the childhood world being menaced by something adult and not fully understood.

Every Word, the fourth song on the record, starts unexceptionally enough, although it sticks with its basic E major to Eb major chord progression long enough for it to set up a palpable tension. But the strangeness really begins after the song’s chorus section (for want of a better term), when the whole things stops and, after the chord is allowed to ring out long enough to make you think the song might be over, it starts again at a crawl. The rest of the song is then taken at a really slow tempo. The sort that you don’t encounter in rock music very often. It’s amazing how you can make something familiar strange by the simple act of dragging it out, slowing it right down.

Over this, a high-pitched melody plays, on an electric guitar doubled by something. A theremin? Tanya Donelly’s voice, possibly, altered, manipulated or repitched? It’s hard to tell, which is the point. Familiar chord changes and rhythms made strange by playing them too slowly. Familiar sounds made strange by combining them with others, by filtering and processing them. Making the familiar strange is what this album does.

Every Word is only the most obvious moment of weirdness on the record. But this is an album that deals over and again with childhood exposure to the adult world, in which everything is weird because of its newness. Or rather, an adult imagining herself as a child, for Donelly was in her mid-twenties and had been a professional musician for seven or eight years at this point. For sceptics of the band, and there were a few, there was something off-putting about the distance between the physical reality of Donelly the grown woman and her child (childish? Childlike?) narrators, a distance made greater by the soft, high-pitched voice she sang the songs in. That vocal tone, which she hadn’t used on previous Throwing Muses or Breeders records and wouldn’t use for Belly’s second album King, was essentially an exaggeration of her normal singing voice. Using her head voice rather than projecting from the diaphragm, accentuating her vocals’ natural airiness and lightness, she made herself sound younger, which perfectly suited the Brothers Grimm world of the album.

But working with these kinds of conceits and affectations without explaining them can lead to misinterpretation, and Donelly came in for some unwarranted criticism from some within the riot grrrl scene for working with metaphor and symbols and allegory (and so obscuring her message), for some of her mannerisms and even for her stage clothes, and above all for failing to make herself and her songs immediately comprehensible.

Whether as a direct result of this flak or not, when Belly next made an album, the tinny, something-bad-going-down-in-Toytown sound of Star had given way to a muscular, live-off-the-floor directness. King was recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas by Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who) and featured minimal overdubs, hard panning, even live vocals. There aren’t many bands with such a small body of work who made two albums so different from each other. The songs were clearly the work of the same writer, but it was as if 10 years had passed between them rather than just two.

I like both albums equally, but Star I tend to listen to less. It has such a particular sound and mood that it doesn’t fit every occasion. When you’re in the mood for it though, it’s just the thing. There is nothing else like it.

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Belly on the beach, 1995. ©Stephen Dirado