Tag Archives: King

Bad first songs

OK, “bad” is hyperbole in most cases here, but go with me.

A bad opener is a much rarer beast than the bad last song, at least among albums that are any good. Most artists seem to be better at recognising the best place to start than the best place to end. Nonetheless, missteps happen; some of the records I’d count among my very favourite have opening tracks that don’t quite get things rolling.

Asked to name a favourite band, I’d plump for the Beatles. Asked to pick some favourite songs, or albums, the Beatles would figure highly. But – controversial opinion alert – they weren’t always the best judges of how to get start their albums off.

Revolver has been the consensus “best” Beatles album for about 20 years, and it’s probably true that it contains the highest concentration of fantastic songs on any Beatles record. While the album is such a monolith in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that I can’t imagine any other song plausibly taking its place, Taxman has always felt like one of its weakest tracks for me. It’s full of interesting bits – the jerky, stop-start rhythm, McCartney’s bass playing and guitar solo – yet it never quite coheres into a song I find myself compelled to listen to. And while acknowledging that a 95% top rate of tax is pretty eye-watering, it’s not like the Beatles were short of cash at the time, so I can’t bring myself to care all that much for Harrison’s plight.

It wasn’t just Revolver, though. Sure, the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does important work in establishing the concept of the album as a whole, but it doesn’t much flatter the band. By the middle of their career, the Beatles had lost some of the dynamism and power captured in their early recordings (I’m talking strictly as players here), and there is, as Ian MacDonald observed, something about their attempts at heavy rock in the second half of their career that calls to mind a middleweight puffing themselves up in an attempt to pass for a heavyweight. Magical Mystery Tour‘s opening title song, meanwhile, is similarly unsatisfying, partly because its lyrical idea is so shopworn, and partly because there’s not much melodic development.

But let’s leave the Beatles so I can put the boot into another one of my very favourites, Joni Mitchell.

For the Roses is a pivotal and somewhat underrated album, one that is very close to my heart. It’s certainly a transitional piece (it came out between Blue and Court and Spark and shares characteristics with both), but it has a character of its own, and four or five songs that are genuine career high points. Yet its opener, Banquet, is one of Mitchell’s least successful songs: a shrill, irritating melody and a series of overwrought metaphors. I nearly always skip it. Like Taxman, which feels weak as soon as Eleanor Rigby starts, Banquet is shown up by the brilliant second track, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Many people would argue that Rainy Day Women gets Blonde on Blonde off to a shaky start. Me, I’m always happy to hear it. For me, the weakest Dylan openers are Desire‘s misbegotten and botched Hurricane and Nashville Skyline‘s godawful version of Girl from the North Country, a duet with Johnny Cash that brings out the worst in both singers. I’d actually prefer the album to start with Nashville Skyline Rag, which is hardly earth-shattering, but is a great deal of fun. Mel nominated Oh Mercy‘s Political World, too – I don’t know the album that well but it’s sure no Where Teardrops Fall.

Any discussion of good albums with bad first songs has to include R.E.M.’s Out of Time and its opener, Radio Song, which features a cameo from KRS One. While it has a certain goofy charm, I don’t think I could argue with anyone who suggested that the album would be better if it started with its second track, Losing My Religion. I asked my colleagues Sara and Nick to give me a couple of suggestions for bad opening songs on good albums: they both said Radio Song. So there you go. It’s unanimous.

Steely Dan’s seventies records have maybe five lacklustre songs between them, but would anyone object too strenuously if I cited Katy Lied‘s opener Black Friday as probably the album’s weakest track? Its shuffle groove is just a bit pedestrian. I almost always start listening from track two, the wonderful Bad Sneakers.

Among lesser known but, to me, very important albums, the two albums that Belly released in the 1990s, Star and King, both start with tracks I’ve never much cared for. Puberty, which begins King, just sounds messy and unfinished, and Someone to Die For, from Star, while explicable from the point of view of having what’s ultimately a slightly weird and creepy album begin with something weird and creepy, has always felt too obvious an attempt at spookiness to me; what’s so compelling about Star is that even its pop songs are a bit off-kilter. Track two, Angel, just sounds like a much more natural opener, and more representative of the band generally.

Of course, some bands have a knack of aceing it. But that’s another post.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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Belly @ Kentish Town Forum, 21/07/16

I don’t write about every gig I go to, but of course I had to post some thoughts about this one…

Belly were one of my favourites when I was a teenager. I loved both of the band’s albums, Star and King, and listened to them hundreds of times. I loved Star‘s mix of beguiling tunes and unsettling fairy-tale imagery, and King‘s intimate, band-in-a-room vibe. But as I didn’t hear either record until after Belly had already broken up, I didn’t have a chance to see the band play live – until they announced a reunion tour earlier this year. I picked up my tickets pretty quickly.

Belly’s slim canon was something of a blessing in the context of a reunion show. The band played for two hours, with a short intermission and no support act (hallelujah), so there was nothing I really wanted to hear that they didn’t play, and no key text (other than maybe Angel from Star and the title track from King) that was omitted. The band, laughing and joking between songs, were clearly having a blast and thankful for an audience that still cared twenty years down the line.

They’re still a tiny bit rusty (they played a couple of warm-up shows in Newport, RI, then came over here for the British leg of the tour; by the time they go back to the States, I expect they’ll be up to full speed), but they played really well. White Belly from Star (much underrated song, that – there’s a whole novel in the lines “Made a mistake on a fire escape in San Francisco; worked my way back in a hallway in LA”) was an early highlight, Red got the crowd jumping (time signature changes confounding most of them), Gepetto was a joyful sing-along and Full Moon, Empty Heart showed Tanya Donelly’s voice is no less elastic than it was in her twenties.

To my delight, personal favourites The Bees and Thief (both King era, the latter a B-side) both got an airing. The Bees (played halfway through their first set) was a bit of a moment for me, actually; it was during the first verse that it really came home that I was watching a favourite band play a favourite song for the first and probably only time. If I had to pick one stand-out moment, that’d be it – even more so than the obvious live favourites and singles (Dusted, Feed the Tree, Gepetto, Now They’ll Sleep, Super Connected, Seal My Fate). Pat, the old friend from high school who lent me his copy of Star all those years ago, felt similarly about eerie gothic melodrama Low Red Moon, one of the centrepiece tracks from Star, which the band played halfway through their second set and absolutely nailed. Chis Gorman on drums was on particularly commanding form on that one, holding the band to a perfect tempo and giving his snare drum an authoritative pounding; at the song’s end, Donelly turned to him and made some sort of gesture of appreciation. It was typical of the warm spirit of the whole evening.

It wouldn’t be a Songs from so Deep gig review if I didn’t mention the sound mix. It was, I guess, adequate. The drums were solid and powerful, partly due to Chris Gorman, who as I said gave his drums a determined thumping throughout, but his brother Tom Gorman’s guitar didn’t fare so well – it was a murky and barely discernable presence for the entire first set, and an uncontrolled feedbacky presence for the second (he was playing a Gretsch semi-acoustic and every time he stopped playing, it started to feed back). It was far from the worst live mix I’ve ever heard, but I was very worried during the opening track (Puberty), as only the drums and Donelly’s vocal were audible. Thankfully, things improved a bit for the rest of the first set, and some tweaks seemed to be made during intermission, so the sound didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the gig.

With reformed bands, I try to go in with no expectations. It’s worked pretty well this last couple of years, where many of the gigs I’ve seen have been forty- or fifty-something muscians getting the old band back together and playing their old songs. But still, I’d have been disappointed if the show had been only OK. It was much, much better than that.

78Well-preserved Belly

King by Belly

Belly have reformed. Let’s start there.

I didn’t expect that to happen. I got the impression from Tanya Donelly’s somewhat sporadic musical activity in the last ten years that she was done with the music industry, and that she’d soon fade from public view altogether, as implied by the title of the EP series she’s been working on for the last few years, Swan Song. I was totally cool with that. There’s something dignified and graceful in getting out and choosing to stay out.

But there are plenty of precedents for reunited bands doing great work in their second phase: Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, The Go-Betweens, Alice in Chains, even, with a different lead singer. So if Belly are going to come back and do it for real – a new album as well as a tour – sign me up. I’ve got nothing but respect for them – I hope they have a blast and make some decent dough doing it.

It’s somewhat over 21 years since the band’s second, and so far, final album came out. King is one of those records that has stuck with me a long time. I first heard it in 1998, after the band had already broken up, and it stayed on heavy rotation on my stereo for a couple of years. Nowadays, as with most of the records that if pushed I’d pick as my favourites, I don’t really listen to it. But the announcement of a new tour (tickets on sale tomorrow – if I don’t get any, you’ll probably hear my anguished cries) made it inevitable that it would soundtrack my journey to and from work today.

I’ve written about the record very briefly before but let me recap, even more briefly. King was recorded by engineer/producer Glyn Johns at Compass Point studios in Nassau. Johns had worked on Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Stage Fright, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin (just to take the five biggest titles from his discography). Working with a guy like that was an extremely unusual move for an alternative rock band in 1995, when every record label just wanted Andy Wallace or, if he wasn’t available, one of those Lord Alge brothers with that new-fangled drum sound of theirs. Johns was as old school as it got, and his work on King made it stand out a mile.

Johns encouraged the band to record the album live: two guitars, bass and drums, all together, all bleeding into each other. Even the vocals. “Any band that can play a gig can play live in a studio,” he’s said. “There was no backup plan.”

This was not standard industry practice in 1995, and in 2016 is practically unheard of. When you record this way, every microphone contains ambient sound as well as the direct sound of whatever instrument the microphone is primarily picking up. Bass goes into the guitar mics. Drums go into the bass amp mic. Everything goes into everything else. Fine, if the band can play well. But because nothing can be edited independent of any other sound source, it’s a method of recording that forces you either to not make mistakes, or to make them and live with them.

King is full of mistakes. It’s a document of band, and a band that were, for all their many virtues, not Steely Dan. Donelly’s voice cracks. Chris Gorman’s drums threaten to fall apart on Seal My Fate and Silverfish. Gail Greenwood hardly gets on a one in 45 minutes. Real-time fader and pan-pot moves are plainly audible.

It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it mixed any other way.

This sound is perfect for the set of songs Donelly had written (largely in collaboration with Tom Gorman). Less surreal and sinister than the songs on Star, King tracks like Judas My Heart and The Bees still demonstrate that quality of prime-era Donelly: a gorgeous, indelible melody coupled with a lyric that seeks to hide its vulnerability behind images and symbols, the urge to be plainspoken and honest fighting with the urge to protect oneself. Thus The Beeds can contain lyrics as imagistic as:

Now the bees behind my eyes sing beware

and as plain-spoken as:

I steal a piece of your diary
I don’t think that looks like me
Am I so cold now that I’m older?
I tell you stories
That doesn’t mean you know me

At this point, the record’s slower, more interior-looking songs – The Bees, Seal My Fate and Silverfish – are my favourites, but if sparkly, guitar-heavy pop is more your thing, King has plenty of that too. Red, Super-Connected and Now They’ll Sleep are all neglected White Album-ish classics, and the title track is a grindy, initially unpromising grower that halfway through suddenly becomes something else entirely.

Star is the record that Belly will be remembered for, and its obvious why. Its best songs are extremely portable. Taken out of their context and played on the radio or placed on a iTunes playlist, Gepetto and Feed the Tree sound just wonderful. Star has some great second-tier material too. Dusted. Slow Dog. Sad Dress. White Belly. I love them all. But King? King is timeless. King is its own thing. Nothing was like it then, nothing is like it now.

belly stephen dirado

Contractually obligated Donelly-related picture of Belly on the beach (Nassau, 1995)

Moon over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Tanya Donelly remains one of my favourite musicians. The step-sister of Kristin Hersh – leader of Boston-area art-punk band Throwing Muses since the mid-1980s – Donelly was the group’s lead guitarist, harmony singer and occasional singer-songwriter for their first four albums, between 1983 when they formed and 1991 when she left (after The Real Ramona, one of the Muses very best records, right up there with the debut). Donelly was also a founding member of the Breeders, and Pod bears heavy traces of her involvement; the group were never as interesting after she stepped aside to focus on her post-Muses band, Belly.

Unlike Throwing Muses, Belly were immediately commercially successful. Very. Top five albums in both the US and the UK, top 20 singles, MTV heavy rotation, radio play and Grammy nominations. Donelly was an inspiration to anyone who’d ever been a second fiddle but harboured ambitions of succeeding on their own terms, and she did it making music that was shiny and inviting, but with a disconcerting aura of strangeness and spookiness, a sound I’ve long described as ‘something bad going down in Toytown’. One wonders what Hersh thought, seeing her sister playing Letterman and modelling for Gap adverts.

Alas Belly’s success didn’t last. Their second album did less well than the first, and the band unravelled. Donelly took a year or two to come back with her first solo record, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and it was the only misstep of her career. Aiming to attract radio play with big shiny hooks, the record instead came over as bland AAA, lacking its author’s usual lyrical ambiguity and disquieting obliqueness. It didn’t catch on and didn’t really deserve to, and when Donelly next put out an album, after a break to have a second child, her music sounded and felt much more her own again; different in its outlook from the songs of the Belly era, but more obviously a product of her peculiar sensibility.

While the Lovesongs era was one to forget, it did produce an enduring favourite of mine. Moon over Boston was the B-side to the album’s second single, The Bright Light. To my knowledge it’s the only proper recording of the song, written by Gary ‘Skeggie’ Kendall, a guitarist, promoter and Boston scenester from the 1980s and 90s, formerly of the bands Tackle Box and the Toughskin, and probably cut live with the full band, like a proper jazz side. It’s a spot-on recreation – produced by Kendall and long-time Boston hero Gary Smith – of a certain type of small-band jazz record, with exactly the right kind of warm saxophone sound and all the proper passing chords; it’s even got the old-school, free-time intro. It’s a beautiful record and Donelly’s voice is surprisingly adept at this sort of tune, sounded not unlike Blossom Dearie. I’m convinced it could become a standard if someone were to make a romantic comedy called Moon over Boston and feature this as the title track. Maybe I should get to work on a screenplay.

Donelly all but gave up making music in the mid-noughties, training as a doula. However over the last year or so, she’s recently put out a sequence of EPs, the Swan Song series, a title which she says doesn’t indicate imminent retirement; nevertheless, her involvement in music seems to be winding down now. Hersh, meanwhile, powers on. A more driven musician (she here for some of her backstory) than Donelly, Hersh will make music as long as she’s got two working hands and a voice. Next month, I’m going to get to see Throwing Muses play in London with Donelly guesting. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that one.

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Belly – King/Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 3

Talking about her career in music and her final Swan Song EPs in a recent interview with Mouth magazine, former Throwing Muses and Breeders guitarist/Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly described Belly’s second album King as a more ‘lo-fi’ record than their debut, Star.

Strange description, I thought. King‘s not a slick record, but it’s one that sounds like a band in a room playing its songs. It was produced and mixed by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, the Eagles – enough of a track record for ya?) and engineered by Jack Joseph Puig, at the very high-spec Compass Point studio in Nassau: a minimum of overdubs, live vocals, hard-panned guitars, natural-sounding ambiances. Donelly’s voice sometimes cracks. Gail Greenwood’s bass does not always hit the one with Chris Gorman’s kick. You can hear real-time fader and pan-pot moves. It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way.

Star sounds good, too. But it doesn’t sound like a band playing songs together in a room. It sounds like something bad going down in Toytown. It’s a very carefully constructed sound world, one which had little to do with the material reality of Belly-the-band playing instruments in a room. Which brings us back to the discussion of terminology from a couple of months back. If a ‘low fidelity’ record is simply one that isn’t slick, then, sure, maybe King is lo-fi. If a lo-fi record is simply one that doesn’t sound ‘good’, then King ain’t one in my book. If a lo-fi record is one that doesn’t sound like the music sounded before it hit tape, then King is the very opposite. It’s a hi-fi record. One of the hi-est.

And, from King, back to Good Morning Spider by Sparklehorse. GMS‘s centrepiece is a song called Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man. Happy Man is probably the best song Mark Linkous ever wrote. It’s propulsive, urgent, utterly surreal and yet somehow anthemic and universal. Linkous, something of a contrarian, decided to bury the first verse and the chorus under AM radio static and bleepy noise. The song then almost fades all the way in for the second verse, before going the other way, becoming temporarily submerged entirely under white noise and a reprise of the organ chords of Chaos of the Galaxy, the short instrumental piece that begins the track. Finally the song fades in properly in time for the second chorus.

Linkous later admitted in interviews that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage a song he recognised as having commercial potential; he didn’t want it to be extracted and released as a single the way Someday I Will Treat You Good from Vivadixiesubmarine plot had been. I’m sure Capitol were delighted. Still, when you don’t have a producer, you might be able to pull off this kind of thing once or twice before you get a stern talking to from your label.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Linkous re-recorded the song without the radio static and Chaos of the Galaxy sections, releasing it on an EP called Distorted Ghost. The version I knew and treasured was a live version that segued into Pig (called, imaginatively, Happy Pig), which was also released on Distorted Ghost. I’d burned it off a free CD from Uncut before promptly losing the CD and forgetting where the track came from (a BBC session, I think). I loved the rawness of it, and the furious tempo at which the song was played. At that speed, Linkous’ plea (that he only wants to be happy) sounded more real than ever. In 2010, he showed us how real.

But let’s not get caught up in that now. What matters for this discussion is that, for all that Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man is raw and messy, it’s not a faithful document of a real-time musical event. It’s an elaborate construction, an aural sleight of hand. Under a sensible definition of the term, we couldn’t call this track lo-fi. The term simply wouldn’t be applicable. Which only goes to show the difficulty of talking about music. You constantly have to define your terms, almost song by song. When two music fans talk about lo-fi, they may very well not mean the same thing by it. Sometimes this talking at cross-purposes is fun and thought-provoking. Sometimes it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

If I have a conclusion – after a couple of months of kicking around these ideas occasionally – it’s that I have a personal definition of lo-fi that probably isn’t shared by music fans generally, so I have to acknowledge the more general definition too. And regarding Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider is a difficult album to pin down. Superficially it sounds more like a lo-fi album ‘should’ sound, but it achieved that sound in a variety of ways, which didn’t always have to do with just banging out songs in an honest and authentic way, which often seem to be the unspoken connotations of the term ‘lo-fi’. More than simply a rough, raw, ragged album, GMS is an artful album, even if, when exposed to the opening bars of Pig, my brother once proclaimed, ‘But this doesn’t even sound good!’

BellyHorse
Left: Mark Linkous and his brothers in weird, Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Right: Belly on the beach, Nassau, 1995

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, based on the version I refer to above:

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