Tag Archives: Led Zeppelin

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!’

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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:

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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

Andy Johns – RIP

What a dreadful week it’s been. Ramone, Ebert and now Andy Johns.

What can you say about a man who tracked and co-produced Marquee Moon? About a guy who engineered Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street? Led Zeppelin II, III, IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti?

Well, he had the pleasure to record some great players and he rewarded them with great sounds (great drum sounds especially). He shepherded some crazy musicians through their craziest periods, while being far from abstemious himself. But I’m inclined to remain sceptical about some of the wilder claims made of Andy Johns – you don’t end up with that man’s discography if you don’t remain at least functioning. He could make you feel like you were in the room with the band – that’s a cliche and an overused phrase, but that really was his and his brother Glyn Johns’ defining trick: they could defy the laws of space and time to put you in the same space as the artist while they recorded, while appearing to do nothing more than place mics and move faders. Andy Johns worked the mixing console like it was the TARDIS.

The man’s recording and mixing philosophies pretty much define the old-school approach: get the sound in the room, make sure the part’s right, mix as you go along, don’t mix instruments in solo. His work speaks for itself. Put Rocks Off from Exile on and turn it up. Instant adrenaline rush. Nothing else like it. Whatever your favourite Andy Johns record is (even if it’s a damn Clapton record), blast it today. Really blast it. Send the man on his way.

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