Tag Archives: Lost in Space

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

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No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

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Vai & Mann

Ritual in Repeat – Tennis

Within pop music (and we’re going to focus for this post on rock music), record-making is a skill distinct from writing and live performance. Some excellent bands have made only mediocre records. Some artists who were true masters of the studio were never all that hot on stage. For some of the first type of artists, learning to make records that contain the essence of their greatness is a process of stripping away the accumulated fashions and traditional techniques of record making in order to make the experience of recording as much like playing live as possible.

Even legendary figures aren’t immune from this. For me, the Rolling Stones would be a good example of this phenomenon – perhaps controversially, I don’t think they made records that got everything right in terms of vibe, performance and sound until they started to work with Jimmy Miller in 1968. Fleetingly before, for a song or two, sure. But not with any consistency.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably be fearing another moan about the evils of modern record production. That’s not quite what this is, I promise. I raise the issue because I’ve been listening a lot to a band called Tennis these last few weeks. It’s the kind of music I’m a sucker for – fleet-footed, airy indie, with a disarming depth to the lyrics. Imagine Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays fronting a version of Camera Obscura that had a thing for yacht rock rather than countrypolitan and you won’t be far away from sound and feel of the music. I heard the band’s single Never Work for Free on KEXP, loved it, listened to a live session on WFUV, loved it even more, went back and listened to the recorded version and loved it a bit less.

It was kind of dispiriting.

Then I heard Timothy (from 2013’s Small Sound EP) on the radio, loved it, downloaded it to listen to it properly and loved it a bit less.

By this time I’d already ordered their latest album, Ritual in Repeat, on import from the US (it’s not out in the UK until February). When it arrived, I liked it, but found it a little flat. The tempos are often just a couple of BPM below what would seem optimal. The filters and effects used on Alaina Moore’s voice are a little distracting, as is the persistent double tracking. Each song has a topline that drills itself into you immediately. Moore and her bandmates write some killer songs. But somehow they haven’t quite got the finished recordings right.

Take Never Work for Free. Each chorus has the same slightly distracting backing vocal part, sung by Moore, mixed prominently and in fixed audibility. This is instead of, for example, introducing it in the second chorus to build the arrangement, and/or using a different singer to create space and a vocal texture with more width and depth. The lead vocal, meanwhile, is double tracked from the first line to last. The band’s done a few live sessions of late, so I’ve heard the WFUV version, the KEXP version, the UO Live version… Absent these little distractions, all in their way are preferable to the studio recording. I love the song – really love it – but the best version of it is somewhere between the WFUV version and a slightly stripped back mix of the studio take. What’s frustrating to me is that I feel the version I’d most want to hear exists on the master tape, or in the ProTools project, to be more accurate. If the song had been given to a different person to mix*, and there it would be.

The Tennis song where this distance between disappointing recording and revelatory live version is greatest is Mean Streets, where the chosen tempo sounds positively sluggish. The consistently much brisker takes they’ve done for KCRW, KEXP and live in store at Twist & Shout in Denver suggest that as they’ve played the song on stage, they’ve realised they cut it too slow. It’s pretty common for bands not to nail a song they record before they’ve had a chance to take a song out on the road, particularly early in their careers.

And Tennis are still a young band, with a lot going for them. The core duo – Moore, who plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Patrick Riley – can write really fantastic songs, and Moore is developing into a terrific singer. The rhythm section – drummer James Barone and, on record, Riley on bass – is as tight as any fan of early-’80s pop-soul could wish for. It’s just a shame that, right now, they’re not quite making the records they seem capable of yet. Get Ritual in Repeat, sure, but watch the above video too, and hit the KEXP session archives to really get a sense of what this band can do.

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Tennis: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, preppies

 

*What’s amazing is that the mix engineer is Michael Brauer, whose work, while leaning a little to the commercial side, is usually impeccable. His mixes on Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space are all-time for me. Interestingly he was behind the mixes on that HAERTS record I was talking about a few weeks ago.

BTW, here’s a very rough demo of a new song. I don’t usually share songs when they’re at this stage of development, but I’ve got another head cold and it might be a while before my voice recovers enough to do a keeper vocal of anything, so here you are!