Tag Archives: lyrics

Gillian Welch, Living in the Now

I’ve been writing this blog a pretty long time now: seven and a half years. The problem is, I published pieces on most of my favourite music before I’d found a tone that wasn’t completely insufferable. Here’s a retake of a piece I wrote in 2013 about one of my favourite records ever, inspired by a Twitter exchange I had yesterday.

Something happened to Gillian Welch’s writing between 1996, when she released her debut album, Revival, and 2001, when she released her masterpiece, Time (The Revelator). In 1996, her songs were mostly sepia-toned, frequently sung in character, and narrated in the past tense: stories about hard-scrabble, often rural, lives. By 2001, she had largely abandoned linear narrative and past-tense settings, instead writing in what is clearly discernible as now, but seldom telling stories with a beginning, middle and end.

In the same period, she went from being a promising young up-and-comer to being possibly the best songwriter in the world.

Were these two things related? What was the relationship between them: causative, symbiotic or merely coincidental? And if it was causative, which was the cause and which the effect?

Writing original songs that aim for timelessness and woody authenticity is difficult, particularly if you’re setting them in the past. It’s easy for listeners to become cynical and dismissive. Certainly some dismissed Welch in 1996. Ann Powers (a critic for whom I have a ton of respect and who has written pieces I’d kill to have written) was negative about Revival when reviewing it for Rolling Stone:

“[Revival] is a handcrafted simulacrum of rural mysticism. Most of the songs place Welch and her songwriting partner, the guitarist and vocalist David Rawlings, in settings they could know only from reading James Agee and listening to Folkways recordings. […] Concentrate only on the sound, and these songs will haunt you; Welch’s musical precision is eerie, the mark of a true obsessive so deeply wedded to her subject that she has become it. Ultimately, though, Welch’s gorgeous testimonies manufacture emotion rather than express it.”

Christgau was even less impressed:

“She just doesn’t have the voice, eye, or way with words to bring her simulation off. Unless you’re highly susceptible to good intentions, a malady some refer to as folkie’s disease, that should be that.”

He’s never given Welch the time of day since.

But these were uncharitable reviews, and in Christgau’s case possibly hypocritical: after all, he’d never complained that The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down rang hollow because Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hadn’t actually served on the Danville Train. He’d never castigated Randy Newman for not having lived through the Great Mississippi Flood when he released Louisiana 1927.

While neither Powers nor Christgau seemed able to hear it, Welch was a young writer of tremendous promise and Revival contained several undeniable successes. Perhaps what was really going on here was a willed failure to suspend disbelief, a refusal to look away from the artist’s bio sheet long enough to properly hear the songs. When Welch adopted a character on songs like Annabelle, One More Dollar and Tear My Stillhouse Down, her middle-class LA upbringing – her adopted parents were writers for the Carol Burnett Show – was an easy stick to beat her with.

Perhaps the reviews got to her, but in the lay-off between second album Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), Welch had significantly altered her lyrical style.

It’s not immediately apparent when you listen to it because the songs are all so much more ambiguous than those on Revival, but there’s very little linear story-telling on Time (The Revelator). Instead there are meditations and recollections, and when the songs do gesture towards narrative, you’re only given disconnected pieces of it from somewhere out of the middle. It’s also a much more urban record than Revival and Yearlings. Here’s a passage from April the 14th (Part 1):

When the iceberg hit, oh they must have known,
God moves on the water like Casey Jones.
So I walked downtown on my telephone,
And took a lazy turn through the redeye zone.
It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show.
I saw the van out in front from Idaho
And the girl passed out in the backseat trash.
There was no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas.

They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed.
No one showed from the local press.
But I watched them walk through the bottom land
And I wished that I played in a rock & roll band.
Hey, hey, it was the fourteenth day of April.

It’s a world away from “We lease 20 acres and one ginny mule from the Alabama Trust”.

So if her lyrics did change between Revival and Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), and you grant me that Time is the best record of the three, what part does the altered lyrical style play in making Time the best Gillian Welch album?

Revival showed an already highly developed sense of melody from Welch, and the very impressive singing and guitar playing from both Welch and her partner David Rawlings. But for a songwriter whose arrangements are mostly just two guitars and two voices, the quality of the lyric takes on even great importantce. When Welch and Rawlings came back with Time (The Revelator), the songs were more elusive, more allusive, and richer with subtext.

April the 14th (Part 1) is something of a test case here in that what we’re given is far less important than what we’re not. The song takes place in a recognisably modern world of mobile telephones, vans and punk bands playing low-rent shows, but Welch keeps drawing parallels with three different events that all happened on 14th April: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Black Sunday dustbowl storm of 1935.

Why is she alluding to these things, though? She goes to see a rock band and then goes to work, then bed – not the greatest day ever, perhaps, but a “ruination day”? What have the events of her day to do with Lincoln, with a disaster at sea and with the Okies?

Despite the references, the song is not about disasters; it’s about the mundane. Perhaps it’s about living out one’s mundane little life in the shadow of terrible events. Perhaps we are being led to conclude that something terrible has just happened to the narrator, or is just about to.

While they’re good songs, with lyrics appropriate to the feel of the music, the songs on Revival are a little neat, a little easy, compared to this. Welch had a tendency to tie them up with neat bows: the narrator of Annabelle ends the song contemplating the girl’s life of continuing poverty and grief after her own death; the narrator of One More Dollar ends up broke and homeless after being laid off and losing all his money gambling. In the world that the songs have established, these were not unexpected endings, and not much was left to be imagined by the listener.

By Time (The Revelator), she’d developed the confidence to write songs that leave questions unanswered. April the 14th (Part 1)’s sister song, Ruination Day (Part 2), does not resolve anything that its predecessor left hanging. Instead, it doubles down on the inscrutability of the earlier song. In Ruination Day (Part 2), the singer removes herself from the story and all that’s left are the three disasters and their consequences. It replaces sadness with anger, sweetness with bitterness, consonance with dissonance. It’s purposely lo-fi; the sound is edgy, filtered, straining. We are left once again to ponder the significance of that date, April 14th, without being told what it means to the singer.

Of course, some might consider raising questions like this and leaving them unresolved to be a cop-out. I think, rather, it was a mark of how much Welch had matured as a writer that she was able to play this game and get away with it. Revival was a fine record, but in comparison to Time (The Revelator), it does feel just a little like she’s working with archetypes and well-worn stories.

Hers is an interesting progression, then, for a musician whose work was once so preoccupied with the past. Rather than continuing to work at achieving a sense of place and time (as Robertson did on The Band’s second album), she instead returned to the world she lives in, rejecting the easy route of folksy archaisms and stock characters, and instead embracing contemporary language and situations.

The late Clive James once noted in regard to Sandy Denny’s writing the “awkward truth” that “to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness”. Welch more or less proved James’s contention by coming nearest to timelessness when she’s done the reverse: set her songs in her own time. Whether it was conscious or not, it marked a step change in her work. Time (The Revelator) may continue to cast a shadow over the rest of her career, but that’s the inevitable consequence of having created such a towering record in the first place.

Honey Down a String – Krista Detor

A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.

Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.

As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.

It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.

 

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

10 more of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented once again without comment or context, 10 more magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

“Sure, he’s a jolly roger, until he answers for his crimes”
My Rival (Gaucho)

A tower room at Eden Roc, his golf at noon for free/Brooklyn owes the charmer under me
Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Watch the sun go brown/Smoking cobalt cigarettes
King of the World (Countdown to Ecstasy)

I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
Deacon Blues (Aja)

She takes the taxi to the good hotel/Bon marché as far as she can tell
Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)

Alan owns a chain of Steamer Heavens/And Barry is the software king
What a Shame About Me (Two Against Nature)

Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go/I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said “oh no, Guadalajara won’t do”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)

When Black Friday comes I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook/Gonna strike all the big red words from my little black book
Black Friday (Katy Lied)

You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later/Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
Everything You Did (The Royal Scam)

Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for some more killer suggestions.

To Each His Own – E.B. The Younger

To Each His Own is the debut solo record by Eric Pulido, guitarist and vocalist from Midlake, recorded under the name E.B. The Younger.

Midlake never settled on a sound. Every record the Denton, Texas, band have made has reflected their then-current interests and influences, often in such an unguarded way that to have accused them of being derivative would have seemed merely churlish. There was a naivity in the way they appropriated sounds and moods and atmospheres from other acts – the Thom Yorke quasi-falsetto of original vocalist Tim Smith, the Grandaddy-isms of Bamnan and Slivercork, the Fleetwood Mac harmonies of the group’s Van Occupanther era, the stark and austere Sandy Denny-style chord changes that are all over The Courage of Others – that stopped it feeling cynical. It just felt like they were sharing their enthusiasms with you.

To Each His Own takes this tendency to an extreme, not settling on a sound for more than one song at a time. It shares with much of current indie a backwards-looking focus, but the object of Pulido’s retrospection changes every few minutes. On lead single Used to Be, for example, the guitar sounds and synth chords make it sound like a forgotten mid-1980s Don Henley single. CLP calls to mind Paul Simon’s St Judy’s Comet. The lovely Down and Out, with its sighing major seventh chords, sounds like Lindsey Buckingham in his Law and Order phase covering an old Neil Young song. Don’t Forget Me would have fit nicely on Nilsson Schmilsson. The title track that closes the album gets really meta; it sounds like Tim Smith-era Midlake.

To Each His Own goes down easy on a musical level. It’s beautifully played (it features the talents of Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan and drummer Mackenzie Smith, as well as members of the Texas Gentlemen) and arranged, and Pulido is an appealing singer. Its best songs (my pick is Down and Out) are well worth your time, whether or not you have ever liked any of Midlake’s work in the past – this is substantially different stuff to anything Midlake have done up to now.

While Pulido does a fine job of recreating the sonic signifiers (lightly strummed acoustic guitars, damped drums, tight vocal harmonies, a range of acoustic and electric keyboard tones, and even synths) of 1970s and early 1980s soft rock, he sometimes struggles to find a lyrical mode that suits the compositions while living up to his influences. “If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right” is the kind of banal comment that Rupert Holmes would have congratulated himself for writing, yet it’s the key hook of On an Island. When the Time Comes muses on the point of getting a record deal when “ramen only costs a dime”, and rhymes “Got no regrets I care to mention” with “Can you direct me to my pension?” – which goes to prove I suppose that writing witty, lightly ironic lyrics of the kind Nilsson, Warren Zevon or Paul Simon sprinkled throughout their songs is harder than it looks.

But then, Pulido struggled at times on the last Midlake album, Antiphon, to write in Tim Smith’s antiquated, rustic idiom, too. He’s a talent. A listen to Monterey, Down and Out or Don’t Forget Me makes that pretty clear. How much you get from To Each His Own may depend on whether you pay particular attention to lyrics or not, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. If he finds the lyrical mode that best suits him, he could make something special.

10 of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented without comment or context, 10 magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

Bodacious cowboys such as your friend/Will never be welcome here high in the Custerdome
Gaucho (Gaucho)

Don’t believe I’m taken in by stories I have heard/I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.
Barrytown (Pretzel Logic)

Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there’s gas in the car
Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam)

Double helix in the sky tonight/Throw out the hardware/Let’s do it right
Aja (Aja)

I loved you more than I can tell/But now it’s stomping time
My Rival (Gaucho)

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin/She don’t remember The Queen of Soul
Hey Nineteen (Gaucho)

Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man/ Then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand
Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Jive Miguel, he’s in from Bogota/Meet me at midnight at Mr Chow’s/Szechuan dumplings after the deal has been done/I’m the one
Glamour Profession (Gaucho)

Agents of the law/Luckless pedestrian
Don’t Take Me Alive (The Royal Scam)

Lonnie swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found/It was 48 hours till Lonnie came around
The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for a couple of killer suggestions.

163.Steely_Dan_1993

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?

 

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

https://songsfromsodeep.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/low.jpg
Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is really quite wet. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revival’s middling vocal talents. There’s little that gives a clue as to the leap they were about to make.

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, but Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

Denny
Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing drums for the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

July – Low

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the emptiness implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band were gradually moving beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporating subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. The lyrics, on the page, look like nothing, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while it may seem lazy to write lyrics that raise questions but provide no actual answer, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

low

A new song – it’s good clean alternate-tuning, fingerpicking fun!