Tag Archives: Michael Brauer

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

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Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”

Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

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I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

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A rough demo of a new song:

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!