Tag Archives: Music

Away from the City – new EP released today!

Hi everyone. Sorry for the lack of a post this week. I’m actually about halfway through a big one, but I’ve got quite a lot of material to pull together and structure properly and all that jazz. It’s another live album one, but it’ll be a little different to the others I’ve done. Hopefully it’ll be ready by the back end of next week.

The other thing that’s been occupying me this week is the reason I’m posting today. My partner Melanie Crew and I have just released our first joint EP, and I’ve been quite busy this week putting the finishing touches to it, doing final mixes, writing emails and blurbs, sorting out the artwork for Bandcamp and Tunecore – all that sort of stuff.

It’s available right now to stream and download from Bandcamp, and will be up on other streaming platforms in the next week or so (it’ll vary by platform – they all have different turnaround times).

It features six songs, three by Melanie and three by me, and we’re really proud of it. Two of the songs – Mel’s A Different Place and my Nobody’s Watching – were written and recorded during lockdown, so they’re really fresh. The others are songs we’ve played at our shows together over the last 18 months or so.

On Mel’s Seven Mountains and my song Restless Heart we are joined by Jon Clayton on cello. Jon runs One Cat studio in south London (which is where the upcoming James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record was tracked) and plays drums in a brilliant band called Hurtling, who I wrote about here. He’s an absurdly talented dude. Equally brilliant is singer-songwriter Adam Beattie, who plays double bass on Restless Heart. Adam is a veteran of the old Gladstone Arms in Borough, and is one of the finest songwriters around. Adam’s a part of the Band of Burns collective, who tour the UK every year, playing a mix of their original songs and Robert Burns poems that they’ve adapted and set to their own music. Finally, James McKean joins Mel on backing vocals on my song Nobody’s Watching. Nobody sings oohs and aahs quite like James.

If you’re in the UK, stay safe if you’re going to head out tomorrow. This ain’t over yet, not by a long chalk.

Take care now. I’ll be back next week.

Building a pedalboard

At the end of last year, I decided it really was time I put a pedalboard together, as I seemed to be absolutely the last guitarist in the world not to have one, and it was getting to be a little bit embarrasing being that guy at soundcheck taking precious minutes to plug all his pedals in.

I grew up in a time when pedalboards were still a rarity among non-pro guitarists. No one I knew used one – mainly because as teenagers we didn’t have the money for enough pedals to require a board. In fact, in my high school band, we didn’t even have a tuner pedal between us – just a distortion pedal each. (Our tuning was, naturally, rather approximate, but we were plenty distorted.) Then, for a while in the late 1990s, those early digital multi-effects pedals by Digitech and Zoom* were the big thing – again, no board required if a multi-effect unit is your only pedal.

Since most of the gigs I’ve done in the last few years have been playing guitar for James McKean, though, it made sense to have a small, lightweight and portable pedalboard for gigging, rather than carrying four or five pedals in a rucksack along with sundry cables, patch leads and a power supply, and then having to faff around with them between soundcheck and showtime.

Little did I know then that we’d only get to play one gig all year because of Covid-19. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have available, I suppose.

Anyway…

I settled on one of the smaller Pedaltrain boards, the Metro 20, as I decided I’d limit myself to five or six pedals: a tuner, a distortion or two, echo, modulation and reverb. For added portability and flexibility at gigs, I decided to go with Pedaltrain’s Volto rechargeable battery pack, which supplies more than enough current for six pedals, easily lasts the length of a long rehearsal and mounts on the underside of the board, saving space up top. It uses a USB charging cable but it comes with a wall adaptor, too – extra points for flexibility.

I also picked up some new pedals as I was lacking a reverb unit and a satisfactory compact distortion. I also just felt like freshening things up and having some new gear to get me excited about creating the pedalboard. Some of the pedals I settled on have been on the market a few years, and others are recent-ish releases.

First up, I needed reverb. My original choice was:

TC Electronic Skysurfer
This is a budget option I bought without trying out, thinking it would probably do well enough for live applications, since for recording I either use the spring reverb on my Vox AC15 or add reverb in the box when mixing. Unfortunately, the Skysurfer wasn’t the pedal for me. Even dialled right back, the reverb sounds were still over the top, with a clangy, metallic tail even on room settings – what’s the room made out of? Tin?

So, I decided to write that one off and replace with:

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo
The EHX Holy Grail family of reverb pedals is extensive, but I decided to go with one of the nano-sized pedals, as they have such a small footprint, yet contain a lot of features.

It came down to a choice between the Holy Grail Nano and the Holy Grail Neo. The difference is that the Nano has hall, spring and Flerb settings, while the Neo ditches the Flerb and replaces it with plate reverb setting. Flerb is a flanged reverb – quite a cool sound, but not one you’d need often, so the Neo won the day for me. The sounds are very musical and refined, with the plate and spring ‘verbs sounding particularly good to my ear. I tend to use reverb subtly most of the time, so the hall setting probably won’t get much use, but in all it’s a really usable, good-sounding bit of kit.

I also needed some distortion. I used to get dirty sounds from a 120-watt all-valve Peavey head turned up loud, but sold that amp when I moved into a flat in London and replaced it with the AC15 I mentioned earlier. At that point, I bought a Blackstar HT Dual pedal for high-gain stuff, as even with the preamp and power sections dimed, you’ll barely get an AC15 into Keith Richards territory, let alone Jerry Cantrell land. Also, you’ll be completely deafened and find yourself beseiged by angry neighbours with pitchforks and flaming torches; for a 15-watter, the AC can go mighty loud when provoked.

The HT Dual is a fun, versatile pedal that sounds quite amp-like, and the dual-channel thing makes switching between crunchy overdrive and high-gain, super-saturated lead stuff easy peasy. Unfortunately, it weighs a metric ton, is the size of at least two ordinary pedals and needs a dedicated 22v supply. Its absence from the pedalboard left me needing two new pedals: an overdrive and a higher-gain distortion. The solutions I chose also came from Electro-Harmonix, as I’d been won over by the small footprint of their nano pedals. I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food is, EHX tell us, an emulation of the Klon Centaur overdrive, an example of which can easily set you back a couple of grand on reverb.com. Whether the Soul Food is that close to a Centaur, I’m not qualified to judge as I’ve never used one, but the economics are compelling: the Soul Food is around £70 new, which is not a lot for a very good overdrive. It’s refined enough with the drive turned down below midday that you can use it as an always-on tone shaper, it’s really responsive to dynamic playing, and if you turn the gain up full it will spit and snarl convincingly in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It allows the tone of the amp and guitar to shine through, so it feels surprisingly close to amp drive.

It is quite low gain, though, and won’t take you into proper distortion. For that I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Sitting halfway between a fuzz and distortion, the Flatiron Fuzz is, EHX say, their take on the good old Proco Rat 2. To my ears, it’s not as throaty as a Rat, with more high end on tap if that’s what you’re after, but it’s a really fun, quite versatile pedal for ’90s-style rock guitar sounds. It’s also smaller and ligbter than a Proco Rat 2. Electro-Harmonix’s demo video has their dudes comparing it to the Rat (while of course saying they prefer the Flatiron), and showing it off by playing the riffs from Song 2, What’s the Frequency Kenneth? and Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, which pretty much sums up what this pedal does. Also, it has the Flatiron Building on it, so it’s the prettiest thing on my pedalboard by a distance.

I love a good modulation pedal, and fancied having something a bit unusual in the toolbox for the right occasion. I settled on:

TC Electronic Vibraclone
This is a take on the Fender Vibratone, a speaker cabinet from the late sixties that was essentially a Leslie 16 redesigned as a guitar cab; it had a guitar speaker and Leslie rotor rather than a horn and woofer with twin rotors, like the organ unit.

I’ve never heard a pedal that really nails that whooshy Leslie speaker thing; there’s something about the way the rotors disperse sound that’s hard to replicate when you’re playing through standard drivers. However, the Vibraclone is absurdly cheap (approximately £40) and while the sound is not particularly adaptable (there’s no depth/intensity control; just drive and speed), it’s a sound I happen to like very much. When I first sat down with it, I came up with the main riff for my song You Won’t Need to Cry, and it’s all over a bunch of songs from the upcoming Yo Zushi album I’m producing at the moment. For most gigs, I’d probably leave it off the board and sub in my old Marshall tremolo pedal, which is a lot more flexible, but it’s a fun one to have at home. One small negative: the TC boxes are rather big – bigger than a Boss pedal chassis.

So in full the pedalboard is: Boss TU-3, EHX Soul Food, EHX Flatiron Fuzz, Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay, TC Electronic Vibraclone and EHX Holy Grail Nano. At some point I might look to upgrade the delay to something more comprehensive, with a dotted eighth note setting in case I ever want to play Run Like Hell or Where the Streets Have No Name.

This post is not sponsored by Electro-Harmonix, and neither am I. I am open to offers, though, if they’re reading this.

*I still have somewhere in my cupboard of random audio crap a Zoom 509 – a late-1990s digital multi-effect pedal, with chorus, phasing, flanging, harmonising, ring modulation and a simple doubling effect, like a slowish slapback. The presets were all, of course, unusably heavy handed except for two: a relatively useful octave-down effect and a combination phaser and tremolo effect that I used to use on a few songs I played in old bands. Seemed pretty cool at the time, but I imagine it would make me cringe now.

Someone to Pull the Trigger – Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet’s devotion to his song structures and chord sequences – should the solo come before or after the middle eight? What’s the perfect secondary dominant chord to enliven the verse progression? – sometimes sounds like the work of a guy desperately using craft to keep darkness at bay.

While this tendency is present on Girlfriend, it becomes more marked on the follow-up, 1993’s Altered Beast. Sweet named the record after the late 1980s arcade game instantly familiar to kids of that era (like me!) as the game that was bundled with the first version of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known outside the US) until the world-conquering success of Sonic the Hedgehog gave Sega a plausible rival to Mario and Luigi at last. The game – both laughably basic and in its final level infuriatingly difficult. Damn boxing goat warriors – sees you playing as a Greek warrior resurrected by Zeus to rescue the kidnapped Athena (quite why a goddess needs a mortal’s help is not explained. Because patriarchy, I guess). Sweet picked the title because, in his words, “you have to find these little power-up things, and when you eat them you become the Altered Beast, this other creature that’s really powerful and violent.”

So it’s a record about carrying the capacity for darkness inside you – how we cover it up and how it manifests itself anyway. Musically, it’s all over the map compared to Girlfriend, the heavier and more fuzzed-out 100% Fun and the Beach Boys-ish late 1990s duo, Blue Sky on Mars and In Reverse. Sweet tapped producer Richard Dashut, a veteran of Fleetwood Mac’s classic albums, as well as a troupe of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s: Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, who play drums on a track or two each; Byron Berline, who’d played with the Byrds and the Band, who plays fiddle on the country-rock Time Capsule, and the great Greg Leisz, who’s played with just about everyone, on pedal steel. This intriguingly multi-generational band was completed by Sweet’s three regular lead guitarists, Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, all veterans of late 1970s punk bands, all cast for their virtuosity and their ability to subvert Sweet’s classicism with sheer squalling noise when the moment demands.

Lyrically, the songs are frequently despairing, with the album’s prettiest song being the darkest. I’ve tried constructing readings of Someone to Pull the Trigger where the song isn’t simply a plea for someone to put the singer out of his misery (in which pulling the trigger is a way of saying “commit to doing something”), but ultimately the text doesn’t support them, and neither does Sweet’s vocal performance. He sounds lost, devoid of hope.

This song and the gorgeous Reaching Out, with Fleetwood on peerless form on drums, are the album’s sad, desperate heart. The more I listen to Sweet’s music, the more I hear the darkness below the Beatlesque chord changes, sunny harmonies and the goofy pop-culture references (in 2020, a record called Altered Beast may as well be called Pong). The clarity, as Sweet puts it, is chilling.

More Live Gonzos, part 1: Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell

I titled my 2019 series of posts on live albums after Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzos, but not all of them actually were double albums. To start off this year’s batch, here’s one that is. Joni again, to no one’s surprise.

I began listening to Joni Mitchell in 2003. By 2005, I had every record she made in the 1970s, and a couple each from the sixties and eighties, aided by the fact that her entire back catalogue was in the four-CDs-for-£20 section of my local record shop (Fives in Leigh-on-Sea; now I live in London and don’t have a local record shop. Go figure). Shadows and Light was one of the last I got round to. It didn’t seem to have a great rep compared to Miles of Aisles, and it is a very different beast.

Recorded at an outdoor show at the County Bowl, Santa Barbara, in 1979, Shadows and Light is Joni at the tail end of her jazz phase, when her music, at least on record, was the most abstruse it would get; she had moved away from verse-chorus structures around the time of For the Roses, turning instead to stanzaic form, often with no repeated melodic phrases within a stanza.

By the time of the 1979 tour, Mingus, her collaboration with jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, had been out a few months, and some of its players feature in the band she toured with: Jaco Pastorius is on bass, Don Alias on drums and percussion. Also along for the tour were Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on piano and Michael Brecker on saxophone. Even compared to the LA Express guys, this constituted serious, heavy-duty jazz talent. These guys exist in a different world to bozos like me, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to put aside my awe at their collective technique to actually listen to what they play and ask myself, does this work for me as a listener?

And that has always been my chief problem with Shadows and Light. I’ve never found a way to listen to it non-intellectually. I have never trusted my lukewarm reaction to it, so have kept coming back to it as if it must just be that I’ve not put the work in. I’m the kind of person who can very easily turn something fun like listening to music into homework, but Shadows and Light has always felt like homework. I chose it to be one of this series of live-album posts to see if it would click this time.

*

After a brief intro (a verse of Shadows and Light, sung with the vocal group the Persuasions, intercut by snippets of dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause – “you can’t be idealistic all your life” – and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers singing I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent), the album* begins with In France They Kiss on Main Street. As I wrote here, when I first heard the studio recording of this song, Skunk Baxter’s fizzily disorted lead guitar struck me as horribly cheesy and inappopriate, so this version with Metheny’s chorused guitar not gesturing at all towards the grammar of rock music does have a certain advantage, one reinforced by Don Alias’s drumming. His relaxed, funky feel in the choruses, when he switches to the ride and drops the 16ths he plays in the verses, allows the song to stretch out like a cat awaking from a snooze. If I’m honest, Pastorius’s bass is busy for my taste (we’ll come back to this) and I’m not big on Mitchell’s electric guitar tone (she took to playing a George Benson Ibanez jazz box in the late 1970s, dropping her trusty acoustic), but these are gripes about Joni’s music in the late seventies generally, not something to hold against this particular reading of In France They Kiss on Main Street, which opens the album creditably.

Lyric-led and atmospheric, Edith & the Kingpin (like Main Street, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns) translates better to the stage than you might expect. The whole band, including Jaco, is restrained, and as a unit they’re tasteful and unobtrusive. Next comes Coyote, probably my favourite track from Hejira. Alias (on congas for this one; he was such a brilliant percussionist, even better than he was behind a traps kit, and he was great there too) is excellent on this one, and Mitchell’s long, slowly uncoiling verses weave their magic as surely as they do on the Hejira recording and the spellbinding performance she gave at the Last Waltz.

Next is Mitchell’s adaptation of Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, who played with Basie and Billie Holliday. The song is one of the great accomplishments of the Mingus album, and on the album recording Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on spine-tingling form on electric piano and soprano sax. Mays does a fine, if less prominent, job on stage at Santa Barbara, but Brecker demonstrates some of what I’m less keen on about his playing: an overbearing tone that says gameshow rather than late-night bar, and an over-eagerness to go for that crowd-pleasing high note or legato run. But again, it’s impressive to get such a composition across at a daytime outdoor show at all.

Jaco’s Solo (that’s the track name, hence the cap S) is, as you’d expect, virtuosic in the extreme. He runs though every technique of which a bass player might avail themselves, inventing some along the way. Did any bass player use a digital delay to provide a loop for themselves to solo over before Pastorius? This was 1979, before there was such a thing as a digital delay pedal, and I believe that Pastorius was using a rackmount system, so if he wasn’t the first, he was certainly among the pioneers.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines features possibly the most difficult vocal Mitchell ever wrote for herself. Although she sometimes sounds a little hoarse during the gig (the band were five weeks into a 6-week tour, with few nights off), she clears every bar the tune sets her. The thing is, there’s an oddly funky lope from Peter Erskine’s drums on the studio recording, which is a bit lost on this recording. Alias begins the song and Mitchell sings two verses accompanied only by drums but Alias isn’t replicating Erskine’s beat (he plays pattering, seemingly random snare patterns, rather than two and four with ornamentations as Erskine did). Maybe the song evolved in arrangement over the tour, but I’d have liked to have heard it played straighter.

Spare, atmospheric readings of two highlights from Hejira follow: Amelia and the title track. As I said, I’m not a big fan of Michael Brecker’s tone when playing tenor, but he was in restrained form on Hejira, adding subdued soprano sax. Alias and Pastorius are good one too. Amelia is even sparser, mostly just Mitchell and her guitar, with a little support from Pat Metheny, playing with a volume pedal (or the volume knob on his guitar) in emulation of the lovely, atmospheric touches that Larry Carlton added to the studio recording. For me, it’s the album’s single best moment. Just stunning.

In between Amelia and Hejira comes Metheny’s solo showcase (titled Pat’s Solo on the record sleeve). The strongest passage is the lyrical playing in the central section of the solo (when Mays’ keyboard shifts from providing a drone to adding chordal movement). Until that moment, Metheny plays with some cool rhythmic ideas, but the solo feels to me a little lacking in focus.

Side two begins with Black Crow, Don Alias adding a pattering 16th-note hi-hat and bossa nova-style sidestick to Mitchell’s strummed chords. Mays’ piano works well, as does Metheny’s guitar, but I again find myself yearning for a subtler sax player than Michael Brecker. Pastorius’s bass runs at the end of the song are jaw-dropping.

It’s followed by Alias’s conga solo – easily my favourite of the three featured solos on the record; it sounds like he has four hands – which leads into Dreamland, from Don Juan’s Restless Daughter. For all his virtuosity, Alias can’t quite compensate for the absence of Airto Moreira’s surdo, Alex Acuna’s shakers and Manolo Badrena’s coffee cans. Without those extra layers of percussion, and without Chaka Khan’s wordless backing vocals, Dreamland just isn’t the same experience. It’s good, but it’s markedly less good than the studio recording. A bit of a shame.

Free Man in Paris is probably the album’s breeziest moment, but… OK, lets tackle this head on at last. The problem I have with Jaco Pastorius as a bassist (and, I know, we’re talking about one of the most technically accomplished players of all time, and who am I to judge?) is simply how busy he was. Of course, not every bass line has to just lock in with the kick drum and do nothing more than that, but playing that way at least some of the time allows more space for other musicians to do things too.

Pastorius’s constantly moving lines step all over Mitchell’s vocal on this one, and he and Alias play competing fills at the same time as if they’re not listening to each other. If you compare it with the much more disciplined studio version, on which Wilton Felder sits out entirely for the into and half the first verse, you can hear what I’m grousing about. Mitchell can phrase and have that phrasing be effective as she’s not always competing with a babble of 8th and 16th notes from the bass guitar. For me, I guess, Pastorius’s bass playing is the tax I have to pay to listen to Joni Mitchell from Hejira to Mingus and on Shadows and Light, much of which is magisterially good.

Furry Sings the Blues is a case in point. It’s a wonderful song, a meditation on what had become of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, since the heyday of WC Handy and bluesmen like Furry Lewis himself, “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his wooden leg removed”. It’s a lyric-heavy song, and is recited as much as sung, but the atmosphere it creates is compelling and totally singular, and the text is so acute. Bringing something that casts such a delicate spell to the stage is a tall order, but (unlike at the Last Waltz), Mitchell pulls it off completely. Metheny’s volume-pedal guitar is chilling, and Alias plays spare, sympathetic accompaniment on snare, toms and cymbals. Pastorius, Brecker and Mays sit it out, leaving space for Mitchell to fully inhabit the vocal. It’s up there with Amelia as one of the best things on the album.

At this point, the a cappella vocal group the Persuasions take the stage and join the band for a version of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love, played with Alias and Brecker. It’s good fun, and probably was even more fun for the audience who were actually there. It’s then a hard gear change into Shadows and Light, the philosophical centrepiece of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The original has an uncanny aspect to it, created by massed overdubs of Mitchell’s voice and Arp synthesiser. This version is a little warmer, and maybe a little less spooky, but still strong.

I’m not sure how closely the album tracklisting mirrors the set list of the show, but next up the band return for the unlikeliest crowdpleaser in history, God Must Be a Boogie Man, which has the audience clapping and singing along the first time Jaco plays the refrain melody. It’s a more grounded, swinging take on the song than the floating, almost free-form album cut, but I found myself enjoying it as much as the album recording

Finally, Mitchell gives the audience what you suspect they always wanted from the show: an old song from her folkie days, played fairly straight. It’s a version of Woodstock, arranged for guitar. Mitchell’s readings of Woodstock always tended to be more foreboding than, say, CSNY’s more stomping take on the song, but even by her own standards this one is hugely ambivalent about the possibility of getting back to the garden; Mitchell even adds the kicker “to some semblance of a garden” the final time she sings the chorus, as if that’s the very best that can be hoped for. Like Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light, it has the spook. It’s a troubling but hugely impressive end to the album.

*

After having lived with this record all week, listening to most of the songs upwards of three times, I’m still unsure about it. For all the talent on stage (and there was so much of it), this is just not my favourite Joni Mitchell sound. While the LA Express could be as corny as a talk-show host’s house band, they were exuberant and warm. There’s something clinical about the sound of these guys (the Roland Jazz Chorus amps that Metheny and Mitchell use may be part of it – transistor-based amps designed for jazz guitarists to be run without any distortion at all high volumes, they can be very cold sounding), and Jaco is, well, Jaco. Perhaps Mitchell was happy for him to play as expansively as he did. I feel, as I so often do when listening to Hejira, Don Juan’s and Mingus, that it’s a shame he didn’t lay back more, let the music be driven by the vocal. Brecker, likewise, I only really like in his most restrained moments; the bigger he played, the more oily his tone became.

I wanted Shadows and Light to really click for me this time, and I’m disappointed it still hasn’t. The best of it (Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light) is so good that I’m sure I’ll return to it again in a couple of years to see whether my reaction has changed. But this is a game I’ve been playing for 15 years now. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be.

MItchell & Metheny
Mitchell & Metheny

Happy birthday, old friend

Apologies. Still can’t confront what happened last week. Still, this piece is a lot less whimsical than it may seem.

Twenty years ago today, on a cold Saturday just before Christmas, I took the train up London with a schoolfriend. We got off at Limehouse, changed to the DLR, got off at Shadwell, changed for the East London Line, as it was then called, and got off at Wapping.

I’d never been to Wapping before, and its cobbled streets and warehouses delighted me. This was London like I’d never seen it. So was Shadwell, come to that, and little did I know that less than three years later I’d be living there.

We were heading for the Acoustic Centre. I’d been left some money by my granddad, who’d died earlier in the year, and I’d decided to use it on something that I could keep, something that would be worth spending money on. After all, £500 was more money than I’d ever had in my life up to that point, and I wanted to use it wisely.

I had an idea that I might go for a Takamine. I’d heard of them, seen them being played by musicians in bands on TV, and I’d seen them advertised in music magazines. I knew Takamine made very high-end stuff, but also guitars that were more affordable. They seemed a good place to start.

When I got there, I said my budget was £400-ish (maybe I felt a bit sheepish about spending all that money on a guitar when I was still a comparative novice) but the guy in the shop didn’t have anything at that kind of price point. He did, though, have an EN10 priced a fair bit higher that he said he could probably let go for £500 at a push. At that point, the EN10 and EN10C (the same thing, but the latter had a cutaway) was a popular model that you’d actually see pro and semi-pro musicians using, so as a 17-year-old I could hardly have been more impressed by it. It looked great – matt finish, simple decoration around the soundhole, red cedar top, mahogany back and side – and it sounded great too. I loved it.

Long story short, I still play that EN10. It’s what I’m talking about if I refer to “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, assuming Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. 90% of all the songs I’ve ever written were written on this instrument. It fits my hands, it sounds like me. More than that, it’s a part of me.

In the years since I bought it, I’ve sometimes thought about potentially getting a vintage Martin or Gibson, but I never have. I can’t really imagine ever playing another acoustic guitar. It wouldn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t sound the same. Yeah, good tone is 90% in the hands of the player, but what about that last 10%? I’ve put in twenty years on this guitar, and it’s aged and matured with me, mellowing and letting go, to the point where its sound is fundamentally and inextricably part of my sound. If I were to buy a vintage guitar, someone else would have done that work, and it could never be mine in quite the same way.

This probably sounds ridiculously sentimental to anyone who’s not a musician, but to me a good guitar is so much more than an assemblage of wood and metal. There’s a part of me in it. It’s not a tool, it’s a partner.

I’ve got other guitars I’ve had a long time (Seagull S12+, purchased in 2001; Fender USA Stratocaster, bought in 2007), but there’s something about your first. Happy birthday, old friend.

003aMe and my guitar, always in the same mood, as James Taylor put it. On stage at the Harrison in London, a couple of years ago.

 

 

All Hands on the Bad One – Sleater-Kinney

All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album, seems nowadays not to be one of their most highly thought-of records, but it’s always been my favourite of theirs. Any number of Sleater-Kinney records give you righteous anger, interweaving guitar lines, the interplay of Corin Tucker’s ferocious wail and Carrie Brownstein’s nasal sneer, and powerful, inventive drumming from Janet Weiss, but no other S-K album is leavened with as much humour and stylistic playfulness.

Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 by Tucker and Brownstein as a side project from their main groups, Heavens to Betsy (Tucker) and Excuse 17 (Brownstein). Heavens to Betsy, particularly, were a well-known and influential riot grrrl band, so Sleater-Kinney were a supergroup of sorts. (I listened back to Heavens to Betsy’s album, Calculated, while working on this. It’s startlingly visceral; you don’t hear indie music so obviously angry these days. We could do with more of it.) Their first couple of records were scrappy affairs – the songwriting was still fairly primitive, and the band a little shaky.

Shakiness disappeared entirely when powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss joined. Weiss had been in a San Francisco band called the Furies, then formed Quasi with her husband Sam Coomes. A self-taught drummer, she evolved a frantic style built to fill out the sound of the skeletal bands she usually played in (both S-K and Quasi had no bass player and were lacking in low end compared to other bands). By the time of All Hands on the Bad One, Weiss had been with Sleater-Kinney for two records already, and the band was essentially fully evolved and as wide-ranging as it would ever be. While Was it a Lie and #1 Must Have (which explored the way that riot grrrl was discussed by mainstream media) could have been on any S-K album, the likes of Leave You Behind – the sweetest, most vulnerable ballad, the group ever wrote – the self-explanatory You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun and Milkshake & Honey, the group’s riff on the idea of modern-day Sun Also Rises-style expats in Paris, could only have appeared on of All Hands on the Bad One.

One Beat and The Woods, the last albums the group made before going on a 10-year hiatus, were responses to 9/11 and Bush-era America, and as such, they were defiant, largely humourless affairs. While they had half a dozen great songs each (and, it should be said, found favour with a lot of people who hadn’t been into their earlier music), I found myself disappointed by them as albums. I loved the band most when they mixed the goofy, the heartfelt and the furiously political. All Hands on the Bad One is, for that reason, essential.

I’ve not really investigated the music the band has made since they reformed. Lots of bands that have gotten back together recently have made great records, so I’m sure I’ll catch up at some point. I’ve followed the furore about their new album and Janet Weiss’s decision to leave the band, and what I’ve heard of the new music suggests it’s a fair way away from the sound of the band as I knew it. Nevertheless, I’m open to it. After all, they already showed on All Hands On the Bad One that they could cover a lot of stylistic territory.

Mix techniques

I’m not a professional mix engineer. However, I see so many articles of the “Five Tips to Improve Your Mixes” type that are just filled with bad advice (or at the very least poorly worded advice) that I sometimes feel like the last sane adult out there. So much reliance on processing. So little attention paid to the integrity of the recorded performance.

So, here are my tips. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, this is the stuff I pay attention to when mixing. But first, a disclaimer: I’m only talking about rock, indie and acoustic music mixes, here; I don’t do EDM or pop productions, and little of what I have to say would be relevant if those are the fields you’re working in. If you’re working with acoustic instruments, though, maybe I have something useful to teach.

The spine
The key to mixing an arrangement involving vocals, drums and a bass instrument – that is, almost all rock, indie and pop music – lies in the relationship between the lead vocal, the kick drum, the snare drum and the bass. These instruments and sound sources constitute the spine of your mix, the trunk of the tree.

For backbeat-oriented music, it’s standard practice to mix the drums so the kick and snare have equal weight within the aggregate mix. This doesn’t just mean putting the faders for both at unity and leaving it at that. We’re concerned with their level within the drum mix as a whole; if you have a pair of stereo mikes on the kit, they’re contributing, too, so the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within that stereo pair will also be a factor (if you’re using spaced overheads, typically the snare is prominent and the kick, while present, is more distant and clicky). Pay less attention to the visual level of the transient and more to the felt volume of the meat of the drum. And don’t compress those transients into nothingness – those transients provide energy and excitement.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived “lowest” portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the song and what the bassist is doing. If the material features the bass being played mainly in the second octave, the fundamental of the kick drum will live below the bass’s centre of energy. If the bassist and the kick drum are competing with each other, try rolling off the kick’s low end a little and emphasise the beater (more of that later) to give the kick more clarity and audibility.

I like to think of the vocal as sitting on a platform created by the kick and snare drums. Mix it too loud and the voice seems to float above the music, creating what I call “big giant head” syndrome. To check you’ve got the balance about right, here’s a hack that actually works: slowly turn the master volume down until the music is only just audible. If the last things you can hear are the vocal and the snare drum, that’s usually a good sign.

A lot of rock records have the vocals sunken a little further in the mix (an aesthetic that goes back at least as far as the Rolling Stones). If that’s your thing, make sure the vocal is still legible. You can drop it a long way back (e.g. the Police, early R.E.M., Dire Straits, etc.), but don’t bury the vocal entirely; i

Balance – panning
They used to call recording engineers “balance engineers”, and the term is an instructive one. Achieving a balance between all the elements in the mix on a second-by-second basis is what we do.

That means getting the relative volume levels right, of course, but it also means placing the elements within the stereo field to acheive a pleasing spatial balance. We’ve already discussed the relationship between the kick, snare, bass and vocal. These elements are almost invariably centre panned, and have been since the late 1960s. But what to do with harmonic instruments? Where do they go?

It’s going to depend a lot on what has been recorded for the production, as well as the panning scheme you favour as a mix engineer.

I’m a proponent of LCR panning, meaning elements are panned 100% left, 100% right or centre (except close tom mikes, which I pan to the places that the toms appear in the stereo image). Panning this way means that the instruments retain their relative positions in the stereo field wherever you may be standing in relation to the speakers; a guitar panned 18% left will be perceived as 18% left only as long as you sit right in the middle of the speakers. Move away from that point, and you change your perception of where all non-centre-panned instruments are.

Now, some mix engineers don’t care about that, and they happily pan elements slightly off centre, or nearly all the way left but not quite. Me, I prefer the clarity and stabililty of LCR.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar) as live, it might make sense to pan the two guitar tracks left and right, but what happens when the lead guitarist plays a solo? Do you move it to the centre? Keep it out wide? Have the guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All are defensible strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking. If you’re just mixing and you’ve had no say in what was tracked, don’t try to force a panning scheme on the track that the arrangement doesn’t support. Better to have a narrow mix with everything in the centre than a completely wacky mix with the acoustic rhythm guitar left and the bass guitar right, simply because you want to make the mix “more stereo”.

Balance – volume
So programme-dependent it’s hardly worth talking about, but here’s one thought. One of the biggest differences I hear between modern mix topologies and those from the 1960s and 1970s is the treatment of simple rhythm accompaniments on acoustic guitar or piano.

There’s a tendency towards giving everything a big sound these days (largely because instruments are usually all tracked separately with close mikes), which tends to make mixes feel cluttered and airless. To compensate, engineers end up carving loads of lows and low-mids out of, say, an acoustic rhythm guitar and adding lots of top end to give it “air” and reduce the sense of clutter. Consider miking simple acoustic rhythm guitar parts a little more ambiently and mixing them lower. If the acoustic is the main instrument, that’s different, but if it’s just providing harmonic glue and texture, does it need to be prominently audible in every single moment of the song? Probably not. If you’re after a 1970s feel, listen to how the acoustic rhythm part is treated on (just to think of a few artists from across the spectrum) Pink Floyd, Van Morrison or Eagles records, and try treating it similarly.

Compression
Ah, the great Satan of modern mix. The humble compressor. So many ways for them to kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this usually. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic, and use it on the stereo master outs. If you’re going to go down this road, be careful not to overdo it: medium attack and release times and a relatively gentle ratio (1.5:1 or 2:1) will probably sound more transparent  than more extreme settings, and remember you can destroy a song’s feel really quickly by not paying attention to the tempo and groove, and applying inappropriate attack and release settings for the song.

Channel compression
I tend to be looking for a classic rather than contemporary sound, so I don’t like to hear a compressor working (certainly not when listening to the sound source within the aggregate mix). Depending on the instrument – and certainly for vocals – I like to apply post-fader compression and solve some of the bigger dynamics issues with automation. The compressor then gently reduces dynamic range of a slightly more idealised version of the performance. I’m working digitally (and therefore not limited by needing to have lots of expensive hardware), and one upside of that is that you can chain compressors a lot more cheaply than you can in the physical world! If I need a lot of gain reduction and don’t want to choke the life out of a source entirely, I’ll set up a couple, typically pre- and post-fader, and let fader moves and the compressors split the work between them.

Buss compression
All engineers approach this differently. I typically set up a buss for drums (minus toms), toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I may buss single instruments like piano and bass guitar, but usually only if they’ve been recorded with several mikes or, say, DI and amp for the bass. Drums I tend to hit with a few dB of gain reduction, vocals likewise (again maybe post-fader – it depends on the dynamic of the performance). Electric guitar is very programme-dependent; distorted guitar I likely won’t compress at all, anywhere down the line. Acoustic guitar and clean electric, I’ll probably use a little to glue things together a little tonally, rather than for significant gain reduction, and use fader moves to make the guitars sit where I want them to.

Equalisation
There’s a long- and widely held belief that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. It is, I think, a myth. Those who counsel against additive EQing on the grounds that you’re trying to boost what isn’t there have a point – but only if that is actually what you’re doing, which is rare for anyone who isn’t a total newbie. Trying to add brilliance to a bass drum track by boosting 10k is absurd. Trying to emphasisr the beater impact of a kick drum by making a boost somewhere between 2k and 4k (depending on tuning and beater material) is just emphasising what self-evidently is there.

On the whole, I probably do subtract frequencies more often than boost them, but I’m always happy to make small boosts where needed. For example, I often add a little high end to vocals (above the range of sibilance so things don’t get spitty) and, within a dense mix, I’ll look to give a boost to the audibility of toms by bringing out the stick impact rather than the drum’s fundamental.

In terms of subtractive EQ, I work in fairly conventional ways. I’ll look to take some low mids out of boomy acoustic guitar tracks, and often emphasise the low end of a tom by cutting a little into the mids. If a bass drum is moving a lot of air but feels a little less present than I want, sometimes rolling off below ~60Hz can be helpful (I often do this in conjunction with the beater-frequency boost mentioned earlier).

I’m usually working in quite naturalistic sound worlds, so I want to get a sound in front of a microphone, capture it, and present it in mix transparently, so EQing is not something done in the box after tracking. Rather, the instrument being played, the pickup used, the pedals and amps used, the position of the mike, the choice of mike – all of these are factors in whether I use lots of EQ or none at all.

Hand in hand with the natural-sound thing, the ideal situation, if I’ve been recording a good player on a good instrument and done my job with mike positioning, is that I apply no EQ at all. If I liked the sound in the room, there really should be no reason not to like it on tape, so to speak.

Which I guess leads us to…

Conclusion
The biggest issues I have with a lot of the “5 best tips to help you mix like a pro!” nonsense I see all over the internet is that so many of them present techniques that are sometimes useful (often as hail Marys more than anything) as regular, staple techniques that you “should” be using. I read one guide the other day that said something to the effect of “You’re going to want to high-pass filter all your tracks to remove the low end”. But why? Can’t I listen to the track first to see if that’s necessary? What if the band knows how to arrange their music and the tracking engineer recorded them in such a way that there is no build-up of clutter down there?

The best tip I could give anyone is this: do nothing simply for the sake of doing something; leave well alone if you can’t account for your intervention; resist the temptation to process just because you can. A good 80% of mixing lies in the performance and tracking – if a performance is captured well and is solid in terms of sound and technique, the results mix themselves. Any engineer who works as a tracking and mix engineer and doesn’t simply mix would, Steve Albini style, benefit from putting most of their efforts into improving their miking techniques and gain structuring. The mix will then be an infinitely simpler process.

Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

calexicoironandwine-yearstoburn-3000px.jpg

*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

Veteran artists who went new wave

Jim Messina (the fictional version from Yacht Rock, not the real one) called it charming the snake. What does that mean, asked fictional Michael McDonald. “It means reinvent your image in a desperate attempt at relevance!” cried fake Christopher Cross, bursting through the garden gate with a pastel jacket and a Keytar.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, how else could you charm the snake but by going new wave? The odd thing was, some of those who did had the pop smarts to pretty much bring it off. (Yes, I am serious. No, you’re not reading Buzzfeed.)

Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
The crassness of Robert Palmer’s populist moves grate all the more in the knowledge that beneath the immaculate tailoring Palmer was an omnivorous music fan, with interests from across the spectrum; as well as securing the Comsat Angels a record deal, he covered songs by Gary Numan, Toots & the Maytals and even Hüsker Dü. That’s a deep music fan with broad tastes.

On his 1980 album Clues, Palmer hit the sweet spot between his commercial and experimental impulses. Apart from the aforementioned Numan cover (I Dream of Wires), it featured a Numan co-write as well as two of his strongest self-written efforts: the hyperkinetic Looking for Clues, which is close in spirit to McCartney’s similarly restless Coming Up and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (all three were released within months of each other), and Johnny and Mary, which is a singular proposition indeed.

While punk in its first wave had been about aggression, many of the bands that came after the initial explosion (whether you call them new wave or post-punk or something else entirely) found much of their effect by stripping away overt shows of emotion, aggression included. It’s in its blankness that Johnny and Mary is most obviously new wave influenced. With no true bassline (there’s a synth playing a low register-ish line, but it’s quite trebly and thin), Palmer fills up the low end with his voice, never emoting, forcing his words to fit the mechanical metre and reaching down to his very lowest note halfway through each verse. There’s no chorus, so the tension never breaks.

Had Palmer allowed himself to sing more demonstratively, trying to force us to empathise with these two lost souls, the delicate spell would have been broken. Johnny and Mary is powerful because he sings the whole song in the same detached way, as if he was a scientist observing and recording human behaviour, or as the video suggests, an author who is making his creations behave this way. It’s a great, well-judged vocal performance for what is maybe his finest song.

I Know There’s Something Going On – Frida
In 1982, during the last few months that ABBA were still a functioning group, Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) was recording her third solo album, and her first in English, in Stockholm’s Polar Studios (which was also ABBA’s based). Lyngstad had approached Phil Collins about producing her after falling hard for Collins’s debut Face Value, and its atmospheric single In the Air Tonight.

It was a wise move. Collins was a coming force in music (not quite yet the world conquering megastar), and working with him put stylistic clear blue water between her music and ABBA’s. The single I Know There’s Something Going On, with its huge gated drums and raw guitars, was an uncompromising statement of intent: sort of heavy rock, kind of new wave, a little bit whatever the hell In the Air Tonight was, and only pop music in as much as it was made by a popular recording artist.

You have to wonder what Bjorn and Benny, then hard at work with Tim Rice on the songs for Chess, made of it. Did they admire its nerve or disapprove of its lack of refinement?

Young Turks – Rod Stewart
OK, I always try to be positive here, and maybe if I’d been there in the early seventies, I’d hear his leering grossness more tolerantly. But I can’t think of a bigger star in rock of pop with less worthwhile music to his name than Rod Stewart.

Which is what makes Young Turks all the more surprising. Near miraculous, in fact. My basic problem with Stewart’s music is that his sexist public persona – which, we shouldn’t forget, he knowingly cultivated – doesn’t make his moments of sensitive balladry all the more touching. It merely makes them less believable. You don’t have to like a singer to like their music, but while you’re listening to them, your distaste for their public image can’t overwhelm the song. The only time I can listen to Stewart’s music and not find myself appalled by Stewart personally is when I’m listening to Young Turks. Apart from The Killing of Georgie, it’s the only time I ever truly believe him. When he sings “Patti gave birth to a 10-pound baby boy” and shouts “yeah!” afterwards, it’s the most human he ever sounded.

It’s the contrast between that humanity in the vocal and the semi-mechanised music that makes it work. Like Johnny and Mary (which many have cited as the obvious inspiration for Young Turks), it’s pretty much all played by live musicians, but they play it clean, precise and dead on. The band Stewart assembled after ditching the ramshackle Faces and moving to the US, featuring Carmine Appice on drums, was more than capable of playing it that way; indeed, Appice is one of the listed writers on Young Turks, and he’s the band’s MVP on this recording, no question.

How Do I Make You – Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt, like Palmer, was a musical omnivore whose genuine enthusiasm for new music was too easily taken for ambulance-chasing cynicism by her detractors.

Ronstadt wasn’t the only member of LA’s music establishment who wanted a musical overhaul in the late 1970s. But unlike, Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t have a band to push and pull against. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is fascinating precisely because Buckingham wanted to do one thing while his bandmates were happy doing the same old thing. The tension between his songs and the exquisite, intricately woven likes of Sara and Over and Over are exactly what makes Tusk so compelling. Ronstadt, in contrast, was sole ruler of her musical domain. She hired musicians, told them how to play and they’d play that way.

So Mad Love, released in 1980, gets arguably closer than anyone else of her generation to an authentic punk/new wave sound. Yet something like How Do I Make You, while a pretty accurate facsimile of Blondie in Hanging on the Telephone mode, remains just a little too cleanly played*, and Ronstadt is a little too studied vocally. She downplays her vibrato and tries to leave some rough edges, but she’s singing against her instinct.

Three years later she’d try her hand at the Great American Songbook with more mixed success.

Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – The Korgis
The Korgis formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a more-or-less progressive British band who’d been around since the early seventies. Its principal members by then in their early thirties, the Korgis in 1980 were a little too old, a little too paunchy and their hairlines a little too receding for their new threads and shiny updated sound.

They managed quite a good trick in sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is plain pastiche), leaving Yoko to adjust to contemporary music on her own. The band’s James Warren, with his pudding bowl haircut, long nose and round glasses even looked like Lennon.

If, in the long term, Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (the band’s biggest hit) has endured in a way that leaves many music fans unsure who recorded the original, the Korgis’ reinvention was an example of how veteran artists can reinvent themselves without total artistic compromise of the Starship/Asia variety.

*Ronstadt’s band consisted of Russ Kunkel, Bob Glaub, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Payne, and the record was produced by the fastidious Peter Asher, so of course it was never going to be messy.