Tag Archives: Nevermind

More Live Gonzos, Part 3 – Live at the Paramount by Nirvana

Here’s one I really go back a long way with. Don’t worry – I do have a couple of posts planned on artists I didn’t write about this time last year.

Shortly before the release of Nevermind in September 1991, Nirvana began a tour of theatres and clubs in North America, culminating in three West Coast shows with Mudhoney in Portland, Vancouver and their hometown of Seattle, where they were joined by Bikini Kill. They played their homecoming show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween, Thursday 31 October.

The show was filmed (on 16mm cameras) and recorded for possible future release, and the audio was bootlegged for years. I swapped my old Nintendo Gameboy for a copy in, I don’t know, 1996 maybe, which tells you a) how old I am, and b) how long the bootlegs were doing the rounds before Interscope Geffen A&M finally released it on DVD, Blu-Ray and CD in 2011, on the DGC imprint for old time’s sake.

Of course, bootlegs of the other shows from the tour are probably available if you look hard enough, but the Paramount show was a special one for the band, who were still having a blast and hadn’t yet hit a level of fame that they couldn’t deal with, and it’s the only one that was recorded properly with high-budget gear and mixed by Andy Wallace. Whether the band were in such transcendent form as this in Portland and Vancouver, I couldn’t tell you. But at the Paramount, they were really something else.

As the gig begins, Cobain seems in an unusually good mood. He wishes the crowd happy Halloween, before introducing the first song as being by a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, who are “very punk rock” (in Cobain’s world, the highest praise that can be bestowed).

I’ve written before about my impatience with Nirvana’s cover of The Vaselines’ Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam, and the electric arrangement the band were playing in 1991 does even less for me than the Unplugged version, which at least had the novelty of Krist Novoselic playing accordion. What you can hear, though, is a throat-tearing intensity from Cobain from the off, a really good guitar sound (not always the case for Cobain live – sometimes his guitar sounded a bit rubbish. Here, especially, when playing his humbucker-equipped Fender Jaguar, it sounds amazing) and excellent sound quality. This is what good gear and a pro mixer can do for you.

Dave Grohl’s last cymbal crash hasn’t died away before Cobain breaks into the opening riff of Aneurysm. This is one of the greatest live versions of the B-side and fan favourite, and the intensity is palpable. Grohl is clearly giving the drums a mighty pounding (dig the way he smacks both his crash cymbals and keeps time with huge smacking quarter notes as Cobain plays the ascending part at the end of the intro; he addresses the brass like a boxer working the speed bag), and if you watch the video, you’ll see Cobain and Novoselic throwing themselves around the stage like marionettes being pulled by their strings. It’s as if the music’s playing them, not the other way round.

Then there’s the sound of Cobain’s voice during this era, before the constant screaming took it’s toll on his throat. Jayson Greene wrote well about the Cobain’s vocals in his review of the album for Pitchfork:

He sang in a way that was obviously unsustainable, even with the aid of heavy cough syrup, and there’s a thrill, although a slightly selfish one, of hearing his voice rip the air before he had begun to scream it down to the threads. His peculiar, yowling phrasing may have been a deliberate choice, or it might have been the only way he managed to wrangle those notes from a constricted voice box, but there is a terrible, riveting intensity to it: Words feel torn from him, bearing fishhooks on their way out. “Aneurysm”‘s “Love you so much/ It makes me sick” becomes “Laahve yeww sowl much et makes me SECK.” It physically hurts to hear, as it always has, but it gives you some of the most committed, clear performances of Nirvana’s canonical songs as you’re likely to get.

There’s a thing I value in some recordings that seems to me somewhat overlooked by many music fans. I suspect it’s something that musicians themselves value more than fans and it’s probably controversial idea anyway, because it takes us into the realms of an individual’s own subjective experiences, memories and perceptions, but I love when a recording really truly sounds like the thing being recorded. It’s much rarer than you might think. I love drum sounds that sound and feel like my own experience of having sat behind a drum kit, listening to myself give a snare drum a good solid clonk, with my ears maybe two feet away. Or what it sounds like to be in a rehearsal room with a drummer, my ears at about the level of the cymbals and have them swirling around me. I love recordings of electric guitars that capture the full frequency range, that slight sag of a tube amp being pushed hard. These types of recordings feel alive to me.

Live recordings are more likely to convey some of this sense memory than studio recordings, at least since the late 1970s. I once heard Ron Saint Germain say that once production gets beyond the initial bass and drums tracking, it’s the beginning of the shrinking process. A really well produced record, like for example Nevermind, may sound great, but it will have lost at least some of the power that was there when the band played in the room. You sacrifice size for detail.

Live at the Paramount retains a lot of size, a lot of power – more than even most live albums – and it can make you hear songs as if for the first time again. Drain You, the third song in the set, is like that for me. It’s not a song I tend to seek out much these days, and not one of my favourites on Nevermind. But here it’s such a thrilling mix of rawness – the force of Grohl’s kick drum, the dynamics of the noise section in the middle as Grohl plays those 8th-note build-ups and Cobain wrestles with his Jaguar – and sheer melodic and harmonic craft (the way the unconventional chord changes are totally justified and reinforced by the vocal melodies and Grohl’s harmonies) that it connects me back to how I felt about this band at the age of 12 or 13. It also shows that, if we needed reminding, the band’s members were craftsmen, not the primitives they liked to paint themselves as in interviews.

But, as if to show the crowd that they still enjoy playing up that image, the band follows Drain You with two cuts from Bleach, School and Floyd the Barber, the former getting a huge sweaty roar of approval as soon as Cobain plays the intro. Grohl is a pretty good double for Melvins drummer Dale Crover on the latter (though why he didn’t sing the prominent harmonies on the song’s chorus is a bit of a mystery – sure he had a lot on his plate already learning his predecessers’ parts on the early material, but they’re really quite obvious and do improve the song), and if he doesn’t replicate the double-kick-powered groove that Chad Channing played on School, he is a lot more steady, and the song doesn’t quite threaten to come apart at any moment as it does on the Bleach recording.

On later tours, Nirvana could play Smells Like Teen Spirit as if it were a painful duty, or not play it at all, but in autumn 1991 they were still giving their performances of it everything they had. They take it a quick tempo, with Grohl smashing the life out of his cymbals and playing every fill with authority and power. Cobain’s voice gets increasingly ragged with every chorus, and on the final held “a denial” it gives way entirely. While the studio recording works so well because of the tension between the song’s message and the polished presentation of that message, live versions from this era strip that gloss away, leaving edges jagged enough to cut yourself on. You hear it as the alien interloper within mainstream rock that it always was.

About a Girl is also taken briskly, so much so that Grohl pulls them back to a more workable tempo after he comes in. Listened to in conjunction with Teen Spirit, the two songs seem to end up in a similar place via different routes: on Teen Spirit, the band strip the song down to its rawest essentials, spotlighting the adrenalized, punky side of themselves; on About a Girl, they inject into it an energy and spirit that wasn’t there on Bleach, giving it greater edge and making it sit naturally with songs like Teen Spirit.

Polly is an extraordinary song, if you can strip away your familiarity with it to hear it as if for the first time. Sung from the point of view of a man abducting and raping a teenage girl, it’s a harrowing listen – the more so because it’s one of the softest pieces Cobain ever wrote. Yet, playing it straight, without going into a big rock ‘n’ roll chorus, Cobain keeps the crowd completely engaged. His willingness to explore these kinds of subjects, to speak up for causes that mainstream rock musicians wouldn’t go near, is an inextricable part of Nirvana’s greatness and importance, and you could easily make a case that he didn’t write a more important song than Polly. As Bob Dylan remarked after hearing it, the kid had heart.

Breed is a series of explosions, a frenzy of drum rolls and power chords, but with a pin-sharp melody that won’t leave you alone. The band play it with precision. Like In Bloom, which Dave Grohl has explained is him playing drum parts devised by Chad Channing, Breed was first demoed before Grohl joined the band. While Grohl’s drumming on the song is its most crucial musical feature, it’s worth remember that the parts he’s playing are Channing’s, and that he deserves a lot of the credit.

Sliver has an important place in the band’s history. Released in 1990, and the only song in the Nirvana canon to feature Mudhoney’s Dan Peters on drums, Sliver was self-consciously written as a break with the band’s Bleach-era songs, said Cobain: “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written to prepare people for the next album.” Thing is, that places more weight on the song than, for me, it can bear. It’s a trifle, paling next to even the least of Nevermind‘s songs. Whether on Incesticide or in a live performance, it never feels substantial to me, and coming between the casual brilliance of Breed and the band’s genuinely thrilling update of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz doesn’t help it.

The studio recording of Love Buzz is mostly about the bass and guitar, and features possibly Cobain’s finest solos on record. Live, his playing was always scrappier, and he tended to adapt the pull-off riff to make it simpler to play. This version, it’s Novoselic and Grohl who impress most. Novoselic gets plenty of space during the mono-chordal solo to explore the upper reaches of his fretboard, while Grohl playing Channing’s parts is, again, a revelation. There was always something of the funk drummer in Grohl – a propensity to absolutely explode on the one, with huge cymbal crashes and a mighty kick drum. You can hear that – and on the DVD or Blu-Ray see it – here. A particular Grohl tic is to hit both his crashes simultaneously on the one for added power and excitement, and it sounds so right here: every huge open A chord reinforced by an explosion from Grohl’s cymbals. It’s so much fun.

Lithium is a mixed bag. The choruses sound great, but the verses are a bit messy, with Novoselic’s bass feeling like it’s behind the beat, or at least behind the guitar. It’s a bit of a shame. I’m not sure who the guilty party is but it does undermine the performance a bit if you’re listening at home; the folks in the audience may not have been aware of it.

Been a Son is one of Nirvana’s best minor works. Recorded by Steve Fisk for the Blew EP with Chad Channing on drums, then re-recorded with Grohl at a faster tempo for a BBC session (the version that’s on Incesticide), it has great mid-sixties John Lennon harmonies, here supplied by Grohl, and a really cool semi-distorted and flanged bass guitar sound. Written in 1987, it may have been Cobain’s earliest feminist statement, but its pithiness is still effective. Its verses are a laundry list of things the unnamed girl “should” have done but didn’t, before her disappointed parents simply state in the chorus that she should have been a son. This ability that Cobain had to distil a message is still underrated, as some of his lyrics work essentially as collage and resist line-by-line readings of them. When he wanted to make a simple point, he could do it as well as anyone.

(Sidenote: why is it that the similarly melodically simple Sliver kind of annoys me, while I think Been a Son is great? I wish I could expain it. The harmonies maybe.)

Next, after some screaming feedback, Cobain launches into Negative Creep. This is a fascinating one. There’s a quality to the original that I love: it’s incredibly claustrophobic and heavy, but as with so much early Nirvana, the band (especially Channing) are barely in control. That increasing sense that they are only just hanging together is mirrored in Cobain’s vocal, which gets more hysterical and ragged with every verse. It’s great, but it’s so over the top it’s a little comedic.

Live, Cobain’s vocal doesn’t have the same mounting hysteria. He sort of manages to get the notes out, but the effort is clear, and by this point in the gig his voice is starting to get a little thin and tired-sounding. So while the song gains a lot from Grohl’s brutal but very controlled performance, it suffers a little in comparison with the studio cut, which is basically made by Cobain’s crazy vocal.

No such issues exist with On a Plain, one of Nevermind‘s most uncomplicatedly pop songs, complete with middle eight and prominent harmonies. It’s basically a piece of rather meta (lyrics about writing lyrics, and in-jokes between the band members) power pop, buoyed by a bouncy bass line from Novoselic and a brilliant, very composed drum performance from Grohl – every fill is just so, all repeated until they become just as much a part of the song as the chord changes and melody. The band are perfect, and give the impression they could do this in their sleep. It’s really impressive.

The set ends with Blew.  The first track off Bleach, it can’t help but sound a little rudimentary next to On a Plain, but the crowd clearly love it, and the band, particularly Cobain, invest it with a lot of fire – his solo is nicely squonky, with loads of energy.

The encore begins with an early version of Rape Me. “This song is about hairy, sweaty, macho redneck men,” Cobain explains, before adding, “who rape.” Some critics (Michael Azzerad in his book Come as You Are, for example) have seen the song as a comment on his own media notoriety, but given that he’d already written it in late 1991, before he had become a household name and before any unflattering press coverage, that reading should be resisted. It is what it appears to be – a condemnation of rape culture. What’s striking, hearing it in 2020, is the lyric Cobain sings in the chorus: “I’m not the only one”. In other words, “me too”. Cobain’s repeated cries of “rape me” at the end of the song are hair-raising.

Territorial Pissings is taken at an absolutely furious tempo, before collapsing into a version of Endless Nameless to finish the gig off. If the encore is a little anticlimactic, it’s only because the band have blown through 16 of their best songs in the set proper and don’t have much left except a noise jam, a new song and a punky thrash. It’s fine, but the magic has already happened.

And what magic it is. Live at the Paramount captures Nirvana at the early peak of their powers. You could argue that the Reading set from 1992 is as good or better – I wouldn’t want to take sides – but this one’s my favourite. I first heard it in full when I was about 14, and didn’t hear the Reading set in full until much later, so I’m more sentimentally tied to this one.

The energy throughout the whole thing is so infectious that the album totally transcends the issues that sometimes negatively affect live albums, especially rock records. When you’re not there in the room with the band and the audience, flubs and missed notes and the rawness of the moment are obviously all more noticeable, and they can distance you from the song. The Paramount gig is raw: over the course of the show, Cobain’s voice becomes tired; in the loudest sections, his and Novoselics’s propensity to throw themselves around means they make mistakes and are not as tight as on record.

None of that matters. Tehcnical proficiency was never what the band were about anyway. What matters is the fire, the passion, with which they played their songs, the connection they forged with their fans by being so human up there, and the way melody and power were welded together by Cobain’s white-hot guitar.

Paramount_Theater_in_Seattle

The Paramount Theatre. Last September, Mel and I spent four nights in Seattle. We had a packed itinerary and didn’t have time for me to go looking for venues, but in the course of our wanderings we chanced upon The Crocodile, the Tractor Tavern, the Showbox, the Comet Tavern, Neumos – maybe more that I’m forgetting. Seeing the Paramount on our way to dinner at Quinn’s Pub in Capitol Hill was a genuine “oh it’s you!” moment.

Voice-&-guitar one-offs – is originality possible for singer-songwriters in 2015?

I’m very late to the party on Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, mainly because I felt like he was probably going to be talking about a lot of artists and genres about which I knew nothing, and to get much out of the book I was going to have to get familiar with swathes of new (to me) music. As it turns out, I enjoyed it hugely. I was familiar enough with some of the artists to get the general point, and a bit of listening to some key tracks here and there filled in enough of the blanks for me when Reynolds was discussing stuff I didn’t know.

The whole idea of newness in art (music especially, but art generally) is one that’s occupied my mind a lot down the years. If you’ve read many of the pieces on this blog you’ll know that there are styles and eras I’m fonder of than others, and that I’m particularly interested in alt.rock from the 1980s and 1990s, and 1970s singer-songwriter stuff (some, like Paul Simon, I heard in my young childhood, but much of which I discovered as an adult).

This music, it hardly needs saying, is not new. Not on the level of sonics, not on the level of song structure, not harmonically, arrangementally, or any other way you care to mention. And yet, when I listen to, say, Judee Sill, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell or David Crosby I hear newness. At any rate, I hear uniqueness – I hear things that I’ve not heard in the music of any other songwriter, and I hear melodic, harmonic and lyrical ideas that seem to me could only have had one author. I don’t believe any other songwriter than Sill could have written Jesus Was a Cross Maker or The Donor. Only Crosby could have written Where Will I Be or The Lee Shore.

I’ve no grand rebuttal to Reynolds’s theories, but I’m thinking a lot about how we account for this kind of originality within his conception of pop culture, where newness is most often seen as being a result of either technological progress, or the bringing together of genres that previously seemed impervious to synthesis with others and so on. This sort of uniqueness, newness, originality, call it what you will, comes from an individual’s (or group’s, if we’re talking about a band) ability to resist the lure of pastiche, to express themselves through a given medium, whether it’s a guitar, a piano, a laptop or a sampler), and to do so in a way that’s expressive of their own, what, emotions? Personality? Sensibility? All three?

I don’t know. Someone like my friend Yo Zushi might say that none of this has a bearing on the quality of the music, that everyone simply takes consciously or unconsciously from their influences and that their filtering and reuse of these influences constitutes their originality). All I know is that when I listen to, say, Joni Mitchell or Kurt Cobain (to take an example from the era of rock that’s marked me most heavily) I hear musical one-offs, people whose work could not be by anyone else*, and when I listen to, say, Jackson Browne or Dave Grohl, I don’t. It’s not that Mitchell’s and Cobain’s work is always or in any fundamental way better than that of those other artists, but it is their own in a way that I think can be felt by any halfway sensitive listener.

For someone who’s a pop fan and also writes voice-and-guitar songs, this is a pretty interesting topic. It’s something I’m going to keep chewing over.

Joni-Mitchell
Joni

*Both artists did have an imitative phase. All artists do. I’m talking about the work they did when they reached maturity with Blue and Nevermind respectively.

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Give some to the bass player, part 2 – In Bloom by Nirvana

When discussing Krist Novoselic’s role in Nirvana, it’s tempting to fall back on the bass-player cliches: he was the steady one, he was the logistics guy, he kept the band grounded, and so on. All of which is true up to a point. He was a steadying influence, and his playing is probably the least crucial element of the band’s sound, by virtue of the fact that Cobain’s guitar took up a lot of sonic real estate and that the band had a virtuouso drummer. Yet Novoselic was a huge personality – a loudmouth who would say and do outrageous things behind a bottle of hard liquor or a case of beer – and it was Cobain who wrote all the band’s bios and cover letters and sent endless tapes off to radio and record labels.

But ultimately almost any musician’s main contribution to their band is musical, and Novoselic is by no means the one-dimensional player he’s sometimes perceived as. Sure within Nirvana, he mainly played root notes in eights, a technique we discussed in the previous post, or he doubled the guitar riff, but when he did he ever do so inappropriately? And when he took a different approach, he did so with a good ear and a sure touch. His lines on Love Buzz are the key to the song. He’s at the heart of Been a Son. His part in the verses of Lithium is a classic.

But he’s at his best on In Bloom, a song I’ve looked at before for its drum track. Now, I’m not going to condone piracy, but the multitracks for this song were leaked some years ago and are online if you’re interested in hearing just the rhythm section. Grohl and Novoselic cook up quite a groove in the choruses, and it’s a huge part of the song’s success (along with the instantly memorable chorus and the all-time-great drum arrangement created by Chad Channing and played by his replacement, Grohl).

The key to it is a change in feel, which occurs in both the bass and the drums. In the verses, the hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering 2-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, and the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Novoselic also plays in 16ths, tight little groups of them that follow the guitar part played by Cobain. In the choruses, though, the band loosens its grip. Grohl plays a really cool syncopated kick drum pattern but, cannily, Novoselic doesn’t lock in with it; he swings off it instead.That little jump up the octave when Grohl plays his triplet fills are another lovely touch – very playful.

It’s little details like this that turn a good track into a great one. I’d not call In Bloom my favourite track off Nevermind or anything like that, but when I listen to it, I do think it brought out the best in all of its creators.

Krist
In the 1990s, we wore our basses down by our ankles.

Like Suicide – Soundgarden

I felt very proud to be part of a music scene that was changing the face of commercial music and rock music internationally, but I also felt like it was necessary for Soundgarden — as it was for all of these Seattle bands — to prove that we deserve to be on an international stage and we weren’t just part of a fad that was based on geography. I knew we had the ability to do that, and I also knew that the timing was important. This was the time.

 Chris Cornell, Get Yourself Control: The Oral History of Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Spin

Soundgarden were the first of the big-name grunge-era Seattle bands to release a record, the first to sign to a major and the first to get a Grammy nomination. But they were last of the big beasts to really catch on commercially. 1991’s Badmotorfinger (mixed by the incomparable Ron Saint Germain, making a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was Terry Date’s wimpy, tinny tracking on such mighty cuts as Slaves & Bulldozers) was a hit, as was single Outshined, but it was overshadowed by the mega-success of Nevermind, Ten and Dirt.

In 1993, Soundgarden began work on Superunknown with producer Michael Beinhorn. Beinhorn had developed a reputation for breaking alternative acts big following his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother’s Milk) and Soul Asylum (Grave Dancer’s Union). His methods were confrontational; he was, shall we say, not afraid of conflict. He had the balls to (temporarily) can Anthony Kiedis from the Chili Peppers for his drug use and hire Sterling Campbell to replace Soul Asylum drummer Grant Young’s playing, and would go on to fire Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel while producing Celebrity Skin.

While all four members of Soundgarden made it through production without getting fired,  but Beinhorn didn’t let them off easy, and he’s had some interesting things to say about them in the years since*. If they were to be the next band to ascend to the alt-rock stratosphere, they were going to have to earn it, was his attitude. He went toe to toe with Chris Cornell in an effort to get him to broaden and diversify the band’s sound and include more Beatlesy songwriting and less Zeppelinesque yowling, alienating guitarist Kim Thayil in the process, who was used to being a major source of the band’s material.

There’s still a healthy dose of yowling on Superunknown, but the riffs are beefier and less twisty and dissonant than before, Cornell sings with great imagination and musicality across those riffs and drummer Matt Cameron gets the drum sound his magnificent contributions deserved.

Cameron is one of my very favourite drummers – he’s powerful, groovy and imaginative, making the twisty-turny Soundgarden material sound like the most natural thing in the world. He’s on superlative form on the record’s last track, Like Suicide, and Beinhorn and his team (Adam Kaspar, Jason Corsaro and Brendan O’Brien) really allow him to shine.

Like Suicide illustrates a lot of the ideas I was getting at in my last post on Radiohead’s The Bends. Superunknown is a record that is frequently referenced for drum sounds; bands want to sound like this, engineers put their own work up against this. But the reason that Cameron’s drums sound as big as they do is because of the sparseness of the arrangement. Kim Thayil was never a wall-of-sound type of guitar player and his from-the-get-go decision to play a certain way had the benefit of freeing up real estate for Cameron. It just took until the band’s fourth album for full advantage of this to be taken on record. But this is the key thing: half the bands trying to get their drums to sound like Matt Cameron on Like Suicide will never get there because their band isn’t Soundgarden. Superunknown may not be the group’s best record, but it’s undoubtedly one where their unique sonic potential is fulfilled.

Like Suicide is, mostly, a half-time feel, with acres of space inside the lines for fills. For the first half of the song, Cameron keeps it tight. He plays a small kit with the snare wires off, and only plays a minimum of fills, largely laying off the toms. His masterstroke (or maybe Beinhorn’s), is the switch to the big sound at 3.30: a full-kit, large-room sound, with monstrously huge toms and a big reverb (listen to the size of the cymbals, how live they sound). At this point, he begins to cut loose and the 22-second stretch between the heavy section starting and Cornell’s vocal coming back in is one of the most exciting passages in rock music, with Cameron playing a de facto drum solo. He’s still playing the heavy half-time beat he started the song with, albeit with loads of kick drum variations, but the fills are just so creative, it takes it beyond just playing the groove. Note also how the tempo speeds up subtly when the group switches out of half time at 4.30. Absolute adherence to absolute time has never been a virtue in rock; just listen to some Zeppelin for proof.

It’s a killer end to a great album, and when Thayil and Cameron are cutting loose at the same time, it’s as exciting as rock music gets, as good as Page and Bonham during the guitar solo on Since I’ve Been Loving You. I can’t think of any higher praise to bestow on a rock band.

SOUNDGARDEN
l-r Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil

“It was kind of nightmarish. These guys did not get along” – Beinhorn in a radio interview on Australia’s Triple J

Elliott Smith’s early records: Roman Candle & Elliott Smith

There’s something really strange about Elliott Smith’s early solo records. They’re not like anything else I’ve ever heard. His later albums make all sorts of overt references to the rock canon: some McCartney changes here, some double-tracked Lennon there, a bit of Brian Wilson, a bit of Harry Nilsson, some Paul Simon picking. His early records just sound like himself.

That distinctive vocal delivery from his Heatmiser days is still there – a weird mix of Elvis Costello sneer and Ian MacKaye bellow – but it’s a whispered version of it. The song structures, the melody lines, the guitar playing, though – it’s a thing that Elliott Smith did that didn’t copy anything else and hasn’t been copied since. “Soft and gritty at the same time,” as Slim Moon (owner of the record label Kill Rock Stars) put it. Indeed, Smith is still occasionally playing the role of tough guy on these songs. About 16 years since I first heard it, 21 since it came out, I still don’t know whether his delivery of the verses of No Name #2 is awesome or unintentionally comic.

Concrete hands picked up the telephone ring
Do you know who you’re talking to?
No, and I don’t care who.
She whispered quiet terror news.
He didn’t give a hoot,
Said do what you have to do.

There’s a context to all this, of course. These records were made during the alternative rock boom that followed the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a period where a lot of music got on the radio – a lot of music got taken to people’s hearts – that was unapologetically loud, ugly and fierce. An acoustic guitar was a signifier of something other. For a guy like Elliott Smith, who came out of a punk rocky, collegey milieu in Portland, Oregon, to pick up an acoustic guitar and play hushed, intimate songs broke with the orthodoxy of the day, at least in the Pacific Northwest; maybe it’d have been different if he’d come up as a New England coffeehouse guy. But Smith probably felt that his songs couldn’t be too pretty, at least not at first. And they weren’t – pretty, that is – except in short passages. His music wouldn’t acquire conventional prettiness until around the time of Either/Or, when an upgrade in the recording technology available to him was accompanied by the emergence of his 1960s and ’70s singer-songwriter influences.

Reviewers and fans have often compared Smith to Nick Drake: the early death, the sad music, the acoustic guitars… Actually, it’s a stretch. Tonally, the work of the two writers could scarcely be further apart. Drake was diffident, likely to underplay his emotions, even at the end. Smith’s music was always angry, always accusatory, from the first Heatmiser record through to the last song on From a Basement on the Hill. His solo debut, the 4-track Portastudio-recorded Roman Candle (particularly the title track, Last Call and Drive all over Town) is furious. When the torrid Last Call is followed by the instrumental Kiwi Maddog 20/20*, with its electric guitar overdubs and surprisingly fleshed-out drums, it’s a rare respite from all the anger. But it’s the calm of someone who’s raged at the world merely to the point of exhaustion, not to the point where anything’s been resolved. The darkness still hangs overhead.

His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It’s his own life, but it’s a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.

Larry Crane, for Pitchfork‘s Keep the Things You Found oral history

That’s as maybe. Larry Crane knew Elliott Smith and we didn’t. Yet Crane has an interest in trying to correct Smith’s reputation as the downer king of 1990s indie rock. But this reputation isn’t founded on the lyrics alone. It’s the mood, the tone, the imagery and, of course, Smith’s own life events. It’s everything. And a lot of people are very invested in it.

And the thing is, they’re not wrong to hear it in the music, particularly the early records, and Elliott Smith is the one from which much of the “Elliott Smith” myth is derived. To address Crane’s point, whether the drug stories of Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town, The White Lady Loves You More or Single File were things that Smith had experienced himself at that point in his life or witnessed at close quarters or simply imagined isn’t that relevant; the point is that he was clearly fascinated by dope (the ritual of it as much as anything else), choosing to write about it again and again, and one way or another ended up using it. There’s never been any dispute about that.

Yet listening to Elliott Smith is not the gigantic bummer that listening to From a Basement on the Hill is (in full disclosure, I wish I’d never heard From a Basement, wish it hadn’t been released. There are three or four beautiful songs on there, but it’s not enough to stop me feeling thoroughly dirty each time I listen to it, and incredibly sad that someone as talented as Smith was reduced to junk like Strung Out Again). Elliott Smith burns with such fierce creative energy it’s actually a life-affirming experience to hear it. Every song sees Smith discover something new about his craft. Whatever his personal life was or wasn’t like at that time, as a writer he was in a state of grace that few ever achieve. This is what people continue to hear in Elliott Smith, why it’s still such a strong fan favourite.

He’d go on to balance the strengths of his early work with his deepening writing and record-making craft on Either/Or. But while he did become a stronger songwriter, he did become a slightly less unique one. Never sinking to the level of a mere pasticheur, nevertheless it became easier to find people to compare him to. The raw and intimate early records are essential for the fan because they’re so unadorned, so concentrated, so completely themselves.

smith

*For readers outside the US who aren’t sure what the song’s title signifies, imagine a beatific instrumental named after Buckfast Tonic Wine or Scotsmac.

The author’s own lo-fi one-take vocal-&-guitar doings:

Andy Wallace, mix engineer

I’ve mentioned before here that Nirvana were the band that inspired me to start playing guitar and making music. Without hearing them when I did, I’ve no idea where I might have channelled my energies. As it was, I did put them into music, and having never been one to do things by half measures, I became a Nirvana obsessive. One of the marks of the young obsessive then (and it may still be, for all I know) was to profess a love for In Utero over Nevermind. The reasons for this are fairly simple: Nevermind was a huge hit record, and therefore middlebrow, and Cobain himself had said derogatory things about it in public (how it was closer to Motley Crue than punk rock, etc.), as had Steve Albini (who recorded In Utero).

The man responsible for the final sound of Nevermind was Andy Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace is one of the most in-demand, highly remunerated mix engineers of the last 25 years or so. The records he worked on defined the sound of rock music (certainly at a major label level) from the very start of the 1990s for about ten years, when gradually the Lord-Alge brothers’ (Chris and Tom; they work singly, not as a team) sound took over until it was everywhere, on vocal records from pop to country and gospel, to major-label rock. By the time of American Idiot, it was all over: what the Lord-Alge brothers did was now standard methodology.

For the tech-minded and interested in home recording, I’ve been doing some podcasts of late on the subject of recording drums in the home studio. The CLA/TLA approach to compression is discussed briefly in the podcast on snare drum recording. They use a combination of heavy/fast compression and sample triggering to create a very controlled, compressed snare drum sound, which I surmise from interviews with them they think of as aggressive-sounding. To me, it’s the opposite. By reducing the transient/attack element of the snare drum stroke so heavily, they’re reducing the excitement of the music. The benefit to them is that there’s more room for everything else, and it’s easier to turn in a very controlled, loud mix with all the critical instruments presented with persistent audibility.

As I became alive to this stuff, and realised why I disliked the sound of modern records so strongly, two paradoxical things happened. Firstly, I began to properly understand the nature of Steve Albini’s complaints about Andy Wallace’s mixes (most people who talk smack about Wallace would be unable to identify compressor or limiter if it were placed on a table in front of them, let alone actually work the thing). Secondly, I began to respect the hell out of Andy Wallace’s work, which to my ears gracefully walked a fine line between the controlled and focused sound that labels tend to look for, but still retained an awful lot of the sense memory I have of what it sounds – and, crucially, feels – like to sit a couple of feet away from a snare drum and cymbals while giving them what for.

This is really hard to do.

It’s why Wallace’s work sounds like his work. Sure, there’s been an evolution over 25 years or so, but there are certain things he still does that are Wallacian hallmarks: he still uses the acoustic drums to trigger samples of ambience, he still rides the room mics up (and the overheads too) for a bigger, roomier sound in the choruses (both of which are done in the context of mixes that are still on the dry side) and he still leads the listener by the nose to whatever it is they should be listening to, while never making it apparent to them that that’s what’s going on. And sure, if you’re Steve Albini and it’s your drum recording he’s using to trigger samples and your stereo field that he’s narrowing (as he did on Helmet’s Albini-recorded In the Meantime) that might be annoying and seem disrespectful, but Wallace (or any mixer) has to serve three masters: the record company paying the tab up front, the band who created the music and the listener who’ll ultimately be enjoying it. It’s a difficult place to be and hard to keep all three parties happy all the time, but Wallace has managed it more often than not for a very long time now.

Unfortunately times change and even Wallace’s work misses the mark sometimes now. The Joy Formidable’s 2011 release Wolf’s Law, for example, is one of the most horrendously squashed and flat-sounding records I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible: the band, listed as the producer; Wallace, who mixed it; or Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. Both Ludwig and Wallace have done stellar work over the years, so maybe they were painted into a corner by their tracking engineers. Who can say? But I can say this: if you listen to a Wallace mix from the 1990s, whether it’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, Grace or The Globe Sessions, you’ll hear a guy giving a repeated masterclass. It’s interesting, too, if you can stand it, to listen to his work on heavier records in the early 2000s (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, Slipknot, System of a Down, Disturbed, etc.); you’ll hear that it’s definitely the start of a different era, but a lot of the old Wallace techniques are still audible, and whatever the artistic merit of those groups, Wallace’s mixes were still efficient and ruthlessly focused.

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 1

I’m old enough that I can remember the original releases of albums that are now marking their 20-year anniversaries. Some of you reading this will no doubt be thinking, ‘Cry me a river, Mr So Deep’. And sure, we all hit that point eventually, but it doesn’t make it any more welcome.

I remember Monster coming out. I remember What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, too. I’d liked everything I’d heard by R.E.M. up to that point (the singles off Automatic for the People and Out of Time, plus, I later surmised, Stand, Orange Crush and The One I Love, since I recognised those songs when I first heard Document and Green in their entireties), so I was expecting more of that nice big-hearted acoustic rock music, music that was sometimes whimsical, sometimes solemn, but that pulled off the trick of being emotionally generous without being drippy, and tuneful without being trite.

Instead I got a shaven-headed Michael Stipe bouncing around while gabbling a – to me – incomprehensible lyric centred around a repeating question that I couldn’t answer (being 12 and British, I hadn’t heard the Dan Rather story, or of Dan Rather himself) over heavily distorted guitar chords.

Had R.E.M. gone collectively mad? It seemed a legitimate question to ask.

At 12, I hadn’t heard much alternative rock music, and Kenneth seemed harsh and impenetrable. What rock music I’d heard was, I guess, older 1970s stuff (Queen, maybe) or glossy 1980s LA metal. The former tended not to feature great big walls of rhythm guitar, out of which details struggled to make themselves known; the latter kept its distorted guitar tracks under control and never let them tread on the vocals. So Kenneth was initially an alienating and — later, for the same reasons — fascinating artefact to me. It was still recognisably a pop song, with little hooks that got into me and wouldn’t go away (the ‘uh huh’s; Peter Buck’s extreme tremolo guitars in the choruses), but it took time to reveal itself to me; there are still lyrics I’m unsure of. A month later, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol came out, shortly after that I heard my brother’s copy of Nevermind for the first time and suddenly distorted guitars seemed to be everywhere in my life.

This is the result of having been a bit too young when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out – the real era of the loud guitar had been and gone already. My first exposure to the music of Nirvana came when they played a clip from Unplugged on Top of the Pops the week Cobain killed himself, so I hadn’t initially associated Nirvana with heavy rock music. Really.

I started playing guitar — rather, I started saving up to buy a guitar — after a friend of mine showed me how to play the Teen Spirit chords. At that point I became a self-defined fan of US rock above and beyond any other kind of music. But earning £11 a week from a paper round, records also had to be saved up for (or scavenged from the library) so what I chose to purchase had to be something I was confident I’d really like. The works of Nirvana first, those of R.E.M. second. I felt I could trust these guys not to let me down.

Monster would have been the third R.E.M. album I got my hands on, after Out of Time (for Losing My Religion) and Automatic. Piecing together what biographical info I could, I surmised that the band had been around 10 years or so already and had influenced bands like Nirvana, who in turn seemed to have influenced Monster. Nonetheless, the jump from Find the River to Kenneth seemed big. Monster was an album that took a long time for me to work out.

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R.E.M. in 1994. New looks for Mike Mills and Michael Stipe; Bill Berry the same as ever; Peter Buck with worse hair and more beer