Tag Archives: Nick Cave

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 6: Cattle and Cane – The Go-Betweens

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

While they’d go on to produce some minor pop masterpieces – several per album on Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane in the 1980s, and then again on The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart from 2000 up to singer-guitarist Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 – the Go-Betweens’ early music was a knotty thing indeed, speaking loudly of their punk and post-punk influences as well as their inability to play smooth.

The group’s second album, Before Hollywood, is where they begin that journey towards lasting pop greatness (and step out of shadows of their early heroes), with two haunting songs from MacLennan: Dusty in Here and Cattle and Cane, which in the 30 years since its release has garnered huge acclaim in the band’s native Australia. Yet this most Australian of songs was written in London, on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, and recorded in Eastbourne, of all places.*

Drummer Lindy Morrison explained the song as being spurred by McLennan’s intense homesickness and his pre-occupation with his childhood, which must have seemed a long way away to a young man living thousands and thousands of miles in a bohemian demi-monde in London with characters like Cave and the rest of the Birthday Party providing company and role models.

Grant was incredibly homesick for the first couple of years we were in England and he spent those first couple of years thinking about his past. He was obsessed with it. A lot of those songs on Before Hollywood have the imagery of Australia. I think Cattle and Cane is a master song.

This is a generous repsonse from Morrison. Not because she’s overrating the song, but because her relationship with McLennan was never easy. Not long after joining the Go-Betweens, she began a relationship with the group’s founder, Robert Forster, McLennan’s best friend. McLennan tended to treat her pretty condescendingly, despite Morrison’s relative maturity (she was seven years older than Forster and McLennan, already 33 in 1983 when Cattle and Cane was released), and the interaction between the two was seldom comfortable. McLennan, for his part, recognised that Morrison did great things with a very tricky song.

Cattle and Cane is a metrically complicated song. Morrison explained that she counted it as a bar of 5, then a bar of 2, then a bar of 4. A musicologist might simply say it’s in 11/4 time, but Morrison’s approach acknowledges the strong beats and chord changes that MacLennan plays on guitar, and feels more intuitive and natural to me.

She keeps a tight rein on the song, staying off the snare until it’s well underway, giving the impression that the song is speeding up (there probably is also subtle ratcheting up of tempo as the track goes on), simultaneously making the irregular metre feel entirely natural. Her approach is wonderfully appropriate, since the song’s lyrics are presented to us as McLennan’s reveries when returning home on a train to visit his family at their cattle station. We actually feel like we’re on the train with him. Even without the music, even without the words, Morrison’s drum track would evoke movement, a train journey specifically. It’s an incredibly evocative performance, the one for which she’ll always be remembered.

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The Go-Betweens: l-r Robert Forster, Robert Vickers, Grant McLennan and Lindy Morrison

*Eastbourne is a seaside town in East Sussex with a large population of retirees. Brighton, 20-odd miles down the coast and a spiritual world away, would seem a far more appropriate venue for a band to make a classic record. My grandparents lived in a town called Seaford, located between Eastbourne and Brighton, but closer to Eastbourne. So while Brighton was only half an hour’s drive away, I’ve been there maybe five or six times at most, while Eastbourne would be more like 20 or 30, which is more than enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

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

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 5 – Lime Tree Arbour – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Sorry for the radio silence. You catch me in the middle of a rather busy 10-day period.

Nick Cave is still doing what he does. That is admirable. But really, I checked out a while ago. After a series of what sounded to me like overpraised Bad Seeds records, Grinderman was the last straw: the sound of, what? Self-parody? A formerly vital artist unable to summon up by force of will what used to be second nature? I listened forlornly. Cave doing sleazy, bluesy and (yes) grindy rock would once have been a sure thing, a slam dunk. Yet the distance between No Pussy Blues and, say, Junkyard just made me sad.

So We No Who U R, terrible title aside, was a relief. At this point in his life and career, Cave needs to stick to ballads; he doesn’t have the voice or sensibility any longer to play the terrifying demon he did so convincingly in the early 1980s.

Yet, the rhythmic backbone of We No Who U R – the first track off the most recent Bad Seeds record, Push the Sky Away – is synthetic, so it lacks one of the key elements that appealed to me as a Cave neophyte when I first heard The Boatman’s Call (which was a couple of years old by then). Before that, I’d only heard Where the Wild Roses Grow, which I remembered primarily for how stiff and uncomfortable he had appeared when performing the song with Kylie and the Bad Seeds on Top of the Pops, and some Birthday Party stuff: Big Jesus Trash Can, which had blown my teenage mind a couple of years later when I heard it on a 4AD retrospective, and a live album I’d picked up from a record fair. I didn’t recall Where the Wild Roses Grow well enough to remember the key role played in creating atmosphere by Thomas Wydler’s brushed drums.

I love brushed drums. They’re harder to play than non-drummers might suppose. For me, anyway. I find it harder to maintain a consistent tone and dynamic on the snare with them than with sticks. If you listen to the Fleetwood Mac song Sara, from Tusk, you’ll hear even a great drummer like Mick Fleetwood struggle a little to keep his backbeat even. Played well and recorded well, though, they sound amazing, and many of my favourite drum sounds are brush sounds. Charlie Watts’s magnificent snare drum on Love in Vain might be my favourite drum sound ever.

The Boatmans’s Call is high up on the list of albums that made me fall in love with that sound. It’s probably Flood’s most organic-sounding production, lush and deep and spacious, without being distant or unfocused. Into My Arms is a stand-out song, of course, and it starts the album strongly, but the second track, Lime Tree Arbour, is the first to feature Thomas Wydler’s drums in tandem with Martyn P. Casey’s deep, warm bass guitar, so that’s the one I’m picking. It’s a simple part, but it’s empathetically played, it’s perfect for the song and it sounds wonderful, and sometimes that’s all a drummer needs to do. The key is to realise it.

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Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart – Gene Pitney

Gene Pitney – a boy-next-door type if you happen to live in well-heeled Hartford, Connecticut – seemed to lurch from one emotional crisis to the next, if his records are to be believed at least. From It Hurts to Be in Love to 24 Hours From Tulsa, few artists have relied on the melodramatic as heavily as the clean-cut Pitney.

A trip back to that well in 1967 resulted in a hit version of Something’s Gotten by Hold of My Heart, a song by the Two Rogers, Cook and Greenaway. It reached number 5 in the UK (and a decidedly modest 130 in the US), but he later hit the top spot with it when he featured on Marc Almond’s 1989 cover. All respect to the pair of them, but the original’s the one that should have reached number one. Almond sings his remake with a nod and a wink, and whether Pitney was aware of it or not (and seeing as he promoted it on Top of The Pops with Almond while wearing a white tuxedo and red bow tie it’s probable that he was), the song devolved into camp.

The original is not camp. It is a man caught between ecstasy and torment. Neither of which lends itself well to understatement, true, but the emotion in Pitney’s original is real enough. Structurally, the song is appropriately knotty. It takes so many twists and turns that just when you think it’s reached its climax, Pitney is buffeted by another wave of despair, elated by a new possibility, and his brittle, nasal voice reaches still higher, fighting to make itself against an orchestra, a  choir and a drummer who can’t stop himself playing triplet drum rolls.

In its rather old-fasioned Bacharachian pomp, it stood out in a year defined by the psychedelia of the Beatles, Hendrix and Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale (which shares its relentless piddly-piddly-piddly drum rolls). But it was Pitney’s last artistic hurrah. Until it resurfaced in 1989, Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart was his last top-ten hit in the UK and he was done as a commercial force by 1970, only Blue Angel hitting number 2 in Australia breaking the pattern of low placings. Pitney was a songwriter (he’d written Rubber Ball, He’s A Rebel and Hello Mary Lou) but lacking the writing rep of, say, Neil Sedaka he wasn’t able to maintain songwriting as a career until his time as a performer came round again. Instead, he was lost to the oldies circuit, so it was no disgrace that he willingly participated in Almond’s desecration of his finest moment; after all, it provided him with a chance at damn near 50, white-haired but eternally boyish, to stand in front of a teenage audience in the Top of the Pops studio and all that cool stuff, just one more time.

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Gene Pitney in 1967,