Tag Archives: Nirvana

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.

Double Live Gonzos, part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

On 18 November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV’s Unplugged strand. I’ve been meaning to post something about the resulting show/album since I saw someone post something on Facebook about the 25th anniversary of the recording last month. Other writing commitments and general seasonal business got in the way. I decided to write about the record as the first in a series of posts about live albums (all old staples of my record collection).

So here we go, the first of them (which as we shall see isn’t a double album and is generally not very gonzo).

*

They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.

Joel Stillerman, Executive Producer, MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded at Sony Music Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, on 18 November 1993. The show’s production team had been after Nirvana for a while, although quite what they had expected the band to do in such a setting is a little mystifying. Nirvana had included a couple of acoustic songs on Nevermind, but essentially they were a rock band, and an unusually raw and ragged one at that. Whatever it is that MTV producer Alex Coletti had wanted them to do at the outset, Nirvana’s performance turned out to be one of the absolute signature moments of the show. In the annals of MTV Unplugged, it’s Nirvana, Clapton and then everyone else.

The first problem the band had when approaching the show, other than Kurt Cobain’s basic unreliability due to his drug use, was material. That old saw about a song not being a good song if you can’t play it with one acoustic guitar or a piano is actually a vast oversimplification. Would Strawberry Fields Forever sound like Lennon’s best work played on one guitar? Would, say, I Feel Love sound like a classic that needed to be heard over 12 minutes to get the full impact if played by one earnest guitar player? Cobain was a first-rate songwriter, but that didn’t mean that all of his songs sounded their best played on an acoustic guitar and a brushed snare drum. They relied on the intensity of a full-bore rock band to put them in their proper context. Shorn of the power of volume, which of their songs would work?

Something in the Way and Polly from Nevermind were natural fits, of course. As was Dumb from In Utero, and it would have been easy enough for the band to imagine About a Girl being played on acoustic guitars. What else would they do, though? They needed, like, 10 other songs.

In the event, they chose to play acoustic arrangements of a few other Nirvana songs, then filled the rest of the set with works by other songwriters. Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic had always sought to deflect attention away from themselves and on to their peers and influences; it was a big part of how they handled their runaway success, and a very laudable part, too. So naturally, they covered shambling twee-pop duo the Vaselines for the umpteenth time, recorded a song popularised by Lead Belly (a big hero of Cobain’s since Slim Moon had played him Lead Belly’s Last Sessions in the late 1980s), did an obscure David Bowie song (again, a favourite from the early days of the band; this time the man who got Cobain hooked was Chad Channing, Nirvana’s pre-Grohl drummer) and invited their friends the Meat Puppets to sit in with them as they played no fewer than three of the band’s songs.

Having already expanded to a four-piece for the In Utero tour with the addition of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, the band also incorporated cellist Lori Goldston for the Unplugged show. When Curt and Cris Kirkwood sat in on bass and guitar for the three Meat Puppets songs, Goldston and Smear sat out, Cobain put down his guitar and Novoselic moved to play second guitar.*

They began with About a Girl, sounding a little tentative; Cobain’s tempo in the intro is all over the place. As it progresses, the band seem more at ease, and the song, played acoustically rather than electric, sounds more Lennon-esque than ever (despite, or perhaps because of, its bizarre key change from E minor to C# for the chorus).

Come as You Are, enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrates the good and the not-so-good of the band as an acoustic ensemble. Cobain is as committed vocally as he was in any rock show, and Grohl’s adaptation to the acoustic environment is impressive for a legendarily hard-hitting drummer. But Novoselic is often ahead of the beat and Smear, whether by lack of imagination or diktat from Cobain, never explores what different voicings or complementary parts could do for the song. Cobain plays the riff; Smear doubles it. Cobain strums open chords; Smear does too. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s noticeable how arranged the next two songs are in comparison.

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (the Vaselines cover misidentified by Cobain as a rendition of a Christian song) sees Novoselic pick up an accordion (his first instrument) while Grohl plays bass and pedals his hi-hat. Immediately, the sound opens out, and the effect is charming even if the song’s snidiness is not as clever as it thinks it is.

The Man Who Sold the World sees Nirvana stretch the Unplugged format. Cobain refused to play unless he could use his usual Fender amp and effects pedals, so Alex Coletti had the set dressers build a box to disguise the amp and make it look like a monitor wedge. His tone was horrible (the result of playing a rare Martin dreadnought, a D18-E, that came outfitted with two large magnetic pickups. It sounded so bad that Martin ceased production after one year). However, if Cobain hadn’t insisted on using his amp and pedals, we’d not have got the gorgeous arrangement the band put together for The Man Who Sold the World, where Cobain’s guitar and Goldston’s cello merge and become one instrument for around a minute in the outro. As for the reading of the song itself, it’s spellbinding, with one of Cobain’s best vocals. In Bowie’s recording, the jolly organ and the let’s-all-play-our-scales chorus distracted the listener somewhat from the song’s unsettling premise; Nirvana cut right to the heart of it, and there is unease (dread, even) in Cobain’s voice as he sings it.

Next were two songs from In Utero. For my money, of Cobain’s material, Pennyroyal Tea was the only song to fall down in its acoustic incarnation, despite his instruction to the band that he would be playing it by himself (he phrases it as a question – “am I going to do this by myself?” – but it’s clearly not a question). The idea of Cobain doing one of his songs solo, all the audience’s attention on Cobain’s voice and lyrics, sounds great. The problem is that, structurally simple and melodically repetitive, Pennyroyal Tea feels like an unfinished first draft without Dave Grohl’s bombastic drums and vocal harmonies. Dumb fares much better – again, its the extra touches (Grohl’s harmonies and Goldston’s cello) make it sing.

Polly and On a Plain were dispatched without fuss, the latter adding a note or two of levity to the performance with a lyric that contained several in-jokes and an admission from Cobain that he didn’t always know what he was trying to say. Grohl later said that he felt Cobain wanted to bring the Unplugged performance “down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level”. If so, Something in the Way succeeded in this aim. The cello is, again, a nice touch.

The three Meat Puppets songs are all great. I’m a particular fan of Oh Me, which has a gorgeous E major riff and a lovely short lead guitar passage by Curt Kirkwood that’s beautifully phrased and possibly the prettiest moment in the whole set. Kirkwood’s guitar playing is impressive throughout, actually, from the fingerpicking riff to Plateau to the pentatonic lead at the end of Lake of Fire.

Looking at the gig as a whole, the Nirvana songs that work best acoustically for me are About a Girl and All Apologies. I genuinely can’t choose which versions I prefer, the acoustic or album versions. That said, there’s something about the version of All Apologies on Unplugged – it’s so naked and vulnerable, and in the end as Cobain and Grohl sing the mantra “All in all is all we are” in harmony, so weirdly celebratory, it may even beat the In Utero recording, which is probably my favourite song on my favourite Nirvana album.

Which just leaves Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana’s take on Lead Belly’s take on In the Pines. Cobain had history with this song. As we said earlier, he’d been listening to Lead Belly since he was played Lead Belly’s Last Sessions by Slim Moon, founder of the indie label Kill Rock Stars, in the late 1980s while living in Olympia. In Nirvana’s early days, he and Novoselic had a side project with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel playing electric arrangements of old blues songs: they cut their version for Lanegan’s solo debut album, The Winding Sheet, a record that everyone in the band thought was magical and was consciously trying to emulate in their Unplugged set.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is hard to write about now, with so much myth-making surrounding it. Suffice it to say, it’s as breathtaking as everyone says it is. Cobain’s vocal in that final verse is unearthly, his screech on the word “shiver” so hair-raising it seems to bring the whole band to a halt, as if they’ve been shocked into silence by what they’re hearing. The band did no encore. As Cobain protested to Coletti when he tried to talk them into doing another song, there was no way they could top what they’d just done.

MTV Unplugged in New York is not a flawless album. It’s full of mistakes and flubs and missed notes. The arrangements are sometimes simplistic, the guitar tones tinny. It is, though, an incredibly human album. A lot of listeners have no use for live records; why hear a rough approximation of a song’s studio incarnation when you could listen to the real thing? But for fans who do love live records, it’s the humanity that we’re drawn to, I think: the subtleties of real-time reaction between musicians, the knife-edge moments where the performance seems dangerously close to coming apart but doesn’t.

Unplugged in New York is full of those moments, and if you’re of the opinion that Nevermind is too slick to be the real Nirvana and In Utero downplays the band’s melodic side too much (I hold neither of these opinions, by the way), I can easily see how Unplugged could be your favourite Nirvana album. Even without electric instrumentation – the serrated edge of Cobain’s distorted Fender, the thrilling power Grohl brought to the snare drum and cymbals – it genuinely captures the spirit of the band, and remains essential.

unplugged

*The mix for the audio released, by Scott Litt, puts Cobain’s guitar a little off centre to the left and Pat Smear’s about halfway over to the right. Curt Kirkwood plays Smear’s guitar, which Litt turns up for the three songs and brings slightly closer to the centre. Novoselic’s guitar on those is about halfway to the left and tends to come in and out of the mix, plainly audible in some sections and all but absent from others.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing a wide-open perfect fourth (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

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.

Pop songs about pop songs: Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish (repost)

Hi all. Sorry for doing the repost thing, but it’s been a very busy week and I’m not feeling all that well. I’m having trouble shaking a cold I’ve had for a week now. In fact, just when I thought I was OK, it came back stronger than before. Hopefully be back with something new on Sunday.

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. Their meta-pop – pop songs written about pop songs, with a pervasive sense of irony and a sense that they weren’t taking any of this too seriously – just didn’t catch on. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC. They looked like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing. They became instead a cult band, loved by a devoted few.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum. Leaving aside the band members and hired players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who had succeeded Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer during their disco-era records and had serious hit-making pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians who shared their outlook, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something breezier and lighter on its feet, in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

Jellyfish

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.