Tag Archives: orchestra

Talking in Your Sleep – Crystal Gayle

My mum was a Crystal Gayle fan and I’ve got a nostalgic soft spot for her music. Heard at the right moment, in the right mood, her music – her voice, more specifically – can plug directly into something in me. I think she’s an amazing ballad singer who would be much more highly thought of if so many of her records weren’t quite so slick-sounding.

To appreciate her oeuvre you’ll have to be OK with a little corn, but frankly, corniness is almost the defining quality of seventies country-pop. Perhaps it’s the defining quality of country music generally. Maybe it’s only the rawness of the delivery of a Hank Williams loves song that makes certain music fans hear it as something fundamentally different to a Crystal Gayle song. Talking in Your Sleep (from the 1978 album When I Dream) is certainly a lyric that Hank would have understood.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that as the records in Nashville began to lose all their rough edges, they started to speak more loudly of opulence and expenses not being spared than of the emotion. It’s a well-worn story, but Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would jingle the loose change in his pocket, with a clear implication. And for sure, the records that he (and other producers such as Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill) made with artists such as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline in the 1950s through to the 1960s played down roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel, and replaced them with massed choruses and orchestras. But they are positively skeletal compared to Crystal Gayle’s ballads in 1970s and early 1980s. (That Gayle’s oldest sister is country queen Loretta Lynn, an exponent of a much rootsier style, only makes Gayle’s place in the history and tradition of this music more fascinating.)

A song like Talking in Your Sleep, then, represents on one level the Hollywoodisation of country music. While the song reaches back into country tradition lyrically (singer lies awake watching sleeping partner, wonders if partner is in love with someone else – as I said, any worthwhile country singer from any era could sell that idea), its arrangement and production – which begins with just Gayle’s voice and string section and ends with harp glissandi – was specifically designed to cross over to a pop audience and capitalise on the success of the jazzified Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue from the previous year’s We Must Believe in Magic. Which it did, with ruthless, targeted efficiency.

That it succeeded so well is down to Gayle’s vocal and the quality of the writing. Talking in Your Sleep may be corn, but it’s very cunningly written corn, by transplanted Bristolian Roger Cook, who also wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and the peerless Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (if you’ve never Gene Pitney’s original recording, you must; it’s astonishing, melodramatic, over the top, and absolutely awesome). Producer Allen Reynolds, meanwhile, certainly knows how to cross over to the mainstream; he produced every Garth Brooks studio album from his debut up to the baffling Garth Brooks… In the Life of Chris Gaines (which was helmed by Don Was – though he probably hopes we’d forgotten that).

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Crystal Gayle, before her hair reached the floor

Space music – Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic

Like most kids, I was interested in space as a boy. I used to read the space section of my family’s junior encyclopaedia over and over again. I read sci-fi books, had space-themed toys, wrote little spacey stories. This was the late 1980s, and though the Challenger disaster was a terrifying recent memory to those older than me (I was only four when it happened) and therefore able to process and absorb what had happened, near-space exploration still seemed to be just the beginning of what we could, and in time would, do. The moon landings still weren’t that far in the past, I suppose.

In recent years, I’ve come to find the idea of space (as well as the idea of ocean depths) oppressive, bordering on scary. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, I find just thinking about space overwhelming, a situation perhaps not helped by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, around five or six years ago: that dreadful shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL, his oxygen supply severed. I probably hadn’t thought about space much as an adult, and to an adult – with an imagination more vivid and powerful than that of a child, but simultaneously more grounded in physical reality – the idea of being out there in such a blankly hostile environment wasn’t cool and exciting, it was terrifying.

We aren’t meant to be up there. We’re not built for it.

It’s improbable that these things were occupying Gustav Holst all that much when he wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and his movements are named after the qualities associated with the planets in astrology rather than astronomy.

The Planets‘ two most famous movements are Mars, the Bringer of War, the barnstorming opener, with its hysterically aggressive final section (emulated thousands of times in Hollywood movie scores) and relentless 5/4 ostinato, and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which contains at its heart the beautiful melody Thaxted, grievously misused (with Holst’s weary acquiescence) by Cecil Spring Rice as the tune for I Vow to Thee, My Country – loathsome, sentimental, nationalistic nonsense. (Thaxted was Holst’s home in my native county of Essex – in the 1910s and 1920s, Thaxted was a hotbed of Christian socialism, with Conrad Noel and Daisy, Countess of Warwick at its centre, and Holst as a sort of orbiting moon.)

The movements that interest me most are very different: Venus, the Bringer of Peace and Neptune, the Mystic. Venus’s beauty is heavenly, lulling flutes, a tinkling celeste, soft harps and mellifluous French horns, with only the double bass hinting of mystery and danger hidden behind that impassive-looking cloud structure.

Neptune (like Mars, in 5/4 time) is something else again, with its emphasis more on texture and atmosphere than melody (not to say that its melodies aren’t exquisite). This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. It’s most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble from the organ accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be. At this point the voices enter.

Holst does thrilling things with this chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams, fellow composer and a lifelong friend of Holst’s, wrote penetratingly on its effect:

Such a work as Neptune, the Mystic seems to give us such a glance into the future—it ends, so to speak, on a note of interrogation. Many composers have attempted this, sometimes bringing in the common chord at the end as an unwilling tribute to tradition, sometimes sophisticating it by the addition of one discordant note, sometimes letting the whole thin out into a single line of melody; but Holst in Neptune actually causes the music to fade away to nothing. We look into the future, but its secrets remain closed to us.

The chorus does, as Holst says, “fade away to nothing”. The singers, screened so as never to be visible to the audience, slowly walk out of the concert hall into an adjoining room, and a door is closed quietly behind them. This in itself was a daring, near unprecedented, move, but in its totality, Neptune creates a vocabulary of space music that is still being employed today in movie scores*: delicate, sparse orchestration and quizzical chords, high, sustained strings, the interplay of deepest bass and lightest treble, the choice of instruments to create uncanny timbres – Neptune succeeds so well in evoking space (in a way that the other movements of the suite, no matter how successful, don’t try to – as they are intended to, they evoke the moods and humours the planets are associated with in astrology) that it spawned hundreds of imitators in the movies, and may fool us into thinking that Holst himself was working in an extant tradition rather than calling one into existence through the sheer scope of his imagination.

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Neptune, currently somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 billion kilometres away

* Perhaps the most obvious Planets reference is in John Williams’s Star Wars music, which quotes the ending of Mars almost exactly. The mood of Neptune, meanwhile, is Hollywood’s default “mysterious space” mood, with the gentle moments of James Horner’s Aliens score, for example, deeply in hock to it.

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Pacific Street – Hem (repost)

Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.

I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.

Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.

I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.

Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.

Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.

I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.

That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.

Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.

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Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden

 

Nighthawks at the Diner/Small Change – Tom Waits

An inebriated good evening to you all. Welcome to Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge.

Tom Waits, Opening Intro, Nighthawks at the Diner

It’s somewhat predictable, I suppose, that when I’m in the middle of a recording project I tend to listen to music in an even more drily analytical way than normal, and that I become fascinated by the technical details of recorded music.

I’m once again in the middle of a little spate of recording – working on my own stuff, some finer details of James McKean’s next album, and the beginning stages of some songs with Sumner – so my mind turns to the minutiae of recording processes again. I’m also in the middle of a little Tom Waits binge, having put a CD of some favourite Waits stuff together for Mel, who (like me) loves The Heart of Saturday Night but (unlike me) hasn’t heard too much outside that, or been too keen on what she’s heard. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change, the two albums that came after Saturday Night and which, taken with it, make up the crucial three records of Waits’s 1970s career.

The two albums see Waits diving further into his persona as hard-drinking nighthawk, with a humour that grows increasingly dark and suffocating during Small Change. It’s a pretty hard-going album for one that contains so many belly laughs (and if you don’t find nine-tenths of Step Right Up, The Piano has been Drinking and Pasties and a G-String hilarious, Tom Waits is probably just not for you): Tom Traubert’s Blues and (while a much less successful song) Bad Liver and a Broken Heart constitute a pretty heavy pair of emotional statements, all the more impressive when you read on the sleeve that Small Change was recorded live to 2-track.

If this doesn’t mean much to you, let me explain. Records, since the 1950s, are customarily multi-tracked. Whether recording to 4-, 8-, 16- or 24-track tape or to a computer, multi-track recording allows you independent control of the elements that are recorded. Say you’re recording a band to 16-track tape and you want to get a live basic track and do no bouncing. You might set up 6 mics for the drums, one each for guitar and bass amps, two on a piano and one for, I dunno, saxophone, and you’ve used 11 tracks of your allotted 16, leaving you five open tracks for vocal overdubs and maybe a solo or some percussion. Then you mix down the recording to another tape machine, this time a 2-track machine, creating the final mix in the process. What Waits and producer Bones Howe were doing was collapsing all of this into one process. Waits, his piano, band and orchestra, all in one room, all miked up, but printed to 2-track tape there and then (the two tracks referred to here being the left and right tracks of stereo) rather than at a later date. This was old-school recording – the take had to be nailed when played or the clunkers would be audible in the finished version, unless you had a very similar take from which you could edit in the necessary parts, which is difficult to do seamlessly, particularly on live-performance takes. That Waits was able to nail whole takes of emotional, lyrically complex material live in a room with a band and orchestra says a lot about his skill as a performer, and a lot about the trust that he and Bones Howe had in each other. Small Change, then, for all the questions the listener might have about the ‘reality’ of the Tom Waits persona and vocal style, is musically speaking exactly what it appears to be. What you’re hearing is what happened.

In contrast, Nighthawks at the Diner, the live record that preceded it, isn’t quite what it appears. It’s a high-concept, highly produced studio concoction. ‘Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge’ was in fact a studio in the Record Plant, done up with tables and a bar for the occasion, the punters friends of Waits and his manager Herb Cohen. The band included Jim Hughart (also on Small Change) on bass and Mike Melvoin (the father of Wendy Melvoin, of Wendy and Lisa, and the late Jonathan Melvoin, the keyboard player who died of a heroin overdose while touring with the Smashing Pumpkins) on piano. The record was recorded over two nights, two ‘shows’ per session, the best performances making it to the record. At its best it’s a really fun album – the intros are very funny (often more compelling than the songs they’re introducing), and the set-pieces, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I, are the absolute best examples of Waits’s small-band-jazz-plus-beat-poetry thing. But as a whole it’s too long, and the songs with tunes don’t really have tunes, not like Tom Traubert’s Blues has a tune, say. If your patience for Waits is limited, or you’re too busy to hear both, get Small Change and let Nighthawks alone if you must, but you’ll be missing out on Nighthawk Postcards’ uproarious used-car-salesman bit, and that’d be your loss.

So Nighthawks is somewhat less a live album than it appears to be, and Small Change somewhat more. Never trust a record producer is today’s moral, I think.

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Bones Howe’s set-up diagram for Nighthawks (reprinted from Sound on Sound)