Tag Archives: Pearl Jam

Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

Let’s start with a big one.

Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.

To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.

Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.

It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.

Dust

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?

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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.

My Secret Life – Redd Kross

The first for-real band I ever saw play a for-real gig on a for-real stage with a for-real PA in a for-real venue was Redd Kross in 1997 at the Astoria in London, supporting the Foo Fighters. They sounded fantastic. I’d never (literally) heard anything like it. I was 15 and I’d played a gig or two with the terrible high-school grunge band I played bass in, but that hadn’t prepared me for what a focused, tight and loud rock band on stage would sound like. They had loud guitars, bashing drums and glorious harmonies. Nostalgia may be playing a part in this assessment – and granted, 15-year-old me had nothing to compare it to – but still, their set remains one of the best I’ve seen by a support act.

That and a recommendation in (I think) the Melody Maker prompted me to go out and get their then single, My Secret Life.

Redd Kross was founded by brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald in 1982, and its first gig was supporting Black Flag. Probably because of their love of everything kitsch about the 1960s and ’70s, Redd Kross are sometimes left out or downplayed when the history of American punk is retold, but they were there and part of it almost from the start. On guitar in the band’s early days was Greg Hetson, later of the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion, and a virtual who’s who of LA punk would go on to pass through its ranks: Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes (both Black Flag), Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), Robert Hecker (It’s OK) and Jack Irons (Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers), to name a few.

My Secret Life was pretty far removed from the band’s on-stage sound, which mixed sugary harmonies with some seriously loud distorted guitars. My Secret Life is a big – huge – melodramatic ballad, with piano, acoustic guitar, tympani, Mellotron strings and the band’s trademark 3-part harmonies, a sort of updated Spector. Surprisingly grand for a band that spent most of its career celebrating everything low-brow and trashy about Californian teen culture.

It’s customary for a certain type of critic to point at a cult guitar band (those artists that take Big Star and Raspberries as the starting point for their sound) and say that they made “perfect pop music”. This sort of boosterism is usually misplaced. There’s always something that stopped those bands being as big as the Beatles were (or even as big as the Raspberries or Cheap Trick). Marshall Crenshaw was too gawky. The Posies started off too fey, then got too muscular. Jellyfish lacked a really great lead singer. Teenage Fanclub didn’t quite have the choruses. But any band can produce a perfect moment. That’s what’s so great about pop music. And when Redd Kross crash into that final chorus of My Secret Life – this time complete with tympani – and harmonise the word “life” over an unexpected F minor, it pretty much is a moment of pop perfection.

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Steve and Jeff McDonald from Redd Kross, in the studio, 1993

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 3 – Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs

Session players will play on a lot of crap. It’s part of the job. You’re hired, you go in and play the songs to the best of your ability, you accumulate credits and you get more work. The quality of the material you play on is almost irrelevant. Unless you’re at the very top of the A list, you can’t afford to turn anyone down, and folks who are at the very top of the A list, well, they didn’t get there by turning down opportunities. If there’s a player on the session you’ve never hung with, or a producer who you’d like to connect with in future, who cares if this particular song is a no-hoper? This is a career, after all. You have to play the long game. If you want to understand the session player mentality, consider Matt Chamberlain, once the drummer in Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians, who was asked to do a tour with Pearl Jam in 1992, just when they were blowing up. The tour went well enough that he was offered the slot permanently (yeah, Pearl Jam weren’t Mudhoney; being a former New Bohemian didn’t disqualify you). Yet Chamberlain turned it down to play in the Saturday Night Live band. He was 25 years old. Call me an unreconstructed punk rocker if you will, but being in the SNL band should be no 25-year-old’s dream gig.

In any generation, only the most technically gifted players get to make that choice. Only the very few can make a living as a recording drummer, particularly since the advent of drum machines and drum programming software. Rock fans tend to lionise favourite players in favourite bands, but usually these guys would be the first to admit that they’re stylists, not technicians. If you want to know who the best drummers of this generation are, ask some record producers. Look at the credits for recent big-budget singer-songwriter albums: you’ll see people like Chamberlain, Joey Waronker and Jay Bellerose.

Once upon a time, you’d have seen Jeff Porcaro.

Porcaro’s credit list is a fascinating read. Reading down the list, you see him muscle his way to the very centre of the LA-based rock-soul interface in the mid-1970s when barely in his twenties by playing the hell out of some fiendish Steely Dan charts and grooving like a mother through Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees. His performance on Lido Shuffle is a favourite of mine. It’s an all-time-great drum track. It’s as tight as can be, yet it feels ridiculously good. There’s a half-hour instructional video of Porcaro’s on YouTube (and watching it gives you an insight into why he was so continuously employed; he put a lot of care into his bass drum patterns and his approach to both to choice of hi-hat pattern and employment of dynamics within that pattern is eye opening). He picks apart his Lido Shuffle groove for the benefit of dullards like me. On the hat he plays the first and last note of the triplet on each beat of the bar, while the second note of the triplet is played as a ghost on the snare. He plays the backbeats (two and four) on the snare. On the kick, he plays first and last note of the triplet on the first beat and the last note of triplet on the second beat, repeating that pattern for the third and fourth beats. It’s intricate, for sure, but it makes a lot of sense when he plays it. And his ability to jump in and out of it – to play his fills at the end of each verse, just before the line ‘One for the road’ – is really impressive. This guy, clearly, was a hell of a player. Yeah, he was a member of Toto. So what? He played on Bad Sneakers and Lido Shuffle.

Yet getting an overview of his career by reading his credit list is overall a dispiriting exercise. As you get further down the list into the late 1980s, the artists who employed him get ever more washed-up and irrelevant, further and further from anything you could defend artistically. I’m sure he got paid a shedload for playing on Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness and Richard Marx’s Rush Street in the early 1990s, and sure, he was at an age where Pearl Jam wouldn’t have been calling him up to occupy the drum stool anyway, but there were genuine artists working in the major label system too, and to actively choose Bolton and Marx seems such a waste, given how abruptly his life would end in 1992, when he had an allergic reaction to pesticides he’d used in his garden.

porcaro
Mr Porcaro

If you’d like to hear some of my recent work, here you go!

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999

Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish

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. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC: they looked like Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing.

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 – as well as the 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’d replaced Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer on their disco-era records and had serious 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, 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 lighter and breezier 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.

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Any band can look silly, but only Jellyfish have ever looked this silly