Tag Archives: pop

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

We’ve talked before how the sonic trends we identify as belonging to a given decade don’t magically spring into being fully formed when the ball drops and a year ending in 0 begins. Forgive me for a lengthy self-quote, but this extract from an old post summarises my argument better than I can manage right now:

[Boz Scagg’s] 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 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.

Aimee Mann’s solo debut, Whatever, sounds like it wants to be a 1990s album, but can’t quite let go of the eighties. There are some really strong songs on it – Mr Harris and 50 Years After the Fair are as good as anything she did before or has done subsequently. But Bob Clearmountain’s mix* still has some of his 1980s big-room sheeniness, which was old hat in 1993, and some of the instrument sounds are a little unfortunate, particularly on album opener I Should Have Known, which aims for Posies-like power-pop heaviness but lacks the gargantuan drum sound the Posies had, and has pretty wimpy guitar sounds, too.**

Don’t let me put you off investigating Whatever, though; these are nitpicks. If you’ve ever liked any of Mann’s work, Mr Harris, 50 Years After the Fair, Stupid Thing, Say Anything, Could’ve Been Anyone and I Should Have Known are songs you should hear.

I’m With Stupid (1995) is an intriguing mess of an album, her least coherent, but still one I’d recommend over some of her later more streamlined and tidier records. The obvious things first – this is the album where Mann got comfortable with singing mostly in the middle and lower reaches of her register, it makes extensive use of drum loops, and it’s also her most Anglophile record: Mann lived in London in 1995, during which time some of these songs must have been written. She became friendly with the late Tony Banks MP, cowrote Sugarcoated with Bernard Butler (it’s about his departure from Suede) and reportedly penned You Could Make a Killing about Noel Gallagher.

Like her next two records,  I’m With Stupid features numerous collaborators: co-writers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers and mixers. But unlike the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No.2, I’m With Stupid is a little weakened by its variance in texture, feel, mood and sonic topography. Unlike Whatever, it definitely sounds like a ’90s record. Unfortunately it sounds like two or three different ’90s records, with the feel and textures changing from song to song, despite being mixed mainly by one engineer: Jack Joseph Puig.

Quality-wise, it’s a little up and down, too. Long Shot and Choice in the Matter begin the record well, but most of its rock moments veer between forgettable and regrettable; it’s tough to think of a less essential song in her discography than Superball, and All Over Now and Frankenstein are similarly nondescript. I’m With Stupid‘s best moments, largely, are its quietest moments: Amateur is one of Mann’s finest songs, and You’re With Stupid Now and You Could Make a Killing are both first-rank, too.

Next time: Mann hits Hollywood and gets Lost in in Space

*Quite why Whatever sounds the way it does is something of a mystery. Clearmountain’s work on, say, Crowded House’s Together Alone in the same year was stellar, and pretty much bang up to date sonically.

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

At the Lost & Found – Marine Research

I saw Marine Research play at the Garage in Highbury, London, in 1999, promoting their one and only album, Songs from the Gulf Stream. They were, along with Joy Zipper, supporting Quasi, who were just about to release Field Studies. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to: total indie-pop heaven.

At the time I didn’t know anything about them, and it was some while before I was able to piece any of the story together (this is pre-internet, remember). The band had its roots in a twee-pop group from Oxford in the 1980s called Talulah Gosh, a sort of English Beat Happening, with the dungarees, hairslides, lollipops and let’s-do-the-show-right-here enthusiasm that has  always been and remains the hallmark of twee-pop bands the world over. However, the affectations and faux-naivety that make, say, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson insufferable were strong in the Gosh, too, so they were divisive among music writers and fans. This sort of music always was; as many people were embarrassed by C86 as embraced it.

Talulah Gosh ran its course and in late 1989 the core of the band reconvened, this time calling themselves Heavenly, singer Amelia Fletcher and her colleagues dropping their rather precious stage names (she had been “Marigold”; Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was “Pebbles”; Fletcher’s drummer brother Matthew was “Fat Matt”). While still apt to annoy music fans who want overt and easily understood shows of rock’n’roll rebellion, Heavenly demonstrated noticeably improved instrumental abilities, and were no longer the most shambolic live band in Britain. And if their music was still not ambitious for itself in the manner of the Manchester bands of the same era (or a few years later bands like Blur and Suede), the idea that this stuff might appeal to a wider group than anorak-wearing Peel listeners no longer seemed utterly fanciful.

Sadly Heavenly came to an abrupt end after Matthew Fletcher killed himself in 1996. He was only 25. Heavenly decided to call it a day. But they would reform once again, a couple of years later, as Marine Research, and with their new drummer they completed their evolution from indie shambles to surprisingly spiky guitar-pop band.

They only made one record, Sounds from the Gulf Stream, in 1999. It was a low-key, low-stakes kind of record (indie pop released on K Records is low-stakes almost by definition), but it was lyrically darker than Heavenly’s work had been, with a little bit of added aggression and a lot of very adult ambivalence about the world and relationships. Take At the Lost & Found, where’s the singer is caught between affection and disdain for someone she thinks she recognises from her past, and Fletcher imbues the final chorus with something not far from desperation:

I watch your shadow and think
Oh please, oh please
I watch your shadow that talks
And laughs and bleeds
You hunch your shoulders
And I’m weak at knees
At the lost and found

This was grown-up territory that Marine Research were now playing in. Venn Diagram and Chucking Out Time lived in the same place. All three are great, and Sounds from the Gulf Stream was an underappreciated little gem of a record.

Surprisingly for a band who, even in their mature work, were on the naive and childlike end of indie, away from the band they’ve all had suprisingly high-powered careers. Amelia Fletcher (or rather Dr Amelia Fletcher OBE) is a former head economist at the Office of Fair Trading, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff is in the philosophy department of the Oxford University Press, and keyboard player Cathy Rogers was once on TV every week presenting Scrapheap Challenge, before going to the US to present the American version with Henry Rollins (she devised and produced both shows, having previously worked on science shows like Horizon). She later packed in TV entirely and now owns an olive farm with her husband. Talulah Gosh co-vocalist Elizabeth Price (“Pebbles”, remember) won the Turner Prize a few years ago, and was last seen hammering the Tories in the press over cuts in arts funding.

Theirs has been a strange but rather inspiring group of careers.

mr pic

Marine Research, 1999 – Yes, this is the only picture I could find of the band

Recent home-recorded indie soft-of pop

Lady-O – The Turtles

On my way home from work tonight I was listening to the Turtles. They are, in truth, not a band I know all that much about. You can summarise my knowledge of them thusly:

  • The two singers – Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – became Flo and Eddie of the Mothers of Invention, and sang backing vocals on a bunch of T. Rex songs and Springsteen’s Hungry Heart
  • Happy Together is a deathlessly great single; Elenore may be a rather smartarse parody of Happy Together, but is actually an even better record
  • Drummer Johny Barbata played with various CSNY folks (Neil Young, Crosby & Nash, and with CSNY themselves – that’s him on Ohio, for example)
  • They signed Judee Sill to their publishing company when she was living out of a car, gave her a weekly wage and recorded her song Lady-O

It is, of course, the last item on the list that’s going to detain us right now. If you’re new to this blog, I’ll just say in brief that I think Judee Sill’s first record is the best album ever made by anyone ever; at the very least, it’s my favourite. So the fact that these guys played a part in her story makes them interesting to me, even without the other good work they did.

(Although by god they were responsible for some insipid folk-rock mush too – was someone holding them at gunpoint to force them to record Eve of Destruction? Who suggested that tempo as the right one for It Ain’t Me Babe?)

Their recording of Lady-O, cut in 1969 (two years before Sill’s was released) and featuring Sill’s acoustic guitar and string arrangement, is a wholly creditable effort, even if it neither jump-started her career nor revived their own flagging one (it would be the band’s last single).

Lady-O, as sung by Sill, is a multi-layered text. Sill’s lyrics often fused erotic and spiritual love in a Song of Songs type of way, and as its author was bisexual, a song such as Lady-O opens itself up to several various, and overlapping, potential meanings. A love song to a woman? A hymn to Mary? A love song to Mary? A hymn to a lover? Lady-O is all of these things when Sill sang it.

When the Turtles performed it (I assume the lead vocal is Howard Kaylan, but if it’s Volman, my apologies), it’s necessarily missing these potential meanings. But Kaylan and Volman do a great job with a winding melody spanning a very wide range, the song in their hands is no less graceful melodically than it is in Judee’s, and the descending bass in the chorus is still heartbreakingly beautiful. In fact, given that the double tracking of Sill’s delicate falsetto softens her voice to the point where it becomes a little weak and warbly, there is at least one way in which the Turtles’ version may be superior. Nevertheless, Sill’s reading, in its rich textual ambiguity, is the definitive one.

turtles
The Turtles – um, yeah. Looking good, guys

A new song for you here:

Little Differences, Something New, Wave Upon Wave – The Board of Fun Singles Club

A few months ago I participated in the Board of Fun Singles Club project, contributing my song Little Differences. Yo Zushi made an arty conceptual video (which he had to explain to me, because I’m visually illiterate), and my good friend Christopher Martin (not the singer from Coldplay, but a far better singer who I’ve been playing music with since the Bronze Age) sang lead on the B-side, Can You Explain.

It’s been a few months since I rammed these down your throats, so I thought I’d just let newer readers know and remind older ones that these songs exist, and that they can be downloaded (for any price the downloader chooses, starting zero) from Bandcamp.

Previous Board of Fun Singles Club songs include Yo Zushi’s Something New and James McKean’s Wave Upon Wave. Some folks listening to Something New might twig that I had something to do with the recording!