Tag Archives: production

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

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The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

Day of the Dead, Disc Two – some thoughts

Disc Two begins with Kurt Vile & the Violators, with J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, taking on Box of Rain. Vile goes for faithful recreation rather than reinvention, and mostly gets away with it. Rob Laakso on bass evidently knows Phil Lesh’s part inside out, but Kyle Spence on drums is disappointing, two- and four-ing his way through the song in perfunctory fashion, with hardly a fill as evidence of enthusiasm. Still, it’s a success, in no small part due to Mascis’s guitar and unmistakable backing vocals.

Rubin and Cherise, from Garcia solo record Cats under the Stars, is tackled by Bonnie Prince Billy, who does a great job with a long story song built on a tricky foundation. He sounds completely in control of and engaged by the material, and the band do an impressive job. A definite highlight. The Lone Bellow do the same workmanlike job on Me and My Uncle they did on Dire Wolf. Moses Sumney’s peppy reading of Cassidy with Jenny Lewis is very nice; he puts himself so much at the service of the song that the recording doesn’t give much of a hint of what his voice can do. Nevertheless, it’s nicely done and I admire his egoless performance.

Lucius, a 5-piece indie pop band from Brooklyn, have the unenviable task of covering Uncle John’s Band, one of the most beloved songs from one of the Dead’s most beloved albums. They make the song totally their own, basing it mainly around a synth bass and the two singers’ harmonies, before unexpectedly taking the song to the disco after the first chorus. It’s a brave reimagining, and one of my favourite things on any of the five discs.

Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo was a Grateful Dead fan before it was cool, so it’s good he’s here. My only regret is that his 12-string take on Mountains of the Moon, from Aoxomoxoa, didn’t allow him a chance to go deep into Jerry territory on his Jazzmaster. At any road, by going back to the Dead’s most psychedelically creative period, it serves as an effective curtain-raiser for what follows.

The centrepiece of disc two is Dark Star by Cass McCombs and Joe Russo. It’s a fittingly chilly, spooky reading that segues into Nightfall of Diamonds – the traditional Dark Star jam, here titled after a lyric from the song’s chorus and played by the same musicians. If there are places where the project’s house band (sundry Devendorfs and Dessners in various combinations, supplemented by a few others) seem a bit conservative compared to the Dead, on Nightfall of Diamonds they play more primally and really channel the spirit of the band. Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds is one of the best things on the whole album.

Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald, a piece by Tim Hecker, may need a bit of explaining. John Oswald is a Canadian composer who developed a style he called plunderphonics:

A plunderphone is a recognizable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded. Whistling a bar of “Density 21.5” is a traditional musical quote. Taking Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” and rerecording it backwards or slower is plunderphonics, as long as you can reasonably recognize the source.

The plunderphonic style was designed to be mischievous, though it can be somewhat sinister, since the results are often so abstract and unlike pop music. In 1994, Phil Lesh contacted Oswald and asked him to apply plunderphonics to the Grateful Dead’s music. Oswald went into the Dead’s vaults, and began arranging and juxtaposing snippets from live performances of Dark Star from different concerts, different decades even, into two hour-long pieces of music: Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes. The amazing thing about them is how Oswald dropped the prankster aspect of his work: although not a fan going into the project, he treats the group’s source material with respect, reverence even, and put together something that, amazingly, sounds like a plausible real time event for huge stretches.

If Oswald was a non-fan, Hecker is an avowed Dead sceptic; a hater, even. Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald is what it says it is – a piece of music made under the influence of and out of respect to John Oswald, rather than the Grateful Dead. It’s diverting enough, but it doesn’t seem to really belong here. It’s here because Hecker is friends with Bryce Dessner, and this was a way of allowing Hecker to be involved.

I had high hopes for TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe taking on Playing in the Band with Lee Ranaldo on guitar, and while it’s not quite what I hoped it would be, the jam section does have some really cool sheets of guitar noise at the back of the mix that I like a lot.

Brokedown Palace by the Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry with Iowa-born singer-songwriter Little Scream and, more intriguingly, The Band’s multi-instrumentalist genius Garth Hudson illustrates what is for me the key problem with many of the less successful readings on Day of the Dead – the addiction to sonic bigness.

I’ve hammered away on this nail many times over the years and probably you’re all bored now, but modern production as subscribed to by the majority of contemporary bands (and the National are wholehearted followers of contemporary engineering and mixing fashion) squashes instruments flat, particularly drums, with heavy compression in order to make the mix as loud as possible. This means that when arrangements get dense, as Brokedown Palace does at the end, with all the extra voices, there’s nowhere for the music to go, in much the same way as if I stand with my face up against a window, and you push me from behind, there’s nowhere for my face to go – instead, my features distort. You can have a big sound or a big arrangement, but in the zero-sum game of digital audio, you can’t have both.

It’s a disappointing end to the disc, but about half of it is very good indeed. My picks from Disc Two: Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds, Uncle John’s Band, Rubin and Cherise, Box of Rain.

lesh
At some point, Phil Lesh stopped playing cool bass guitars. This one, though, this was cool

Day of the Dead, Disc One – some thoughts

Not a fan of either contemporary indie or the Grateful Dead? This series of posts may not be for you.

This week I’ve mainly been spending my time (or at least my music-listening time) on Day of the Dead, a 5-CD compilation of contemporary artists playing music by the Grateful Dead, organised and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National in aid of the Red Hot Organisation, a charity that raises money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS.

The Grateful Dead’s approach to music was wholly unlike that of most other rock bands. Sure, they could do brief and straightforward takes on their songs live in concert, but the idea that they’d go on stage and do every song exactly the way that it was on record (or almost the same but with a slightly longer solo) was anathema to them. Songs were simply vehicles for the guys to be what they were: a major nexus of American music, connecting folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and the contemporary avant garde. Their songs are hugely malleable, so the fun of a compilation like this is in seeing how all the artists involved approach the project (and guessing who are the deep fans and who’s in it for the prestige and PR).

Things get off to a strong start with the War on Drugs’s take on Touch of Grey, the Dead’s big MTV-era hit. Musically, Adam Granduciel ups the tempo by a couple of bpm and goes for that mix of mechanised-sounding live drums topped by exploratory guitar that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who connected with Under the Pressure or Disappearing from 2014’s Lost in the Dream. It’s great, and the song’s a fine vehicle for Granduciel’s signature sound, but that doesn’t stop his vocal impression of Bob Dylan being absurd.

Jim James plays Candyman straight, with a pretty evident love for the material. He transforms Garcia’s pedal steel solo into a heavily modulated fuzzathon, and sings the choruses with an audible grin. As ever, though, I could do without the omnipresent reverb haze he, along with so many bands, feels compelled to shroud his music in. I’ll never get what some people like so much about reverb.

Black Muddy River is a song from In the Dark, the same mid-1980s album that gave us Touch of Grey. On Day of the Dead, Bruce Hornsby (who played more than 100 shows with the Dead between 1988 and 1995, maintained a close musical connection with the surviving members after Garcia’s death and was part of the band when they did their farewell shows at Soldier Field in 2015) tackles the song with a specially reformed DeYarmond Edison, the group that split into Bon Iver, Megafaun and Field Report. Hornsby and (I assume) Justin Vernon sing the song beautifully, and the musicians (Hornsby most of all) play with a moving commitment and reverence. No one else involved in the record sounds as thrilled to be there and as determined to do right by the material.

Phosphorescent’s take on Sugaree, with a guesting Jenny Lewis, and the Lone Bellow’s Dire Wolf are both fine, but they both lack a little of the sly humour that is always inherent in Garcia’s delivery (a verse like “When I awoke the Dire Wolf, 600 pounds of sin, was standing at my window. All I said was ‘Come on in, But don’t murder me'” is darkly hilarious when Garcia sings it).

Morning Dew by the National sounds exactly like you’d expect. Matt Berninger’s doleful baritone is a good fit for such a bleak song. Courtney Barnett’s New Speedway Boogie has been overpraised, I think. The decision to recast half of the song in a minor key changes the melody and harmonies in a way that weakens it, though I’m sure the guys would salute the attempt to put a new spin on the song. More problematically, Barnett’s deadpan vocal takes all the fun out of the thing.

Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear does a good job with Loser, a hard song to get a handle on. Robert Hunter’s lyric is one of his most cynical and violent, and if a singer doesn’t commit to it, they’ll sound like a little boy playing at being a tough guy. Droste sings the song on the cusp of falsetto, yet I never doubt him. (That said, the song is called Loser, the implication being that for all his protestations, the guy has every chance of losing this time).

Anohni’s Black Peter, turned into orchestrated chamber music and given a typically tremulous reading, is weighed down by its own solemnity (again, the gallows humour of Garcia is missed), while Perfume Genius does an Art Garfunkel impression on To Lay Me Down. It’s as if he heard the title, asked himself where he’d heard the phrase “Lay Me Down” before, then decided to give the song the full Bridge Over Troubled Water treatment. As with Sugaree, the big-name backing singer, in this case Sharon Van Etten, doesn’t get to sing a verse. It probably would have improved matters.

Still, being as fair as I can, neither are big misses, and neither anger me. The big miss is of course Mumford & Sons’ horrific take on Friend of the Devil. Now, I wanted to like it. Honestly. I’d have been thrilled to like it, to have my preconceptions about Mumford challenged, maybe even overturned. Perhaps hearing them take on a beloved Grateful Dead song would allow me a way into their music? But no, it’s as awful as anything else they’ve ever done. I’m sure their presence sold a few more copies, and the money is going to charity, so I’m guessing that’s why they’re there. It can’t be because the Dessners like them. No one with working ears ever could.

So that’s Disc One. My picks are Black Muddy River, Touch of Grey, Loser and Candyman.

Back soon with Disc Two, where things get weird.

jerryJerry. Was he the greatest guitar player of his era? Very possibly.

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

https://songsfromsodeep.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/low.jpg?w=625
Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

High Highs – Cascades

When it was released earlier this year, in the second week of January, Cascades by High Highs seemed pretty but insubstantial. It made intellectual sense; I could hear what they were shooting for, and why radio programming directors would feel that this song would fit on their playlists, but it didn’t make emotional sense to me as I listened to it, hurrying to Hither Green station in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or scurrying up St Martin’s Lane towards the office in hat, gloves and heavy overcoat, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not a song that makes most sense during an English winter. After a couple of weeks of listening to it, I found myself getting a bit bored and I moved on.

Listening to it again more recently, when we’ve had some actual springlike weather (not this last couple of days, mind), I find it makes much more sense to me. Nothing’s changed musically. Those opening guitar arpeggios still smell strongly of the Alan Parsons Project as played by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. There’s that all-encompassing reverb haze that is the unvarying production norm of contemporary indie. The drums are rigidly four square, with a disco pulse underpinning, again entirely in keeping with current fashions.

But Cascades’ washed-out late-summer mood makes much more emotional sense now. It’s a song for those days when the afternoons are still warm enough to send you in search of shade and a cold drink, but when the evening brings a refreshing coolness. Every day we get closer to summer, it feels more appropriate to me.

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A cool Adriatic evening, last September