Hi all. I’m sorry for the extremely sporadic posting of late. Since the new year, I’ve been taking on some freelance work, and I’ve often had to do it at weekends, so it’s been eating into my blogging time. I’m working on a long I’ve Never Heard post, and was hoping to have it ready for this weekend, to coincide with a landmark anniversary for the album, as well as the eighth birthday of the blog itself. It’ll probably surprise you. I hope it’s worth the wait. I haven’t quite managed to finish it, but in view of it being Songs from So Deep’s eighth anniversary, I did want to post something, even if it’s quick and off the cuff. So here goes:
Chris O’Leary’s 64 Quartets is a fantastic occasional blog series on four-piece bands. Proper analytical, long-read, deep-dive stuff. Before this week, he’d covered Booker T and the MG’s, the Jamies, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Queen and the Boston/4AD diaspora: Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders. This week, he turned his attention to the Bangles.
The Bangles are one of those bands that I always meant to check out at full album length, but I’ve never quite got round to it. I do know a fair amount of their material, and really like much of it. After reading O’Leary’s piece, I’m determined to put that right, while already knowing that some of what I’m going to hear is, um, unrepresentative of the band as it was in real life, for reasons O’Leary makes clear with the aid of quotes from the band members:
“We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki [Peterson] told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna [Hoff]’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”
“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”
Reading this put me in mind of passages from Robert Forster’s Grant & I, his memoir of his life in the Go-Betweens, in which he talks about making Spring Hill Fair at Studio Miraval in France with producer John Brand (Aztec Camera, the Cult), who was on a mission to make a “proper record” with them:
What constituted such a record in John’s eyes became apparent when, instead of miking the band’s instruments and starting to record, we spent three days getting a bass drum sound. Then started the dreaded discussion of live verses programmed drums and suddenly we were face to face with eighties recording hell. Little was getting done as John manouvered Lindy [Morrison, the band’s drummer] into accepting the use of drum machines. The rest of the band were trapped, literally, in Miraval as the clock ticked and things nosedived into disaster.
The era of the obsession with timekeeping was upon us, automated recording and mixing desks and synthesisers forcing the requirement of absolute accuracy in the drums; no “feel” was allowed.
Later in the book, you can almost hear Forster groan despondently as he describes recording Tallulah‘s Right Here and Cut it Out with Craig Leon and Cassell Webb as like being “back at Miraval”.
Now, as any fan of either band knows, both the Bangles and the Go Betweens could play live just fine. No, neither of them contained any members that could have hung in there on a Steely Dan session, but that’s not the only measure of a musician’s worth. In fact, there’s only one meaningful measure for anyone in a band (as opposed to someone looking to make a career playing sessions): can they execute their own music? It’s pretty clear they all could, not least Lindy Morrison, whose 11/8 beat on Grant McLennan’s Cattle and Cane I wrote about here, and Debbi Peterson, who on the clip I linked to above of the Bangles on Saturday Night Live lays down one of the biggest, meanest backbeats you’re ever likely to hear.
So why did they have it harder than, say, R.E.M. or any other serviceable but not virtuosic 1980s indie rock band? OK, so the Bangles were operating at a higher level of fame and success than the Go-Betweens ever attained, or even R.E.M. at that stage in their careers, and mainstream record-making has always been more exacting and technically focused than indie production. But the answer is surely in part because both bands featured women in key instrumental roles (Go-Betweens) or all the instrumental roles (the Bangles, obvs). Forster doesn’t mention sexism from producers in his book, but it’s possible he just didn’t fully notice it. Nonethless, it’s striking that a band like R.E.M. were allowed to play their own music by a big-name, big-time producer like Don Gehman while the presence of Morrison was deemed surplus to requirements by John Brand, and later by Craig Leon, and the Bangles were all but kept off their own records by David Kahne.
So, there’s not really a thesis statement here, other than the fact that musicians, and female musicians especially, have historically been treated disrespectfully by a lot of producers. But I think it’s unarguable if you listen to early Bangs/Bangles recordings like Getting Out of Hand, and then to, say, Manic Monday, that something was lost by Kahne’s not allowing them to play their own music. As for the Go-Betweens, Spring Hill Fair‘s accomodations with mainstream pop record-making don’t harm the songs unduly (Bachelor Kisses, agonised over and re-recorded as it was, is magnificent), but Right Here, off Tallulah, is a wonderful song disfugured by its lumpen, ugly drum programming – contrast the studio cut with this urgent, energetic live performance). O’Leary’s Bangles piece is well worth checking out particularly because he allows the band, particularly Vicki and Debbi Peterson, to tell their own story eloquently.
In multiverse posts, I examine alternate recordings of songs. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.
For any artist, power – and money-making potential – lies in owning your masters. If you own your master recordings, you can fully control what is done with your work. If you don’t want it licensed for use in this film or in that advert, you can say no. Moreover, the revenue earned by your records goes to you, not to a company that then pays you a small percentage of what they’re making.
Under the terms of her record deal with Big Machine, Taylor Swift did not own her masters. This was not in any way exceptional; few artists actually do. Young musicians, signing their first contract, are negotiating from a position in which they have no power; granting ownership of master recordings to a label is almost always a necessary price of signing a record deal.
In 2019, Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and others, bought Big Machine. The deal to buy the label included Swift’s masters, which the label owned. Braun subsequently sold them to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings, owned by the estate of Roy E. Disney, for a sum said to be in the region of $300 million dollars. Under the terms of the deal, Braun continues to derive a percentage of the earnings from the masters. He is, we can presume, a very rich man.
Swift had, by her own account, been trying to buy her masters for a while, and she was furious at the deal. Coverage of the story made the mainstream press, with lots of ink spilled over what it all signified, who was the goodie, who was the baddie, etc.*
Early on in the dispute, Swift signalled her intent to rerecord her old catalogue, or at least part of it, so that she could own the masters to her old songs at last, derive fair value from them, and control how and when they’re used. And so, two years later, we have this: a re-recorded version of Love Story (parenthetically titled Taylor’s Version – that is, not Shamrock’s version). A new version of Fearless, her second album and pop breakthrough, will follow next month.
Love Story in its original form is only 13 years old, and pop music mix topologies haven’t changed as much as you’d think in that time.** Even so, the two versions of Love Story are appreciably different, despite sharing an identical arrangement. This is because the new version of Love Story is, to my ears at least, rather less pop than the original, and significantly more indie.
Over the last year, Swift has worked extensively with the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, and from him she appears to have developed a taste for reverb, which the National slather all over their recordings to give an air of profundity to their lugubriousness.
A reverb haze on everything is ubiquitous in indie, but is seldom to be heard in pop music. The density of the mix topologies works against it. OG Love Story is, as these things go, relatively organic, but the wall of sound in the choruses (nine acoustic guitars, according to producer Nathan Chapman, plus nearly as many electrics, as well as fiddle, pedal steel, splashy hi-hats and backing vocals) renders long reverb tails an unwelcome distraction, if a creative mix engineer were actually able to make them audible above the wall of sound in the first place.
Taylor’s Version of Love Story, then, is most noticeably different from the original in its treatment of the vocal. There is audible reverb throughout, which is especially prominent in the first verse. The harmony vocals are downplayed throughout in favour of the lead, and that lead vocal is heavily Auto-Tuned, in a way the original lead vocal surprisingly wasn’t. We’ll get back to that.
The results are, if you’ll pardon the pun, mixed. There are things I prefer about the new version. I like that it sounds more like it was recorded in a shared physical space; the disjunct between the dry vocal and wet drums in the original recording is unpleasant and jarring to my ears. I think Dessner has overdone it with the reverb, as usual, but there’s been an attempt to make the mix coherent in terms of space, and it does work better than the 2008 recording.
However, the praise Swift has received for the greater level of control*** of the new vocal in many reviews strikes me as pretty clueless. Love Story was written when Swift was 16, and her youth is always apparent in the original recording – both in the song’s sentiment and the sound of Swift’s voice. The breathless, barely-in-control quality of the original vocal works in the song’s favour by getting it over some of the awkward turns of phrase: the lines that don’t have enough syllables to fit the metre, the lines that have too many, and the lines where an unnatural word or syllabel is stressed to fit the rhythm. The new Auto Tuned vocal is bland – the robotic sound of it doesn’t match the lyric or emotion of the song. It could have been delivered by any early-rounds American Idol contestant, and would have been subjected to the same brutal processing.
Whether Taylor’s Version of Love Story or any of the other songs from Fearless will supplant the originals – on radio or in the hearts of the fans – only time will tell. Early signs from fans are encouraging, but radio may be a tougher nut to crack in the long term. The Nathan Chapman-produced original was machine-tooled to work on radio, and it does work. The National’s sound – bigger low end, less mid-range info, lots of reverb – is more of a headphones/home-stereo kind of sound, so is less attractive to radio stations whose primary concern is being audible on a small stereo in the corner of a shop or office, or in a car. And those original versions are not like the original cuts of Star Wars that George Lucas pulled when he released his Special Editions. They’ll still be out there, winking at radio programmers who’ve loved them all this time.
Then there’s simple attachment and inertia. Despite Jeff Lynne’s best efforts, DJs are still playing the ELO recordings from the 1970s and ’80s, not the versions he’s recreated at home by himself, despite them being more or less identical. If anyone has the fan power to buck this trend, it’s Taylor Swift, but I remain sceptical that it can be done.
*My own take (simple version): the baddie is clearly Scooter Braun, who comes over as a complete prick.
But here’s the more complex version. Record deals with most labels are profoundly weighted in favour of the label in a way that would be judged illegal in almost any other industry. She’s been shafted, no doubt, and maybe a really sharp manager might have been able to do a better job for her when she was a kid, but probably not. As I said, all young artists get shafted.
However, old school label deals did pay off handsomely for a small percentage of artists, and Swift was one of those. She has an aboslutely gargantuan reported income and a considerable fortune that increases every year. If she wants to play the long game, she’ll have more than enough stashed away in five years to buy the masters from Shamrock, pretty much whatever their price. The only question will be, is she willing to pay it. But there’s a price for everything. The masters may increase in value, but they can’t go on tour, they can’t sell merchandise, and they have no claim on the money Swift makes from her post-Big Machine records, which it’s safe to assume will earn her tonnes more cash.
Re-recording your old songs is one way for Swift to try to regain control of her work, but it’s a very time-intensive way and, long term, there’s no guarantee it would be successful in terms of supplanting the old recordings, especially as she gets to songs released relatively recently, where the differences between an old and new versions would be minimal and the new recordings would benefit less from the curiosity factor that is undoubtedly helping Taylor’s Version of Love Story.
There’s also the opportunity-cost element: what writing and recording work isn’t Swift doing while she’s doing this? Surely cracking on with that will be more fulfiling, and with every radio play and Spotify stream, she’ll be closer to buying back her old masters in future, too.
**There are differences, of course, but a 2008 recording and 2021 recording have a lot more in common than a recording from, say, 1963 and 1976, 1982 and 1995, or 2000 and 2013.
***Her much the “control” comes from the singer’s performance and how much from the mixer is – literally – impossible for the listener to judge. The vocal is Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life – that much will be apparent to basically every listener. But when mixing in the box, you can do almost anything to almost any musical element in the mix. That includes shortening the length of a given syllable by hundredths of seconds to make it tighter if you choose to. If you’re good at it, you can do it without notable artefacts, too. It’s simply not possible to tell, as the listener, exactly what editing and processing has been employed during the mix, and any critic who makes confident claims on behalf of Swift here is overstepping the limits of what they can know.
Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.
Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.
It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).
For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.
James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.
As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.
I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).
Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.
Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.
In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.
Bruce Swedien, who died on Monday at the age of 86, is straight-up one of the greatest to ever move a fader or hang a microphone.
He’s best known, of course, for his work alongside Quincy Jones recording Michael Jackson, but his career stretches back to 1950s Minneapolis, where he ran the recording studio owned by the Schmitt Music Company while still in his teens. He did well enough to buy it from them not long after, recording artists including Tommy Dorsey there. In 1957, he moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and then Universal (at the invitation of the legendary Bill Putnam), working with numerous jazz legends in the process, among them Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, with whom he forged a partnership that would endure for the rest of his career.
In the 1960s, he moved into pop and rock ‘n’ roll, recording Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as collaborating with Q on his soundtrack work. In the 1970s, he recorded the Brothers Johnson and Chi-Lites, and did his most enduring work with George Benson and Jackson.
I understand that many are queasy talking about Jackson’s music, in the light of 2019’s Leaving Neverland. Swedien’s legacy being tarnished through no fault of his own is of course nothing compared to what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. But almost no music is made by a single individual, and those records by Jackson are the product of extraordinary labour by a whole team of vastly talented individuals, most of whom are blameless.
Off the Wall and Thriller, in particular, are wondrous sonic achievements, and for all Jackson’s own artistry, they are what they are because of the contributions of Quincy Jones, of songwriter Rod Temperton, and of gifted musicians such as drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Steve Lukather and pianist Greg Phillanganes. And, bringing everything together, the audio engineering and mixing of Bruce Swedien himself.
If you can’t listen to Jackson anymore (and if so, I understand; I don’t either*), try the work Swedien did around the same time on George Benson’s Give Me the NIght. Throughout that album, Swedien and Jones employ the arrangement style they developed for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. The drums, meanwhile, have a glorious, irrepressible energy that just leaps out of the speakers because Swedien, more than almost any other engineer, refused to rely on compression to make his drum tracks fit inside the mix. He always retained the belief that the transient energy of uncompressed percussion was where the excitement in music lived. If you compress that, you start to suck the life out of it. He was unrepentant, and would pretty much write off modern mix topologies as bad – or at least amateur – engineering. “Compression is for kids,” as he was fond of saying.
That philosophy is immediately apparent when listening to any of the records he recorded or produced, whether they’re big band, or pop, or R&B, from the fifties through to the nineties, when he began to slow down. Swedien stood among the very best, an artist and an artisan, a genius of microphone and mixing desk.
*I’m not going to get into any debates about “cancel culture”. Too many people take bad-faith positions to make it worth the time. I understand and have some sympathy with the idea that one should be able to separate the art from the artist. If you can, I don’t have a problem with that. I read, watch and listen to plenty of art by creators who didn’t lead morally pure lives. I think probably most of us do, even if unwittingly, because we simply don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But I simply can’t feel the way now about Thriller and Off the Wall as I did when I heard them as a child, and that’s despite knowing about and wanting to celebrate the achievements of Bruce Swedien and the extraordinary musicians who played on those records. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now that’s how it is.
A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…
I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.
I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.
I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.
He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.
Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.
Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.
The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.
Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.
A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.
Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.
Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.
Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.
Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.
No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.
Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.
I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.
Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.
With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.
Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.
Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.
My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.
It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.
So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.
What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.
It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.
In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.
All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.
Seven years ago, when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about how frustrated I was with the ways I heard reverb and echo being used in recorded music, particularly indie rock. It really ground my gears, which I think you can tell when you read the thing, but I also think I did a pretty poor job of explaining why. Unless the reasons it annoyed me then are different to now but the change in my thinking has been gradual enough that I’m not even conscious of there having been a change. I guess that’s a possibility.
The damn piece still gets traffic, though, so I feel like I want to put a more nuanced take out there for anyone passing who might, for whatever reason, be interested.
Ultimately, what I found – and sometimes still find – annoying about the overuse of reverb and echo is that they’re a shortcut to a gravitas and weightiness that the music may not have earned. The application of reverb and echo puts a sound source in a (simulated) large acoustic space. The sound source is thus received by the listener with a bunch of signifiers we habitually attach to sound heard in those types of spaces.
In the real world, unless we happen to hang out in aircraft hangars, we encounter spaces big enough to produce prominently audible echoes rarely: churches, most obviously, but also arenas, theatres, warehouses, town halls and other types of communal and assembly halls. Spaces in which someone who has something important to say speaks, while the rest of us merely listen. Spaces in which sermons are delivered. Spaces in which musicians transmit and the rest of us just receive.
That’s what always got me about prominent reverb. It always sounded to me like the musician getting above themselves, blowing their inconsequential thoughts and words up to giant size, and inviting you to receive them in awe. When the music isn’t good, the effect can be pure bathos.
Now, there are all kinds of things going on in that response, and a lot of them come down to my own prejudices about what music, particularly alternative music, should be.
In my teens, I acquired a bias against self-consciously grand and epic music that’s taken years to shake off, and reverb and echo are such obvious signifiers of that kind of stuff that I’ve tended to hear all uses of reverb and echo as being informed by a sort of sonic will to, not power exactly, but a sort of will to importance.
In fact, a lot of time these kinds of exaggerated reverbs, echoes and delays are used by artists who don’t want to be made big but rather made indistinct. Again, that’s not high up my lift of desirable sonic qualities, as it tends to diminish a lot of the physical excitement I get from listening to music. But wanting to hide behind a 5-second reverb trail is something I can understand, even if it’s not the way I cope with being a basically shy and undemonstrative person who unaccountably also wants people to hear the music I make. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.
So these days, when listening to music, particularly indie rock, that’s still swathed in an omnipresent reverb haze, I try to focus on effect rather than intention. OK, I wouldn’t make this aesthetic choice, but is it being executed effectively? And the answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You do hear records where the guitarist’s insistence on using their EHX Cathedral pedal absolutely all the time puts the band in a sonic box; if the guitar sounds like it’s in being played in the nave at St Paul’s, it’s going to sound a bit weird if the rest of the band sounds tight and dry. Records where each element seems to exist in different, overlapping sonic spaces remain a bugbear of mine, because it’s distracting and amateurish. If you create different sonic spaces within a mix, you have to learn how to blend them to make a coherent whole. Equally, though, I hear records that would be very different, inferior, experiences if mixed dry and close.
I’m still not keen on Sun-style tape delay, though.
Singer in the pulpit, band on the sanctuary, guitarist can take a solo from on top of the baldacchino. Perfect tracking environment.
I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.
DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.
It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.
Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.
Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.
In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).
For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.
From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.
Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.
Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.
For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.
LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**
At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.
Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.
Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.
I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).
Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)
This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.
Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.
There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers, but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.
Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.
Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.
The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.
Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.
Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.
*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.
Son of Sam
Everything Reminds Me of Her
Everything Means Nothing to Me
Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
Happiness/The Gondola Man
Pretty Mary K
I Better Be Quiet Now
Can’t Make a Sound
**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.
***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.
****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.
If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.
And farewell to the decade, too. It’s been quite the ride for me. I hope everyone who reads this has made it to the end of the year unscathed.
I’m still finding it hard after the election results here to muster any optimism about our country’s short-term future, and the longer-term picture is apocalyptic. Yet, what choice do we have but to carry on in our daily lives? And eight years (nearly) since I started it, doing this remains a big part of my life. In the next few weeks, I’ll probably do what I did at the start of last year, and think of a few themed posts to give structure to my output. Maybe more live records, maybe something else (debut albums, comebacks by reformed bands – a few ideas come to mind).
In the meantime, to see out the year, here are some links to my favourite pieces from this year, including my first proper crack at film reviewing (The Kindergarten Teacher) and a couple of TV things.
A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.
Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.
As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.
It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.
Warner Brothers’ ongoing programme of 25th-anniversary editions of R.E.M. albums has reached 1994’s Monster. Part of the package is a remixed version of the album. Let’s see what a reconsidered 2019 mix from original producer Scott Litt can do for the band’s divisive, guitar-heavy used-bin staple.
Monster always was quite an odd-sounding record.
Coming out in 1994, it seemed like a slightly delayed reaction to the dominance of alternative rock, most of which up to that point had been based on scorchingly distorted guitars. In truth, it was more of a reaction to inter-band politics. At some point in 1993 or so, Peter Buck had put his mandolin and dulcimer in the cupboard, turned up the tremolo and distortion on his AC30, grabbed a Les Paul and rediscovered the joy of simple, swaggering rock riffs. Drummer Bill Berry had already threatened to leave the group if the next album wasn’t louder than Automatic for the People and Out of Time, and if the band didn’t go out on tour to promote it. R.E.M.’s follow-up to Automatic was going to have be a loud rock record or there would be no follow-up at all.
The band cut the basic tracks for Monster live on a soundstage, and Scott Litt’s finished mix always suggested to me a degree of overthinking. Having the guitars forward in the mix was a good thing, given how crucial Buck’s tone (and on a few songs temolo) was to the sound of the record, and I’d argue that dropping the level of Michael Stipe’s vocal was a sensible thing to do too, but on some of the songs the weight of the guitars pushed the drums so far back that they became tiny. I’ve always felt the masters contained a more energetic and more satisfying mix, with the drums a bit more prominent.
Sadly, Scott Litt’s remix isn’t quite that, and goes a long way to convincing me that what might seem “wrong” with Monster when listened to critically is actually right in a greater, more fundamental way.
We can surmise from Litt’s new mixes that he felt his original mixes left the vocals too quiet and the drums too processed and too quiet. The new mixes correspondingly give us a whole lot more Stipe, and a less polished drum sound.
For evidence of the latter, A-B the intro of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream – the EQ-ing on the toms in the 1994 mix is absent (or reduced), giving them a perceived higher fundamental, and less detail in the range of stick impact; they boom less, and they cut less. Of course, these decisions are personal, but I prefer the 1994 mix as far as the tom sounds go, and it’s not even close. On the plus side, the snare is EQ’d differently, with a less present, less hyped-sounding top end. It’s an improvement.
Unfortunately, on many songs you don’t really get the benefit of it. One of the issues with distorted guitars is the amount of sonic real estate they take up. Monster‘s guitar sound is crazy huge. This necessarily leaves less space for the drums. Perhaps the top-end hype on the snare on the 1994 mix was to try to bring it out against the guitars. In the 2019 remix, Litt goes a different way: he adds more compression, to flatten the transients, turn up the sustain of the drum and position the reshaped snare as a solid block in fixed audibility against the guitars. But he goes rather too far for me. On What’s the Frequency Kenneth, the drums actually feel like they lag behind the beat due to the heavy compression as they fight against the wall o’ Buck and the newly prominent Stipe. They have no transient left at all. I’ve never previously heard an R.E.M. record and felt like Berry was dragging. If anything, he tended towards being a little early. The new mix is, on the loudest songs at least, extremely unflattering to him. The decision to take off the little bursts of tremoloed guitar in the choruses, meanwhile, merely removes one of the song’s best supporting hooks. A strange choice.
Other weird choices abound. The main guitar and drums crushed into the middle on Crush with Eyeliner, while the sides are crowded with clean overdubs and Thurston Moore’s backing vocal is drowned out by multi-tracked Stipes? Definitely odd. Anchoring Tongue with a tom-heavy drum track right from the intro? Yep, strange again. Other choices, such as remixing of the guitars on Let Me In, are just misguided. The whole point of Let Me In is that incandescent distorted guitar sound, presented so ambiently that actual strums are hard to make out. With only a minimum of pick attack and volume change to tell you where the beats were, the guitar sound became disortientating and weightless, but also uncanny and beautiful. The new version sounds all too earthbound, with Stipe mixed so dry it sounds like he’s singing into your earhole from six inches away. Being brutal, it almost suggests Litt didn’t get what worked about the song first time round.*
Of course, this is just a bonus-disc remix, a parallel-universe version (a Bizarro World remix, if you like). It doesn’t replace the actual album mix of Monster. But it does spotlight the choices made by the band and Litt 25 years ago, and reinforce to the non-audio-engineer fan that so much of what we hear when we listen to recorded music is mediated by mix engineers and producers. When different choices are made, the result is a different album.
*Just to prove how subjective all this stuff is, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott talked about the remix on their podcast, R U Talking REM Re Me? Both preferred the remixes to the album mixes for the majority of songs, and both felt Let Me In is the biggest improvement. To which all I can say is, whaaaaaaaaaaaa?