Tag Archives: record production

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

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Mix techniques

I’m not a professional mix engineer. However, I see so many articles of the “Five Tips to Improve Your Mixes” type that are just filled with bad advice (or at the very least poorly worded advice) that I sometimes feel like the last sane adult out there. So much reliance on processing. So little attention paid to the integrity of the recorded performance.

So, here are my tips. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, this is the stuff I pay attention to when mixing. But first, a disclaimer: I’m only talking about rock, indie and acoustic music mixes, here; I don’t do EDM or pop productions, and little of what I have to say would be relevant if those are the fields you’re working in. If you’re working with acoustic instruments, though, maybe I have something useful to teach.

The spine
The key to mixing an arrangement involving vocals, drums and a bass instrument – that is, almost all rock, indie and pop music – lies in the relationship between the lead vocal, the kick drum, the snare drum and the bass. These instruments and sound sources constitute the spine of your mix, the trunk of the tree.

For backbeat-oriented music, it’s standard practice to mix the drums so the kick and snare have equal weight within the aggregate mix. This doesn’t just mean putting the faders for both at unity and leaving it at that. We’re concerned with their level within the drum mix as a whole; if you have a pair of stereo mikes on the kit, they’re contributing, too, so the relative volume of the snare compared to the kick within that stereo pair will also be a factor (if you’re using spaced overheads, typically the snare is prominent and the kick, while present, is more distant and clicky). Pay less attention to the visual level of the transient and more to the felt volume of the meat of the drum. And don’t compress those transients into nothingness – those transients provide energy and excitement.

Whether the kick or the bass occupies the perceived “lowest” portion of the frequency spectrum will depend on the song and what the bassist is doing. If the material features the bass being played mainly in the second octave, the fundamental of the kick drum will live below the bass’s centre of energy. If the bassist and the kick drum are competing with each other, try rolling off the kick’s low end a little and emphasise the beater (more of that later) to give the kick more clarity and audibility.

I like to think of the vocal as sitting on a platform created by the kick and snare drums. Mix it too loud and the voice seems to float above the music, creating what I call “big giant head” syndrome. To check you’ve got the balance about right, here’s a hack that actually works: slowly turn the master volume down until the music is only just audible. If the last things you can hear are the vocal and the snare drum, that’s usually a good sign.

A lot of rock records have the vocals sunken a little further in the mix (an aesthetic that goes back at least as far as the Rolling Stones). If that’s your thing, make sure the vocal is still legible. You can drop it a long way back (e.g. the Police, early R.E.M., Dire Straits, etc.), but don’t bury the vocal entirely; i

Balance – panning
They used to call recording engineers “balance engineers”, and the term is an instructive one. Achieving a balance between all the elements in the mix on a second-by-second basis is what we do.

That means getting the relative volume levels right, of course, but it also means placing the elements within the stereo field to acheive a pleasing spatial balance. We’ve already discussed the relationship between the kick, snare, bass and vocal. These elements are almost invariably centre panned, and have been since the late 1960s. But what to do with harmonic instruments? Where do they go?

It’s going to depend a lot on what has been recorded for the production, as well as the panning scheme you favour as a mix engineer.

I’m a proponent of LCR panning, meaning elements are panned 100% left, 100% right or centre (except close tom mikes, which I pan to the places that the toms appear in the stereo image). Panning this way means that the instruments retain their relative positions in the stereo field wherever you may be standing in relation to the speakers; a guitar panned 18% left will be perceived as 18% left only as long as you sit right in the middle of the speakers. Move away from that point, and you change your perception of where all non-centre-panned instruments are.

Now, some mix engineers don’t care about that, and they happily pan elements slightly off centre, or nearly all the way left but not quite. Me, I prefer the clarity and stabililty of LCR.

But LCR requires a degree of forethought. If you track a four-piece band (bass, drums, rhythm and lead guitar) as live, it might make sense to pan the two guitar tracks left and right, but what happens when the lead guitarist plays a solo? Do you move it to the centre? Keep it out wide? Have the guitarist not play a solo during the live take but instead double the rhythm part, then overdub the solo later? Record the rhythm player through two amps, split left and right, and put the lead guitarist in the centre with the vocalist? All are defensible strategies, but it pays to consider them before tracking. If you’re just mixing and you’ve had no say in what was tracked, don’t try to force a panning scheme on the track that the arrangement doesn’t support. Better to have a narrow mix with everything in the centre than a completely wacky mix with the acoustic rhythm guitar left and the bass guitar right, simply because you want to make the mix “more stereo”.

Balance – volume
So programme-dependent it’s hardly worth talking about, but here’s one thought. One of the biggest differences I hear between modern mix topologies and those from the 1960s and 1970s is the treatment of simple rhythm accompaniments on acoustic guitar or piano.

There’s a tendency towards giving everything a big sound these days (largely because instruments are usually all tracked separately with close mikes), which tends to make mixes feel cluttered and airless. To compensate, engineers end up carving loads of lows and low-mids out of, say, an acoustic rhythm guitar and adding lots of top end to give it “air” and reduce the sense of clutter. Consider miking simple acoustic rhythm guitar parts a little more ambiently and mixing them lower. If the acoustic is the main instrument, that’s different, but if it’s just providing harmonic glue and texture, does it need to be prominently audible in every single moment of the song? Probably not. If you’re after a 1970s feel, listen to how the acoustic rhythm part is treated on (just to think of a few artists from across the spectrum) Pink Floyd, Van Morrison or Eagles records, and try treating it similarly.

Compression
Ah, the great Satan of modern mix. The humble compressor. So many ways for them to kill your mix stone dead. Let’s take them one at a time.

Mix-buss compression
I don’t do this usually. Many engineers take a compressor they feel is euphonious and adds a pleasant density or tonal characteristic, and use it on the stereo master outs. If you’re going to go down this road, be careful not to overdo it: medium attack and release times and a relatively gentle ratio (1.5:1 or 2:1) will probably sound more transparent  than more extreme settings, and remember you can destroy a song’s feel really quickly by not paying attention to the tempo and groove, and applying inappropriate attack and release settings for the song.

Channel compression
I tend to be looking for a classic rather than contemporary sound, so I don’t like to hear a compressor working (certainly not when listening to the sound source within the aggregate mix). Depending on the instrument – and certainly for vocals – I like to apply post-fader compression and solve some of the bigger dynamics issues with automation. The compressor then gently reduces dynamic range of a slightly more idealised version of the performance. I’m working digitally (and therefore not limited by needing to have lots of expensive hardware), and one upside of that is that you can chain compressors a lot more cheaply than you can in the physical world! If I need a lot of gain reduction and don’t want to choke the life out of a source entirely, I’ll set up a couple, typically pre- and post-fader, and let fader moves and the compressors split the work between them.

Buss compression
All engineers approach this differently. I typically set up a buss for drums (minus toms), toms, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, ooh- and ahh-type backing vocals, and lead and close harmony vocals. I may buss single instruments like piano and bass guitar, but usually only if they’ve been recorded with several mikes or, say, DI and amp for the bass. Drums I tend to hit with a few dB of gain reduction, vocals likewise (again maybe post-fader – it depends on the dynamic of the performance). Electric guitar is very programme-dependent; distorted guitar I likely won’t compress at all, anywhere down the line. Acoustic guitar and clean electric, I’ll probably use a little to glue things together a little tonally, rather than for significant gain reduction, and use fader moves to make the guitars sit where I want them to.

Equalisation
There’s a long- and widely held belief that subtractive EQ is better than additive EQ. It is, I think, a myth. Those who counsel against additive EQing on the grounds that you’re trying to boost what isn’t there have a point – but only if that is actually what you’re doing, which is rare for anyone who isn’t a total newbie. Trying to add brilliance to a bass drum track by boosting 10k is absurd. Trying to emphasisr the beater impact of a kick drum by making a boost somewhere between 2k and 4k (depending on tuning and beater material) is just emphasising what self-evidently is there.

On the whole, I probably do subtract frequencies more often than boost them, but I’m always happy to make small boosts where needed. For example, I often add a little high end to vocals (above the range of sibilance so things don’t get spitty) and, within a dense mix, I’ll look to give a boost to the audibility of toms by bringing out the stick impact rather than the drum’s fundamental.

In terms of subtractive EQ, I work in fairly conventional ways. I’ll look to take some low mids out of boomy acoustic guitar tracks, and often emphasise the low end of a tom by cutting a little into the mids. If a bass drum is moving a lot of air but feels a little less present than I want, sometimes rolling off below ~60Hz can be helpful (I often do this in conjunction with the beater-frequency boost mentioned earlier).

I’m usually working in quite naturalistic sound worlds, so I want to get a sound in front of a microphone, capture it, and present it in mix transparently, so EQing is not something done in the box after tracking. Rather, the instrument being played, the pickup used, the pedals and amps used, the position of the mike, the choice of mike – all of these are factors in whether I use lots of EQ or none at all.

Hand in hand with the natural-sound thing, the ideal situation, if I’ve been recording a good player on a good instrument and done my job with mike positioning, is that I apply no EQ at all. If I liked the sound in the room, there really should be no reason not to like it on tape, so to speak.

Which I guess leads us to…

Conclusion
The biggest issues I have with a lot of the “5 best tips to help you mix like a pro!” nonsense I see all over the internet is that so many of them present techniques that are sometimes useful (often as hail Marys more than anything) as regular, staple techniques that you “should” be using. I read one guide the other day that said something to the effect of “You’re going to want to high-pass filter all your tracks to remove the low end”. But why? Can’t I listen to the track first to see if that’s necessary? What if the band knows how to arrange their music and the tracking engineer recorded them in such a way that there is no build-up of clutter down there?

The best tip I could give anyone is this: do nothing simply for the sake of doing something; leave well alone if you can’t account for your intervention; resist the temptation to process just because you can. A good 80% of mixing lies in the performance and tracking – if a performance is captured well and is solid in terms of sound and technique, the results mix themselves. Any engineer who works as a tracking and mix engineer and doesn’t simply mix would, Steve Albini style, benefit from putting most of their efforts into improving their miking techniques and gain structuring. The mix will then be an infinitely simpler process.

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.

Quincy

Quincy is a 2-hour film about Quincy Jones, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. It debuted on Netflix in September.

Compared to the BBC’s two-part documentary The Many Lives of Q from around 10 years ago, Quincy is an intimate, almost home-movie-ish affair. Rashida Jones and Hicks divide their film into two parallel strands: one that follows present-day Quincy as he produces a stage show to commemorate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and one where, in voice-over, Q talks about how he got to be the most famous living record producer, and a man so powerful he can just name his cast for the aforementioned stage show and know they’ll drop everything to be there.

It starts, though, with a serious health scare. We begin with scenes of Quincy enjoying various parties, always with a glass in his hand. It isn’t long before someone asks him if he’s going overboard. He says he’s fine. Cut to Quincy in a hospital bed in a diabetic coma. After this near-run, Jones cut out the alcohol and concentrated on work.

As we find out during the biographical sections, Quincy Jones has always worked. To a fault, really. His need to keep working, keep finding new worlds to conquer, is more or less blamed for both his inability to sustain his marriages and the serious bouts of ill health that have punctuated his adult life, including the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1974. The other shadow over his life, one that The Many Lives of Q didn’t discuss at all, was his mother’s serious mental illness, which led to her institutionalisation when Quincy was a child. She subsequently reappeared in his life at various, usually inopportune, times, and Jones remains clearly deeply ambivalent about her.

The film is at its strongest when it shows present-day Quincy putting the show together, and at its most moving when he walks around the soon-to-open museum, looks at the exhibits about the legendary musicians he knew and worked with, and remarks on how they’re all dead, apart from him. Conversations with his fellow living legends (Herbie Hancock, et al) revolve around how old they all are now.

Elsewhere, there’s a little revisionism going on. The film spends comparatively little time on the records for which he’ll always be remembered (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Donna Summer, George Benson’s Give Me the Night and of course We Are the World), the work he produced as an artist (The Dude, Walking in Space, etc.) and the innumerable movie and TV scores (The Italian Job, In the Heat of the Night and Roots, which hardly was mentioned at all). Sinatra is over-represented; Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan under-represented. The Many Lives of Q, with its more linear structure, gives a clearer view of the man’s astonishing career.

Yet, while flawed, Quincy is a success on the whole. Few films about icons give away much about the private individual, and this one definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve got a sense of the man behind the platinum records and Grammy Awards. That’s a trick perhaps only Rashida Jones would have been able to pull off.  Would Q have let his guard down around Asif Kapadia or Alex Gibney? Unlikely. Quincy is definitely worth your time, but if you can find The Many Lives of Q, watch that too. Watch it first, in fact. The extraordinary body of work will make you care all the more about the extraordinary man behind it.

 

 

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

How Do You Stop – Joni Mitchell

My apologies for taking so long to post anything new. I had this almost complete last weekend, then, attempting to read the draft on my phone, I managed to overwrite it with nothing, and couldn’t work out how to revert to the saved draft. So with heavy heart I started again. Guh. There’s nothing like doing the same work twice.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of England’s current Test series against India is the form of opening batsman Alastair Cook. Now a 33-year-old veteran, Cook has been struggling for runs this year and the aura of impregnability he had at the crease seven or eight years ago is long gone.

Cook, the national side’s former captain, is the highest run scorer and leading century-maker in the history of English cricket. By really quite a long way. At his peak, he was concentration, patience and self-discipline incarnate. A back-foot player, he knew his strength lay on the leg side and so he simply left anything outside off stump alone. Frustrated by his unwillingness to take risks on the off side, bowlers who erred too much to leg in their attempts to force him to play a shot would simply find themselves cut away for four. As his technique and footwork were then sound enough that he could play forward defensively when necessary, eventually all bowlers became frustrated and bowled too straight to him. He was remorseless and indefatigable. The sheer length of his biggest innings beggars belief: it wasn’t his highest score, but in 2011, he scored 263 against Pakistan off 528 balls in 856 minutes. I’ll leave you to work out how many hours of batting that is.

Many would argue that his late-career struggles are simply a result of the sheer amount of batting he’s done for England over the last 12 years or so. That, quite simply, he’s gone to the well so many times that there’s nothing left down there. I don’t know if that’s true, and I would love to see him score just one more century before this series against India ends. He’s never been as beloved by English fans as he should have been, not being a swashbuckling sort of player, but surely that hundred if it came would be the most warmly received of his career – one last big success to savour before he’s gone for ever, as he surely soon will be.

Why do I mention all this?

Because I’ve been when listening to and thinking about Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, and it strikes me that the way it was received in the media and by many of her fans was somewhat similar to the way in which that notional final test hundred by Alastair Cook would be.

Joni Mitchell was by then in her fifties, and seemed to have come to some kind of accommodation with the changing of fashions and the passing of the era in which she was a mainstream figure. Her synth-heavy mid-eighties records, Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, had alienated old fans without attracting new ones, but even more so than 1991’s Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo was the sound of Mitchell simply being who she was in 1994. Most reviewers praised the album generously, glad to hear the veteran Joni Mitchell being recognisably Joni Mitchell again, and doing it rather well.

It being the 1990s and not the 1970s, there were some hurdles that simply couldn’t be gotten over. Her voice had already coarsened from smoking, leaving her unable to hit high notes without belting and neccessitating ever-deeper guitar tunings – Last Chance Lost sees her tune down to Bb, and even then there’s an unattractive hollowness to her vocal timbre in that key, a sort of paperiness that’s particularly noticeable on headphones.

Then there were the rods she made for her own back. Nobody forced her to use the sterile guitar sound that features on around half the tracks (it’s too early for it to be her Parker-Fly-plus-Roland-VG8-guitar-synth set-up, so I assume it’s just a processed, DI’d acoustic), and we have to assume she signed off on Larry Klein’s clinical bass guitar sound: active bass, tight strings, hyped EQ, loads of low B string – a “hi-fi” sound that was big in the early nineties on high-budget singer-songwriter records by people like James Taylor and Sting. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t like that sound, but urgh, I really don’t. The whole mix is soggy with reverb, too – a slightly baffling choice in 1994 when mainstream rock mixes tended to be quite dry.

Sounds are one thing, though. Songs another. And on Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell had a pretty good strike rate. Opener Sunny Sunday (decorated with Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Jim Keltner’s drums), David Crosby co-write Yvette in English, the title track, Borderline and The Magdalene Laundries are all successes, and all stand comparison to her work at her peak. Yet the song that I come back to most often, and that for me contains the biggest emotional charge, is not a Mitchell originall.

In 1986, James Brown released an album called Gravity. The previous year, Brown had had a hit with Living in America (as featured in Rocky IV), a song written for him by Dan Hartman* and Charlie Midnight. Whether because of Brown’s well-documented troubles with drugs (PCP and cocaine) in the mid-1980s or simply because Hartman and Midnight seemed to Brown’s label to have a winning formula is realms-of-conjecture stuff, but for whatever reason, Gravity was entirely composed of Hartman-and-Midnight co-writes.

Among them was a ballad called How Do You Stop. Stiff and clogged with synths, and with a vocal performance by the great man that could barely be called perfunctory, How Do You Stop was still the album’s standout song, and Mitchell evidently heard in it a diamond in the rough. She recorded her own version for Turbulent Indigo, replacing the stodgy synths with her strummed acoustic, Larry Klein’s bass, Carlos Vega’s drums and electric guitars by Steuart Smith and Michael Landau. Pitched in a key that suited her new range, How Do You Stop was probably the finest vocal performance from Mitchell on Turbulent Indigo, but guest singer Seal (a publically acknowledged Joni fan), did her one better. His tightly harmonised interjections in the choruses function as the song’s main hook, and his ad libs in the final chorus – a wordless falsetto cry and a descending moan of “too late” – are the single most goosebump-inducing moment on the album. At the peak of his own commercial success, he nevertheless agreed to appear in a video for the song.

Its success at least partly driven by How Do You Stop, Turbulent Indigo was received by its audience as that notional final Alastair Cook century would be. It even won a Grammy for Best Pop Album – ludicrously over-generous for an album that’s in the bottom half of its creator’s list of accomplishments, but indicative of how we love to see veterans come back and score one last big success.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

* Dan Hartman of I Can Dream About You, Instant Replay and Relight My Fire fame. Dan Hartman who was in the Edgar Winter Band and played bass guitar on Frankenstein. I like Dan Hartman.

 

 

 

The Lookout – Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs’s new album, The Lookout, begins with a run of four very strong tracks. Opener Maragret Sands, which features backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is built on Veirs’s strummed nylon-string guitar, with delicate touches of piano and lead guitar. A minute and a half in, though, the song takes a more menacing turn during an instrumental passage underpinned by a low, droney synth (I think it’s a synth, anyway). This subtly experimental sonic approach extends into single Everybody Needs You, where Veirs’s voice is multitracked, modulated and processed with echo. Tucker Martine (Veirs’s husband and long-term producer) surrounds her with the pingy delays of analogue keyboards and snatches of electric and acoustic guitar, topped off with a descending violin phrase that answers the chorus melody. Earlier Viers songs have played with these textures, but I’ve not heard anything from her that jumps so confidently into this territory.

More traditionally Veirsian, if perhaps a little more 1970s country rock than usual, is the lovely Seven Falls. This time, the arrangement is based around pedal steel and electric guitar arpeggios (it’s a little R.E.M., actually), showing how adaptable Veirs and Martine’s approach is – each song is given just what it needs and no more, by players who have been cast for their ability to play the right thing for the song. Seven Falls itself is probably my favourite on the record, not least for the indelible line “how can a child of the sun be so cold?” The matching of a resonant, evocative phrase to a melody line that seems to amplify the lyric’s meaning, as if the phrase always existed within the tune and was just waiting to be discovered, hasn’t always been a feature of Veirs’s writing, and the increasing prevalence of this mode of writing suggests (to me, anyway) a deepening and maturing of her perspective. Writing lyrics that are simple and relatable but simultaneously acute and penetrating isn’t something many songwriters can pull off, so this recent turn in Veirs’s work is impressive.

The next track is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Mountains of the Moon, a somewhat fey piece of acoustic psychedelia from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. It seems Veirs and Martine are both long-term Deadheads: they realised only recently that they were at the same concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, 13 years before they met, which would have been during the late 1980s, when the Dead were at their late commercial peak after the success of Touch of Grey. Rather touchingly, Veirs learned to play the song as a Father’s Day present for Martine, and she does a more than creditable job with it.

The first side ends with the brief, delicately beautiful Heavy Petals. This song feels like something Veirs could have done at any point in her career, but she’d not have sung it this convincingly; for me, The Lookout is the first Laura Veirs record where her voice, previously somewhat monotone and inexpressive, is never a barrier to enjoying the songs.

The title track begins the slightly spottier side two. A stompy, cowboy-chord track, it’s enlivened by a string arrangement that once again has that odd Tucker Martine string sound. How is he doing that? Recording the violins and violas using DIs? Running the acoustic signal through compressors and overdriving them? It’s a completely signature sound that I’ve never heard any other producer create, but it’s all over Veirs’s work from the last few albums (including case/lang/veirs).

The Canyon is a song of two halves: a meandering acoustic verse, performed on what sounds like an open-tuned and amplified nylon-string guitar, that is succeeded by an atmospheric instrumental section with an overdriven guitar riff. A cut-and-shut job like this shouldn’t really work, but actually it’s great – one of my favourites on the album. The waltz-time Lightning Rod compares its subject to Ben Franklin, “drawing fire from the clouds”. It’s another striking image. When it Grows Darkest features what sounds like electric sitar as well as prominent bass guitar and Veirs’s picked nylon-string to create a deceptive, very cool 5/4 groove. Threading a compelling melody over an odd metre, ignoring the bar lines and letting the melody just flow, is really hard; the temptation is to observe the bar lines so rigidly that the melody sounds stilted. When it Grows Darkest sounds very natural, and I didn’t work out that the song was in 5/4 until I’d heard it a few times already.

The Lookout has only a few missteps – and obviously these are just my personal issues with the record, anyway. I’m one of those who think Sufjan Stevens shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone under any circumstances, so his unpleasantly strained, whispery falsetto is a major blot on Watch Fire, which would have been more successful performed by almost any other singer. The Meadow’s sparse piano accompaniment doesn’t really hold my interest, although the song itself isn’t a dead loss. I find the overdriven electric guitar tone of Zozobra distracting and a little overbearing in the context of the song. It tends to fight with the ambient feedback part in the background, which is largely happening in the same octave and carries a lot of the same frequency content as the lead guitar. The result of the two clashing parts is messy, and not in a way that I think Viers and Martine indended.

These are minor reservations, though. Overall, I’d still say this is the best Laura Veirs record I’ve heard (I should say, I’ve not heard all of them – nothing before 2004’s Carbon Glacier). With her lyrics getting more acute and deeper with each record and her voice becoming a more expressive and flexible instrument, there’s really no reason to assume the next album won’t be better still.