Tag Archives: records that sound great!

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

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Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”

Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

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Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

Kashmir – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin were formed out of Jimmy Page’s desire to create a supergroup, a behemoth, a world-conquering monster that could cast all opposition aside, and everything they did thereafter was done while conscious of the fact that they were Led Fucking Zeppelin, Destroyer of Worlds.

So Kashmir, then, is the self-consciously epic centrepiece of their most self-consciously epic record, Physical Graffiti, a double album from 1975, roughly the halfway point of their 11-year career.

Eight minutes is not an eternity, even by the standards of rock music, but it’s long enough for a band to develop quite a head of steam, and Kashmir does depend for its effect partly on accumulated momentum. Yet it’s far from being a mere musical bulldozer; Zeppelin always swung far too much to rely on power only.

The song’s principle motor is the relationship between Bonham’s simple drum pattern in 4/4 and Page’s exotic guitar riff in 3/8. Bonham maintains a common-time pattern, with a ‘heartbeat’ semiquaver bass drum (albeit one that begins on the one, rather than the semiquaver before the one), while Page’s guitar climbs from A to D and then after four bars (if you’re following the guitar riff) or three (if you’re counting with Bonham) the pattern repeats itself. The tension between the two parts – the constant rising and falling of the guitar, chord changes and emphases falling in different places in each bar – leaves the listener just a little unsure of where they are.

But then we come to John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon. In the band’s more ambitious pieces, Jones’s role was to provide the colour. As the band only very rarely used name session musicians (Boogie with Stu was a notable exception: “Stu” is Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart), Jones’s resourcefulness was often tested. In the case of Kashmir, he wrote string parts for both orchestral players and Mellotron, which he played himself. The Mellotron strings are audible in the bridges (“All I see turns to sand”, etc.) over the F and G chords – they’re the bits that sound most Arabian (geography not being the band’s strong point, or perhaps they didn’t know what Himalayan music sounded like). Live, Jones combined both parts on his Mellotron, played a bass line on the organ pedals and ditched his bass guitar early. He was the band’s most musicianly member: a former choirboy (rumours persist that at the height of Zep’s success he considered quitting the band to become choirmaster at Winchester) who can play about 17 instruments, and who played with a discipline and solidity that underpinned the rawer, sloppier virtuosity of Page and Bonham. He’s always there in the background, doing something vital but unshowy.

But what everyone remembers about Kashmir, ultimately, is the power of Page’s DADGAD-tuned riff and Bonham’s drums. They are what make the song one of Zeppelin’s crowning achievements, of which Page, Plant and Jones are all justly proud.

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Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both pulling what I like to think of as “the Led Zeppelin face”

The Ride – Joan as Police Woman

Joan as Police Woman’s first album came out in the summer of 2006, and was the last album I bought* while sharing a house with friends in Ladywell. A few weeks after it came out, I moved back to Southend.

Real Life is a record that’s appropriate to starting a new phase in your life; it seems to have come out of a new phase in Joan Wasser’s. The record’s key lyric (in the title track, which opens the record), “I’ve never included a name in a song/But I’m changing my ways for you Jonathan”, insists that the singer is in a new and better place.

Certain reviews of Real Life made an inevitably big deal of Wasser’s relationship with Jeff Buckley, but to view her through the prism of one relationship is reductive. Over a lifetime many things will happen to most people, and all leave their mark. Real Life is sometimes a serious listen, but it’s also cautiously joyful, playful, meditative, defiant, comforting and sexy. The world is not without  good singers, tight bands, stellar songwriters and (even now, albeit only occasionally) records that sound as good as this, but the range of emotions contained on Real Life’s songs is the album’s distinguishing feature. It’s what gives it an unmistakeable authority.

Much coverage was also dedicated to Wasser’s time playing with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. Both at the time were still pretty high-profile artists, so it was understandable, if lazy. But her own work was substantially different to both, although Antony Hegarty guests on I Defy, an album highlight. Instead, Real Life is essentially a soul record with an indie rock sensibility, and when the two strands of Wasser’s work are intertwined so completely as to be indivisible, that’s when the album is most itself. The straightforward rock songs, Eternal Flame (not the Bangles’ one) and Christobel, hint at Wasser’s past in the Dambuilders and her time backing Lou Reed and Tanya Donelly, but Feed the Light, with its uneasy vocal harmony and squealing noises, and Save Me, with its heavy groove and half-whispered, half-yelped interjections of “Save me!”, are where the Real Life is differs from the Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae records that it may sometimes superficially resemble. And of course, both Jones and Bailey Rae have moved a long way from their starting points of MOR jazz and trad. soul revivalism respectively.

But for all this, my two favourites are the ones most obviously derived from 1970s soul: Anyone (“I’m ready to start to be ready…”) with its languorous 6/8 tempo and dominant horn chart, and The Ride, a beautiful, hushed ballad based on electric piano and the sympathetic playing of original bandmembers Rainy Orteca (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums).

The Ride is one of those perfect songs you only get once every few years. When Wasser’s voice glides from a sleepy alto to its highest register to sing the final chorus, it’s the sound of someone throwing caution to the wind and declaring themselves. It’s exhilarating and moving and triumphant.

Real Life was a stunning record, beautifully recorded by Bryce Goggin: lush and spacious, deep and rich, competitively loud but with drums crystal clear and retaining their punch. It’s one of my favourite records of the last decade, and one I still listen to frequently now.

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*From Morps, the record stall in the now closed Lewisham model market
**A post about Bailey Rae’s alt. rock past and time signed to heavy-metal label Roadrunner may one day happen
***He’s played with a huge range of artists, from John Zorn and Joseph Arthur – who guests on Real Life – to Clem Snide and Charles and Eddie

Holiday Harmonies Part 6: Keep the Customer Satisfied – Simon & Garfunkel

Oh yeah. These guys.

Paul Simon gets a lot of love on this blog, but I’ve never really talked about Simon & Garfunkel. So here goes.

I think I’ve said before that when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, Simon was set free as a writer of melodies. He no longer had to make the need to sing, breathe and phrase with a vocal partner a prime concern in how he wrote his tunes. Not only did he hit new heights as a writer as a result of this, he blossomed as a singer too. Add to this his deepening exploration of jazz harmony, and it becomes pretty easy to explain the startling quality of his early 1970s solo work.

All that said (and I can’t really apologise for rating solo Simon higher than Simon & Garfunkel; I absorbed Greatest Hits Etc. before I ever heard an S&G song, and my dad had to explain to me that this Simon singing Homeward Bound was the same as the other Simon), it’s undeniable that Paul & Artie could sing harmonies like few before or since, and their exalted status means we’ve actually found out a fair bit about how they did it. Journalists have taken the trouble to ask them.

In The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon, Garfunkel and engineer-producer Roy Halee discuss the duo’s vocal layering tricks. Simon & Garfunkel sang their vocals into one mic, live, and then overdubbed a double track of each of their parts, separately, and ghosted them up underneath the live performance when mixing, to fatten and clarify. It’s a glorious sound.

Having multiple vocalists sing live into one microphone is a staple recording technique.* Indeed, in some styles of music (old-time and bluegrass), the reverence for this everyone-around-the-microphone trick borders on a fetish. The reasons for doing it are – should be – musical and to a lesser extent technical, not aesthetic.

Singers who are used to singing together, who’ve spent hours practising in a room together unamplified, will probably give better performances if you record the room that they’re singing in rather than them individually. If you try to get the best of both worlds and have two singers singing live in the same room but with a microphone each, you add the complications of bleed and negotiating the phase relationships of the two mics, and you probably don’t gain much sonically on just doing it with one mic.

What S&G did with Roy Halee allowed them to get a huge, fat vocal sound that blended all the excitement, energy and animation of a live take with the warmth and control of close-miked overdubs. You can hear the technique in use on any of their two-part-harmony classics: Homeward Bound, The Sound of Silence, I am a Rock, America, The Boxer or The Only Living Boy in New York.

One of my favourites, though, is the uncharacteristically stomping Keep the Customer Satsified from Bridge Over Troubled Water, where the duo’s voices are fattened up still further with tape delay (I think – sure sounds like). The vocals are amazingly tight, breath for breath, terminal consonant for terminal consonant, all the way through the track, with Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums) driving them on and one of the finest-sounding brass sections I’ve ever heard trying their best to wrest the track away from the singers. On an album full of amazing harmony singing performances, this might be the finest. It’s certainly the most fun.

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Simon, Garfunkel and a single microphone

*In the early days of sound recording, the only way you could make a recording was to get all the musicians in to a room together to play into a recording horn. The sounds waves going into the horn would vibrate a stylus at the other end, which would cut an analogue of the performance into a wax cylinder. So all the musicians playing into one transduction device is the most venerable recording technique there is.

 

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

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*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

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The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.