Tag Archives: rock

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

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

[Boz Scagg’s] Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before), came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town at the Record Plant New York and Damn the Torpedoes at Sound City in Van Nuys, and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure, Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums. That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 5 – Fearless by Pink Floyd

Everyone has their own opinion on what makes a great drummer. Some revere Keith Moon for his energy, his invention. They hear passion and a love of music in his gonzo style. His playing does absolutely nothing for me. In fact it drives me up the wall. I hear ego and a wilful deafness to the needs of the song. It makes me physically uncomfortable. I’m tense and on edge whenever anyone puts the Who on, and it’s all Moon.

My kind of drummer says less and means more. Breathes. Leaves spaces. It was a lesson hard learned in my own playing. When I listen back at my own early drumming performances on recordings – and god help me, some of them have been released – the thing that mortifies me most is the overplaying, the desire to fill every space with something, whether necessary or not. So maybe my Moon antipathy is a reflection of what I hate most in my own drumming.

Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, around the time of Meddle, became one of the kings of saying less and meaning more. He’s never been a flashy drummer (although he was a master of atmosphere), but even so, as Floyd’s music being more conventionally song based, Mason simplified his playing to suit the songs his bandmates were writing.

Fearless is a great case in point. It’s one of those great slow-groove songs that Floyd did so well. At bottom, Mason is just playing boom-boom bap. But it’s the little things that really make the song: his gorgeous ride cymbal sound, that rat-a-tat snare fill in the verses after every second line, the occasional extra bass-drum stroke, knowing when to switch between the hats and ride and, especially, that cymbal crash in time with the snare when Dave Gilmour’s ascending guitar riff lands back on an open G chord. That cymbal hit alone would allow a Floyd fan to know what song Mason was playing if all they could hear was the drums on their own.

Asked about Mason’s playing, Gilmour once said, “Nick’s the right man for the job”. That’s exactly it. He was. Mason suited Pink Floyd and Pink Floyd suited him. Further, Mason had the ability to play for the song while also creating instantly recognisable, even iconic, drum parts. That’s not easy, and Mason did it repeatedly. Fearless is just the example we’re looking at today. I could as easily have chosen Time, Shine On You Crazy Diamond or Wish You Were Here.

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Mason in the early 1970s. Note the see-through perspex kit with two bass drums

Left of the Dial – The Replacements

What’s this? Wasn’t I meant to be writing about British folk? Yes, I was. I’ve got half an entry on Bill Fay saved in my drafts folder. But this morning on my way to the office I listened to Left of the Dial and on my first day back at work after a holiday, low in mood and feeling unwell, it made me feel as energised as it did when I first heard it as a teenager. So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve talked about my love of Tres Chicas here a couple of times before, even recently. They’re a little-known country-singing trio that made two records a decade ago. Even then they were all music-biz veterans. Lynn Blakey, the most prolific of the group’s three singer-songwriters, has been making records for over 30 years.

Blakey was a touring member of the Georgia indie band Let’s Active in 1983-4, and it was during that time that she met Paul Westerberg and inspired one of his greatest songs, Left of the Dial. Different sources tell the story differently, but this is what Westerberg had to say about it to Rolling Stone:

Left of the Dial is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out.

It’s pretty cool knowing the back story to the song, but if Left of the Dial were just a paean to Lynn Blakey, it wouldn’t quite be what it is, or mean so much to so many. It’s not even just a love letter to college radio. Above all, Left of the Dial seems to me to be about the endless movement of a young band on the road, the excitement, the hardships, the possibilities, the romance. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of knowing something probably won’t happen, but treasuring the possibility that it just might.

Westerberg’s great gift was to be able to harness that kind of romanticism to noisy, sloppy rock’n’roll (and then to let it show on the quiet acoustic songs – only Neil Young is Westerberg’s match at being able to switch from full-on rock to quiet acoustic and sound utterly himself when doing both), and for all that Left of the Dial’s parent album Tim was the most produced Replacements record to date, it’s still endearingly messy. After all, the Replacements were never about tightness or technique. They were about the excitement of a captured moment. While there’s a lot wrong in technical terms with the studio recording of Left of the Dial (the band always sounded slightly out of control, even at moderate tempos, but surely they didn’t want their guitar sound to be quite so tinny, or the drums quite as lacking in body?), in every important sense, Left of the Dial is perfect. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m twenty years younger, about to embark on all the adventures life in a rock’n’roll band can offer.

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The Replacements: l-r Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

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Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta

Time – Alice Peacock

One of the issues that was in the background of the piece I wrote the other day is, how original can you be as a singer-songwriter who plays piano or acoustic guitar and works with verse/chorus song structures in 2015, with hundreds of years of folk songs, over a hundred years of recorded music and 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll behind us? And if you feel the answer is, not original at all, does that matter? Should an artist strive for more than just going over the same old ground that our illustrious forebears have already covered?

It’s a question I’ve never been able to satisfactorily answer. There have been times when I’ve felt that singer-songwriters were becoming an unnecessary species, that almost everything that needed to be said had been said already, and that we may as well all pack it in and go home. That I didn’t need new records when I had all of those albums on my shelf already.

Then I hear songs that render all this debate irrelevant, songs so strong and self-contained that I stop worrying about all this.

I heard one last night. Time, by Alice Peacock.

I can tell you very little about Alice Peacock. She works broadly in the pop-rock sphere, but with elements of folk and country and jazz in there. She’s put out four records and seems to have done fairly well, as even a self-released album (on Peacock Records) like What I Am features orchestral arrangements and the services of a big-name session drummer (Jay Bellerose) and photography by the wonderful Henry Diltz. In her early going as an artist, she recorded a duet with John Mayer, which no doubt helped her profile.

Hearing a great song from an artist who’s entirely new to you is one of the finest pleasures of being a music fan. And Time is a wonderful song, possessed of grace and wisdom, a gorgeous, pensive tune, thoughtful chord changes and lyrics that achieve a sort of conversational profundity. In an interview with her that I saw on youtube, Peacock says she wrote the song very quickly after reading an article in National Geographic about time, relativity and how the light that reaches earth from stars allows us to look into the past while we experience it as the present. She talks about her she merely channelled the song, how writing it was scarcely a conscious act of creation at all. Time has that happy knack of sounding as if these thoughts are occurring to the singer just as she is giving voice to them.

When I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks. I downed tools to listen, then listened again.

The version I heard first was not the record (from the the 2006 release Who I Am), but a live recording. The arrangement on the album version – in both Peacock’s vocal and the strings – seems to emphasise the supper-club vibe inherent in the song’s chord structure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (I could easily imagine how the great Blossom Dearie might have this song). On the live recordings I’ve heard (mainly on youtube, though there is a live album), though, Peacock’s delivery is slightly different, perhaps more relaxed, knowing that she’s not in search of a definitive vocal performance. I’d still highly recommend seeking out the album cut, but perhaps the version below is the best one:

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Alice Peacock

Give some to the bass player, part 10 – Sympathy for the bassist

In an era where many people routinely listen to music on built-in laptop speakers or the leaky standard-issue iPod earbuds, the poor bass player (particularly the electric bass player in the guitar-driven rock band), can feel like he or she is on a hiding to nothing.

While the low-end content of a lot of EDM is frankly insane, that’s not always evident except in clubs or in cars with subs in the back: that sort of content is extremely low frequency and can’t be adequately reproduced by small radio speakers or earbuds. In a lot of people’s usual listening environments, that stuff isn’t really apparent. Within rock mix, the tendency towards louder, shallower mixes often results in indistinct low end where the kick drum has been square-waved into indiscernability and the bass guitar is inseperable from the low end of mid-range instruments like acoustic guitar and piano. An unhappy state of affairs, but a very common one.

Life in the club or theatre is little better for bassists, either. Depending on the venue, the bass may be overpoweringly loud but with no clarity, or barely audible in among the clanging, reverberant din. Both extremes are equally common.

It all contributes to the relatively unappreciated status of the bass player. Indeed the stereotype of the bassist is the one who quietly takes care of business, is not the most accomplished musician in the band but certainly isn’t the least, keeps the drummer in check and provides a cool and unflappable, steadying presence. It’s one with more than a bit of truth to it. And as a bassist for 20 years, initially as a way of joining a band in high school that already had two guitarists, I’ve got a natural sympathy for my brothers and sisters in four strings. Hence this series, celebrating the unsung providers of the low end, which I hope has been at least moderately entertaining. We’ll be back to normal programming later this week. Take care now.