Tag Archives: Sheryl Crow

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Aimee.jpg
Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 8: That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart – Aimee Mann

The quality of a drum performance is inextricable from the quality of the arrangement it’s a part of. A great drum part serves the song above all else. Many, many musicians, if asked, will say it. Fewer will live it.

Jay Bellerose lives it. It’s why he’s one of the most in-demand session drummers in the world. He’s played with a dizzying array of names. High-budget singer-songwriter records are his bread and butter (Suzanne Vega, Glen Hansard, Elton John, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, etc.), but his session work takes in everyone from BB King to Mose Allison to Alfie Boe.

Aimee Mann’s been a regular employer of Bellerose since 2002’s Lost in Space (her best, and most underrated, record). It’s easy to hear why. Whether it’s a light waltz or a heavy-backbeat rock song, he’s whatever the song needs. Tasteful and unobtrusive, aggressive and dominant, or anything in between. You can trust Bellerose to size up the song, work out what it needs, then deliver it.

That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is a particularly clear demonstration of this. The arrangement is a slow builder, which works by rewarding the experienced listener’s expectation that with each verse another element will be added until, with glorious inevitability, the drummer comes crashing in to power everything home. It’s very far from subtle, but The Forgotten Arm is Mann’s least subtle album, designedly so. She intended it to be something of a 1970s country-rock record, and producer Joe Henry put together a band to fit that vibe. Nowhere else in Mann’s discography is there anything like Jeff Trott’s cock-rock solo on Dear John (the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether he could possibly be being serious).

Bellerose, too, is atypically swaggering on this album, and his work on That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is characteristic of his Forgotten Arm style: a fat snare sound, lots of whole-kit fills, and a general sense that he can have fun and indulge himself for once. It works particularly well on this song because the arrangement (whether Mann’s or Henry’s idea) is designed to make the listener want him to play this way. By the time the second verse has ended, you’re just waiting for him to come in with that big fill. When he finally does, it feels, as I say, glorious.

jay_belleroseJay Bellerose

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 2

What’s exciting and endlessly fascinating about recording drums (and the same is true for when you’re listening to music too, I think, although when I began placing microphones I became consciously aware of all the practical implications of something I’d previously understood unconsciously) is that every drummer in the world – every single one – is different. Give them the same boom-boom-bap drum pattern to play and the same tempo to play it at, and every drummer will be different. Different feels, different internal balance between the kick, snare and hi-hat. Some will feel almost metronically perfect. Others will get on top of the beat and look to push the excitement by playing the snare right on the very front of the beat. Some will lay back, adding a don’t-hurry-me swing. Hopefully these three wildly different drum tracks will demonstrate this (listen to the first 30 seconds of #4, then switch to #5 – you should really hear what I’m talking about!

3) Rock With You – Michael Jackson

John ‘JR’ Robinsons’ drums on Rock With You are almost superhumanly tight, but they’re not rigid. It feels great. You could never listen to this song and assume that the rhythm track was programmed – it’s too playful. Two and four on the snare, 16th notes in the intro and choruses, 8th notes in the verse, displaced quarters in the pre-chorus (by which I mean he plays the ‘and’, as in one-And-two-And-three-And-four-And), endless little ‘pssts’ and emphases – he’s having a ball.

The recording of the drums, by Quincy Jones’s long-time engineer, Bruce Swedien, is fantastic. Like Alan Parsons (qv), Swedien is not a fan of compressing signals with heavy transient content (like drums). Over to Bruce:

Good transient response is especially important when recording acoustic instruments. This is one case where it’s extremely important for one to have equipment that is able to capture as much of the initial transient as possible, and all its accompanying delicate details.
In the music that I am normally involved in, I have always felt that good transient content is one of the very most important components of the recorded image.
I would even go so far as to say that transient response has at its core a direct relationship to the emotional impact of a recording. Particularly in the main genres of music that I record…. namely R&B and pop recordings.
The faithful recording and reproduction of sound source transients makes the strong rhythmic elements in R&B and pop recordings much more dramatic. These are the elements that are so important, such as the ‘kick’ or bass drum, the snare drum, hand-claps, percussion… etc.
I think that well recorded transients give R & B and ‘Pop’ recordings a feeling of tremendous energy.
To me, the excessive use of compression and limiting diminish the drama of sound source transients in recorded music.

(from a Q&A on gearslutz.com, where Bruce did his best to school the tin-eared masses)

Back to JR. As well as being the creator of some of the most danceable drum tracks in this history of popular music (Rock With You, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, The Way You Make Me Feel, Give Me the Night), his opening snare fill on Rock With You is one of the all-time fills.

4) Every Breath You Take – The Police

Stewart Copeland is a famously ‘busy’ drummer, so it’s not a surprise that his simplest part may be also his most underrated. But it perhaps also allows us a little look at what makes him tick as a player. Copeland’s tricky hi-hat fills in songs like Walking on the Moon showed a player who liked to fill space, but the choruses to songs like Roxanne revealed the power and energy he had in the tank when he chose to use it (listen to the outro when Copeland plays a double-time backbeat alternating between the snare and toms – he’s clearly giving the toms what for).

So Copeland’s playing had an oafish streak to it, at odds with his reputation as a progger and reggae fan. But there’s another factor in his drum part to Every Breath You Take: his frustration at Sting’s insistence that he play a very simple kick and snare part with no hi-hat in the verse, and no fills. This tension boiled over frequently in the studio and soon enough would end the band. But in terms of this recording, we ended up with a drum track in which Copeland strains at the leash all the way through. He’s right on top of the beat, almost to the point of being early. He’s this barely contained energy animating the whole song. Again, the indispensability of Copeland’s contribution is confirmed by listening to any of the godawful cheesy versions Sting has done live since the Police split up.

5) If It Makes You Happy – Sheryl Crow

Every time I hear this song on the radio I’m tickled by just how lazy the drum track feels. I don’t mean that the drummer can’t be bothered; I mean that the drummer couldn’t be any more at the back of the beat without the song grinding to a halt. There’s no doubt that this effect is intended. The lazy swagger of the song is the whole point. The drummer wisely keeps the fills to the minimum, concentrating on placement of the backbeat at the very back end of the beat, but his sudden, frantic 7-stroke triplet drum roll at the end of the last verse, under the song’s key line ‘So what if right now everything’s wrong?’, is a great addition.

According to Discogs, the drummer was Michael Urbano. Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas (the Attractions) also play on the parent album, and as much as I love those two guys (Pete Thomas on Elvis Costello’s Sulky Girl is one of my favourite drum performances ever), I can’t imagine even those all-time greats playing the song better than Urbano did.