Tag Archives: Sleater-Kinney

Featuring “Birds” – Quasi

Featuring “Birds” is one of my very favourites. When it came out in 1998, it sounded like no other album I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs with immediately memorable pop melodies, and then buried them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord (a chintzy electronic keyboard from the late 1960s). Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney’s drummer), meanwhile, played drums with frantic, nervously twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

The album sets out its stall immediately with Our Happiness is Guaranteed. Weiss plays a syncopated pattern with improvised rapid-fire fills while Coomes makes as much noise as possible, segueing into the song proper via a series of tone clusters (there’s a melody in there, but the harmonies applied to it seem to be a result of keyboard mashing) and a brief riff that recurs prior to every subsequent verse. The song, when it begins, is a sci-fi fable with a sing-song melody, which Weiss harmonises sweetly. The whole thing is over in under three minutes.

The tension between the group’s melodies and its casual dissonance and sonic aggression made the music thrilling to me, as did the unconventional song structures (many tracks are just a verse and a chorus, or even just a verse on its own) and Weiss’s gonzo drum fills, which sounded like her mind was only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she didn’t quite know where she was going to go next. The musical tension may well have been fed by personal tension, too; Weiss and Coomes had been married but were already separated by the time of Featuring “Birds”, and as the group were a two-piece, there was no one else to defuse things when they got heated. I imagine the rehearsal studio was an interesting place to be at times.

The album is full of songs like Our Happiness is Guaranteed – wonky little tunes that are definitely pop, but that are skewed by Coomes’s sardonic delivery and the group’s full-bore commitment to its sonic aesthetic. I Never Want to See You Again, California (with its hilarious intro: “life is dull, life is gray/at its best, it’s just OK/but I’m happy to report/life is also short”), the surprisingly poignant I Give Up and Nothing from Nothing are all gems, and Please Do shows that Coomes could even rival his friend and sometime bandmate Elliott Smith with an acoustic guitar in his hand and nothing but his fingerpicking to fall back on.

Alas, the group couldn’t repeat the trick. Field Studies, from 1999, was a less frantic affair all round, and saw the group diluting its signature sound with more electric guitar and piano, less distorted keyboard, and more bass guitar (courtesy of a guesting Smith). It also saw Coomes’s chippy observations losing their freshness and becoming dulled by his reliance on unvarying end rhyming and repetitive melodic phrases. I checked out after Sword of God, which suffered even more badly from the same problems (and also sounded rubbish, as the group had recorded themselves), and never really picked them up again. But I still come back to Featuring “Birds” and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with any love for 1990s indie.

Advertisements

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

JW
Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!:

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

Image

Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

Image

Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann

Bye Bye Pride – The Go-Betweens

I find something endlessly adorable about the Go-Betweens. Not particularly gifted as songwriters, certainly not gifted as players or singers, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan succeeded more or less on the strength of their aesthetic. Each album contained 10 small-scale, indie-pop songs, five by each writer, Forster’s declamatory smart-arsery balanced by McLennan’s winsome sincerity, but all determinedly low-key. In such a setting, a little detail can be overwhelming in effect.

Forster is usually seen as the artier Go-Be, a sort of Brisbanite David Byrne. Yet Forster was always the wannabe musician. It was McLennan who was a keen literature student and aspiring film-maker, who had to be pressured by Forster into forming a band with him. From the off, Forster had his sound down. He’d get better at the execution, but at the start of the band’s career Forster already knew how best to deploy his limited voice and what kind of songs he could write. McLennan was still learning. He went on to become the band’s craftsman, yet his initial lack of musicality prevented him from becoming the true pop songwriter he often seemed to want to be: no amount of hard work would turn him into Paul McCartney. Even his best tunes get by with only four or five and the same number of chords.

Nonetheless at his best (and indeed the same is true for Forster) he could take his very simple building blocks, his Play in a Day chord changes and semi-spoken tunes, and make gold out of them.

By the time the release of Tallulah launched the Go-Betweens mk II – for which Forster, McLennan, drummer Lindy Morrison and bassist Robert Vickers were joined by Amanda Brown on violin, oboe and guitar – McLennan was straining at the edges of his talent, alternating between lovely pop songs and darkier, moodier pieces, generally succeeding but sometimes falling hard on his face. Tallulah’s Cut it Out is a prime example of a McLennan failure; he seemed to think that perhaps he could play Cameo at their game. He could not. Hope then Strife is a more interesting failure: semi-spoken verses, with flamenco guitar, and choruses largely alternating between two notes, backed by Brown’s violin, linked by a brief but lovely half-time section where McLennan’s hard-fought tunefulness threatens to make itself present (‘Don’t say that you agree/With the price that you pay for your captivity’).

So Tallulah was an up-and-down record for McLennan, and most of the album’s best songs are Forster’s (my pick of them is I Just Get Caught Out). But McLennan had a couple of heavy hitters. Right Here and Bye Bye Pride, for my money the last great song he wrote before the Go-Betweens broke up for the first time (his contributions on their first last album, 16 Lover’s Lane, feel hollow, facile, lacking depth – he wrote happy love songs less well than sad ones). Bye Bye Pride pairs a repetitive, Lennon-esque tune with one of his finest, most closely observed lyrics:

 A white moon appears like a hole in the sky
The mangroves grow quiet
In the Parisi de la Palma a teenage Rasputin
Takes the sting from her gin
“When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent any more”
A line from her letter, May 24
And out on the bay the current is strong
A boat can go lost

I like the details at the start of the second verse, too: “Turned the fan off / and went for a walk / by the lights down on Shield Street”. At his best, McLennan was as good a lyricist as his more celebrated partner, with a knack for accumulating detail quickly and unobtrusively.

But Bye Bye Pride is a record, not merely a song, and no appreciation of it as a recording would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Amanda Brown on oboe and backing vocals. Forster, in the midst of his rock star-as-vampire era, could not have given McLennan the emotionally open, optimistic harmonies the song needed. Sadly for long-time fans, when the band reformed, Brown wasn’t part of the crew (she and McLennan had been lovers and she was hurt that McLennan and Forster has taken the decision to the end the band without warning her first – she went on to a successful career arranging strings for R.E.M., Silverchair and others) but female backing vocals had become such an important part of the band’s sound that they needed to be supplied by someone when the band reformed. And so they were, initially by Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss (and Corin Tucker on a couple of songs) and latterly by bassist Adele Pickvance. For a band that had seemed as reliant on the chemistry between Forster and his former partner Morrison as that between Forster and McLennan, a band that had been so enhanced by the contributions of Amanda Brown, what a welcome surprise it was that their comeback albums were so strong. With Finding You, Boundary Rider and No Reason to Cry, McLennan left us with some of his finest songs before dying in his sleep of a heart attack in 2006.

Image

Grant McLennan, with sincere eyebrows, c. 1984?

Image

Go-Betweens c.1986, l-r Robert Vickers, Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan, Amanda Brown, Robert Forster