Tag Archives: Smooth music

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 5

9) What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

I wish I knew which of the three credited drummers on the album actually played the drums on What You Won’t Do For Love (which, as regular readers know, is one of my favourite songs). Alas, I haven’t been able to find out. Andy Newmark is one of the drummers listed on the sleeve, and it could be him, but I’m not going to take that leap here.

Still, the drum track is great. 16th-note hats, cool semi-quaver bass drum, the most damped, low-tuned toms in the history of popular music and some great fills in the extended outro, which (as with Careless Whisper) seems to have been extended just because the drummer caught a groove that was so undeniable it needed to be heard. And all of this while playing so tight the track could almost pass as programmed.

10 Mars, the Bringer of War – Gustav Holst

To all the percussionists who’ve had the pleasure of hammering out the brutally exciting quintuple-metre drum pattern to Mars, from Holst’s The Planets, you lucky, lucky, lucky drummers, you!

A combination of reading material, current interest in odd metres and topicality (yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the Armistice) has recently led me to listen to The Planets, and Mars in particular, for the first time since my teens. So many allusions to it, quotes from it, uses of it on soundtracks and so on haven’t yet robbed it of its power to overwhelm. When two-thirds of the way through, the opening rhythmic pattern reasserts itself, louder than ever before, as if the downed Mars had suddenly sprung back to his feet, ready to finish things off this time, and the tympani and snare drums take a good battering, it’s hard to think of a more brutal, terrifying evocation of war.

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That’s Why I’m Here

No, not the James Taylor song. Writing about music fulfills some kind of need in me, I suppose, or I wouldn’t be here. And I know that writing about something helps me to figure out what I think about the subject I’m discussing. It might just be because the fact of wanting to write a post about a particular record forces me to listen in an active, engaged and critical way so I don’t embarrass myself, but I think there’s something about the process itself that takes me further into the topic than I ever get from just sitting and listening, however intently.

So that’s some of why I’m here. But I do have a more altruistic reason, or at least a reason that’s outward-looking. There are so many large-scale websites devoted to the discussion and reviewing of music: Pitchfork, obviously, but also Drowned in Sound, Popmatters, AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Quietus, the online presences of Rolling Stone and Spin, the digital editions of the print newspapers (some of which devote more effort and resources to arts reviews than others, but they’re all there), the websites of magazines like Mojo, Uncut, NME, and on and on. But none of them provide the sort of criticism that I particularly want to read. I go on the AV Club website for film and TV reviews – I never read their record reviews.

The sort of criticism I like to read goes deeper than the writing you find in these places: sometimes it may focus on the culture music exists in, lives in and feeds off; other times it may be take the form of a close response to the musical matter and be aware of how small musical events change the way the listener hears the piece; it might get technical about production (recording techniques, mic placement, equalisation, panning, compression, time-domain effects); it might be a stream of random associations and allusions and images that the music calls to mind. I try and do all of these things, depending on my response to the song at hand. Sometimes I throw out all of that and just pass on cool ways to tune a guitar, mic a drum kit or double-track heavy guitars. I don’t premeditate that much. Not having a website structure to fill (at least for now) allows me to post at my own pace and discuss whatever I want. There’s supposed to be a utility to it though. In my own head, I’m providing a service here, passing on knowledge and weird little insights that you’re not going to get from the bigger music sites and aggregators simply because they have these rigid structures that don’t really allow for randomness. They chase novelty because they need traffic, and they can only concern themselves with older music or films or TV when they’re celebrating some kind of landmark anniversary.

These self-defined structures don’t completely throttle worthwhile criticism. There’s a tremendous skill involved in being able to listen to a new record over the course of a week, absorb it, internalise it, sort through it and its implications and its associations and come up with a short review by the end of the week that will plug a 200-word hole in some website’s music-review section. It’s incredibly hard to do it with such a short turnaround and say anything worth the time it takes to read it. Inevitably, few writers can pull it off. Most are just plugging the holes in the structure, they’re not engaging in the practice of criticism. But there are writers who consistently manage to say something engaging and insightful and knowledgeable about new music, even while their editors are barking at them about deadlines.

So it’s been a conscious choice to avoid the new, the current, the novel. It’s covered as well as it can be in so many other places, and avoiding chasing after the new stuff allows me the time to really hear something before forming an opinion. It allows me not to have to pick a side instantly. There’s no such thing as objectivity when forming a response to music. Here I don’t pretend otherwise, but I try to be honest, I try to be fair and I made a decision to write about things I like, things I could perhaps turn other folks on to.

A couple of days ago, I posted about different artists’ covers of What You Won’t Do for Love, which is one of my favourite songs. And I felt a little bad about it afterwards, as I broke my own rule of being positive to do it. What I really wanted to do was indulge in another post celebrating the greatness of Bobby Caldwell’s original, but this time round I did that by snarking at some other artists who didn’t measure up. There’s endless material for snark if all you want to do is point and laugh at bad cover versions. I’ll name no names and point no fingers. A well-written slam might be funny, and provide pleasure to the reader, but only at the cost of the creator.

Now, artists who do bad work should be kept honest by bad reviews, but it helps if those reviews are constructive. Otherwise you’re not being a critic; you’re just throwing tomatoes at some poor musician in the stocks. And I wasn’t being constructive enough the other day, so I’m going to cut that shit out now.  I’m here (in the more general sense of the term) because I’m a lucky, lucky man. I have no right to be. And after an event like I had, it’s only natural to have your perspective changed a bit. But after a while, the routine of everyday life – of having to earn money, fulfill obligations to family, friends, employers and so on – can easily make the world seem like a grind again. Not uncaring or cruel necessarily, but like a big grey machine that I’m just a small part of. And it makes me start thinking like I did back before I got ill. In this little corner of the internet, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about detailed celebrations of the awesome.

And so I apologise for my lapse into snark the other day. It won’t happen again. And let me just say, to make things up to Go West (who came in for a good amount of the snark), that I enjoy Call Me as much as any one else who’s ever ridden through sunny Vice City on a big-ass motorbike while wearing a pastel suit and blasting Flash FM.

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Tommy Vercetti is an innocent man.

What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

There’s a strain of music that came into existence around 1975 and began to disappear in around 1985. It sits on the opposite end of the fidelity spectrum to the messy lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff that entranced me as a teenager. Not a genre so much as a sensibility, it’s principally American (although copied all over the world) and could only exist in a booming industry. Its creation required the spending of a great deal of money, both on studio time and top-flight musicians; pillow-soft but steady as machine, it is, crucially, not machine-made. When hardware sequencing became a dominant studio resource in the mid-1980s, this music was finished commercially within a year or so and done altogether by the mid-nineties. Not black or white, not rock or pop, not funk or soul, it was instead all of these and none of these.

To make it, you needed electric pianos, jazz chords, dampened drums and vocals mixed dry and close. It was made by adults, for adults. To this day, it doesn’t have a satisfactory name. Some call it yacht rock, which speaks to its opulence but says nothing about the music itself, relatively little of which was rock. It lacks the aggression, the emphasis on power and backbeat, of rock music.

Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Of course, it’s a great song, sung brilliantly by an underrated vocal talent. But that’s not all it is. Produced and engineered by Ann Holloway Masters (rare indeed in the late 1970s for a woman to not only produce but engineer a session), it’s a wonderful sounding record, too, with a glorious low-end richness (the bass guitar is gorgeously thick, the toms have been damped and tuned low) and a beautiful sleepy horn sound. The guitar plays Curtis Mayfield-esque soul licks, and Caldwell holds the whole thing together with his electric piano. Late in the song, during the long outro, a nocturnal synth comes in of the sort that would be sampled endlessly in 1990s hip-hop. The band hangs on to the groove for a few minutes after Caldwell stops singing, and frankly, if they’d have kept going for hours I wouldn’t skip it.

What You Won’t Do for Love hit big, deservedly, on the pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s been covered by Boyz II Men, Roy Ayers, Goldie and Go West and sampled by 2Pac (three times!), Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap and the Luniz. Caldwell will have a comfortable retirement off that little lot. Good on him.

But the style he worked in is a thing of the past now. As the record-making process became more computerised, the precision of the drum machine became more highly valued than the feel of a steady human drummer. Yet the feel of this style of music was the result of asking gifted musicians to play understatedly, without obvious shows of virtuosity, in service of the song. While the programmed rhythm and the MIDI keyboard might have seemed like shortcuts to a professional-sounding sheen, they led instead to the brashness and gigantism that we now associate with the 1980s (but which didn’t begin at the start of the decade – it crept in instead, becoming the dominant aesthetic around 1984 and 1985) and the rigidity and uniformity of today’s Pro-Tooled world.

 

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Just to clear things up…

bobby-caldwell

This is Bobby Caldwell, funky white guy.

Bobby-Caldwell drums

This is Bobby Caldwell, drummer

bobby caldwell

This is Dr Bobby Caldwell, plastic surgeon on St Elsewhere

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?
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