Tag Archives: soft rock

To Each His Own – E.B. The Younger

To Each His Own is the debut solo record by Eric Pulido, guitarist and vocalist from Midlake, recorded under the name E.B. The Younger.

Midlake never settled on a sound. Every record the Denton, Texas, band have made has reflected their then-current interests and influences, often in such an unguarded way that to have accused them of being derivative would have seemed merely churlish. There was a naivity in the way they appropriated sounds and moods and atmospheres from other acts – the Thom Yorke quasi-falsetto of original vocalist Tim Smith, the Grandaddy-isms of Bamnan and Slivercork, the Fleetwood Mac harmonies of the group’s Van Occupanther era, the stark and austere Sandy Denny-style chord changes that are all over The Courage of Others – that stopped it feeling cynical. It just felt like they were sharing their enthusiasms with you.

To Each His Own takes this tendency to an extreme, not settling on a sound for more than one song at a time. It shares with much of current indie a backwards-looking focus, but the object of Pulido’s retrospection changes every few minutes. On lead single Used to Be, for example, the guitar sounds and synth chords make it sound like a forgotten mid-1980s Don Henley single. CLP calls to mind Paul Simon’s St Judy’s Comet. The lovely Down and Out, with its sighing major seventh chords, sounds like Lindsey Buckingham in his Law and Order phase covering an old Neil Young song. Don’t Forget Me would have fit nicely on Nilsson Schmilsson. The title track that closes the album gets really meta; it sounds like Tim Smith-era Midlake.

To Each His Own goes down easy on a musical level. It’s beautifully played (it features the talents of Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan and drummer Mackenzie Smith, as well as members of the Texas Gentlemen) and arranged, and Pulido is an appealing singer. Its best songs (my pick is Down and Out) are well worth your time, whether or not you have ever liked any of Midlake’s work in the past – this is substantially different stuff to anything Midlake have done up to now.

While Pulido does a fine job of recreating the sonic signifiers (lightly strummed acoustic guitars, damped drums, tight vocal harmonies, a range of acoustic and electric keyboard tones, and even synths) of 1970s and early 1980s soft rock, he sometimes struggles to find a lyrical mode that suits the compositions while living up to his influences. “If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right” is the kind of banal comment that Rupert Holmes would have congratulated himself for writing, yet it’s the key hook of On an Island. When the Time Comes muses on the point of getting a record deal when “ramen only costs a dime”, and rhymes “Got no regrets I care to mention” with “Can you direct me to my pension?” – which goes to prove I suppose that writing witty, lightly ironic lyrics of the kind Nilsson, Warren Zevon or Paul Simon sprinkled throughout their songs is harder than it looks.

But then, Pulido struggled at times on the last Midlake album, Antiphon, to write in Tim Smith’s antiquated, rustic idiom, too. He’s a talent. A listen to Monterey, Down and Out or Don’t Forget Me makes that pretty clear. How much you get from To Each His Own may depend on whether you pay particular attention to lyrics or not, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. If he finds the lyrical mode that best suits him, he could make something special.

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The sound of Bread

Not The Sound of Bread, which is a 1977 compilation album (subtitled “Their 20 finest songs”). But the sound of Bread. As in, what their records sound like.

Mel asked me last week whether my songs had been influenced by Bread. She knew I have some of their music (I’d put Baby I’m-a Want You on a mix CD of cheesy stuff for her), and I’m sure I’d told her that my parents had owned the aforementioned Sound of Bread compilation and we used to listen to it sometimes on car journeys. She’d been listening to If and the question had occurred to her.

Truthfully, there’s no Bread influence. I didn’t like that album much at all when I was kid (I thought Everything I Own was pretty, but knew and preferred the Boy George cover version), finding the music boring, or samey, or something. I didn’t find their songs speaking to me till I was in my mid-twenties, when I picked up a best-of for a few pennies on Amazon.

Bread, as you probably know, never have been critically revered, and it’s not really my intention to pile on any more than I have to, not least because they’ve tended to be hated for what they’ve been perceived to represent, rather than what they were:

Soft rock, they called the sort of music Bread made, anything to blot out the real world, transient comfort. Rock, it had finally been revealed, had indeed gone soft in the head, indulgent, cosseting rather than provoking

Marcello Carlin, Then Play Long review of The Sound of Bread

Carlin’s not as hard on the band as that sentence suggests, by the way, and his write-up of the record (a UK number one in November 1977) is excellent. (Christgau, for one, has been much more scathing, again for what he assumed the band as its lead member to be: “Even in fun I can’t work up much feeling for an ass man as mendacious as David Gates”.) Carlin does get at the chief flaw of the band: they worked their formula so remorselessly that it gets wearying over the course of one best-of album and leads you to conclude that in order to keep cranking this stuff out, it couldn’t have meant very much to the band’s writers (Gates on one hand, and the team of Jimmy Griffin and Robb Royer on the other; Royer was the band’s founding bassist and continued writing with Griffin after he left). Gates, for all his melodic invention, was a hack lyricist: while If survives its sixth-form similes, Aubrey is strangled at birth by its dogged, incompetent end-rhyming:

And Aubrey was her name
A not so very ordinary girl or name
But who’s to blame
For a love that wouldn’t bloom
For the hearts that never played in tune…

An exasperated Oh for fuck’s sake was my response on reaching the word “blame”. The first time he had to rhyme “name” with something other than “name” and that’s the best he could do? Why didn’t this man get himself a lyricist?

So yeah, I guess I’m not a big fan of David Gates and Bread. But you’ve got to give the man his due: he could certainly write a tune, and his mournful, soft voice was appealling. And I’m happy to go into bat for Baby I’m-a Want You, Make it With You, If, It Don’t Matter to Me, The Guitar Man, Everything I Own and Lost Without Your Love. There’s way, way too much musical invention, sheer melodic facility, in those songs to deny them. The middle section of It Don’t Matter to Me — six bars in which the vocal part suddenly goes into double time (the hi-hats do too, but the kick and snare stay with the feel of the verses) and the key changes after every two bars — is proof enough of Gates’s songwriting craft.

But what really lifts their best songs (and their best songs are so good it’s frustrating how mediocre most of their material was) is how lucidly they were arranged, recorded and mixed. Gates was a former record producer for A&M (he produced the first two singles by Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band), and his work on his own records shows as thorough an understanding as is possible of how to put this stuff together.

It’s stripped to the bone, for starters. Many of their songs make do with just a couple of tracks of guitars, bass, drums and vocals, as if they were a 1964 beat group that just happened to be playing early-seventies soft rock. The mixes unvaryingly make use of LCR panning, too – a technique in which a track is assigned to the left channel, the right channel or the centre of the stereo image, but never anywhere in between. This tends to create a very stable stereo picture, and a wide, spacious-feeling mix, but it’s a technique avoided by a lot of mixers, scared of pushing a crucial element in the arrangement (a vocal, or a rhythm guitar part or – gasp – the drums) out to one side only. Gates was unafraid, though, and his bold approach to instrument placement within the stereo field resulted in mixes that were defined by their clarity, their roominess. The recordings welcome you in, they sound inviting. They’re big, but intimate at the same time (echo on the voices and instruments is perceptible, but subtle – there’s no cavernous, fake-sounding reverb on anything).

These are all things I could say have influenced my own thinking about mixing and production, except they’re lessons I’d already learned well from listening to the work that George Martin (and his engineers, Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott) did with the Beatles. And Gates, even on his best day, was never Paul McCartney.

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Bread in the studio. Unless I’m mistaken, that’s Gates on bass

Some of my own, not-influenced-by-Bread work:

Still No Clapton, Part 4 – Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few days. Mel and I were in Venice from Thursday to Sunday. Back now, ready to crack on with the last couple of these. So, David Lindley, as promised. Yes, I know that two Jackson Browne-related pieces within a couple of weeks of each other is not great timing, but I imagine it’ll be a while before he comes up again!

Jackson Browne could write a tune and turn a phrase. It’s been said many times before, but “Don’t confront me with my failures; I had no forgotten them” is an astonishing lyric for a 17-year-old to have written (even if no one that age could truly understand what it is to irrevocably fail at anything), so let’s give the man his due. At this best, he has been a very powerful writer.

But, to be picky, within Browne’s work there has always been a sense that, just maybe, the head is faking the heart’s business (as Ian McDonald once said of Elvis Costello); the same man that could craft something as sharp as the line above from These Days could also write something as gauche, as unwieldy and as far removed from the syntax and rhythm of everyday speech as, “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light/You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight” (and this in a song that is widely loved).

So Browne needed David Lindley, then, to add fire to his music, to cut through the bullshit and the extended metaphors, to be both head and heart at the same time. Lindley plays with a fierce passion, his deft technique always evident but never at the expense of meaning. Within Browne’s music, he clarifies, he amplifies and he puts into sound what it is Browne’s trying to say in words: think of those two, sobbing high F notes he plays at around 4.10 on These Days – for all that the song’s lyric is impressive, nothing in the words communicates regret and sadness like those two desperate notes from Lindley’s guitar.

Lindley’s slide playing is hugely inventive, and his renown rests largely upon it, but the song I would nominate as containing my favourite Lindley work isn’t a slide piece. It’s Late for the Sky, which is a masterclass in how to play lead guitar alongside a singer. Containing beautiful short solos during the intro and the coda and a long one about three minutes in (after the first chorus), Late for the Sky also sees Lindley weaving sinuous lead guitar lines in and around Browne’s vocal. His tone is thick and creamy, and his rapid vibrato (if I’m hearing right, he uses a horizontal technique rather than the rock player’s up-and-down method, possibly more derived from his slide playing than from classic guitar) and slowly released bent notes (see 3.26) essentially narrate the song with Browne, who was truly blessed to have him in his team.

If I could play electric lead guitar like anyone, it would probably be David Lindley.

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Lindley in familiar lap steel mode

A recent recordeding – live one-take performance, no overdubs

The Lee Shore – David Crosby and Graham Nash

One sure way to make me happy is to put something by David Crosby on the stereo. I love Croz – his voice, his tunes, his chords, his scat singing. His work, in sound, mood and atmosphere, is singular: no one else can do with a guitar and voice what he does (and, to declare a bias, many of my favourite artists are similar voice-and-guitar one-offs: Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Paul Simon). Get Graham Nash to sing a harmony on top and I’ll listen for hours.

It’s not just Crosby’s music that fascinates me; it’s his career, his place in the history of rock’n’roll, too. As one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young he was a part of America’s instant Beatles, the four conquering heroes of the counterculture. Yet to win their crown, all they had to do was turn up. They did not need to conquer the world one gig at a time as for example Led Zeppelin did, with their four tours in 1970 alone. They were all already famous from their time in their previous bands and their record had already been released, so they simply picked Woodstock as their coming-out party and made sure they played well enough to justify the hype. That performance alone secured their reputation, as well as introducing the world to CSNY. And in retrospect it is a pivotal moment in the West Coast scene’s move from the socially progressive idealism of the folk-rock mid-sixties to the cocaine-fuelled megalomania of the arena-rock mid-seventies.

By 1977, when CSN made their third album (simply called CSN), the first wave of singer-songwriters (of whom Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as individual artists, can all be properly judged to belong) had either ascended to a level of idiosyncrasy that made their music sui generis (like Young, whose ragged electric rock distinguished him firmly from his mellow peers, and Joni Mitchell, who was getting progressively jazzier) or were sliding into a mushy, inoffensive soft rock. Such was the fate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The tracks on CSN were all meditative relationship songs, Fleetwood Mac with a softer beat and the extremes of emotion removed. The cover picture was of the three of them sharing a joke on Crosby’s yacht and this kind of music, as we have discussed in relation to Bobby Caldwell, has come to be known as yacht rock, which is shorthand for a smooth and airy soft rock which spoke loudly of its authors’ success and privilege, symbolised by the yachts on which so many were pictured for album covers. The record’s all very pleasant and the craftsmanship is obvious, but something crucial has been lost here. While the music of the singer-songwriters was usually interior-looking – and by extension could be criticised as self-absorbed and narcissistic – it was still implicitly counter-cultural when so much of it was about quality of consciousness. To examine one’s own existence and in so doing admit that Western capitalism is not in itself enough to bring about peace of mind – let alone enlightenment – is in itself a political act. What infected the music of CSN (and they were far from alone in this) after around 1974 is complacency. The authors of these songs are no longer asking any questions, even of themselves. They seem unaware that there might be a need to.

The Lee Shore had been written as early as 1970, before this rot sets in. As he relates taking his ‘floating home […] from here to Venezuela’, Crosby – a keen real-life sailor – is once again caught on the horns of that old dilemma: to engage with the world and its inequalities and inequities on one hand, or just drop out and create an alternate society, away from everyone else’s rules, on the other. As a successful rock star, the option to do the latter was available to him. But it was a question he seems never to have resolved within himself. In the end, caught up in the inertial forces of his own addictions and his grief over his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident, he chose instead to bury the issue under cocaine and heroin and it cost him fifteen years of his life.

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David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.

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