Tag Archives: Suede

The One Song Onlys, part 1

About a year ago, I put together a post about my favourite songs and albums. The two lists did not have much crossover; few of my absolute favourite songs are by artists whose entire body of work means much to me in the way that Joni Mitchell’s, John Martyn’s or Paul Simon’s do. That list was heavier on pop, soul and disco compared to my favourite-albums list, which was much more about mellow 1970s singer-songwriters. But even so, none of the artists on that favourite-songs list was that rare phemoneon, the One Song Only artist.

For an artist to be a true One Song Only, I have to genuinely only care for one song, and I have to have heard enough of their other work to know I don’t like or care about any of it. That’s actually pretty rare. Normally if an artist does something that you like once, it’s unlikely they’re never be able to touch you in the same way again. But it does happen. I thought it’d be fun to do a couple of posts with some examples.

I don’t like being negative about musicians and music on this blog; I write it to talk about music that excites me, moves me – stuff I like. But I can only explain why these are One Song Onlies by discussing why I don’t normally dig what the artist does. So here goes.

The Wild Ones – Suede
Britpop never meant much to me. I found it parochial, even at the time, even at the age I was in 1994 (twelve). Most of all, I didn’t like it musically. I didn’t like exagerratedly English vocals, parping semi-ironic brass sections or drummers playing two and four without any verve or authority. Some exciting players emerged in that era (Blur’s Graham Coxon, Suede’s Bernard Butler), but the bands on the whole just weren’t to my taste. Suede were no exception, yet I have a lot of love for The Wild Ones.

The Wild Ones shouldn’t work for me. On an instrumental and arrangement level, it’s really messy, and demonstrates a lot of the things that I don’t like about the band generally. Drummer Simon Gilbert will not stop playing fills and bassist Mat Osman is scarcely less restrained; producer Ed Buller resorts to making Gilbert a tiny reverb-drenched presence at the back of the mix, where he’s less in the way, and thinning out Osman’s sound (although, to be fair, all of Suede’s records in that era are bass-light). Bernard Butler was always a maximalist guitar player and, while he’s in great form here (his intro on the dobro is magical), he’s not helping to give the arrangement focus by stuffing every corner of it with yet more detail and ornament. While the band play over each other, singer Brett Anderson also goes big, pulling the deepest, bartitone-Bowie notes he can out of himself and adding a huge vibrato to his sustained notes that had seldom, if ever, been there before in his delivery.

It’s all far too much. Yet the song itself is far too much, and the gaucheness of the execution – the too-muchness of it – becomes weirdly touching, and is in sympathy with Anderson’s lyric, which grabs at hope with a desperate romanticism even as that same hope slides out of his grip. It ends up being strangely touching and it affects me in a way no other song of theirs does.

Only the Lonely – The Motels
Before products like Elastic Audio and Beat Detective, if a drummer couldn’t meet the demands of the material when a group was in the studio, the ways available to “fix” their performances were either slow and laborious (physical editing of 2-inch tape), or would be unsatisfactory for stylistic reasons (use of drum machines instead of a live drum track). If a drummer couldn’t cut it, it was easier in the long run simply to hire another who could. Same went for any kind of instrumentalist.

In 1981, The Motels’ third album Apocalypso was rejected by their label, Capitol, who sent them back to the studio to redo it. Apocalypso was released a few years back and it’s not hard to hear why Capitol took that decision. Singer Martha Davis had written an obvious hit in Only the Lonely, but it would never have sold in its jerky Apocalypso form, where the hooks fell flat due to the band’s heavy handedness and Davis’s stylised over-singing.

The group recut the album with the same producer, Val Garay, but they gave him a free hand the second time around (the argumentative Tim McGovern, lead guitarist and now former boyfriend of Davis, had reportedly clashed with Garay and taken over the previous sessions). Garay’s solution to the problem of making a new wave band commercial and technically satisfactory was to replace the band members with drummer Craig Krampf and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. This was an era in which LA labels solved a lot of problems by bringing in guys like Waddy Wachtel.

So Only the Lonely and its parent album All Four One is new wave put through the LA mincing machine – with the band’s assent. Yet, despite the cynicism of the enterprise, it’s impossible to argue that the song wasn’t vastly improved in its second incarnation. It towers over everything else I’ve heard by the group, most of which doesn’t do anything for me. It’s the combination of sleek LA session playing, Davis’s more restrained vocal (more than usual, at least) and a thoughtful lyric that fully deserved to have a great track built for it; the second verse in particular (“You mention the time we were togther so long ago/Well, I don’t remember, all I know is it makes me feel good now”) strikes me as a rather adult and hard-to-pin-down set of emotions that you rarely get in pop music.

If Davis and the group had been consistently stronger writers, the tension between the LA pros brought in by Garay and the sensibility of the songs could have led to a minor classic, full of sharp little pop songs with a weird tension in them (a little like the Cars, maybe). As it is, they’re a One Song Only group.

I’m moving house this week, but more as soon as I can manage.

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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.

Sulky Girl – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.

Elvis Costello

Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.

I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).

Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.

Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.

Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…

Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:

I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.

While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.

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Pete Thomas