Tag Archives: synths

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

Fairlight CMI

By its sounds shall ye know it. By its oohs and aahs, its orchestra hits and its handclaps.

On the records of Kate Bush shall ye hear it. Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder, and, yes, Yes.

It is, of course, the Fairlight CMI, one of the mighty achievements of late-1970s, early-1980s synth technology, the other major triumphs being the Synclavier and the Emulator. These three machines were transformative pieces of technology, the most transformative in popular music since the invention of multitrack recording.

The Synclavier was a synthesiser, the Emulator a sampler. The Fairlight was something of both, as well as an early software sequencer, via its Page R function – the first example of a computer music GUI.

pager
Page R

It did all of those things at what today seems an incredibly basic level, but it helped to open up a new world for musicians, especially for musicians who didn’t come from a background in old-school analogue synths.

I’m an acoustic guitar player, and know comparatively little about synths and programming. When recording, I treat the DAW as essentially an intelligent tape machine, using very few VST instruments and getting most of my sounds in front of the microphone with analogue instruments. The world of synthesis and sampling is one where I know enough to be intrigued, and not nearly enough to claim anything like an understanding. I know just enough to be completely in awe of the people who had to do this for real, whether with a room-sized modular synth in the 1970s, or with a Fairlight or Synclavier in the brave new world of the digital 1980s.

In 2016, records made at the very start of the 1980s can sound very strange indeed: dated, yes, but tremendously exciting in the fearless way they look to the future and incorporate all kinds of new ideas – textural and rhythmic – into their basic frameworks. The most fascinating moments come when the new technology meshes seamlessly with the old.

Consider Kate Bush’s Never for Ever.

Listening to the record, you hear a mix of traditional analogue instruments and cutting-edge sampling and synthesiser technology, filtered through Bush’s one-of-a-kind melodic and lyrical sensibility.

The Fairlight had been demonstrated to her halfway through recording sessions for the album, so while she immediately grasped the machine’s potential, she initially used it to augment songs that had already written and were partially recorded – the famous breaking-glass noise in Babooshka, for example. As such, Never for Ever is a fascinating tipping-point record: you only need to listen to the first few tracks of her next album The Dreaming to hear the profound effects that composing with Page R sequencing – in effect, using the Fairlight as a compositional tool – had on her music. The traditional drum kit (and most notably its cymbals) are entirely missing, with all kinds of sampled percussion and found sounds assembled into rhythm tracks, instead.

But as innovative as The Dreaming is (or Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo record – sometimes called Security but officially titled Peter Gabriel– to take another example), there’s something about that moment where the emerging technologies were employed at the same time as the old that really speaks to me – the stuff I’m familiar with in dialogue with the stuff I don’t understand and find eerie and uncanny. It’s the tension between the two that’s so thrilling.

katebush_cmi
Kate Bush with Fairlight, early 1980

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

JVDSJVDS

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 9: Are “Friends” Electric?/Cars – Tubeway Army/Gary Numan

Even cyborg pop stars have uncles.

Gary Numan’s uncle, Jess Lidyard, was also his drummer.

It was unusual enough that an uncle would be playing drums with his nephew, but even more so that he would be playing this music, in 1979: a song with barely a scrap of melody, no chorus whatsoever and a lyric that talks baldly about sex with androids. Jess Lidyard, clearly, was an unusually cool uncle.

His playing on Are “Friends” Electric is as key an element of the track as Numan’s pained, nasal vocal and those Minimoogs and Polymoogs. While other electronic musicians were evangelical about all-electronic music (OMD’s Andy McCluskey reportedly told the members of Kraftwerk after he’d seen them perform live that he and his band were going to bin their guitars and do it all with synths from now on), Numan’s music was essentially a rock/electronic hybrid, with synths being a late addition to their sound (Numan only played a synth for the first time when in the recording studio working on second album Replicas). The rhythm section remained an analogue affair even after Numan’s conversion: Lidyard’s acoustic drums and Paul Gardiner’s bass. This digital/analogue, rock/electronic hybrid finds its most perfect expression on Are “Friends” Electric.

It’s not a fresh insight to note the influence on Numan of JG Ballard, or of dystopian science fiction generally. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Numan’s brand of futurism felt lived in and down at heel. This music belongs to a world not white and gleaming but bodged, a world built on top of what was already extant. I’m trying very hard not to say the word “steampunk”…

Jess Lidyard provided the steam. Not only are his driving 16th-note hi hats the most apparent and persistent rhythmic element in the track, but he provides added push by reinforcing the synth bass line with his kick drum. I don’t think Are “Friends” Electric would be half as good if it had been powered by a drum machine. It was Lidyard that stopped the music from being too gleaming, too synthetic, too perfect.

Cars (from Numan’s next album The Pleasure Principle), similarly, derives a great deal of its power from its performed drum track. By this time, Lidyard had been replaced by Cedric Sharpley (Lidyard wasn’t keen on the touring musician’s life). Sharpley’s drumming is ever so slightly more elegant than Lidyard’s and he sounds more “live” on Cars than Lidyard did on “Friends”. Cars has a subtle continual lift in tempo throughout its duration, its kick-drum pattern becomes increasingly complicated and the drum fills get more frantic with every verse. Lidyard seemed to power the music from within. Sharpley fed off it and responded to it in his playing. I can imagine hearing Are “Friends” Electric and thinking the drums were from a machine. I’d be staggered if anyone thought that about Cars.

After around 90 seconds, Numan has said all he as to say about life in cars, and the band takes over. This is where Sharpley is really at his best, with a performance that’s urgent and mechanical and weirdly funky all at the same time. I didn’t get Numan’s music for a long, long time. Granted, his public persona had a lot to do with that, I didn’t respond to anything in the music either. As has so often been the case for me, I got into the music once I started following the drums. And while Are “Friends” Electric is the more important, and ultimately better, track, it was Cars that began the process, which is why I had to write about them both.

Some recentish work

Head Home – Midlake

The world of indie rock is a very beardy place right now. It’s most noticeable in London. Guys playing rock and metal have always done facial hair, but London is bigger on indie than heavy rock. As recently as 2004, two months after Take Me Out was released, every young male musician in London (and they did all seem to be male) had Franz Ferdinanded themselves: clean shaven, short, neat hair in a side parting, clean Telecasters. It lasted until after the Arctic Monkeys hype died down.

Around 2006 or 2007, certain records were coming out that felt more rootsy. Acoustic guitars started making a comeback. Soon there were banjos being openly played on stages up and down the country. Not to ascribe cynical reasons to this, but I observed it in the appearance and sound of the bands I saw, and played with, around London. I don’t know if they were conscious of it at all, but a lot of musicians were heading in the same direction at the same time. Now, a few years later, every guitar-playing dude has a beard, a hat, and a waistcoat, except the ones who’ll tell you that beards are over. There are many more co-ed bands than I saw 10 years ago, too, which (unlike the waistcoats) is an unambiguously good thing. Singer-songwriters are no longer confined to a sort of ghetto. The end point of this is a lot of bands playing a hideous Mumford-style acoustic stadium indie. But on the plus side, I know, like, half a dozen double bassists now; where were they ten years ago?

There are three records I’d nominate as being responsible for starting all this: Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver and The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake.

They all share common elements: a pastoral, back-to-the-country vibe, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, and a lack of interest in engaging with the world as it is today (and a resulting nostalgia for the past, an imagined past). All three records were stronger at mood and atmosphere than melody and lyrics. All three had a good sound more than they had great songs.

The partial exception was Midlake, who had evolved to that sound rather than arriving at it first time out. They began as a jazz quintet at the University of Texas, before saxophonist turned singer/guitarist Tim Smith discovered Radiohead and Grandaddy; his vocal style recalls Thom Yorke so much I thought it was a joke the first time I heard Van Occupanther (after a while I stopped noticing). Their first album Bamnan and Silvercork went nowhere, and they abandoned the lo-fi synths for a clean, semi-acoustic 1970s West Coast sound; essentially a more rustic Fleetwood Mac, with Thom Yorke on vocals. It was released to little immediate notice (its reputation is now such that some might be surprised to read the mixed reviews it received at the time) but slowly built a following in Britain and the US and is now one of the most beloved and influential albums of the last ten years. Wherever you go in London, you’ll run into young musicians with a Midlake influence. Furthermore, their blatant imitation of Fleetwood Mac has led to that band being re-evaluated by the indie press: last year a tribute album came out of twenty-something indie bands playing Fleetwood Mac songs (and showing how good the originals were by comparison).

Tim Smith has now left the band, and the remains of Midlake are following a more democratic vision, with a bigger, louder, rhythm-section led sound, albeit with some remaining 1970s prog influences. Their last album, Antiphon, was a step back in songwriting and vocal quality, but a leap forward in originality. Nevertheless, if they were to stop now, they’d be remembered as essentially a minor, derivative band. They haven’t yet improved on the work of their influences.. But both Van Occupanther and follow-up The Courage of Others, which is more imitative of British folk-rock acts like Fairport Convention, contain half a dozen excellent songs each, and if you’re interested in any of the beardy, folky West Coast-style indie rock that’s so prevalent at the moment, those two Midlake records are the place to start, the best of the bunch.