Tag Archives: the Jayhawks

Holiday harmonies, part 2: I Know You Rider – Martin & Neil

What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?

When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.

When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?

After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.

The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.

Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.

Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.

“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.

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Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)

*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)

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Harmony-singing heaven – the short and precious career of Tres Chicas

Hi all. It’s a very busy week this week, with my day off tomorrow looking likely to be not very ‘off’ at all. So I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out a post I wasn’t totally happy with about music I really like. Here’s a new and more fleshed-out version to tide you over till the weekend, when I will, I hope, be back.

Where are Tres Chicas? Seven years is a long time not to have put out a new record. Especially when they only made two albums in their initial short burst of activity.

Tres Chicas is the name adopted by its three principal members: Lynn Blakey (Let’s Active, Glory Fountain), Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine). They’re all veterans of the indie country scene of the American south. They met each other and began singing together for fun during the long period where their bands played shows on the same bill, at home and on tour, in various combinations. Their name was coined by the owner of the bar where they performed in public for the first time and it stuck.

In 2004, they released their debut, Sweetwater, on Yep Roc. This label is worthy, not cutting-edge, and has made something of a specialty of signing industry veterans (folks like Gang of Four, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, John Doe, Jim White, Sloan, Soft Boys, Tony Joe White – you get the idea). Sweetwater, recorded and produced by Chris Stamey, was an Uncut reader’s dream come true: a who’s who of alt. country talent. Original Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore (also Caitlin Cary’s husband) was on board, as was pianist Jen Gunderman (who’d replaced Karen Grotberg in the Jayhawks).

And it was a very fine record, too: simple, spare, a little lo-fi, a little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.

Its opening songs (a brace by the normally reliable Lynn Blakey, who is probably the dominant songwriting voice over their two albums) are plodding and somewhat stodgy, which is a shame as Heartbeat especially is a nice song held down by a drum track that trudges rather than bounces, but the album comes alive thereafter. The band work up a little sweat on a high-sprited cover of Loretta Lynn’s Deep as Your Pocket and then brake hard for a beautiful version of Lucinda Williams’ Am I Too Blue, where they’re backed by the members of Chatham County Line. This is where Tres Chicas are at their best: bringing the simplest of songs to life with their peerless harmony singing. If you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, listen on headphones. Cary’s on the left (also playing fiddle), Blakey in the middle and Lamm on the right. Three strong singers breathing with each other, listening to each other, phrasing with each other. It’s not slick, their voices don’t blend into one inseperable whole, but that’s what makes it so powerful

The good songs keep coming: Caitlin Cary’s Desire (written with Stamey and yet another Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly) is clever and funny; In a While (written by and lead-sung by Lamm, with a Cary co-write) splits the difference between Hazeldine and early Gillian Welch. But the album’s highlight is When Was the Last Time, credited to all three band members, and featuring a spine-tingling final section where the singers repeat the opening line and title phrase in the round, their voices popping up in the left, right and centre channels while Gunderman plays a simple churchy piano and the band slowly comes back in. It’s a deceptively artful arrangement, inspired by what is probably the best song on the record, and certainly the one that most captures what’s great about this band: the warmth of the voices, the palpable feeling friendship between the band members, the sense that the stakes here are low and these people have nothing to prove to each other or to anyone else.

Perhaps such an atmosphere couldn’t be captured twice. Their second album Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl (the band’s nicknames for each other apparently – but it’s still a dreadful, unwieldy title for an actual record), recorded in London with Geraint Watkins, Nick Lowe, BJ Cole and a cast of yeoman British musicians, is a less characterful, down-home affair. It does contain a couple of masterpieces (Cary and Blakey’s languorous All the Shade Trees in Bloom and jazzy Only Broken; Blakey’s plaintive Slip so Easily) so it’s worth hearing. The moment when all three singers voices come together to sing the title phrase on Shade Trees is worth the price of admission on its own – a moment that is all the overwhelming for how long Cary’s elongated, sleepy verse has held it back. But, unlike Sweetwater, BR&OG never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, if this is your kind of music, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. Seriously, in the extended hiatus Welch and David Rawlings took during the last decade, no one was making better country music. I’m still hoping there’s going to be more.

Tres Chicas
l-r Cary, Blakey, Lamm

Still No Clapton, Part 5 – I’d Run Away by the Jayhawks

The first batch of these posts that I did at the very end of 2013 I called “No Hendrix, No Clapton, No Vai”, and not because I dislike those players. It’s impossible to have any feel for rock’n’roll music and dislike Jimi Hendrix. I’m not a shred fan, but I can appreciate Steve Vai’s chops and dedication to his craft, and I genuinely loved No More Amsterdam, his 2012 co-write/duet with Aimee Mann. God, even some Clapton is OK, too, though don’t get me started on his politics. We’ll be here all night and I’ll lose all my good humour.
The point of doing these, then, has been to talk in brief about some tracks I might have struggled to discuss at length in a conventional post, but also to pick out some less heralded players along the way. Sure, J Mascis and David Lindley aren’t unknowns, and Robbie Robertson is a bona-fide legend, but they’re all at least a step down in renown from Clapton and Hendrix, who simply are rock guitar for many people, or Vai, who stands for the 1980s shredders (a school of metal-ish guitarists whose extreme technical proficiency was their key selling point for many of their fans, and who are still high-profile players in guitar geek circles).
Not every great solo proclaims its greatness by being the centrepiece of a classic song, or by lasting for minutes on end, or by being the work of a celebrated player. Today’s choice is indicative of this.
The dominant instrument on my favourite Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, is not Gary Louris’s guitar, but Karen Grotberg’s underrated country-soul piano. The band always sounded more expansive with her on board, and her harmonies sweetened the pinched and nasal vocal blend of Gary Louris and Marc Olsen. All in all, she’s the easily overlooked Jayhawks MVP, like a great defensive lineman.
Nevertheless, Louris remained a powerful presence as lead guitarist. Louris’s playing is ultimately blues derived – most of the licks he plays, Chuck Berry played first – but the Jayhawks have always drawn strength and vigour from Louris’s lead guitar interjections. They add uncomplicated vigour, a swagger even, to a group who’ve rarely strayed all that far from medium-intensity mid-tempo country-rock.
His solo on I’d Run Away is a perfectly constructed little gem with the full range of Louris tricks: an ear-grabbing opening lick that sees him making use of the Vibrola arm on his SG for a strong vibrato, some melodic double-stop licks and a bit of old-fashioned bluesy pentatonic wailing of the type that’s been the backbone of rock guitar since Mr Berry, I guess. It’s the highlight of a song that in typical Jayhawks fashion mixes breezy music with doleful lyrics.

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Gary Louris, still rockin’ that Vibrola-equipped Gibson SG

I’m Down to My Last Cigarette – The Jayhawks

Let’s hear it for those quietly impressive, hard-working sidemen and women. Every band needs one or two. Standing behind Jayhawks singer-songwriters Marc Olson and Gary Louris for most of the 1990s was the unfortunately named Karen Grotberg, with her catseye glasses and slightly bouffant hair, looking like a small-town librarian who hadn’t quite made it out of the eighties (in my head her speaking voice is like Marge Gunderson’s but perhaps I’m just playing with stereotypes now). On the cover of her first album with the group (Tomorrow the Green Grass), she’s pushed off to the side, sitting on her own branch of the tree, looking up rather than at the camera. She was a great country pianist, enlivening even the most pedestrian moments of their occasionally lumpy career, while singing fine harmonies too. When she left the band after the not-country-at-all Sound of Lies album from 1997, the group lost something key to its identity, for sure.

On their cover of the Harlan Howard/Billy Walker chestnut I’m Down to My Last Cigarette (recorded far less frequently than one might expect for a song that sounds ready-made to be a standard, but revived in the late eighties by KD Lang), Grotberg gets a rare lead vocal and has a ball with it. The track sounds like it might have been recorded live in the studio, although this audio-verite feeling is undercut by the decision to give her voice a Sun Records echo. But it’s still a great performance, fun and spontaneous-sounding, down to Grotberg having to cue in Louris for his solo.

The song appeared as a B-side to their 1995 cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s Bad Time, on which Grotberg was elbowed aside in favour of lungs-for-hire Sharleen Spiteri, odd-jobbing as a session singer around LA during Texas’s mid-nineties hiatus. Perhaps Grotberg was given this one by way of an apology. She ain’t Patsy Cline, but on this evidence (and that of a even more impressive recent live recording on YouTube) she’s a better singer than the nasal Olson and hoarse Louris, who on the evidence of the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time still haven’t learned to sing close harmony without lapsing into doubling each other’s notes. They still do this one at live shows, Karen getting her well-earned turn in the spotlight.

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Karen Grotberg. © 2009, Steve Cohen