Tag Archives: Tim Finn

Bad Times Good – Crowded House

A couple of weeks ago, Crowded House released a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first since 2010’s Intriguer. Basic tracks were recorded in LA before the pandemic started, with the rest being finished remotely last year during the pandemic.* The album features a new line-up of the band: founding members Neil Finn and Nick Seymour (vocals/guitar and bass/vocals respectively), along with Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy (guitar/vocals/drums, and drums/vocals/guitar/keyboards) and producer Mitchell Froom (keyboards).

Neil Finn is, of course, the band’s main songwriter, but this record is notably collaborative, with only six songs being credited solely to him. Liam Finn has one sole writing credit, and the other five feature the band members writing in various combinations. With Tim Finn also co-writing one of the songs, it’s a proper family affair.

My favourite, album opener Bad Times Good, is credited to Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn and Nick Seymour. That’s interesting, as there are elements here that feel new to the band’s music and two credited songwriters who’ve not written for the band before. I’ve not been able to find any articles or interviews that shed light on who was responsible for which parts, so at this stage we can but speculate on who contributed what, but it’s still worth having a poke around under the bonnet, so to speak, to see what makes the song go.

First up, it begins in 5/4 time. The chords are (essentially) F and G, with three beats on the F and two on G, but the voicings on acoustic guitar are extended to something that sounds closer to Fmaj7sus2 and G6, with a single note melody line on electric guitar that bubbles away throughout the verse, pattering toms (sounding as if they’re being played with mallets), and touches of keys and piano from Froom.

Frankly, this is not how you write a song if you’re going for mainstream radio play in 2021. The non-standard time signature means that the melody feels weightless and strange the first few times you hear it; emphases seem to be in strange places, and there’s an unresolved quality to it. The extended chords add to the dreamy atmosphere.

Eventually we move to an unstable-sounding E7 before shifting to C (perhaps revealing that we’ve been in C all along, and F and G are the IV and V chords, with E7 as a substitute for Em) and waltz time for the chorus. Still, though, the melody seems to be playing tricks. We’ve just established our key and a stable-feeling rhythm, but Finn answers the short line “Before we choose a path” with a much longer one “(Let’s spend the night at Los Campeneros, please” – a metrical pattern that doesn’t recur outside this line, with a rhyme that isn’t answered at the end of the chorus. The melody is gorgeous, but in a evanescent kind of way. It feels like it might disappear, or slide out of your hands if you try to grab it.

Via another unstable-sounding chord, this time a D major, we go back into the verse, which mirrors the first in form. The next time the chorus comes round, though, it will be extended and get really cool harmonically:

E7 | C | A7 | Dm | E7 | C | D | Dm | Em | Am | A | A7

These are the type of “songwriter’s” chords that anyone who learned guitar by playing Beatles songs will recognise. E7 and A7 as substitute iii and vi chords in the key of C crop up in numerous Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as in those by their conscious inheritors: the likes of Alex Chilton, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, and Neil Finn himself. What I particularly like, though, is the emotional journey you get taken on by the shifts from major to parallel minor, and minor to parallel major. Everytime you think you know where you stand harmonically, the ground shifts beneath your feet.

Major/minor games continue in the middle eight, with its twice-repeated Dm | E7 | C | D sequence. This is the section of the song that will sound most like Crowded House to the majority of listeners, with Finn singing up in his Not the Girl You Think You Are range (that is, his most Lennon-esque range), while the close harmony vocals take full advantage of the possibilties inherent in that D to Dm change halfway through the sequence.

It’s lovely, but the band don’t overplay it. It’s over before it outstays its welcome, and is genuinely only eight bars long (not all middle eights are). From there, it’s back into the verse, and a slow, atmospheric winding down of the song.

5/4 time signature apart, all the elements of the song – the clever chord sequences, the unshowy but intelligently written lyrics, the dreamy atmosphere – are frequently present in Neil Finn’s songwriting, whether for his main band, solo albums or side projects. But still, the song does feel like a subtle evolution for the band, and the shared writing credits may have something to do with it. The rest of the album is good too, if perhaps not quite at the level of Bad Times Good. Some of the more uptempo songs remind me a little of the Go Betweens, while the gentle, predominantly acoustic Show Me the Way (not a Peter Frampton cover) and Too Good for this World (co-written by Neil and Tim Finn) are both lovely.

*In all probability, the band always intended to work this way. A two-part tracking process – full-band basic tracks being recorded in a studio, overdubs recorded remotely by band members using home-recording equipment – is how most rock, indie and singer-songwriter records that feature live drums are recorded these days. Much cheaper than doing the whole thing in the studio.

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song: