Tag Archives: U2

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

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She Said – Longpigs

In my office, the nineties never ended. The radio’s on almost all of the time. Most of the time it’s tuned to a certain station that plays mainly rock music from the last twenty-five years, with a sprinkling of other, non-rock, things, which always sound very strange by comparison – Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax sounds positively avant-garde in the context of endless Stereophonics and U2 and Kings of Leon.

Most of this rock music is, in the end, polite. Even the fiercer-sounding bands (Nirvana, say) are somewhat neutered in this context; the huge wall of guitars of the majority of nineties rock being less likely to jump out of the speakers as something spindly and angular, the music ends up sounding somewhat samey.

But now and again a song does poke its head up and demand to be heard by virtue of sounding different. Such a song, which I’ve only heard a couple of times on this station since starting in this job four months ago but which has been a delight on each occasion, is She Said by the Longpigs.

The ambition held by Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt in 1996, it seemed, was to have a band that sounded as much as possible like Radiohead, with whom the Longpigs toured in 1995. In the context of their later work, Radiohead’s The Bends sounds like a conventional mid-nineties rock record, but it’s worth remembering that no one else at the time was ploughing quite the same furrow as them. Yes, you could hear debts to R.E.M., to U2, to Nirvana, to Jeff Buckley, and going back further, to Magazine* and to David Bowie, but it added up to a sound that was the band’s own, which is why it was notable how much the Longpigs’ sound owed to The Bends. Vocals that jumped suddenly up an octave? Yep. Squalling, trebly Fenders? A general sense of over-caffeinated nerviness? Songs that were anthemic, bombastic and over the top, but still managed to sound genuine and personal? Yep, yep and yep.

But despite being somewhat derivative, Longpigs made a couple of great records in their short career, and She Said is the pick of them. What’s so great about it is its lack of restraint. Hunt, sounding more than a little unhinged,  yelps and screams his way through the song while the band clatter along behind him, drummer Dee Boyle’s performance being particularly inspired. I love his playing during the bridge, just before the stop, and in the last chorus and coda – it’s not showy, it’s not spectacular, but he sounds fully inside the song and he sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. With the success of Travis and Coldplay, this kind of messy abandon would disappear from British indie rock within a few years.

The second Longpigs album flopped, and flopped hard. Nothing more was heard of them as a band. But the cultural reach of the band’s members is surprisingly long. Of course, the most famous former Longpig is guitarist Richard Hawley, who went on to a spell in Pulp (replacing Russell Senior), before releasing records under his own name, which are pleasant, if sometimes in need of a dose of whatever Crispin Hunt was taking in 1996. Bass player Simon Stafford has played with Joe Strummer and Jarvis Cocker. But Hunt has perhaps the most intriguing post-Longpigs story: he’s now a behind-the-scenes guy, co-writing with or producing Jake Bugg, Florence + the Machine, Newton Faulkner, Cee-Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Natalie Imbruglia, Fighting with Wire, Ron Sexsmith, even Mark Owen.

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*Longpigs could, however, claim their own post-punk influences that didn’t come through Radiohead: drummer Dee Boyle was a former member of Cabaret Voltaire