Tag Archives: violin

My Finest Work Yet – Andrew Bird

The title of his latest album is no doubt a winking provocation, but perhaps Andrew Bird is right.

Obvious things out of the way first: it’s his best-sounding record yet. OK, it has the usual contemporary unsubtle mastering job that ensures My Finest Work Yet is several times louder than the jazz records from which it takes its sonic inspiration. However, the small-band arrangements and Rudy Van Gelder-inspired recording techniques Bird and his producer Paul Butler favoured for the recording sessions (the band tracking live together in a big room with no separation), give the songs that most precious and rare commodity in all forms of recorded music these days: space. Luxurious acres of it.

So, frankly, Bird had me on his side from the moment he premiered Bloodless, the album’s second track. Its glorious drum sound, fat but not overpowering, and gorgeous piano tone quite overruled any concerns I had about Bird building his song around the hook “it’s an uncivil war” – a sentiment that, while a decent summation of today’s political landscape, is not exactly trippingly on the tongue. The effectiveness of a pun is somewhat diminished when the shape of the melody barely gives you enough time to enunciate the syllable upon which the pun depends.

We’ve started, then, with the second of our obvious things. Bird is a words guy of long standing. But when you make lyrics and your delivery of them the focus of your music, you encourage your listener to nitpick. Bird is a far more imaginative and risk-taking lyricist than 95% of songwriters, and he’s very good. Brilliant at times, in fact. The first verse of Sisyphus is ingenious but also funny:

Sisyphus peered into the mist
A stone’s throw from the precipice, paused.
Did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist?
Did he raise both fists and say, “To hell with this”, and just let the rock roll?

But in pushing himself so hard, Bird is also apt to fall over himself. When things go wrong, as on the second verse of Sisyphus (a song which I should say I do like enormously), the result is a pile-up of contorted polysyllables barely contained within the metre and stressed in the wrong places, with – more important – a tune you can’t hum:

I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god, I’m a lightning rod
History forgets the moderates
For those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn
You know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice, yeah

I’m enough of a stick in the mud to find this a problem. Sure, personal taste and blah, blah, blah, but if you value economy and precision, Bird may infuriate as much as he delights.

Fortunately, lyrics aren’t the only component in pop music, and musically Bird is rarely less than superb. If you’re unfamiliar with him, Andrew Bird is a singer-songwriter who plays 5-string violin and guitar, but is principally a violinist making frequent use of loops of his violin playing within a live-band context, often pizzicato (ie plucked) melodies, rather than bowed lines. He’s also a champion whistler, with an enviable controlled vibrato, and a great sense of when to deploy his whistling chops to create instrumental hooks. Consequently, his music is pretty much a one-of-a-kind affair. As much as he shares kinship with some of the Largo crowd – Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple – he sounds little like any of them.

So, some reservations about Bird’s more outlandish lyrics (which I wanted to get out the way early) aside, My Finest Work Yet starts very strongly. Sisyphus and Bloodless are definite album highlights.

Third track Olympians spins its wheels a little, but the album hits what may be its highest point with fourth song Cracking Codes. A sparse, piano-led ballad, it builds patiently over the course of a vocal verse, a bridge and a second instrumental verse in which the piano carries the main melody while Bird whistles a counter-melody, to its climax, in which Bird’s voice is harmonised by bandmate Alan Hampton and a guesting Madison Cunningham. The blend of the three voices gives me chills.

Here’s a live version of Cracking Codes.

Fallorun, by contrast, is almost shockingly conventional indie rock by Bird’s standards. It even starts with some guitar feedback. It does give drummer Ted Poor a chance to play two and four at a moderate-fast tempo, a rarity for him within Andrew Bird’s music, and he seems happy to go at it. The chorus melody is fine, but it’s one of those songs that yields all the pleasures it can offer in half a dozen plays, and it hasn’t kept me coming back like Sisyphus, Bloodless and Cracking Codes have.

After a free-time intro, the main violin melody of Archipelago is as warm and comforting as a hug. Lyrically, though, it’s another song that seems to address the polarised political climate (“We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll/When our enemies are what make us whole. Listen to me: no more excuses, no more apathy. This ain’t no archipelago, no remote atoll”). The song’s humanity – wisdom, even – ensure that the big ending, in which the backing vocals follow Bird’s in a call-and-response fashion, feels earned rather than by the numbers.

Proxy War begins with a funky side-stick drum intro, over which bass and piano are joined by layers of Bird’s violin and (I think) a distorted guitar – an arrangement that nicely mimics an R&B horn section. The chorus switches to 7/4 time and Poor gets to play some cool fills. One of the least lyrically dense tracks on the album, it works as a mood lightener, and offers a sort sideways reminder that long ago Andrew Bird began his career playing violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Manifest – Bird at his most pastoral – reminds me strongly of Laura Veirs in its west coast setting, G major chord sequence and the string arrangement. I doubt it’s deliberate, but the resemblance is marked. It’s not structurally knotty or lyrically complex compared to other Bird songs, but it’s another one of the album’s high points for me: a lovely, unhurried song.

Don the Struggle begins like Bird chanelling Benny & the Jets. It’s thudding, stompy pulse eventually gives way to a double-time 7/4 section with Bird’s vocal exactly following the beats. While it was no doubt a struggle to write a lyric to fit the metre, he makes it sound surprisingly natural. As tension and release, the song works effectively, but it’s the tension part that keeps me coming back. Bird got it right, I think, by keeping the 7/4 part a brief mid-song interlude and having the song end with his dramatic violin solo over the 4/4 sequence.

The album ends with Bellevue Bridge Club. Its verse – built on a rudimentary drum pattern and a basic two-chord sequence strummed on electric guitar, with Bird playing his 5-string violin in its viola range – can’t help but sound like a Velvet Underground pastiche, which ordinarily would not do anything for me at all. Fortunately, after about a minute, Bird quits his Lou Reed impression, Poor locates his hi-hat, the song acquires a groove and the harmonies (with Madison Cunningham again) take the song somewhere far satisfying. It’s a fine end to a fine album.

Over the course of a dozen solo records, Bird’s music has become a little less unconventional than it was at the beginning of his career, with more songs that follow standard pop chord sequences and structures. This has had the tendency to make his records more cohesive and consistent, and to be honest, more to my taste. I’m sure he’s lost fans along the way, too – it’s impossible for a songwriter to grow in any direction while pleasing everyone who was into their work at the start. So, as I said up top, calling his album My Finest Work Yet is a good-humoured provocation. He might be right, though: it’s tighter than 2016’s Are You Serious, his voice gets better with every record, the playing is superlative and the sonics, at least by modern standards, are impeccable.

I’m seeing him at the Barbican next week, with Cunningham in support, and I can’t wait.


Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 4 – San Geronimo – Red House Painters

Anthony Koutsos used to have one of the most thankless jobs in popular music: he was Mark Kozelek’s drummer in Red House Painters.

Thankless because Red House Painters songs were long and slow. Very long and very slow. Often with no dynamic shifts at all, or with only a barely perceptible rising intensity. Playing them was an exercise in self-abnegation. Drummers that don’t have a tendency to push the tempo a little over the course of a long, slow song are rare. Drummers who don’t push the dynamic either, and who are happy to play for two or three minutes without a single fill, they’re even rarer. Anthony Koutsos is not a one-off in rock & roll, but he’s pretty close.

By the time the Red House Painters cut Ocean Beach in late 1994, Koutsos had been occupying Kozelek’s drum stool for five years, during which time he’d patted and rimshotted his way through several Kozelek epics – Medicine Bottle, Down Colorful Hill, Katy Song, Funhouse, Mother, Evil and Blindfold – some of the slowest, darkest, most intense songs in the alternative rock canon (seriously listen to Funhouse. It ain’t the Stooges).

How did he do it? Well, the only thing I can think of, as a part-time drummer (unfortunately, very part-time at the moment), is that Red House Painters songs often had pretty cool drum parts, distinctive rhythmic patterns that belong definitively to the parent song (what do I mean? Well, think of, say, Ringo’s drum part on the verses of Come Together. Ever heard that exact part in any other song?). Anthony Koutsos did this kind of thing frequently, only at 16rpm, and quietly, which is actually quite an achievement. Listen to his patterns on the drum versions of Mistress and New Jersey, the Katy Song lick in the verse that misses out the second backbeat, causing the song to feel like it’s turning around upon itself every two bars. These drum tracks are distinctively Koutsos’ own – belonging to these songs and these songs only – and if he needed motivation to remain in a band that forced him to play slow and quietly all the live-long day, that would probably be enough.

San Geronimo was his big moment on Ocean Beach, and it’s one of my favourite Koutsos parts. By this point in the Red House Painters’ career, their music had begun to open up a bit and was no longer so intense and claustrophobic; by the standards of, say, Medicine Bottle, San Geronimo is almost breezy.

Underneath a tapestry of chiming and semi-distorted guitars, Koutsos keeps time on his toms, laying off the snare drum until the stuttering pre-chorus section, during which the interplay between his drums and a guesting Carrie Bradley’s violin first establishes itself. It’s a neat lesson in how a drummer can provide a supporting base for a song and leave room for a little push in the choruses without turning the song into Smells Like Teen Spirit. And frankly, I’m a sucker for using a rack tom in lieu of the snare. Radiohead’s Let Down, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow – a lot of my favourite songs do it.

But Koutsos’ best moment comes in the half-time middle section, where he and Bradley take over. The rest of the band play the changes on the one and sustain them but otherwise let Bradley’s harmonised violin line duet with Koutsos’ ride cymbal and snare fills. It’s a beautiful, weightless little passage, the most pretty to be found on any Red House Painters record. Kozelek’s songwriting was always passionate, but the Red House Painters’ delivery of it had always previously been chilly. San Geronimo, though, is earthy and warm. Bradley’s violin is like gulls calling on a late summer’s day, and Koutsos gets the tasteful, simple little instrumental section to show how crucial he’s been to the band’s music all along.

After RHP broke up, Koutsos continued to play drums with Kozelek in Sun Kil Moon while building a real-estate career in San Francisco. He’s made of stern stuff, then, even if you now hate him on a point of principle.

red house painters
Red House Painters, Koutsoson right in hat and shades