Tag Archives: Whiskeytown

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

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Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

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Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.

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

Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams – a relistening

Listening to Tres Chicas last week in order to put something together on them for this blog led to me to spend some time – for the first time in a long while – with Whiskeytown’s records, Whiskeytown being the band that Caitlin Cary is best known for, the band that introduced David Ryan Adams to the world. These are records I’m well familiar with, having listened to them extensively around a decade ago, when I first became interested in contemporary country-rock music (two terms I won’t use to describe this stuff: ‘alt.country’, ‘no depression’. A third: ‘Americana’).

I’d heard some country music growing up, on a couple of Music for Pleasure cassette compilations that my parents played on car journeys sometimes: Crystal Gayle, Billie Jo Spears, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Jean Shepherd, Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry, some Willie Nelson (anyone that they could get the rights to, which led to the same artists getting featured over and over). But, being young, I didn’t get the nuances, the difference between the artists, the voices, the arrangements. It didn’t seem odd to me that Crystal Gayle’s ballads entirely forsook fiddle and pedal steel (not that I’d have known what a pedal steel guitar was, let alone what countrypolitan was) in favour of string sections and harps. I couldn’t hear that Anne Murray’s voice was different to all the other singers’ because she was Canadian. And so I grew up with a specific, context-free idea of what country was. Country music encompassed everything from Blanket on the Ground to Talking in Your Sleep, Hello Walls to When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman, and all of this was country, because the cassette sleeves said it was.

I didn’t know then that country was also Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and Slim Whitman. I didn’t know that, say, the Eagles had made a species of country music – I’d heard them, but they weren’t on these cassettes, so evidently they weren’t country. A child’s mind is wonderfully literal.

So when I started looking into contemporary country music I didn’t want to hear the modern equivalent of that old stuff I heard when I was a kid (which probably would have meant Trisha Yearwood or something similarly polished and Nashville) – I was interested in hearing the music that was being spoken of as the carrying on the legacy of Hank Williams, or of the Outlaw artists from the seventies. Music that was rough, gritty, rootsy, melancholy, beautiful but not necessarily pretty. Music that reeked of beer and cigarettes and desperation. A college student’s mind is touchingly romantic.

Whiskeytown were considered one of the foremost examplars of this new old-school country music, so I had to hear them. What I realised soon enough is that Ryan Adams wasn’t the pure-bred country musician I thought he was. He was a former punk rocker who formed Whiskeytown five minutes after being introduced to the records of Gram Parsons and George Jones by Skillet Gilmore, who gave Adams a job in the Raleigh, NC, bar he ran and became the first drummer of Adams’ new country band.

Adams was a consummate student of music, a writer with an extraordinary gift for mimicry. This was already obvious by the time Whiskeytown released Strangers Almanac in 1998, where Adams’ debts to the Rolling Stones and Paul Westerberg began to be revealed as clearly as his Parsons love, and over the course of Pneumonia (the band’s final album, retaining only Adams and Cary from the first record) and his first two solo albums (Heartbreaker and Gold), Adams wrote songs that cribbed from Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. No wonder Uncut loved him.

Many of these songs, to be sure, were great: Adams has a lot of talent, a very keen ear and the sense to surround himself with musicians who can help him get to where he wants to go (a cast list that has included Ethan Johns, Bucky Baxter, Mike Daly, Jennifer Condos, Cyndi Cashdollar, David Rawlings and Catherine Popper). But when I fell out of love with Adams and his work, I fell out hard, as he simply hadn’t given me what I was looking for, and at the same time that I was listening to him I was becoming more intimately acquainted with the work of Dylan, Young, Van and Chilton, to say nothing of Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.

For me, it’s not a damning criticism of Adams to say that he works essentially by emulation. Certainly not at this point, where I’m basically over the idea of authenticity and originality as having much bearing on the quality of art. However, the amount that Adams owes to his influences is often so clear as to become distracting, particularly on Gold, where practically every song is a love letter to one artist specifically. On a couple, Adams even sang the song in an imitation of the inspirator’s voice, to make the debt entirely clear for those who weren’t paying attention at the back. While one had to applaud the scholarship, it became a little wearing.

While his work in the decade since Gold has been uneven, it is surprising how far his critical esteem has dropped, and the degree to which he has receded from the indie consciousness. His 2011 album Ashes & Fire passed me by entirely (its single Lucky Now was essentially Daddy was a Bankrobber played slowly on acoustic guitar, and was pretty dispiriting to sit through) and generated none of the hype and anticipation that a Ryan Adams record would have done six or seven years before (love them or hate them, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Love is Hell got him a lot of press coverage).

And when I saw a video of (and was blown away by) Mandy Moore singing a live-in-the-studio version of Merrimack River, I couldn’t help but think about how long it had been since her husband (Ryan Adams) had written a song half as good, or indeed sang anything with that much emotional commitment.

There’s lots of excellent songs in Adams’ discography and he may yet end up as an Elton John figure – someone who made no faultless albums but who drifted in and out of songwriting form over several decades and cut enough great songs for an excellent double-CD best-of. There are certainly worse fates for a recording artist. Nevertheless it must be somewhat galling for him that he’s now so out of favour critically that when Laura Marling rewrote New York New York (from Gold) as Sophia, with Ethan Johns in the producer’s chair, no one who praised that song thought to mention how big a debt it owed to Johns’ first big-name client.

If you’ve never listened to the man’s work and want to give him a fair hearing, I can recommend Heartbreaker and Pneumonia without hesitation, and give qualified thumbs ups to Strangers Almanac and Gold too. And I do genuinely hope he puts out something to rival them one day.

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Whiskeytown, circa Pneumonia

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Ryan Adams, in a park