Tag Archives: Yo Zushi

Home at Last – Yo Zushi

My friend and long-time musical compadre (seriously, we’ve got something like 18 years behind us now) Yo Zushi has released a new single, Home at Last, with a new album (King of the Road) to follow shortly.

Home at Last was recorded around two years ago, I think, at One Cat in Camberwell, with Jon Clayton engineering. It was the last song we cut during that day at the studio, but at this point I can’t remember what else we did during that session. I can remember that I played drums on the live take, and that Dan McKean played piano. I then took the basic tracks home and did what I do, adding electric, acoustic and bass guitars, while Yo worked up a vocal arrangement.

It’s a great song (one of the best Yo’s ever written, I think, and he’s written some doozies) and I absolutely love the way the recording turned out. There’s a bandcamp link at the bottom of the post, and it’s also available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music and all the other usuals. The cover features Yo and his friend Jazzman John Clarke, a performance poet well known in London, who sadly passed away last week. I only met Jazzman a few times, but he was a lovely man with music and rhythm inside him.

Yo will be playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston on Sunday 16th September, and I’ll be supporting, in what is for me a rare solo show. Nowadays I mainly play as part of a duo with Melanie (something we’ve been doing increasingly often, and dare I say, are now getting pretty good at), so this will be something different, by virtue of being something old-school.

A quick digression on Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Let’s briefly interrupt our discussion of British folk-rock to talk about Bob Dylan…

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

There have been some entertainingly huffy responses to this (at least in the British press), as well as plenty of defences of Dylan as a poet.

All as wrong-headed as each other. The wisest and most informed response came from my friend Yo Zushi, writing for the New Statesman.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what Yo Zushi doesn’t know about Bob Dylan isn’t worth knowing, but we’ve often found ourselves on different sides of the argument when discussing Dylan. Yo is a big fan of recent Bob, whereas I checked out around the time of ‘Love and Theft’ and only retain interest in Dylan’s career from, roughly, 1963-67 and 1973-78, with a couple of records here and there (Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind) that fall outside those windows. We rarely agree on what the best songs are on even the records we both think are great.

But on this we agree:

I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

Literature is simply a written work of superior or lasting artistic merit, so Dylan’s songs, in as much as they contain texts, must count as such, and his being awarded a literary prize presents no problem except for those who cling to artificial boundaries between high art and low art.* Yet, songs must also be counted as a special kind of literature, as they are written to be sung, not merely read off the page. Any proper appreciation of the art of songwriting must also take into account the effect of the words’ marriage to a melody to be sung, and further, what the singer does with them in performance.

Dylan is, if not the greatest of his kind, so obviously pre-eminent that it makes no difference. It’s him and McCartney, and basically no one else in Western pop. So, how about a Nobel Prize for Literature for Paul McCartney, then? That’ll really piss off the snobs.

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Dylan, song & dance man, Nobel Laureate

*It’s a cliche to point out that Shakespeare’s plays were performed and written for the mass, uneducated audience, but still, cliches often get at truths, so let’s point it out one more time.

 

Farewell to the Glad

First up, I’m sorry for the long silence. Last week, following a death in the family, I went home and spent a week with my dad, taking a couple of days off work and commuting into London the rest of the week. It wasn’t the right time or place to be thinking about blogging, really. Then, in rather happier news, I was at my cousin’s wedding, then back in London to play a gig at The Gladstone Arms, more of which shortly.

I’ve been struggling with a piece all week, writing a bit here and a bit there, and it’s not really come together. I don’t know whether to persist or junk it, or maybe use the bits of it that most interest me as a starting point for another piece entirely. Maybe the latter. That might be a good way out of the hole I’ve found myself in on that one.

But I did want to write something, and this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gladstone, having played there the other day for what may be the last time.

I wrote about the threat to The Gladstone last year, but the situation has changed a bit since then. The company that bought it wanted to pull it down and build flats on the site, but in the face of local opposition and Southwark Council listing it as an asset of community value, the developers changed strategy. They instead offered the leaseholders a new lease at a greatly increased rate. They can’t pay it, and as things stand The Gladstone will close when the current lease expires at the end of October.

My partner Melanie wrote a piece on her blog last night that gets to the heart of why the Gladstone is so precious, so I don’t need to say any more about that. I just want to relive the memories that are most precious to me.

The time I saw Adam Beattie play A Song of 100 Years for the first time and was brought to tears – genuine big fat tears – by it.

Watching fleet-fingered guitar pickers like Oli Talkes and Chris Brambley and wanting to go home and get practicing right away, so I could do the things they do too.

Seeing the guys from Hoatzin transform themselves into one being with four brains and eight arms, playing a set of complex, intricate jazzy post-rock without making a single mistake or breaking sweat.

James McKean’s album launch show on Easter Sunday earlier this year, and the biblical rainstorm that followed it.

The carol-singing evenings at Christmas.

The pies, especially the Moo.

The late evenings spent hanging around outside the pub, chewing over the evening’s music, catching up with friends.

And finally, the Sunday evening in August where I played what may end up being my only solo show at The Gladstone. Where, because the billed headliner pulled out, I was given the opportunity to transform my favourite London venue into my own front room for the evening, and invite James and Mel on to the stage with me, to sing a few of their songs each after I’d played my set, and finally to relive the days when James and I used to sit at the kitchen table, swapping songs and playing covers, just for the joy of making music.

The joy of making music was what The Gladstone was all about, and I fervently hope some way will be found to save it.

000 small

Happenings

Hi everyone.

One of my many projects at the moment is kicking the songs I’ve been working on into finished shape and determining the tracklisting for the album I’ve been trying to make over the last couple of years.

I’ve finally determined a pool of 15 songs, which I’m now trying to cut down to a final 10, with the others to be used as B-sides for singles or EP tracks. It’s a slow process for me as I’ve never done an actual physical release before, and want to take the time to get it right, and I was inspired to really take the time to do it well after seeing how well my friend James McKean’s record No Peace for the Wicked, came out: it’s brilliantly sequenced, and the artwork is also amazing.

In the meantime, I continue to write, and help Melanie and Yo bring their own projects (a second EP and a new album respectively) to completion.

On Sunday 21 August I’ll be playing solo at The Gladstone Arms in Borough, London (probably my favourite venue in the city, so I’m thrilled about finally doing a solo show there), and on Sunday 18 September I’ll be playing the Acoustic Folk Highway night at the Harrison near King’s Cross.

So there’s lots going on as ever. If you’re interested in hearing some of the completed mixes for the album, you can find them in the embedded Soundcloud player below:

Live Recording

A few days ago I happened to listen to an old edition of the Mixerman Radio Show in which Ron Saint Germain talked about recording live jazz to two-track.

OK, some explanations first. Mixerman is the online alias of Eric Sarafin, an LA-based engineer and producer who got a high profile among people interested in recording for his Mixerman diaries, originally published on the internet in serial form. Sarafin set up an audio forum (The Womb) and began recording podcasts (which he called Mixerman Radio Shows) with some of his industry friends, some of whom used aliases (Slipperman, Aardvark) and some of whom didn’t (Bob Ohlsson, Ron Saint Germain).

The forum was a bit of a boys’ club, and it had its share of backbiting and general nonsense, but unlike the folks who hung out on Gearslutz, these guys all had solid track records as pros in the actual music industry, and some of them were a very big deal indeed (particularly Ohlsson and Saint Germain, who have had genuinely amazing careers).

I found this forum at a time when I was becoming obsessed with recording but had very little money, so I listened to every podcast and read every post to try to absorb the knowledge and techniques on offer. Slipperman (Tim Gilles), in particular, went out of his way to teach newbies, recording a series of podcasts in which he proved himself entertainingly foul-mouthed, hugely knowledgable about tracking and mixing heavy rock guitar and music in general, and in possession of a heart the size of New Jersey. The guy’s an absolute hero and a total inspiration.

So, back to Ron Saint Germain and his live jazz recorded to two-track.

This is recording of essentially the opposite sort to that which I described last time, with the endless tweaking and the mixes that are never quite done. Live to two-track means live to stereo tape (stereo tape has two channels, one that you hear out of the left speaker and one that you hear out of the right speaker). Since the invention of sound-on-sound recording, records have as a rule been recorded to multitrack tape, and then mixed down to stereo tape as the last step in the mixing process. Working this way, you can always remix if you decide tomorrow that, say, the vocal’s a little too loud. Collapsing the process by recording live to two-track, with no possibility of altering the balances, stereo-field placement or performances later, is for most musicians and engineers simply an obsolete way of working, as well as one that forces them to live with flaws in the end product that could easily be fixed if it had been recorded to multitrack and mixed down to stereo after.

Boy, did Saint Germain make it sound fun, though. And in my limited experience, it is fun. And hugely challenging. And massively rewarding when it goes well. It forces you to up your game, whether you’re placing the microphones or having them pointed at you – and I’ve a bit of experience at both. You can’t rely on punch-ins, edits, retakes or any other staple of the multitrack world to come to your rescue if you can’t play, and if the sounds you got when you placed your mics are phasey and indistinct, how do you think the recording’s going to sound?

Maybe I’m a masochist, but I think that’s great. In fact, I went through a phase last year where I tried to record all of my solo acoustic songs this way: partly to sharpen up again as a player so I could cut it in front of an audience after a few years of not really doing many gigs, and partly because I felt like my recorded vocals were hampered by self-consciousness and lack of confidence, and that recording live while playing guitar would help. In some respects it did; it forced me to be able to truly perform a song before recording it, which oftentimes isn’t necessary when you’re multitracking and not planning to ever play a song on stage.

I’m recording with Yo Zushi this weekend and have a hunch that the session will once again include some live recording: the band all in the room together, leakage and all; maybe with live vocals, maybe without. I’m looking forward to it.


Recorded live with two microphones last year

No Peace for the Wicked – James McKean

I’m looking at a stack of copies of James McKean’s new album, No Peace for the Wicked. I’ve got a dozen or so of them, shrink-wrapped, piled on my desk. This is a proud day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are, is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life?), you might have heard me mention James and this record before, most recently when he released the single I Long to Make Your Dreams Come True about a month ago.

James and I met at university, in 2000, in the kitchen (or maybe the corridor) of Goldsmid House. Now demolished to make way for a shiny new glass building on the corners of Oxford Street and North Audley Street*, opposite the big M&S on the corner, Goldsmid House was a concrete student hall owned by University College London, where James was taking law and I was reading English. We bonded over music, started having little jam sessions in each other’s rooms and one way or another have been been playing music together ever since. Back then it was every day or so, playing covers and each other’s songs on acoustic guitars**; nowadays it’s rarer, and more formal: gigs, rehearsals and recording sessions only.

James decided he wanted to make a solo album in, I guess, 2010 and we put it together over the course of a year. Where the River Runs Both Ways was the first record I ever engineered or produced, and it sounds like it, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and there was never much question about whether we’d do another. It was pretty much a given that we would.

Except in 2011, even before the launch gig for River, I’d started to feel just a little bit unwell. Heavy, tired, bloated. Over the next few months it got worse, until on 23 December, my 30th birthday, I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with heart failure. Again, if I have any regular readers, please feel free to skip. You know this already.

It didn’t look great. Doctors were talking about an LVAD (an artificial pump for patients in end-stage heart failure) and a transplant, but they stabilised me, monitored my condition for a couple of weeks and sent me home to see how things would go before deciding whether to put me on the transplant list.

I had been told it was extremely unlikely I’d ever be well enough to work again, and that no one could tell whether my condition would improve or deteriorate. I just had to be patient while the doctors worked out how to treat me, and spend the time working out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, however long it lasted. I was, penniless, unemployed, living with my father, and with a heart condition that had damn near killed me.

I decided to keep making music. It was all I had, really.

I started writing songs again within a week of being discharged (angry and confused songs, as you can imagine), but even at that point I didn’t know whether I’d ever be well enough to play drums again. I just hoped I would be. The idea of not playing drums was particularly hard to contemplate as I lay in my hospital bed, and I’m not even really a drummer – guitar is my real instrument. Didn’t matter. I wanted to still be able to play the drums.

I don’t know whether it was James or me who suggested he come and stay for a couple of days to work on some new songs, to give me something to do. But he came down about a month after I was discharged, in February 2012. Throwing caution to the wind, I set the drums up, sat behind them and played. At that session we began Silver City Bound, No Peace I Find, an unreleased track called Noah’s Dove and Will Sunbeams Find You. No Peace was later re-recorded from scratch. I had to go back and redo the drum tracks for Silver City Bound and Sunbeams. But I’d sat behind a drum kit and played. OK, I played badly, and OK, just doing a few takes wiped me out, but it was such a huge victory for me to do that. It meant I still had the freedom to make music and record my own stuff the way I love to do, during days that would otherwise be long and purposeless.

So that’s how No Peace for the Wicked started. It took James and me four years to complete. In that time, just about everything in our lives has changed. But this record has been there all the time, waiting for us to haul it over the finish line.

It is, if I may say so myself, a terrific piece of work: James has a huge catalogue of really strong songs, but he chose the perfect ones to include on this the album and sequenced them incredibly well. It really feels like an album, in the old-fashioned sense: like Dark Side of the Moon is an album, like Rumours is an album. I had the pleasure to mix it all, and I got to play on most of the tracks, whether guitar, bass, drums, piano or organ (or sometimes all of them). James pulled together a fabulous team of musicians to play on the record and be part of our ever-expanding team of players for live shows: Kurt Hamilton on pedal steel; James’s brother Dan on guitar and bass; all of the South London band Hoatzin (Kit Jolliffe on drums, Colin Somervell on double bass, Jim Willis on guitar and violin); Noura Sanatian on violin; and Zoe Carassik-Lord and Hana Zushi-Rhodes on backing vocals. These people have done amazing things on these songs, as have Ben Zushi-Rhodes, who mastered the record at Metopolis Studios, and Jon Clayton, who recorded some of the basic tracks at One Cat.

On Sunday evening (27 March), we’ll officially launch the album at the Gladstone Arms in Borough, which has been our home base since before we started Where the River Runs Both Ways, but the album is already on Bandcamp and I urge you to buy it. It’ll be the best £7 you spend in a while.

I’ve had the good fortune to record a lot of very good songs with some very good musicians, but this record means something to me even the best of those don’t. This record is the soundtrack to my recovery, and I’m so thankful to James for letting me be a part of it. I’m so very proud of it.

1James album

*Which means that, yes, I technically lived in Mayfair for a year. That’ll never happen again.
**James’s weapon of choice back then was the fondly recalled “dump guitar”, a battered old classical with a hole in it. Looked like Willie Nelson’s guitar. James actually did retrieve it from a municipal tip where he worked for a spell.

The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2015

This was mostly written last Sunday but wasn’t published at the time – halfway through writing it, I yawned, stretched and pulled a muscle in my shoulder, then spent the rest of the day lying on my back in a world of ow. I’m better now.

Three years ago today I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At the point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

I started this blog in spring 2013, so this is the third “Lay of the Land” post I’ve written. The first was a kind of round-up of all the changes that had happened in my life in the previous six months – starting a new job, moving to London, beginning a relationship with Mel – and how amazing it was to me that any of that had happened, given the place I’d been in. Last year’s was a very different piece, easily the angriest thing I’ve ever written on this blog. It was about a subject I care about very much (how the language we use around illness shapes the way we think about it, in a profoundly negative way). I haven’t changed my opinions on any of that stuff; indeed, I’ve seen some terrible, inexplicable things happen to good people this year. It’s not a comforting thought to us that a life-threatening illness could overtake any of us at any time, no matter how cleanly we live our lives, or how “strong” we think we are. But we must realise it, about ourselves and about others. It’s the only way we might develop empathy and a fair and just social policy. We sure don’t have one now, and as a nation we don’t vote as if we want one. I won’t get into that again now. I said it all last year and would just be repeating myself.

So 6 December 2015 – the third anniversary of that pacemaker procedure – finds me tired, but happy and looking to the future. I played a gig with James McKean last night, drumming at the Harrison Arms, and so I’m pretty shattered from having lugged a set of cymbals, a snare drum, and a kick pedal around all day. Which explains the tired, but I’ll be fine tomorrow. As for the future, let me tell you about that. First up, I remain healthy. I go for check-ups and scans and pacemaker tweaks at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and at a scan earlier this year the cardiac physiologist told me that according to their classification chart, my heart is now within the “normal” range; I’ve improved from “severely impaired”, through “moderately” and “mildly” impaired to normal. My next trip to St Thomas’s is in a week or so. Let’s see what they say.

In the last few months I’ve begun working full time at my copy-editing job. I’ve been there two and a half years now, and still enjoy it. Mel and I have been together for over two years and we continue to make plans for our future, and not just in terms of holidays and trips. I’m blessed with friends who understand and care about me, and who for reasons better known to themselves than to me seem to like having me around.

I continue writing, recording and playing, both on my own and with Mel, James and Yo. Mel released her first EP this year, Yo his third album. I did my usual jiggery-pokery on both. James’s second album is pencilled in for March (my work on it is done; it’s just mastering, artwork and manufacture to go now), and I’m looking to release a proper full-length CD album soon, too, which is a long-held ambition but not something I’ve ever done before. Nearly finished on the music, but then that too will need artwork and so on. I was hoping it’d be ready to come out in February, but it might be a few months yet.

That’s what’s going on with me. But that’s only a small part of a wider story. More importantly, the lives of my friends and family members continue to change and develop, mostly in good ways, too. Just one small, happy example: I’m now the uncle of a nephew as well as a niece.

No life is perfect. No world is perfect. This is not the best of all possible worlds. There are things that I would change if I could in my life and in the lives of those closest to me. But I look around at the people I know and see folks who are mostly happy, mostly fit and well, mostly getting quietly on with whatever lives they have found themselves in, mostly fairly content with those lives. And speaking for myself, I have everything to be thankful for, much to look forward to, and lots to be getting on with.

I’ll be back on Sunday.

Voice-&-guitar one-offs – is originality possible for singer-songwriters in 2015?

I’m very late to the party on Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, mainly because I felt like he was probably going to be talking about a lot of artists and genres about which I knew nothing, and to get much out of the book I was going to have to get familiar with swathes of new (to me) music. As it turns out, I enjoyed it hugely. I was familiar enough with some of the artists to get the general point, and a bit of listening to some key tracks here and there filled in enough of the blanks for me when Reynolds was discussing stuff I didn’t know.

The whole idea of newness in art (music especially, but art generally) is one that’s occupied my mind a lot down the years. If you’ve read many of the pieces on this blog you’ll know that there are styles and eras I’m fonder of than others, and that I’m particularly interested in alt.rock from the 1980s and 1990s, and 1970s singer-songwriter stuff (some, like Paul Simon, I heard in my young childhood, but much of which I discovered as an adult).

This music, it hardly needs saying, is not new. Not on the level of sonics, not on the level of song structure, not harmonically, arrangementally, or any other way you care to mention. And yet, when I listen to, say, Judee Sill, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell or David Crosby I hear newness. At any rate, I hear uniqueness – I hear things that I’ve not heard in the music of any other songwriter, and I hear melodic, harmonic and lyrical ideas that seem to me could only have had one author. I don’t believe any other songwriter than Sill could have written Jesus Was a Cross Maker or The Donor. Only Crosby could have written Where Will I Be or The Lee Shore.

I’ve no grand rebuttal to Reynolds’s theories, but I’m thinking a lot about how we account for this kind of originality within his conception of pop culture, where newness is most often seen as being a result of either technological progress, or the bringing together of genres that previously seemed impervious to synthesis with others and so on. This sort of uniqueness, newness, originality, call it what you will, comes from an individual’s (or group’s, if we’re talking about a band) ability to resist the lure of pastiche, to express themselves through a given medium, whether it’s a guitar, a piano, a laptop or a sampler), and to do so in a way that’s expressive of their own, what, emotions? Personality? Sensibility? All three?

I don’t know. Someone like my friend Yo Zushi might say that none of this has a bearing on the quality of the music, that everyone simply takes consciously or unconsciously from their influences and that their filtering and reuse of these influences constitutes their originality). All I know is that when I listen to, say, Joni Mitchell or Kurt Cobain (to take an example from the era of rock that’s marked me most heavily) I hear musical one-offs, people whose work could not be by anyone else*, and when I listen to, say, Jackson Browne or Dave Grohl, I don’t. It’s not that Mitchell’s and Cobain’s work is always or in any fundamental way better than that of those other artists, but it is their own in a way that I think can be felt by any halfway sensitive listener.

For someone who’s a pop fan and also writes voice-and-guitar songs, this is a pretty interesting topic. It’s something I’m going to keep chewing over.

Joni-Mitchell
Joni

*Both artists did have an imitative phase. All artists do. I’m talking about the work they did when they reached maturity with Blue and Nevermind respectively.

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Night Walker – Yumi Matsutoya

Yumi Matsutoya (born Yumi Arai, and known to her fans as Yuming) has been one of the biggest stars of Japanese pop music for forty years, having released her first single in 1972, aged 18. She’s sold 42 million records and was the first artist to notch up two million sales in Japan for an album. She continues to have hits, and to write them for other artists. Compare that to the commercial fortunes of her western equivalents (even artistic and one-time commercial giants like Joni Mitchell and Carole King) in the same span of time and the scale of those achievements becomes clear.

I first heard this song when reading a thread on the I Love Music message board. Someone posted asking for recommendations for songs by jazz-inflected singer-songwriters; I guess they were thinking of stuff in the vein of Paul Simon’s late-seventies work. I’d never heard of Yumi Matsutoya, but I was intrigued to listen to a Japanese take on a Western form. It’s a very close take, too, but I’m not sure how the ILM poster heard this and thought, “Hmm, yes, jazzy”. Sophisticated, though, I’d have agreed with. The use of the orchestra suggest the influence of Barry Gibbs’s production work on Barbra Streisand’s Guilty, the steady mid-tempo rhythm suggests Fleetwood Mac (as does the use of the heartbeat kick drum pattern made ubiquitous by Fleetwood’s use of it on Dreams), there’s a bit of Boz Scaggs in there in the electric piano and soul-derived guitar licks – everything about it signified LA around 1979. That is to say, it was a live-and-in-the-wild Japanese take on yacht rock. It’s a startlingly accurate take on a form of pop music that was just beginning to recede in popularity at the song’s parent album, Reincarnation, was released. In 1983, smoothness – as exemplified by Scaggs, Kenny Loggins (pre-Footloose and post-Messina), Michael McDonald and so on – was out and the old guard were having to modernise to retain their careers as hitmakers. Few managed the transition in the US or UK as well as Matsutoya did in Japan. For all their longevity, Scaggs and McDonald haven’t sold 42 million albums.

The sound of Matsutoya’s voice is the central appeal of this for me, as it must be when the language barrier prevents me understanding what she sings. I played the song to my friend Yo Zushi one evening after a recording session, and he confirmed something I’d read about her online, that her understated and unshowy voice is rather unusual for a Japanese female singer, among whom it’s more usual to adopt a cutesy, coquettish tone or emote more stridently. From some fishing around on youtube, it seems that the production of her records tended to shift with the times (perhaps lagging slightly behind fashions in US and UK record making, as we have observed of Night Walker). A shame, since her songs and voice were matched well with this type of arrangement. It’s a consciously adult sound and probably would not have sold many records after the mid-eighties, but reaching too far outside their comfort zones in a bid to stay relevant rarely did veteran artists any favours. Hopefully she never tried anything too desperate and dropped the pilot or charmed that snake.