August 2020 Grapevine

Summer is in full swing. Consoling myself for having to cancel our September National Parks trip (very depressing; once again, thanks Covid) by trying to delve deeper in to some different music. We’re re-watching Ken Burns great country music documentary. If you’re in to music and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You may not think you’re in to ‘country’ music, but if you watch the doc you’ll find so many influences for every type of music that has followed. It also shows the progression of how music recording developed. Early recording was live, raw, and, to me, the most emotional and ‘real’. Like all other genres, the recording lost me a little when all the edges were smoothed out and became more ‘corporate product’. But the ‘good stuff’ was always lurking in the background and all you have to do to find it is look a little deeper. This concept can really be applied to most genres of music. Let’s look a little deeper in to our lineup for this month.

First Up: Tall Tall Trees – ‘A Wave Of Golden Things’

As discussed in previous Grapevines, there’s many ways a song can touch you. The first thing that hits me in this song is the mood. The song strikes me emotionally before I even start to listen to the various instruments and production. I’m a sucker for melancholy. And melancholy does not necessarily mean ‘sad’. It’s a combination of lyrics, melody, music and delivery. If you’re a song writer, you find that’s not easy to do. Some beautiful lyric lines – “cuz you could warm the darkest hue the sun it came and knelt for you”. Then you have to hit the right melody notes. The music perfectly compliments the vocals. Sparse percussion topped with piano and keyboard. The bass line (sometimes played on the piano) anchors the song and provides a deep bottom end. Some nice background effects and vocals add mood. The cherry on top is a beautiful video which plays perfectly with the song. Watching the video helps you travel the path the song lays out, starting dark and lonely and ending up with a feeling of hope, even happiness.

Next Up: Lettuce – ‘House Of Lett’

So let’s take a listen to something completely different from our first tune. Lettuce is a funk band that originally formed in 1992. They started playing together after meeting while at the Berklee College of Music. Musically you can really hear their influences – 60’s, 70’s and 80’s funk/jazz bands. I’ve always had a love for this genre of music and it lead to me taking up bass guitar in the 80’s. There’s nothing better than finding the pocket playing bass on a good funk groove. If you break the song down and listen to all the separate instruments you can tell how technically accomplished all the members of this band are. To start try to hone in on just the drums and bass. This is the foundation of the song and allows the other musicians to break out individually on top of their groove. Great bass tone – very easy to pick out but not too ‘poppy’ or overpowering. The horns carry most of the melodic feel of the song. As with most good funk tunes, the song will break down to it’s simplest parts and build back up again. As with most good funk bands, Lettuce knows the importance of changes in dynamics during a song. I may be adding this album to my ‘bass play along’ collection.

Finally: The Heavy Eyes – ‘Late Night’

Let’s make one more hard turn for our final song. A little bit of sludge/stoner rock to complete our trio. There’s a number of things I like about ‘Late Night’. The mix is really well done to accentuate the different instruments. It starts with simple background percussion and a fuzzy, fuzzy guitar part. The interesting part of the mix is that they place this first fuzz guitar strictly in the left channel. Crisp drums are placed in the center with a second fuzz guitar coming in and out of the mix at different parts in the right channel. Another part of the mix I like is that the vocals are clear and out front where many bands recording this style of music will bury the vocals in the mix and drown them in reverb. Something that separates this song from others in the genre is the amount of open space they allow in the mix. I think the feel of open space makes each part more powerful when it enters the mix. This concept of dynamics is something they have in common with the funk of Lettuce. It shows how important some open space in both the writing of a song and in the recording.

Retro: R.E.M. – ‘Pilgrimage’

This song is from R.E.M.’s first album ‘Murmur’. I’ve listened to this album a few times recently and I’m always amazed at the depth of song writing for a band’s first album. There’s not a bad cut on it and there are a number of songs that are absolutely stunning. The album had the great first single ‘Radio Free Europe’. ‘Pilgrimage’ was the second cut and just blew me away. The song structure and mix are remarkable, especially for a band just starting out. It starts with the quiet background intro in to a kick drum driven guitar and bass riff. The build to the chorus and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. The chorus contains background ‘ahhhs’ as well the call and response harmonies. Dynamics play a big part in this song too. Change in dynamics may well be the theme for this month. The build to the chorus brings chills. Not many bands pull this off. R.E.M. is one of the few bands that lived up to the promise of their first album and maintained this quality of song writing throughout their career.

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