October 2021 Grapevine

October is a month in eastern Pa where we often spend an inordinate amount of time living under gray skies. Early fall can be like that around here. Weather like that can suck the inspiration right out of you. Sometimes we get lucky and have a relatively sunny season. If not, you have to look for and take your inspiration where you can find it. My first bit of luck was being able to travel out of the area and spend time hiking in amazingly beautiful places. Now I’m trying to get inspiration from getting back to work on making music and finding new music to listen to. I think we have a nice little variety pack of tunes this month that gave me some new ideas and hopefully will provide you with something you enjoy or a band you might want to take a deeper dive in to exploring.

First Up: Shannon And The Clams – ‘Midnight Wine’

This song is a real interesting mix of styles and sounds. The foundation of the song is held down by the rhythm section. The drums and bass guitar keep a relatively simple beat and are pretty much down the center of the mix. This allows the rest of the instruments and vocals to go off on tangents whenever needed. One interesting add is the main beat of the snare drum is filled out most of the time by a tambourine. This gives the snare an extra bit of high end snap and allows it to be a prominent time keeper in the mix without actually making it louder. I’ve talked about micing the snare from below to get the extra snare ‘snap’ and this mix delivers the same results. The keyboard and guitar sounds are placed in the sides of the mix. During the vocals they keep a quieter presence, all fuzzed out and not very distinct, but they add little flourishes here and there to keep it interesting without having a large amount of chord changes. When the instruments are brought to the front, it’s a psychedelic buzzfest. I think the vocals are great. The two separate vocals are mixed together so tightly it actually sounds like a single vocal. Your singers have to have a very complimentary sound to pull this off and they certainly do that here. They also add a great Americana sounding twang to the tune which fits the lyrics perfectly.

Next Up: The Felice Bothers – ‘To Do List’

The thing I like most about this song is how the overall makeup of the song at first tricked me in to enjoying it at one level: a great sounding Americana/Country flow. The instruments have a nice clean mix – crisp drums, foundational bass, clean piano and acoustic guitar filling in the available space. The vocals are out front in the mix. The vocal style fits the feel and the clean vocal recording and placement puts them in front. After hearing it the first time through I listened to it a second time. That’s when I started to pay more attention to the lyrics. It is, as the title suggests, a ‘to do’ list. But it’s a hilariously odd to do list, where the strangest words are used to create rhymes . Just in the beginning we get ‘change all the bloody gauze’, ‘buy a spinach colored dinner jacket’ and ‘defy all natural laws’. These observations are mixed in with some more aspirational ideas like ‘bring flowers to the sick’ and ‘find out what’s killing the bees’. The back and forth between altruistic ideas and whacky ones keeps the song in a great state of imbalance and really makes you pay attention to what is being sung. It’s neat trick if you think about how many songs you like where you’re not actually sure what the full lyrics are. Just to add a little spice they throw in a little off kilter lead guitar at the 2:30 mark and from 3:30 to the end. The off kilter guitar is a great match for the lyrics.

Finally: Sault – ‘London Gangs’

We’re ending with something completely different from the first two songs. ‘London Gangs’ by Sault takes me back to the period of post-punk dance tunes. I could definitely see this being played in a dark, basement dance club at high volume. It shows how much can be done with a simple repetitive rhythm core. It’s mostly a simple clean drum track and an equally simple fuzzed out bass track. They add in a heavily reverbed and delayed sung/spoken vocal. It’s not really higher in the mix than the instruments, but it still stands out because the instrumentation is so spare. There’s some little side sound add ins like guitar or vocals made to sound like an instrument. Every once in a while you’ll have a total beat drop out which reinforces the beat when it comes back in. The interesting part is: it sounds so simple. It should be easy to throw together. But it isn’t (trust me, I’ve tried). It takes just the right combination of rhythms, instrumentation and sonic qualities to make it work. Therein lies the challenge and the fun.

Retro: Steely Dan – ‘Black Friday’

For me there’s never a bad time to throw in a little Steely Dan as the ‘Retro’ pick. I could probably do it almost every month and not come up with a song I didn’t really like. This song is from the 1975 album ‘Katy Lied’. I came across it again in a mix of tunes I was listening to online and actually played it a couple of times in a row. I know the band isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I liked their mix of jazz/rock from the first album on. Another big draw for me was the quality of the guitar players they used and the amazing riffs and solos these players created. This solo is actually done by Walter Becker, one half of the true Steely Dan band duo. He was nominally listed as their bass player in the beginning, but the duo was really about composition and arrangement more than just their presence as players. And who couldn’t love a fun song about crashing the stock market?

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