Category: Music Review

July 2021 Grapevine

July has arrived with the summer heat melting everything in sight. Live music has begun to open up which means more bands will begin to get an opportunity to tour the music they have been recording. As I read through record reviews this month I really took note of some interesting trends that happened to recorded music over the past year. The pandemic was a huge topic of many songs that were written, in some cases it became the theme of whole albums. A lot of artists also had to change their recording styles, figuring out how to work together as a band while not being able to be in a studio at the same time. This was especially true of bands where all the musicians were not living in the same city. That had a big effect on the way their music sounded and resulted in new styles and experiments for the artists. Another trend was musicians in bands working on solo projects. Since the entire band could not be together to record, individuals put out songs that they had been working on or had demoed that did not fit in to the fabric of the band as a group. This made for some interesting new material being released. The advent of easy home recording has certainly aided this trend as you can get a decent recording on a low home budget. Studios will remain a higher level option due to the quality of mics, preamps, mixing boards, monitors, etc that are available (of course I’m a bit biased on this having a studio, but it really is true). Well, on to our selections.

First Up: Carter Tanton – ‘Steep Angles’

We’re going to start out with something simple, slow and moody. I do enjoy full band hard driving tracks, but there’s something about a simple guitar (or any single instrument) and vocal track that can really touch your soul. Here we have two guitars, vocals and harmonica. The guitars are blended well and if you don’t listen very carefully it sounds as if only one guitar is being played. When I break these songs down for review I always listen to them on headphones. When you do this you can pick out the two instruments as they are slightly panned to the left and right channels. Technically, the more you pan them the easier it is to hear the difference, but the object here was to have the guitars heard as a blended single entity. The vocals have a real nice tone and EQ. With spare instrumentation like this the layers of reverb pull all the instruments together. The harmonica maintains the melancholy tone of the song, adding a melodic line that mirrors yet is different from the vocals. You can hear early Neil Young influences in the sound, without it being an out and out identical copy. Beautiful mood music as it can match the mood you’re in or bring you to that sad, open prairie space.

Next Up: Riley Downing – ‘Good To See Ya’

Let’s move in to blues territory. Riley Downing offers a nice blend of traditional blues along with some New Orleans flavor on ‘Good To See Ya’. The song follows the basics of a traditional blues song as far as the chord progressions and tone. The guitar has just the right amount of distortion, adding some ‘dirt’ without being over fuzz toned. If you listen you’ll hear the occasional second guitar playing with a good bit of digital delay added to draw out the note and move you in to the next part of the song. It works as a nice transition. The vocals fit nicely in to the blues feel, low and simple with just the right amount of expression. What set this song apart from a lot of blues songs for me is the addition of accordion and New Orleans flavored organ sounds mixed in. This background does just enough to pull the song out of a totally standard blues feel. There’s some nice simple guitar and organ work during the break. The drums do a cool touch at the end of that brake where they’re layered with extra reverb as well as what sounds like hand claps added. When you’re playing blues, which really can be very standard, it’s the extra touches like this and the accordion background that can make the difference. Also note the back and forth pull between guitar and organ gives the song a nice unbalanced feel. A very well put together blues tune.

Finally: Reigning Sound – ‘I Don’t Need That Kind Of Lovin’

Let’s finish up with some straight ahead rock. Start the song with some great distorted guitar with a cool lead riff. Add in vocals and stir. The guitars and vocals are put out front in the mix. The drums and the bass are a bit in the background. There is a doubling harmony for the vocals in the chorus and handclaps added to the drums. After the second chorus there is break that has a short held chord slowdown with a change in the vocal tone. It revs back up with guitar lead before returning to the vocal. At 2:04, bang, the song is over. Short, sweet, hard hitting rock tune. Seems like a great song to hear live. This style goes back to the earliest rock songs when the tunes were short and to the point. Over time most songs got longer and a bit more complex. I think there’s still plenty of room for the great two minute rock blast. Good old rock n roll fun.

Retro: Rod Stewart – ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’

This song is from Rod Stewart’s third album of the same name. There’s so much I like about this song and it typifies many of the reasons I still get goosebumps listening to songs from this era. The biggest overall reason I love this style song is the loose feel of the arrangement and playing. It’s something I think is sorely missing from music of today – especially music that is more popular and ‘commercial’. Much of the musical backing is from The Faces, the band that Stewart had begun his career rise with. The song alternates between vocals and guitar riffs, both of which maintain that amazing loose blast. We also have some solos from a great blues bar room riff on piano. There’s sections where the instrumentation becomes more minimal and then fires back up again. The song is played like a journey which mirrors the fact that the lyrics really do tell a front to back story. It starts with a beautiful arpeggiated guitar part that is an intro to set up the rest of the song. The guitar has a great ring, a wonderful, unprocessed guitar sound before a held chord heralds the beginning of the vocals. All the parts from vocal, guitar, drums, piano and bass can be heard clearly. The stereo field placement adds to the ability to hear everything clearly with guitars panned hard left and right for full effect. There’s a slow down break at around the 3:30 mark of the song. Props to back up vocalist Maggie Bell for the added vocals in this section and the end of the song where her vocals are given as much heft as Stewart’s. The song ends with a minute plus long run out. The song arrangement is so well done you don’t realize it’s a six minute long song. I never get tired of hearing this song. Classic.

Checking In With The Reverend

It’s been a while since we checked in to see what’s happening with one of our favorites, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. The band has always put out stellar work whether it’s audio, video or live music. I’m including two videos that will give you an example of all three areas. We’ll start with the recent video for ‘Too Cool To Dance’. As always, the playing is great. Rev’s still finger picking the hell out of his guitar. The recording sound is a bit cleaner and smoother than some of his early work, but just as fierce. And the video maintains the great humor of his other videos. The band’s vibe remains ‘let’s have fun and not take ourselves too seriously’. They always bring the same joy to their live shows.

The next video is from a recording of the Elmore James classic ‘Shake Your Money Maker’. The band recorded this live in Sun Studios with Dom Flemons, the legendary Steve Cropper and bassist Scot Sutherland. So many cool things going on. The video was made on an iPhone and synced with the live recording. Check out the classic equipment used in the recording. We recently talked about live studio recording in a post. This video is an amazing example of nailing a take. I’m not going to over analyze. Just sit back and enjoy it!

June 2021 Grapevine

Amazing. We’re almost in to the second half of the year. 2020 dragged on like watching an endless horror flick during a long drinking bender. I had high hopes that 2021 would end up being the great release and return to total normality. Silly me. Yes, things have gotten better. But this year still feels like a bad hangover from last year in many ways. I don’t think any of us wanted to give up another year just trying to return to ‘normal’. But anything that is worthwhile takes some work. So I’m trying to work on the good old ‘positive attitude’ and just ‘keep on truckin’ as the old hippie saying goes. Let’s take a deep breath, sit back, and listen to some tunes and see what we can come up with for positive attitude. We just finished re-watching Ken Burns’ great ‘Country Music’ documentary. Every time I watch it I pick up some new inspiration and ideas for songs. Hearing how great songs were conceived and constructed really helps to fire up the old brain synapses. And the wonderful simplicity of early country songs shows what’s really important when you’re writing. They often referred to country music as “three chords and a great story”. With the best songs the human connection always overwhelms any ‘simplicity’.

First Up: Bluegrass Jam – ‘Where The Wild River Rolls’

Let’s start with Bluegrass Jam. First, since we were talking about country and bluegrass music this is a great example. I really like the video because it gives you a great picture of live recording technique. In the studio, I would always give musicians who wanted to record ‘live’ the pros and cons. And truthfully, recording individual parts as overdubs is what I would usually recommend. One of the main reasons is that if one person makes a mistake like an incorrect chord change, in a live setting the entire group will have to re-record the track. Not all situations lend themselves to live recording. If you’re playing through amps with a live drum kit, the bleed through in to microphones can cause some tracks to overwhelm other tracks. The bluegrass instrumental set up we see in this video lends itself much better to a live recording. To do this you have to learn some ‘mic technique’. You’ll see someone step up towards the mic during a solo or back away when necessary. You also have to be aware of how hard you’re playing to keep a good mix and bring different instruments to the front of the sound at different times. Distance is important – each instrument projects sound differently. Banjos really project so you’ll stand a little further away. The three mic setup is nice – real old school recording had everyone work around one mic. Finally, I like the song a lot, it has a wonderful feel; the players all do a great job on their instruments and the idea of getting a recording like this live in a living room is totally awesome.

Next Up: Jane Weaver – ‘The Revolution Of Super Visions’

For our second tune this month we’ll move along to the wonderful world of thumping bass and snappy drums that highlight Jane Weaver’s ‘The Revolution Of Super Visions’. One of the basic needs of a great funk song is a stellar drum track. It doesn’t have to be complex – in some ways complex would totally defeat the purpose. The drums are placed relatively high in the mix, and rely on the snare, high hat and kick to keep the beat going. Although the beat sounds simple, getting that groovy hi hat is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes for drums keeping that slinky sound is much more difficult than blasting all over the kit. The verses keep the music a little more minimalist. There’s a clean guitar playing little riffs at the high end of the scale, a pretty standard feel for a funk based tune. You need that sound to cut through because a lot of funk has a heavy bass bottom end. In this song the bass is joined by buzzy synth sounds that act as a second bass feel. Weaver keeps her vocals high and airy, floating on top of the music. I like the fact that you can easily pick up the lyrics as the song is delivering a story and a message. When we hit the chorus the music fills in. Several more keyboards are added so the chorus really hits home. You need changes in dynamics to keep a dance song interesting and that is often created by beefing up the amount of instrumentation or vocals in the choruses. The little touches in the song that you may not notice if you don’t listen carefully also make a difference. Listen for the background vocals during the verses echoing the main vocal as well as more short riffs by bass and synth. Turn it on up and dance!

Finally: Alabama Slim – ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’

For our final track let’s venture in to a dark, smoky lounge and feel some old time blues boogie. Alabama Slim has been working the blues for quite a while. At 82 he’s still dropping great blues albums. He just put out a new album, The Parlor, in 2021. I decided to grab this song for the great ‘boogie blues’ feel it has. This blues style has been around quite a while and many great rock bands have taken this style and ran with it over the years (think early ZZ Top, ‘La Grange’ era). In this type of song the guitar is king. It’s backed by real simple percussion. The vocals are spoken as much as sung. A key to playing this on guitar is that it leans on the rhythm you do with your right hand as much as the melodic notes you’ll hit with your left hand (yes, yes, reverse that if you’re a left handed guitar player). You can pick up little riffs that repeat throughout the song. Pinpoint accuracy on notes is not real important. It’s all about the feel. He probably doesn’t play this song exactly the same each time he plays it. For me, that’s just another point that makes it fun and interesting. Turn it up, stomp your feet and feel it in your bones.

Retro: James Gang – ‘Funk #49’

What song to pick for the monthly ‘retro’ selection comes to me in many different ways. Sometimes I try to pick something a little more obscure that I think should of been more well known. Sometimes I cruise through my album collection and think wow, haven’t heard this in a while. Sometimes when I’m picking the new songs they trigger ideas of older songs. When I was listening to Alabama Slim, I thought, hey, haven’t heard ‘Funk #49’ in a while. A lot of people are familiar with Joe Walsh through hearing his solo work or work with the Eagles. I first heard him playing with the James Gang. ‘Funk #49’ is such a fun guitar song. The song’s initial guitar riff alone is worth a listen. Great string bends and a sloppy little riff start the tune with rest of the band dropping in perfectly. It also has one of the coolest middle breaks you’ll ever hear. The song is first stripped down to just drums and vocal shouts and hoots. Then that great, bendy initial riff hits again before the entire band comes back in. Absolute classic.

A Return To Live Music – It’s Been A Long Wait

I finally got to see a live band last Saturday night. We went with friends to see The Verve Pipe at Levitt Pavilion which is a local outdoor venue. It was the first time I’ve been to see a live band in over a year. It’s been so long I almost forgot how much fun it is and how much seeing live music adds to your life and elevates your attitude and sense of happiness. It was one of the coldest May 29ths on record around here and we were in a misty drizzle. Shows are still social distancing so it wasn’t very crowded (OK – I sorta like that part). None of the conditions affected how great it was to see a show. It felt like a return to real life.

The sound, performance and music were awesome. The band put on a great show. Kudos to the band for going all out – it’s got to be a bit more difficult playing to a smaller crowd on a cold, wet evening. They even added some cool cover songs to their set. Highly recommend seeing The Verve Pipe if you have a chance.

I’m really hoping our return to some form of normality (at least as far as live music goes) continues. You sometimes forgot how much connecting with a band and their music in a live setting adds to your life. It can lift you up and pull you through a full range of emotions. I know it does the same for a band when you play a live show. We’ve been in a period of darkness. Let’s all cross our fingers that we’re finally heading back to the light.

More Change, Growth and Musical Direction

In a previous post about change and growth of a band we discussed the career of Talking Heads. I thought it would be interesting to look at another example of someone who has exhibited a great deal of change during their career. This time we’re going to go through some of the music of Beck. There is one big difference between those artists right from the beginning. That difference is working in a band with other musicians versus working as a solo artist. Beck, as a solo artist, worked with whoever he felt like collaborating with from album to album, even song to song. There’s a lot of freedom in working that way. First, you are really the final (maybe only) person who decides what your songs will sound like. Second, without the necessity of working in a band where you’re trying to keep everyone engaged and happy you can pretty much record any style you want. You are also able to bring in musicians who have a vast array of influences and abilities. The ‘down side’, if you want to call it that, is that all the work and creative idea construction falls solely on you. You can pick ideas from a variety of collaborators, but in the end, it’s your name and reputation on the line every time you put out music. You definitely have to have a strong sense of self to work in this fashion.

Beck had been performing as a solo artist beginning in his teenage years. In some ways he lived the life of a busker, travelling between the coasts and becoming involved in various folk and conceptual art scenes that interested him. His performances could be ‘eventful’ as he would make up songs on the spot if the audience wasn’t paying attention. Or wear strange costumes and set his guitar on fire. Again, being a solo artist allows you to take any chance you want. You’re not affecting the careers or lives of the other musicians who may also be close friends.

Although he released and handed out cassettes of his music (later made in to albums after he became successful) ‘Loser’ was the flash point that began his career in earnest. An amazing aggregation of folk, hip hop and everything in between it was not expected to be a hit, but the public really makes this decision for you. Add in a crazy, cut and paste video and the world was introduced to Beck. I’m not sure how many people haven’t seen this video, but the freewheeling joy of it amazes me to this day. In the long run, it became the anchor of his first album, ‘Mellow Gold’. In case you’re wondering about the first line of the chorus, ‘Soy un perdedor’ literally means ‘I’m a Loser’ in Spanish.

Beck did release another album called ‘One Foot In The Grave’ before his next major album, ‘Odelay’. ‘Odelay’ sits in my album collection as one of my favorite albums of all time. It had several ‘hit’ songs, but the album sticks with me as I always listen to it front to back, there’s not a song that I would think of skipping through. Musically, what category does it really fit in to? I’m picking ‘Devil’s Haircut’ as the song from this album. There’s great sounding drums, a bass part that has a riff that holds everything together and sits as the main theme that the other music works around or copies. A lot of the rest is studio sampling magic. It almost sounds as if random sounds are thrown in. But they’re not random. Try it some time – fitting in the right sound at the right time is an art. Then there’s the lyrics, strange phrases that act as images floating in your head. Do they have an overall meaning? Maybe – whatever you want.

After the studio production heavy ‘Odelay’, Beck put out a quick album titled ‘Mutations’. It was meant to be the opposite of the production style of ‘Odelay’, more live recording of the players. This was not an album that ever became a big public recording. I think that this again is a benefit of being solo versus being in a band. When you take chances it’s all on you, you don’t have to worry about how decisions could affect the other band members. The song ‘Cold Brains’ feels like psychedelic folk, much more like a full formal band.

After ‘Mutations’, Beck released ‘Midnite Vultures’. In some ways this returns to the studio production feel of ‘Odelay’ except I always felt there was a whole lot more funk going on. The song I’m choosing from this album is ‘Peaches And Cream’. It always reminds me of a somewhat warped mirror version of a Prince song, right down to the falsetto delivery of the vocals. Just when you think you can grab on to it as a straight forward funk song, there’s a noise guitar or odd keyboard/sound sample to throw a monkey wrench in to the flow. Even though it feels like a trip back towards ‘Odelay’, it still takes a lot of steps in to new territory throughout the album.

‘Midnite Vultures’ was followed by a very different style of music on the album ‘Sea Change’. The tracks are anchored by acoustic guitar and relatively straight forward lyrics. For an artist who had attained his level of success, this could be a big risk. Beck had built a brand on strange, funky studio experiments. Breaking this down to acoustic songs with more personal lyrics was a risk. ‘Lost Cause’ is acoustic guitar, simple hi hat drums and some string sounds in the background. It definitely centers on the vocals and lyrics. Where most of his previous work had been upbeat and odd, ‘Lost Cause’ and the other songs on ‘Sea Change’ had that feeling of sadness and melancholy. This type of change is where you find the true genius of the best artists as Beck pulled off this change and still delivered songs that could touch people emotionally.

Beck’s next album, ‘Guero’, returned to the style exhibited on ‘Odelay’. There’s a lot of studio production work and sampling. He also worked with a variety of producers when putting the album together. Our selection for this album ‘E-Pro’ has a lot of parts that grab me. It certainly indulges my love of cracking, fuzzed out guitar. The drum beat drives everything as you never feel a let down when the song moves just to the drum beat and vocals. Again, if you listen to all the parts it seems like it would be simple to put a song like this together especially where there’s just drums and vocals. One sign of genius to me is taking something that’s actually pretty difficult and making it look simple. I also really like the video for the song. The movement between animation and reality is in constant motion, just like the song.

The next album was titled ‘The Information’. The song I picked from this album is titled ‘Think I’m In Love’. To me it sounds like a more straight forward indie rock style song. As always, you can certainly tell it’s Beck by the little flourishes that are thrown in throughout the song as well as his distinctive vocals. One thing I’ve always liked in Beck’s music is his elevation of bass in his songs to where it is often the big rhythmic and/or melodic hook. There’s a really nice break in the middle of the song which adds acoustic guitars as well as keyboards/strings. He combines many things he does well here, keeping a danceable beat moving along with vocals that act as another rhythm part. At this point in his career he had a large library of prior styles and ideas to choose from.

On the album ‘Modern Guilt’, Beck continued to mine the vast array of different styles he had previously used. ‘Chemtrails’ fits in to the neo-psychedelia mold. As I’ve gone through his albums for this post I’m amazed at the variety of styles that I usually touch in the Grapevine series that he hits in his albums. All of his music, while having one foot in a variety of styles depending on the song tend to keep a piece of his own unique vision in them as well. One of ‘Chemtrails’ stand outs is the great live drums in the song. It also feels like the recording is a full band playing live.

For the album ‘Morning Phase’ we return to more acoustic, introspective song writing. ‘Blue Moon’ has acoustic guitar and piano built in to a more standard song style. Lots of reverb on the vocals and really nice backing vocals fill in much of the space. With an amazing encyclopedia of styles and songs at his fingertips, Beck continues to try any type of music that suits his fancy at the time. It’s really unusual for any artist to be able to put out music that fits his current mood and still remain successful both commercially and artistically. He’s released two albums since ‘Morning Phase’, ‘Colors’ and ‘Hyperspace’. For all his success, I think he’s still underappreciated for the wide range of remarkable material he’s released from ‘Loser’ in 1994 to the present day. That’s a long time to be able to continually change, experiment and grow as an artist. Hopefully He’ll continue for many more years.

May 2021 Grapevine

Spring has officially arrived. Flowers are blooming, Temperatures are rising. Trees are green. The pollen from the trees is so thick it’s like walking through fog……..well, that last part isn’t great but we need to accept the bad with the good. So let’s move on to the tunes. Listening to new music is always good. This month we’re going to start out by comparing two selections of music. What we see is that good music can be found in songs that have either a small amount of instrumentation or a large amount. Another comparison between the songs is the length. Some people like their music in short, easy to digest nuggets. Other people like the journey and changes that come with an extended piece of music. I’m firmly in both camps. As usual, I feel if you put limits on what you’re going to listen to, you end up missing some amazing songs.

Let’s start out with the ‘macro’…

First Up: Squid – ‘Narrator’

Stylistically Squid would fall in to what most people term ‘post-punk’ music. You can see their basic instrumentation in the video. Two guitars, bass, keyboard, drums, vocals. As you progress through the song you will also hear a number of samples as well as a second vocal (featured player Martha Skye Murphy). The first part of the song is pretty classic post-punk. Short bursts of notes from the the melodic instruments. Very angular guitar lines instead of held chords. The bass and the keyboards follow suit. As the lines clash you pick up some dissonance between the instruments. The vocals work the same way. Not a whole lot of melody to the vocal lines. A lot of the impact of the vocals is rhythmic. The drums keep the steady beat that the other pieces work around. Fans of eighties bands like Gang Of Four will find this familiar. By now you may have looked at the length of the song. 8:35????? Unfortunately a lot of people will see that length and bail. But the point of the song is the journey. As you get to the halfway mark the song goes through a breakdown in to less instrumentation. The remainder of the song builds to a climax using repetition, noise and ambiance. This song is definitely a journey. Stick with it, you’ll pick up different things in the background every time you listen. It feels like you’ve finished reading a story when it’s done. A great video mirrors the music.

Next Up: Old Leatherstocking – ‘Death And The Lady’

If we’re looking for the opposite of the style we heard in the first song, you’ll find it in Old Leatherstocking. A simple, traditionally Appalachian banjo and vocal song. The focus in a song like ‘Death And The Lady’ is it’s presentation and simplicity. This is how a lot of music really began. You’ll often hear a song like this presented as just vocals, without any instrumental backing at all. The banjo mirrors the vocal line, driving home the dark tale being told. This song is played using a two fingered banjo technique, not the three finger ‘Scruggs’ style banjo most people are used to hearing in Bluegrass music. Again, the banjo here is used to double up the vocal melody as compared to being a featured melody and rhythm line in it’s own right. The power behind such a simple presentation is amazing. It brings the chills and conjures up a lonely walk through a graveyard at night (put on headphones and try that sometime – I find it inspiring). The video perfectly fits the song. A single static shot of the performance. Death singing a tune. The polar opposite of our first selection. And both songs take you on their own amazing journey.

Finally: Remember Sports – ‘Pinky Ring’

This song would fit comfortably in between the poles of the first two selections. The song could be filed under indie/pop/punk if you were looking for a genre to list. Classic instrument line up of guitars, bass and drums. The mix is well done with a clear, distinct place for all the instruments and the vocals. During the choruses one guitar follows the vocal line melodically. There are a lot of bands creating this style of music. What makes one song like this different from the tons of others I hear? For me it’s a couple of things. First, it’s the recording quality and mix. I really like the way this song is put together. Second, does it bring on some kind of emotional feel? ‘Pinky Ring’ has that sad, wistful feeling of something that was lost in the past. Finally, what really caught me was the video. When I’m listening to new music I’m almost always going through videos. I saw an online review of the band and started searching. I came across this video and went ‘wait a minute…..’ ChurchHouse is located in the Allentown, Pa area. I grew up around here and spent weekends and vacations going hiking and picnicking in the Pocono mountains. Much of the video is shot in Boulder Field in Hickory Run State Park. We used to go there and see how fast we could run across it without killing ourselves. We still go there occasionally. Always cool to have a video trigger childhood memories.

Retro: Urge Overkill – ‘Sister Havana’

Urge Overkill delivers a big dose of power pop with their 1993 song ‘Sister Havana’ from the album ‘Saturation’. This was always a fun song to play live, with it’s wonderfully crunchy guitar barre chords and straight forward, head banging beat. It’s the kind of song that could be killed with a bad mix, but ‘Sister Havana’ has the placement of drums, guitar, bass and vocals to tie everything together. The most important part of any song is the writing. But the difference between success and failure is often found in the studio and final mix. This song is a good example of how making the right studio choices can determine the entire direction of a song or career.

Change, Growth And The Musical Direction Of A Band

Musicians end up working together as a band for many reasons. It could be a group of friends who decide they want to learn to play to be like their favorite band. They pick up instruments and learn to play together organically. It could be musicians from several established bands deciding they’d like to work together on a project. Some bands are put together using ads in online sites or fanzines. One thing you need at the beginning of a band is some kind of shared direction in the type of music you want to make. Not having a shared vision is why the vast majority of bands fall apart before they even get started (that and personality conflict – the great destroyer of any shared project among humans). So most bands that get off the ground usually have some agreement on the type of music they create when they begin. The interesting part takes place after the band has been together for a while. That’s when a big decision comes to the forefront. Do we continue with the style of music that initially made us popular? Do we try different styles of music we’ve become interested in and risk losing our diehard fans? This is the crossroads moment. And there’s no right or wrong answer. Either choice could push a band forward or make it fall apart.

Let’s take a look at a band that I think made some great decisions in their changes in direction and still maintained and even grew their popularity. For this example we’re looking at the Talking Heads. For clarity, when I talk about changes in musical style, it’s not always ‘macro’ changes. The band didn’t move from rock to jazz then to classical. They remained under the huge umbrella of ‘rock’ music, which can sometimes be so broad as to be a meaningless term. But they made very noticeable sonic changes without a change in personnel or instrumentation. And they remained popular until the decision was made to retire the band name (a decision that was not universally wanted by all the band members – another common band situation).

Talking Heads started out as a ‘punk’ band in the CBGB’s scene – although the definition of what was ‘punk’ actually seemed a bit wider then than it is today. I certainly wouldn’t compare their version of ‘punk’ to a band like the Ramones. Their first ‘hit’ song was ‘Psycho Killer’ from the album ‘Talking Heads :77’. This song did have many attributes of the early punk scene. Simple guitar parts, relatively open and separate instrumentation. Musically crisp and choppy. But even this early song had a bit of ‘funky’ to it.

The second album was ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’. The single from this album was a cover of the Al Green song ‘Take Me To The River’. This version still had a more ‘rock’ feel to it. You can hear the same instrumentation from the first album. Simple arrangement that had a lot of separation between the instruments – there was certainly added keyboard presence matching the guitar in this song. The band was moving forward but was still maintaining the basic feel they started with. This song would be changed and expanded in their live show as the band moved forward.

The next album for the band was ‘Fear Of Music’. We start to see the beginnings of a shift happening. They continued to work with Brian Eno as a producer. The sound started to move more in to what was referred to as ‘post-punk’, another term that had a wide and often quite amorphous definition. There were a number of ‘post-punk’ bands that started to move in to more ‘funk’ territory, especially the bands’ rhythm sections. I always felt that a lot of Talking Heads underpinnings relied heavily on Tina Weymouth’s bass. Her playing and the placement of her bass sound in their songs was a great influence on my taking up bass and the way I would mix songs in the future. Stand out song here was ‘Life During Wartime’. You can feel the musical direction changes here – one foot still in post-punk while moving in a different direction. Changes were happening and the band’s popularity was increasing. I think one of the reasons for growing success was that the original line up was still together and the band members all bought in to the changes. Now we can start talking about the band ‘growing’.

The band’s musical growth continued. Their next album was ‘Remain In Light’. They delved in to more afrofunk and polyrhythmic beats. They also did some changes in their studio methods, recording long jams and picking the best parts to ‘loop’ as the basis of songs. A number of accounts state that friction had started in the band. Some members felt David Byrne exerted too much control. Most of the band members were also working on individual projects. This is where a lot of bands will fall apart and go their separate ways. It appears in this case that the changes in studio style and recording helped extend the band’s life. A great example of the style achieved on this album is heard in the song ‘Crosseyed And Painless’.

The band moved musically again for their next few albums. Although they were a successful band, they hadn’t achieved real ‘mainstream success’. That changed with their next album ‘Speaking In Tongues’. Although they retained the rhythmic underpinnings of their previous work, ‘Burning Down The House’ was a more rock oriented track that broke them in to the general public consciousness. On the next album, ‘Little Creatures’, there was another stylistic shift. They moved in to ‘pop rock’ territory with the single ‘And She Was’. I think that the continued growth and change the band experienced was really what kept them together for their last few albums. I imagine achieving commercial success didn’t hurt either.

Commercial success can be a two edged sword. In one way it keeps a band together, because some form of commercial success on your own terms is the dream for most musicians. On the other hand, once you become financially independent it’s much easier to go out on your own and make your music as individual and esoteric as you want. That seems to be the case with Talking Heads, although it appears David Byrne was the main catalyst for the idea that the band wouldn’t ever by reuniting again in their original form. Their final album ‘Naked’ was a mixture of several different styles from previous projects although it did have a commercial hit in ‘Wild Wild Life’. I think they’re a great example of a band who over their career experienced change and growth in their musical direction while maintaining an original lineup. They’re also an example of a band who didn’t feel the need to stay together after this growth stopped just to keep the money flowing. I miss hearing new music from them, but I’m happy they didn’t put out numerous albums of mediocre material once the magic was gone.

April 2021 Grapevine

Spring has finally arrived. It feels so good to get outside, feel some warm sunshine and watch the flowers and plants grow. It certainly helps to clear the mind and add some positivity to day to day life. Changes in music as a business continue. The advent of online music over the years has changed how bands generate revenue. With much music being available for free online, musicians found their best revenue streams were in playing live and selling merchandise. The pandemic has imparted even more changes on the music business. The live music stream of revenue took a big hit. Bands had more difficulty getting together to practice or record. Were there any positive results to be found in music creation? I think there has been some increased creativity in some of the bands that are not huge commercial acts. More time to be ‘inside your own head’ and come up with new ideas. More willingness to take a chance on working on different styles of music. Taking opportunities to work with different artists on projects because you can create tracks and send them through the internet. Hopefully we can return to some sort of normal and the good parts of music creation that halted will return. But I hope we keep the lessons learned about the new methods of creation to make an even better music scene.

First Up: Cory Hanson – ‘Pale Horse Rider’

One of the main things that pull me in to songs is the atmosphere and feel they put across as you’re listening to them. Before you even break them down to the specific parts that touch you, the overall feel gives you a sense of place. The main tracks of this album were recorded in a home studio in Joshua Tree. Having had the opportunity to visit Joshua Tree I can hear this as a sound track to listen to as you wander through that amazing park. The desert really does have a feel all it’s own and this song captures that aura. The instrumentation and sound trend towards country/americana. You can find the guitars, strings, pedal steel and smooth languid drums. For this song the instruments are blended together so no individual piece stands out. That allows them to act as a solid backdrop to place the vocals on. The vocals are up front, set on top of the instruments. The smooth vocal delivery creates a feeling of sadness. I like the video, much of it shot in the desert. It’s interesting that Hanson’s performance in the video appears happy and funny when the music feels a bit more sad and somber. It’s a interesting contrast.

Next Up: Xixa – ‘Eve Of Agnes’

The draw in for me on this tune was the massive, wonderful percussion. We can start with just the actual ‘percussion’ instruments. You have kit drums and a wide variety of other percussion instruments driving the beat of the song. The Tuareg quintet Imraham (we’ve covered some Tuareg music in a previous Grapevine) brings percussion rhythms from North Africa. The melodic instruments continue this rhythm contribution. The guitars snake through the music, using interesting single note lines that definitely give the song a middle eastern feel and flavor. I’d recommend this song for the guitar lines alone. Keyboard synths lay down a base for all of these rhythmic flourishes to sit on top of. The vocals added have very contrasting feels, almost as if they belong to two separate songs. There’s a smooth vocal with a lot of reverb that is a little lower in the mix. When this vocal is on the music smooths out a bit. That vocal is contrasted with the Tuareg vocal that is more percussive and a bit louder and less drenched in reverb. It forms a great back and forth dialogue within the vocal part of the song. They throw in a nice change of pace at about the 2:55 point of the song. Not really a change in tempo, but they remove some of the ‘driving’ elements of the song – you can pick up the bass much more clearly. Nice way to bring the song to an end.

Finally: Julia Stone – ‘Fire In Me’

We’ll finish up with a song whose musical feel serves to highlight the vocals. The underpinnings of ‘Fire In Me’ fall in to the slow burn of electronic keyboards and percussion. The instrumental parts of the song are kept relatively simple. You can hear a bass riff and keyboard figure that repeat throughout the song. The repetition is intentional. It creates a hypnotic mood. A dark room with incense and candles burning. Music like this often feels cinematic. You could hear this song on the soundtrack of movie. It’s sounds like a scene where the character is walking in slow motion through a dark and spooky house. The vocal treatment pushes this even further – the doubling of the voice and the clarity and crisp EQ used in the recording put the vocal squarely on top of the instruments. The ‘response’ second vocal continues this mood. The keyboard is also used as a vocal like response when it comes in between the voices. Mood is the master here.

Retro: Humble Pie – ’30 Days In The Hole’

This song is from Humble Pie’s 1972 album ‘Smokin’. This is the type of song from that era that I love because of the loose feeling of the recording (another would be Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’). It starts right in the beginning with the intro that sounds like they started taping while the band was still organizing how to start the song vocally. Great crunchy guitar comes in with the drums. The bass comes in with a nice little run in the middle of the first verse. The vocal and harmonica in the middle of the song keeps this live feeling going. I’ve talked about this in other ‘retro’ picks – the high end, crunchy guitar sound from that era still rules for me.

If You’re Feeling Adventurous……….

Divide And Dissolve are a band that work long, strange, sludgey instrumental noise experiments. It’s a noisy tune that works like background sound for the end of the world. Not for everyone, but if you’re interested in trying out music that is totally different, sometimes brutal, give it a listen.

Let’s Talk. Classifying Music – Can You Judge A Book By It’s Cover?

You read a music review in a magazine or online. In the topic line or in the body of the article the reviewer delivers a quick description of the artist being reviewed: ‘punk rock’, ‘bluegrass’, ‘heavy metal’, ‘pop rock’, ‘funk’, ‘hardcore’, ‘classical’. Those are just some basic labels. The labeling can become extremely micro: ‘psychedelic dance party industrial flaming death rock’. We’ve touched on this phenomena a lot on this blog, particularly when reviewing songs in the Grapevine articles. But is this practice good, bad or not important at all? I believe that all of those interpretations can be accurate.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with attempting to label music. There is a vast amount of musical material available. People writing reviews are usually trying to give you a short synopsis of the music so you can decide if you want to listen. I cruise through musical ‘labels’ all the time to help decide if I want to delve deeper in to a band. But as I’ve stated before, this can have a limiting effect and cause you to miss a lot of music that you might actually like. Or it might help you look for a specific musical style online by doing a search for a musical ‘label’ to find new bands. It’s just info. You get to decide how to use it.

Let’s take an example. The Dead South is a band I’ve reviewed before. Let’s take a look at their video for the song ‘Black Lung’:

If you look at how they dress and the instruments they are playing your first thought might be bluegrass music. But is it? In articles I’ve read the band itself has often stated that they don’t consider themselves bluegrass musicians. And if you really listen to the song, I don’t think I’d consider it traditional bluegrass. This song might fall better in to Americana or folk – but again, you’d be describing the music by using a label. Some of their other songs carry a total different vibe. We have talked about this in our Messin’ With The Music series. Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs use mostly acoustic instruments when recording the covers. Again, the mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, etc are often associated with bluegrass. We’ve consistently stated that we’re not attempting to do ‘bluegrass’ covers of the tunes despite the instrumentation. This pulls in another part of the overall picture. A band wants to present an image that they can be associated with. How you dress, how you look, the instruments you use help construct your image. It’s another form of a label. Fans are looking for something to latch on to. But it’s a label the band creates for themselves. If it’s in the band’s control, I think it’s a good thing. There are limitless examples of record labels creating an image for a band, often with disastrous results.

Let’s listen to another song. This is ‘Radio Clash’ by The Clash:

The Clash have always been considered as one of the great ‘punk’ bands. Is ‘Radio Clash’ a punk song? Musically, I’d be hard pressed to drop the song in to that category. But…….listen to the lyrics. They certainly embody the anti-authority, anti big business attitude of punk. One of the reasons that The Clash are a great band (in my opinion) is the wide variety of musical styles they covered in their career. Even though the music touches a lot of styles, the lyrics and attitude are pretty consistent. They were all about destroying ‘labels’, which in itself was part of their band identity. The Clash controlled their own identity and musical style. You can’t ask for more than that.

How about another one:

White Zombie’s ‘More Human Than Human’. Is it metal? Is it industrial? Hard rock? I can tell you what a great song it is in a dance club. So, can we label it? Would tacking a label on this song cause a lot of people to miss hearing it? If a song is really good, it can sometimes break through barriers and be heard by a wide variety of people (this video has over 31 million views). So labeling can be a two edged sword. Some bands will break through labeling and be successful. The vast majority of bands will never have this level of success. Maybe ‘classifying’ their music will help them, maybe it will hurt them. I think the most important part of the equation is the control the actual band has over their classification and image. If I’m in a band, I want to control my own music. This rolls right in to the topic of bands intentionally misrepresenting their style of music and image. I think that’s totally up to the band. You might present yourself one way to get more publicity. This might work and get people to view you and like what they hear. It could also backfire – “these guys call themselves country music? What a bunch of poseurs”. As long as the band controls their fate it works for me. Who doesn’t want to control their own fate?

One thing I miss that was always part of finding and classifying music is the vinyl album cover (although vinyl has made somewhat of a small comeback). You used to be able to browse in a record store and flip through this wonderful art. A lot of thought went in to the album cover design and the visuals were often created to bring to mind a certain classification of music. Does this Grateful Dead cover for ‘American Beauty’ catch your eye? Does it give you an idea of what the musical style would be? Would you buy the album just because of the album art?

Classifying items is a big part of how the human mind works. This is definitely true in almost any type of art. In the last couple of years I’ve fallen in love with landscape photography. I use many of the images for still pictures on videos on our YouTube channel. The following picture was taken in Yellowstone National Park. I altered it to fit with the music for a Steaming Mulch song. Is it still ‘landscape photography’? Does the viewer get to decide? My final thought – art is subjective. You make the call.

March 2021 Grapevine

Three months in to 2021. Although I’ll be happy to get to some days of warmth and sunshine, time is passing quicker than I want it to. Every coin has two sides. Anyway……… I expanded my search area for new music this month to some web sites I haven’t been on before. When I can, I mostly like to go through reviews in print magazines. They tend to be pretty concise and relatively short, so you can go through a lot of reviews pretty quickly. Online reviews tend to be much longer. Sometimes you read through a band biography before you start to hear about the album. And I really need something to click with me if I want to be able to write about it, so I look and listen to as much as time allows. But getting a broad view of what’s out there seems worth the time.

First Up: Michael Gay – ‘Long Cold Winter’

Speaking of winter. Saw this video and found it pretty amusing. So I look at a song like this on two levels. The lyrics reflect how I feel a lot of the time in winter. So it’s a good topic to make a funny song and video for. The song is lyrically pretty straight forward which is what makes a catchy fun song work well. So here’s the second part. There’s a pretty great sounding country song musically underneath the lyrics. Very nice pedal steel. Some guitars with reverb and delay. You get a real nice bass lick to start the song. Crisp drums. And a very authentic, well played country sound. I searched around and found info that the song was studio recorded as a live take. Everyone playing at once. That will give a song great feel and it takes a bit of skill. When you listen to it concentrate on the instruments once in while. The song works because it’s a total package of music, lyrics and video.

Next Up: King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – ‘Minimum Brain Size’

‘Minimum Brain Size’ is a rhythmic paradise. I was caught right from the beginning with the interplay of the drums and the first guitar that comes in. I love songs that are built on riffs. And the first combo of drums and guitar feels wonderfully off balance. Bass comes in and adds it own riff. All the instruments play off one straight forward beat, but in different patterns. When the vocals come in the guitar simplifies it’s pattern. The vocal is mixed at the same level as the other instruments, so it forms it’s own rhythm. There are different background instruments that pop in and out. Electronic keyboard, a second guitar part, a few sound effects. One way they keep the song interesting is by having the main guitar play several different riffs throughout the song. Some are simpler, some are arpeggiated chords. It allows the song to have changes in tone while maintaining the same overall feel. If you’re wondering about lyrics, I suggest you look them up and go ;Ahhhhh….’ Wha? When you put lyrics at that volume level in a song it serves a purpose. The vocals become more instrumental and you hear the lyrics in little pieces and phrases. Which suits the content of the lyrics. Ex: “Riddle me this, Did you ever grow? Break the spider’s legs, Just to feed the crow, Sympathetic crowds Are not well endowed, They dance like flies on shit, Swarming in the clouds” Yup.

Finally: Hayley And The Crushers – ‘Jacaranda’

Thought we’d hit this winter month with some upbeat pop-punk. Musically this hits all the best touch points. First: crisp, trebly distorted guitar. Getting the sound just right is really important for the feel and tone of the song. There’s an art in getting just the right sound. Enough distortion that it’s crunchy, but not too much or the sound would blur. You have to be able to hear the individual strokes on each chord. If you don’t have the EQ set correctly the guitar will sound muddy. If the guitar sound is muddy it doesn’t drive the song forward. You also have to set the amp up correctly and have the right microphones placed properly. There are things we all take for granted and don’t give much thought to when we’re listening to a song. But something that seems as simple as getting that guitar sound makes all the difference. The bass sits on the chord’s root notes, mirroring the guitar chords and in essence adding a driving bottom end to the guitar. The drum sounds are also kept crisp, even the bass drum. Again, this is all set to keep the song driving forward. The vocals on top are given pretty much the same treatment. Not a lot of reverb because in this song we’re not looking for the spacey ultra reverb feel. Finally, at this time of year it’s nice to see a video of sunshine and bright colors. Makes me look forward to spring.

Retro: KMFDM – ‘Light’

So let’s end March Grapevine with a bang! German industrial dance band KMFDM (originally Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated by the band as “no pity for the majority”) always kick it. For me this brings back amazing memories of dance clubs that specialized in industrial dance. Being on a full dance floor when this song would come on was an unforgettable experience. Great tempo for dance, but also right up the alley for anyone who wants to ‘headbang’. As a guitar player I love KMFDM for adding amazing crunchy guitar sounds to a style that often lives on electronic keys and various sound effects. We talked about ‘riff’ guitar reviewing King Gizzard. This song has some of the coolest guitar riffs you’ll find anywhere. Top it off with a couple of very different vocals. The main vocal is deep and almost spoken. This is paired with a soaring female vocal that adds a total counterpoint to the male vocal. Lyrically – “The blind inspiration, total disillusion, Instant consecration, mind and body fusion, Frontal assault on the seven senses, Orgasmic waste, eccentric and pretentious”. Indeed! Get on up and bounce off the walls!