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?
We returned this week from our latest National Parks adventure. There’s nothing better than watching the sunrise from an amazing mountain trail to clear your head and give you all the inspiration you could possibly ask for. We’ll continue to work on the Messin’ With The Music series. There are a lot of irons in the fire as far as new original compositions go. I’m often inspired to start writing a song when I hear a certain style of music that catches my attention. I find it doesn’t usually work if you try to carbon copy a style or song. The style is a starting point for the composition. Over the course of putting all the pieces together it should pick up your personality with different timing, chords, instruments and technique.
I think the following songs will provide an example of how a basic song style can underpin a variety of different compositions. The songs are all blues informed guitar music. But the style of the blues incorporated here is a bit more specific than the vast variety that falls under the ‘blues’ moniker. I’m not sure what specific name to give it. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘delta blues’, ‘hill country blues’ or ‘talking blues’ – and I’m sure some musicologist somewhere could give you a correct and exact definition. For me there are several important components. First, the interplay of the guitar and the vocal. The guitar line often matches the melody of the vocal, sometimes note for note as they are played together. Second, the guitar, especially between the vocals, tends to be riff oriented rather than chord based. Finally there is an overall looseness to the playing style that rolls in and out of the song’s basic timing. When you listen to the three songs that are included here, don’t get hung up on the differences in recording style or sonics. Listen for the overall similarities and how each musician takes the style and makes it their own. I picked songs that have a wide span of years between them to accent the recording differences and show how long this style of music has been popular.
First we have ‘Spoonful Blues’ played by Charley Patton. This song is dated as 1929. The songs that have been preserved from this era don’t usually have the sonic quality that you will hear in recordings made as technology advanced. It was probably recorded live in a hotel room somewhere using the technology of the time, a very basic tape recorder or possibly cut directly to vinyl. So the song is just vocal and guitar played at the same time. Again, pick up on the underpinnings – the interplay between the guitar and vocal, the guitar riff and the overall looseness of the song. All the pieces are there. Although this style had already been around for a while, recordings of this era were the first attempt to capture the music and would be important touchstones for musicians who came later.
Next we have a song that couldn’t be more different in terms of recording and guitar sonics. I would imagine most of you have heard ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ by Jimi Hendrix at some point. The song was recorded in 1968. An amazing display of virtuosity and the possibilities of what could be done with a guitar sonically using electronics. Listen closely. Despite the vast sonic differences the underpinnings are all still there. The guitar and vocal match. The repeating guitar riff between vocals. The looseness of the playing. Another piece is that the guitar and vocal are very prominent in the mix compared to the bass and drums. It’s a great interpretation of the musical style.
To finish our run I’m adding one of our favorites, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. This song ‘Clap You Hands’ was recorded in 2010. In some ways it’s a stylistic middle ground between the two previous tunes. His guitar playing style goes back more towards earlier Delta Blues sounds. He even favors vintage guitars in this case playing an electric/acoustic. The recording quality advancements are easy to hear. The sound is clear and there is a lot of separation between the instruments. The drums and washboard are given a more prominent place in the mix which add drive to the sound. But as in all these examples the basics are there. A basic riff between the vocal parts that carries through the song. The guitar and vocal matches in the verses and choruses. The loose playing style especially with the slide parts. A wonderful update of a classic style.
If you get too hung up on musical styles and trying to come up with a style that’s totally ‘original’, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. When musicians are asked to describe their music you’ll hear every crazy genre and subgenre name you could think of. We all want to be ‘original’. But you can take any style that already exists and add your own personality to it to make it original. Sometimes the best thing is not to over think it. Have fun, hit ‘Record’ and let it fly.
I’ve always liked the month of September. We’re heading in to fall which is probably my favorite season. It’s also when my wife and I often take our travel vacations. We’ll usually be heading to some National Parks for hiking and photography. That’s where we’ll be while you’re reading this. I can’t tell you how renewing it is to get out on a trail and see some of the most amazing sights you can imagine. And after the last two years we can definitely use the life affirming renewal that only nature can give you. The best music can give me the same type of feeling. If you can make a connection with the music you are listening to it can release all types of emotions. It can be fulfilling, cathartic or just make you feel relaxed and happy. This is why I continue to seek out new music rather than staying static and just listening to the music I grew up with when I was younger. My purpose in presenting the Grapevine is to share new music I’ve come across (as well as some older gems) with other people in the hope that you’ll hear a song that touches something inside you. In that spirit let’s get to this month’s songs.
First Up: Swim School – ‘Let Me Inside Your Head’
This song is from Swim School’s first EP ‘Making Sense Of It All’. One reason I wanted to get it out to other people is the band is new on the scene and this album is self released. I love the DIY spirit of any band that takes matters in to their own hands and is bold enough to do it own their own without the influence and push of a record label. The song has the feeling of shoegaze while still putting the vocals out front so you can pick up on the lyrics. On cool trick they do is in the recording of the drums. The first part of the song has the drums more in the background and recorded with some buzzy distortion. At the 57 second mark there’s a short break beat and the drums come back crisper and more up front in the mix. They do another sonic change up with the vocals. In the beginning of the song they are sung softer with an intimate up front feel. At about 1:45 we get another break beat and the vocals become much more forceful with more reverb added. At 2:35 they make another change and drop out most everything but vocals before building up to the end to the song. These little changes keeps the sound fresh rather than having full on drone through the whole thing. You can also pick up all the instruments as separate pieces through out the song. Great recording technique and song structure for a new band.
Next Up: Gruff Rhys – ‘Hiking In Lightning’
First, the hiking title alone fits my September. The first lyric line is ‘hiking In lightning is exhilarating and frightening’. We once got caught in a thunderstorm hiking in Yellowstone National Park. Being out alone on a trail when the storm hit was quite a rush, though most experiences like that are cooler in hindsight. At the time you’re just saying ‘S#&%!’. Back to the song – I really like the drum sound, especially the snare. When I record a snare drum I usually put a mic on both the top and bottom of the snare (we did an In The Studio post on this once). The bottom mic really picks up the rattling sound of the snares themselves which I hear in this song. The snare here stays as a constant driving force throughout the majority of the song. There is a fuzzy drone guitar that fills in a lot of space. It also matches the melodic line of the vocal. Every once in a while the bass puts a note or two up front. There’s an instrumental drop out in the chorus which adds a second voice to enlarge the vocal sound. They finally break up the forward drive towards the end of the song with the drums being allowed to do a much more complicated pattern to close out the song. It’s a good combination of forward driving music with laid back style vocals. Great tune.
Finally: Tom Morello And Serj Tankian – ‘Natural’s Not In It’
This is a cover of a song by Gang Of Four. It’s from an album of covers that marked the 40th anniversary of Gang Of Four’s album Entertainment! which came out in 1979. Gang Of Four is one of my favorite bands, especially from that era of music. The music was angular, sharp and very political. I would mostly go with an original version over a cover, but this really caught my ear. They definitely kept the basic feel of the song, hard driving and pushing forward. I don’t think a cover that radically changed the song by smoothing it out or slowing it down would have worked. But the additions they bring to the song really work. The guitar is absolutely blazing. Morello adds his own style and personality to it, with some great deviations from the original guitar which kept the same choppy beat through the song. Tankian does the same with the vocals. GOF vocals were mostly sung in short choppy phrases, but Tankian adds to it. You can really hear this starting at the 2:00 minute mark of the song where they cut loose. This a wonderful push the gas peddle down to the floor cover.
Retro: James Taylor – ‘Country Road’
There’s songs that really bring emotion and lend themselves to certain situations and feelings. This song by James Taylor really presents how I feel when I’m out on a mountain trail. Since we’re heading out to the trails, I wanted to put this in the September Grapevine. I think James Taylor was one of the musicians at the top of the pack with the ‘singer/songwriters’ of that era. Incredible voice, stellar guitar player and amazing songs. This song is from the 1970 album ‘Sweet Baby James’. This entire album will be with me on the trail. Just three of the songs on this album, ‘Country Road’, ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Fire and Rain’ would be more great songs than most musicians could put out in an entire career. I’ve heard these songs for many years and still feel the emotion wash over me every time I hear them. That’s the real power of music at it’s finest.
Hiking a trail in Glacier National Park a few years ago. My kind of country road.
It’s time for some summer listening. I like to listen to a lot of music while I’m driving, especially new albums I’ve bought (I still love albums on CD). And even in the summer when I’m listening I like to go ‘windows up’ – wind noise takes away from me hearing everything I want to, especially if it’s something I’m hearing for the first time. Yeah, it’s a bit odd but I’ve never felt the need to worry about my odd behavior. So the theme for this month’s music can be headed under the idea of ‘critical listening’. The idea for this month’s selections and discussion is try to listen to all the different parts of the song. Usually if you’re listening to a song you take in the overall sound. Most people will pick up on the main parts of a song – the vocal, a lead instrument break. Maybe it has a great drum beat. But often it’s the little pieces that you don’t consciously listen to that make a song stick with you. That’s why the arrangement and the mix are so important. And it’s why the arrangement writing and the recording process are such an art. The best sounding songs treat all their parts as equally important as the main parts. You can listen to some songs and hear that the little things were considered ‘throw away’. Those songs may hit you because of a great vocal, but I don’t think they’ll stay with you as long. At least they don’t for me. So here we go……..
First Up: John Hiatt With The Jerry Douglas Band – ‘Long Black Electric Cadillac’
Here’s a great way to start. John Hiatt has been around for a while. His songs have been recorded by countless musicians and he’s known as one of the best song writers around. He teams on this song with Jerry Douglas, another musician in great demand, best known for his dobro resonator and lap steel playing. First, let your ears cruise through the overall song. Great vocal sitting on top and the lyrics are a lot of fun. The song is arranged to highlight the vocal. Now let’s pick apart the rest of the song. Hone in on the double bass. You can hear it keep a steady bottom end, sitting on the bass roots of each chord. This sound stays in the center of the mix. – (I should probably add here that you might miss a lot of this if you’re just listening on your phone or tablet without headphones. Things get lost – especially bass tones). Hiatt is keeping the main strum going on six string acoustic. There’s an electric guitar and violin that hold down regular rhythm parts and come in occasionally with sweet little lead riffs. In the recording arrangement these are panned pretty hard to the left and right side of the mix. Jerry Douglas’s amazing slide work on the resonator often acts as a call and response to the vocal, so it tends to sit relatively in the center of the mix. With everyone doing their part, the rhythm of the entire song just chugs along. And that’s the important and difficult part in putting an arrangement together – everyone has to do their part. All the players have to keep the rhythm going. Even the vocal has a rhythm to it. Catch the nice little break at the 2:12 mark. If the musicians do it right, what do you have? Awesome.
Next Up: Mdou Moctor – ‘Ya Habibti’
I’ve included a Mdou Moctor tune in a Grapevine before. I just bought this album and got to listen to it front to back on a drive. Tuareg guitar music, sometimes called desert blues, presents a whole different type of rhythm. If you haven’t heard it before, the feel is bit more exotic than most music you’ll hear on American radio. Even though Moctor is known for his amazing guitar work, the musical arrangement is more drum based. The instrumental lineup would be familiar – kit drums, bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The rhythms and scales played give the music it’s different feel. The drums and rhythm guitar stay on a pattern that drives the song along. The bass is not as prominent, but listen closely and you can pick it out. The bass and the guitar sounds usually keep to higher end frequencies, so you don’t have as deep a bottom end. Another sound that drives this song is traditional rhythm instruments as well as handclaps that are added in. You can hear them panned to left and right along with multiple layers of vocals that give the recording width and fills in the stereo sound. Take some time and listen carefully. See if you pick out the string sound on the rhythm guitar and some of the tom fills on the kit drums (hear some nice tom fills at the 3:07 mark). On this song Moctor keeps his guitar playing to quick, repeating passes. If you look online you can find some live performances where the guitar work absolutely shreds. I’d love to have this album on a long drive on an empty two lane road out in the desert.
Finally: Black Midi – ‘Dethroned’
We’re moving on to something with a very different feel. How would you describe the music of ‘Dethroned’ by Black Midi? I’m not sure there’s a perfect description and my take on descriptions is ‘why bother’. In the beginning of the song the drums have a very prominent presence in the mix. They set the tone for what is to come. The beat is not really straight forward, but if you listen you can hear how they work around a count. A guitar comes in when the vocals do and that guitar in the beginning keeps a very straight count. It’s placed slightly to one side of the mix. Vocals have a big presence, but they mute that slightly by drowning them in reverb. By the minute and a half mark the bass is in adding a deep background and the guitar sound is starting to expand. Listen to the repeating riff the bass is playing. It’s probably the most straight forward line in the first half of the song and really keeps the guitar and drums grounded. At the 2:30 mark the drums and guitar turn to more simplistic lines. By three minutes a second guitar line is added and the guitars spread out in the stereo mix to left and right side. By the 4:00 minute mark things get a bit chaotic. The guitars have now taken over prominence in the mix with the drums dropping back a bit. The song rolls to the end in this fashion. I put this song in because it’s a great example of how a band can chart out a song arrangement from beginning to end and how the prominence and stereo placement of each instrument in the mix determines the song’s journey. If they had kept one sound and placement of instruments throughout the song it would not be nearly as interesting and engaging.
Retro: Alice Cooper Band – ‘School’s Out’
There can be a lot of reasons a song remains memorable. In rock songs one reason can be an unforgettable guitar riff. (That’s one reason I still love listening to Led Zeppelin – riff rock at it’s finest.) The guitar riff in ‘School’s Out’ has to be one of the most memorable of all time. Just play the first 20 seconds of this song and most people will immediately name the song, before a single vocal line. But like a lot of music from that era the other part of the recording that pulls me in is the clarity and placement of each instrument. Listen to the prominence of the bass line in this recording. It’s really another great riff that weaves around and enhances the guitar line. The main guitar is placed in right side stereo and the rhythm guitar, playing lower fuzz tone chords is on the left side. The drums are really crisp. And the vocal sits on top, nice and clear so you can take in the lyrics. In the lead guitar part of the song, they put a guitar playing the original riff in the right side stereo and the rhythm guitar in the left channel while the lead takes a vocal space in the middle of the track. It’s a fine line keeping the instruments in a higher crisp frequency without pushing them too far up where the sound just becomes annoying. Recorded and mixed correctly, this song becomes a classic. Without the correct mix and arrangement the song could end up in the bargain bin. Another point to remember is that in 1972 when this came out, most people heard songs for the first time on the radio. The frequencies and clarity were really important to cut through on radio. Sit back and enjoy this classic summer song.
On Saturday, August 14, I had the pleasure of attending The Wood Brothers concert at the Bethlehem, PA festival Musikfest. Since live music is still just making it’s comeback in fits and starts, it’s a real joy to be able to go to a live show. And I have to say that this show was one of the best I’ve been to in a long time. The band was amazing. Their music spans genres from Americana to bluesy rock with a funky jazz feel. It’s a three person band with the majority of songs being played with electric guitar, stand up bass and drums. They would switch up to acoustic guitar, electric bass and the drummer playing an interesting hand percussion instrument tricked out guitar (the drummer, Jano Rix, would also sometimes play keyboard with one hand while still playing kit drum – a pretty nifty trick). The band puts on the type of show I really enjoy, loose flowing fun, nor overproduced. For me it had more of a 70’s concert feel. Throughout the show the band had people on their feet dancing along, a real connect with the audience. Chris Wood is jazz school trained and you could really see this in some of the lines he was playing on double bass – really amazing. Oliver Wood played some smoking slide guitar parts and had a perfect rough vocal for the type of music they do. They do wonderful harmonies on the songs. It was a well put together set with driving songs to build peaks then a ballad style song to change the pace.
I found an amazingly cool video that really gives a feel for the music The Wood Brothers play. In 2013 they released an album titled ‘The Muse’. In 2020 they recorded a full live version of the album. They recorded outdoors, a perfect backdrop for their music. This was not a live show with an audience, so they were able to make sonically crisp and clear versions of the songs. It’s a long video since it’s all the songs on the album, but you can, of course, browse through the video. It certainly gives a great representation of all the styles they play and is well worth a full view if you have the time.
Before we went to the show I hadn’t checked to see who the opening bands were. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the opening band was Parsonfield. I reviewed one of their songs for a Grapevine post last year (see September 2020 Grapevine). They played this show as a two piece with some backing percussion tracks. It’s a challenge for a band to do a two person set on a live stage, but they pulled it off in fine style. They changed instruments several times moving between guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin. a very upbeat and energetic set. (Excuse the blur on the second image – I’m not great with phone photos).
Here’s a live clip of Parsonfield playing as a two piece.
I wanted to finish with saying what a wonderful venue the South Bethlehem stage at Musikfest is. The color lit backdrop of the old steel factory provides an amazing setting, the sound was top notch and the audience was really in to the show. Couldn’t ask for a better night.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.