Category: Referred Music

September 2021 Grapevine

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

February 2021 Grapevine

February is the short month of the year. In as much as the weather is not always pleasant (I’m not big on snow, sleet and ice) I’m OK with it being a bit shorter. What to do when you can’t get outside and enjoy nature? Listen to more music. This month I’ve listened to more new material than usual. There is so much to listen to out there. I’ve heard a lot of variety and in the future may delve in to some genres that I don’t review as often. For this month we’ve got some guitar driven ‘indie’ style music. The ‘indie’ musical definition is really wide. I’ll still use that definition although I’m sure you could break songs down to their micro definitions (i.e. ‘swirly retro pop guitar driven emotion oriented vocal croon’). Does it really just fall under the huge heading of ‘rock music’? Who knows? Who cares? I have found that if the review tries to break a song down in to a several word definition in the heading and you just go by that to decide if you want to listen, you might miss a lot of good things. So, onward we go!

First Up: Hospital Bracelet – ‘Feral Rat Anthem’

The song starts out with a clean guitar running chord arpeggios. One interesting decision in recording the song is the mix of the clean guitar with the bass guitar. You almost don’t hear the bass guitar as a separate instrument. It gives the guitar a huge sounding bottom end, making it sound ‘bigger’ than just a single guitar. During these parts of the song the drums maintain a relatively simple beat, putting the emphasis on the vocals and allowing the lyrics to remain very clear and up front. The mix during these quieter parts keeps all the instruments at about the same level. When the song hits the change in dynamics, the power kicks in. The guitar adds distortion and increases it’s presence in the mix. The vocals move to a near scream. The quiet/loud dynamics in a song is used frequently by many artists. Why? It works. The feel of the music mirrors the lyrics in the song. If you want an idea of the mood of the lyrics, take a look at the picture on the album cover. See the drawing of the four hands throwing the bird? That is a good symbol for the lyrics of this song: “I really hope you learn to never forgive yourself because evеryone knows you’re a lying cheat and I hopе you’re always feeling incomplete”. Ouch. Anyone you know?

Next Up: Drive By Truckers – ‘Tough To Let Go’

There’s a number of ways to make a song memorable. It could be having an amazing instrumental or vocal hook that catches everyone’s ears. You could have amazing instrumental players, a guitarist, pianist or drummer whose part makes you stand up and take notice. Or it could be lyrics that simply burn in to you. The best combination can be great lyrics that create an emotional feeling and instrumental parts that play to those lyrics. I think ‘Tough To Let Go’ falls in to the last category. I like the instrumental sound they come up with from the very beginning. A very simple drum pattern, with a great snare sound, grounds the song in a simple beat. Organ, guitar and bass join in to fill out the instruments. Everyone backs down on the instrumental dynamics when the vocals come in. This puts the lyrics directly in the spotlight. The instruments pick up to deliver more power to the lyrics during the chorus. Between the vocal sections is a great, simple lead guitar part. Some lead guitar parts put the emphasis on the instrument. This guitar part echoes the feeling of the vocals, sad and a bit lost. What sticks with me is the lyrics. How do you let go of expectations you had and move on to new things? The lyrics probable hit you harder when you have a few years under your belt and, as the lyrics say, “you’re wondering where did all the time go?”. Where indeed?

Finally: Still Corners – ‘It’s Voodoo’

It’s interesting how different styles of music will affect you depending on your mood. As I go back over the songs picked for this Grapevine I can certainly see a pattern of mood and style. It’s tough enough being relatively house bound during an epidemic. Top that off with a week or two of no sun and way too much snow where it seems that the only time you go out is to shovel in a blizzard. These songs are the current soundtrack in my head. I think we all tend to gravitate to music that fits our internal mood. ‘It’s Voodoo’ continues this narrative. Great job on the guitar sounds and playing in this song. The band manages to have both dreamy background sounds and crisp leads. Listen to the guitar in the beginning of the song. The guitarist is ‘dead stringing’ the notes – leaving your picking hand touching the strings so the note does not ring. As a result you can really pick up the effects being used – some reverb and a great echo. The guitar sets the tone for the entire song. We don’t even have the first vocal until the song is already about a minute in. The vocal delivery matches the feel of the guitar – laid back and dream like. The band makes good use of effects on the vocal, adding a doubled vocal when they want to put emphasis on the lyric. At the three minute mark we drop down to just the guitars – one keeping a beat in the background while the other throws in some tasty lead lines. ‘It’s Voodoo’ is a song carried by the guitar feel – and that was the right mix for this tune.

Retro: Neil Young – ‘After The Gold Rush’

If you want to hear prime examples of mixing emotion with simple arrangements you can always go to Neil Young’s catalogue. His songs are also examples of how amazing songs will hold up decades after they were written and recorded. When I get a chance to hike though the high mountains, stand on the summit and look over the overwhelming beauty of nature, this is one of the songs playing in the soundtrack in my head.

Keep dreaming………

January 2021 Grapevine

So it’s a new year? Serious question. I’m not really sure. Anyway, we’ll get right in to the music. I don’t know if I’ve ever explained how I pick songs for the Grapevine. Like most people searching for new music, I go through reviews and articles in print magazines and online magazines/fanzines. I try to avoid the writer’s opinion on whether the band is ‘good’ and look for a description of the band’s music. If it sounds interesting, I’ll write down the band and album’s name. After I have a few on the list I’ll start listening to them, usually looking for YouTube clips on the tablet using headphones. I don’t really do ‘reviews’. If I don’t like the song, I’m not going to write about it. I tend to pick songs that have been viewed less to highlight lesser known bands. I also want to voice a concrete reason why I like a particular song. I guess all that brings us to the specific point about this month’s songs. I tend to be real interested in how a song is mixed – especially where instruments are placed in the stereo field. A lot of this month’s song’s appeal to me was in the stereo mix. Which is why I originally listen to the songs using headphones. Sooooo…… if you don’t get to listen to these songs with headphones or a pair of stereo speakers the mix tricks won’t be as obvious. That being said, let’s take a listen………

First Up: Mamalarky – ‘Drug Store Model’

The first thing to hit me as soon as the song started was………..good guess – the stereo mix. It starts with a guitar panned to the right. The vocals, bass and drums come in and get placed in the center of the mix. The drums are spaced wider across the field to give it the feel of standing in front of a ‘live’ kit. The keyboard comes in on the left side of the mix. All the instruments are pretty crisp, so you pick each out of the mix. The instruments have a bunch of little riffs they do between chords. Sometimes they play the same riff, sometimes it’s different. That and a good, strong snare beat keeps the song bopping along, toe tapping. The vocal floats on top. This is the type of song where the cadence of the vocals is as important as the notes you sing. At the 2:00 minute mark the tempo starts to slow down until it comes to a complete stop. The song comes back for another 30 seconds of instrumental to the end. It’s an neat little way to end the song rather than another straight verse/chorus. It’s the little things that often make a song stick with you.

Next Up: Kacy & Clayton and Marlon Williams – ‘Plastic Bouquet’

This song caught me for a few reasons, starting with the recording. The recording was done perfectly for the song. Very simple: two guitars, vocals and a simple beat for the percussion. Again, speaking of sound placement in the mix, some good choices. The guitars are panned a bit to the left and the right with the more ‘active’ guitar being on the left. This separation allows you to hear each guitar part. It also allows you to mix the vocals down the middle so they are the featured instrument in the mix. The recording strives to highlight the lyrics, and I would definitely consider this a lyric centered song. After I heard the song I was driving and couldn’t help but notice a number of places that had ‘shrines’ on the side of the road where people had lost their lives in car accidents. Which to me means that the song/recording had succeeded in it’s purpose. It caused me to pay attention to something I would normally drive by without noticing. There’s also some really tasty acoustic guitar playing. Enough so that’s it’s noticeable, but not so much that’s it’s distracting. The feel is enhanced by the song being played in ‘waltz’ (3/4) time. ‘Country/Folk’ style song writing at it’s best.

Finally: Lee Paradise – ‘Boogie’

So let’s finish up with something completely different. This is music to dance to. At least I would love to hear this if I was out on the dance floor. To make this song work you have to start by getting the basic electronic dance beat right. A good solid couple of recording tracks that include electronic drums where the kick drum sound is king and you work the sound of a snare and hi hat as well as some repetitive keyboard sounds around it. The other sounds you put in are the icing on the cake. These other sounds are the ones that tend to float around in different areas of the stereo field. But they’re important to make the song stand out from other ‘dance tracks’ since a lot will have the same tempo and even the same electronic drum beat. In ‘Boogie’ this would be vocals that come in and out and especially the electronic bass sound that adds bottom end. I also like that the song is kept to a reasonable length – a little over three minutes. The length keeps the song from being too drawn out if you’re listening to it when you’re just lounging at home listening to a bunch of different styles of music (which tends to be what I do). There might be a ‘club’ version that would be at least twice as long. Yes, yes another black lights and incense song.

Retro: Steppenwolf – ‘Monster/Suicide/America’

I’ve always been a big fan of Steppenwolf. I’ll probably do another Retro Steppenwolf song in the future just to discuss the musical parts of a favorite song (like one of the best crunchy, fuzzy, ‘sloppy’ guitar tones of all time). I was listening to a Steppenwolf album the other day and this song came on. I was sitting in the recliner with headphones on. I listened to the lyrics. Hmmmm. Looked at the release date. 1969. That’s weird. Listened to it again. Weeeeellllluuuummmmmm. OK. So 52 years have passed. Lyrical time machine to 2020?

December 2020 Grapevine

Well, we’re in the last month of the year of horror that wouldn’t end. Except it looks like the beginning of 2021 won’t be much different. I’m hoping for personal brain reversal salvation when the new year rolls around. A bit of an attitude adjustment. A shining light of positivity to appear. Some beauty in the world. Which for me means diving deeper in to music and art. I guess ‘positive’ is only there if you create it yourself. So let’s finish off the year by reviewing some more music. Maybe you’ll hear something that will be a positive influence for you. Or a least take the ‘real’ world away for a few minutes. Let’s see what we have:

First Up: Bambara – ‘Death Croons’

I’ve stated before that songs show up in our Grapevine posts for a variety of reasons. When I hear a new tune that I like, I go back after hearing it for the first time and try to take apart the pieces that each instrument plays. ‘Death Croons’ has a great driving drum beat with a bass part that enhances that drive. Moody, reverb laden guitars add atmosphere, with one guitar pushing it further with some retro sounding slide. The vocals, somewhere between spoken and sung, make the song sound even darker. One reason I like to occasionally put in performances of the song that are recorded live to video is that you get to see what the musicians are playing and that can give you a better feel for how the songs are constructed. For this song I’m including a live video and the studio version of the song. See if you can pick out the differences in the recordings. One thing missing from the live version is the backing vocals. I think their floating, almost call and response feel add a great deal to the song. The drums are a bit more smoothed out in volume and attack. The echo and reverb on the guitar floats from channel to channel in the studio mix. The versions are similar, but the slight variations are cool. One reason to see a band live is to enjoy these differences.

Next Up: Best Coast – ‘Wreckage’

Let’s start with the musical composition on ‘Wreckage’. Great straight ahead driving rock song. The drums and bass lay the foundation for the song. The bass sits on eighth notes of the chord root, driving the song relentlessly forward. The guitars provide the atmosphere, pulling back in the verses and pushing the chorus forward. In this song the music is meant to highlight the vocals and lyrics. Vocals are crisp and clean on top so the lyrics can be heard and understood. The lyrics are the main part that resonates with me in ‘Wreckage’. I’ve had these kind of songs in Grapevine before – singing loud with the window rolled down while driving (not as much windows down in the winter – hard to sing with your teeth chattering). I’m including the lyrics here because there are a lot of great lines. I really relate to ‘Guess I’m really still the best at getting in my own way’.

So sorry for everything
You know I really wanted it to work out
I put the blame on everybody
Was incapable of not being stressed out

I, I wanted to move on
But I, I kept writing the same songs

Now that everything’s burned down
I can put it all to bed
If only I could make sense of it
When it’s swirling in my head
I’m so sick of being proud
And I’ve got nothing left to say
Guess I’m really still the best at
Getting in my own way

So if I’m good now
Then why do I feel
Like a failure
Almost every day?
And if I’m wise now
Then why do I feel
Like I’m lying
Straight to your face?

I, I wanted to move on
But I, I keep doing this thing wrong

Now that everything’s burned down
I can put it all to bed
If only I could make sense of it
When it’s swirling in my head
I’m so sick of being proud
And I’ve got nothing left to say
Guess I’m really still the best at
Getting in my own way

I’ll keep pushing forward
So I don’t slip way behind

Now that everything’s burned down
I can put it all to bed
If only I could make sense of it
When it’s swirling in my head
I’m so sick of being proud
And I’ve got nothing left to say
Guess I’m really still the best at
Getting in my own way

No one’s saying that I’ve got to be perfect
So why do I keep pushing myself?
No one’s saying that I’ve got to be perfect
So why do I keep pushing myself?

Finally: Aoife Nessa Frances – ‘Geranium’

Right off the bat what struck me with this song is the use of a drum machine over live drums. If you had played the song for me before completion, I would have expected live drums to push it forward. For ‘Geranium’ drum machine proves to be a great choice. Their simplicity lays down a wonderful foundation to build the rest of the song. The arpeggio guitar chords with the simple drums gives a dreamy, magical feel you probably wouldn’t get with live drums. There are reverse tape effects in the song that are another great trick to maintain the atmosphere. All the instrumentation is used to highlight the vocals in the song. There are many different ways to highlight vocals musically and I think ‘Geranium’ and the previous song ‘Wreckage’ show that you can do it using two very different techniques. ‘Geranium’ is a more ‘incense and candles’ than ‘sing along’. Shows how important recording/production can be if used correctly.

Retro: The Beatles – ‘She Said She Said’

I sometimes like to use the ‘Retro’ song to look at the musical past and how much of it still relates to music today. You can always find lots of influence looking through The Beatles catalogue. ‘She Said She Said’ has the arpeggiated guitars in the verses, turning to jangly chords in the chorus. The recording has a trippy, laid back feeling to it. And the music serves to highlight the vocals. This song came out on the 1966 Revolver album. For a song written and recorded over fifty years ago, it does not seem at all out of place with the other songs in this post. Remarkable considering the differences in recording tech between then and now. If a song is great it will always continue to influence.

November 2020 Grapevine

Well, we made it through November. Sort of. Some things are better, some things are worse. Didn’t expect 2020 to cut us a break, did you? One more month and the 2020 year from hell is over. Light some candles for 2021. One can only hope that that next year will bring us some relief. On to the Grapevine. There’s an intentional theme this month. We’ll be taking a look at some stripped down music. These songs could fall in to several categories: punk blues, hillbilly stomp, garage rock, call it what you will. The music has different ‘styles’ to it, but the feeling the songs give to me is the same: simple, raw, emotional – what I’d like to find in a dive bar, backyard gathering or crowded garage. Usually I’ll keep to newer releases, but these songs span more years. Enjoy your walk through the spooky woods.

First Up: Hillstomp – ‘Graverobber’s Blues’ ‘Don’t Come Down’

A great example of what you can do with simple instrumentation. Guitar (or banjo) drums, vocals. They’re part of the revival of simple blues that has been around forever but has regained prominence in the last decade (you know how much we love Rev Peyton). These songs always hit me deeper than huge production songs. They just feel more personal. Sitting in dim light with your friends; pass the bottle or the burnables. The party in ‘Don’t Come Down’ is where I’d like to be. I also like the sound of more homemade drums sets: drums, buckets, metal objects, lots of duct tape. Here’s two songs, one more guitar, the other more banjo.

Next Up: The Scientists – ‘Swampland’

The Scientists applied a more ‘garage’ sound to the music. Still a lo-fi blues feel to it, but more of a rock sound than country or bluegrass based. This song came out during the 1980s post punk era. In today’s world you can find a lot of ‘smaller audience’ and less known bands on the internet. Back then you had to search them out. It took a bit more work to come across the hidden gems. Fanzines, small clubs and word of mouth were the main methods of transmission. The components are all here – high end trebly guitars, basic drum and bass patterns, lots of reverb and vocals mixed deeper in to the music. This song would be perfectly placed being played in a garage with a small crowd jammed in and banging around.

Finally: Left Lane Cruiser – ‘Claw Machine Wizard’

Left Lane Cruiser is another two person band. Another band that produces a whole lot of sound just using guitar and drums. On this song, the music is tilted more toward the ‘rock’ part of ‘rock/blues’. But it continues the raw, lo-fi feel we’ve been exploring. Many of these two person band’s guitar feel is made by playing riffs instead of straight ahead chords with lead guitar thrown in at different parts. Having guitar riffs bounce off of and compete with the vocals makes the music/band sound larger than just two people. The guitar player carries the bottom end with single notes on the low strings while playing the riffs higher up. That is typical of a lot of older delta blues players, many very full sounding arrangements made by themselves on acoustic guitar.

Retro – Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs – ‘Ghost On The Highway’

Thought I’d include one of our own takes on this genre. One of my favorite bands, The Gun Club, first pulled me in to the punk blues style. I may have played their 1981 album, Fire Of Love, more than any other album I have. Perfect balance of garage, blues and punk. One of the first punk bands that took up this style and to me, still the best. This is our version of Ghost On The Highway’ from Fire Of Love.

Making The Case For Bass

When you listen to music, each instrument involved (including voice) has a part in putting across the vision of the artist. In a great song all the parts contribute to this vision. It’s not really possible to say that any particular instrument is the most important. This is especially true because different styles of music use a diverse palette of available instruments to create a song. We recently did a video discussing the different ways to record electric bass. For this post, let’s talk about the importance of bass guitar in songs.

When I first started playing in rock bands, bass guitar did not get a lot of respect. When you’re young and putting a band together the players who were usually recognized by fans of the band were the vocalist and lead guitar player. If you started a band and two people were guitar players, the person who was less technical was often ‘assigned’ bass guitar duties. Or if there was a person you wanted in the band who didn’t play an instrument, you’d teach them the bass. This was because the bass player could just stay on the key note of the chord and play eighth notes. This would be enough to add a bottom to the song and improve the dynamics.

The more I listened to funk, jazz and dance music, the more intrigued I became with how the bass could control the song. The role of bass was a bridge between the rhythm and the melody. And the bass has a great effect on the song’s dynamics. Just doing a well placed ‘drop out’ on bass can kick a song to a new level. As the style of ‘post-punk’ grew, I found more and more bands that built ‘rock’ style guitars and vocals on top of funk style bass and drums. I spent a lot of time practicing and refashioned myself as a ‘bass player’. I must say it’s a great deal of fun to stand out of the light on stage and still feel in control of where the song is going.

Another interesting prospect is writing a song from the bass line up. Usually you would start with guitar parts (or keyboards, banjo, mandolin etc) or a vocal melody. We have written songs that started with bass lines. It allows all the other instruments to freely ‘wander’ where they will as the bass is holding down the chord changes. I would guess that some of the songs selected below may have been written this way.

Practicing bass became one of the most enjoyable things I do musically. Playing along with a great bass line, throwing in different changes, rhythms and scales is totally immersive for me. Everything else disappears. Following are some of my favorite ‘bass-centric’ songs (and bands) to practice with. Most of the bands here fall in to a ‘funk-rock’ category rather than straight funk style – out and out ‘funk’ bands would be another full post. I’ve picked specific songs, but in practice I’ll usually play through the entire album. Let’s groove.

The Bamboos – ‘Step It Up’

Funky from start to finish. After you get down the main riff, the sky’s the limit and you can go off on your own tangents. This album is a staple of my practice sessions.

Medium Medium – ‘Hungry, So Angry’

Although I had listened to funk growing up (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown, Funkadelic, The Meters, etc) this was the beginning of mixing my punk roots with a funk bottom. At early ‘punk’ shows you could still see bands in smaller venues and stand right in front of the stage. I learned a lot just watching what and how the bassist was playing. Medium Medium was one of the bands that pulled the ‘slap and pop’ style in to punk.

Gang Of Four – ‘To Hell With Poverty’

More post-punk funk fun. The bass and drums holding down the rhythm allows the guitar to pursue any noise it wants.

My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult – ‘Sex On Wheelz’

The bass sits way down on the bottom end for this song. Sitting on this riff for five minutes will make your fingers laugh and cry at the same time.

Talking Heads – ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Talking Heads put out a wide variety of music over their careers. Their mid career run of albums of funk rock were amazing. I learned a lot of bass technique watching Tina Weymouth in the ‘Stop Making Sense’ concert movie (a must watch if you haven’t seen it).

The Clash – ‘The Magnificent Seven’

The Clash were another band all about musical variety. Here they combine funk rock music with rap style vocals.

Pylon – ‘Volume’

Pylon combined a solid drums/bass bottom end with a minimalist top end. If you were the rhythm section in a band like this, you really had to stay on point or the whole song could fall apart. Sounds simple, but playing live you had to keep your timing really tight.

Shriekback – ‘Malaria’

The album this came from, ‘Oil And Gold’, is another full play through practice album for me. We did a Messin’ With The Music cover of ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ from the album. Dave Allen from Gang Of Four was the bass player in this band too.

Bush Tetras – ‘Too Many Creeps’

Another solid rhythm with slashing noise on top. We first saw this band in Manhattan in 1980. If you were in New York around that time ‘Too Many Creeps’ would be your theme song. Times Square in 1980, woooooo…….