January 2023 Grapevine

We’re a few weeks in to the new year. It’s usually at time to look back at what was accomplished in the past year and set goals for the coming year. New Year resolutions have always seemed like a losing proposition to me. They often contain lofty and enormous goals that are doomed because they’re not whittled down to manageable pieces. I think this is a good time to ponder the difference between goals that are more ‘physical’ and goals that are ‘creative’. For me, the ‘physical’ type of goals are much easier to attain. Eating better and working out to become healthier. Finishing a improvement project. Tracking your spending to reduce purchasing things you don’t really need. House and property cleanup. A person can push through these types of goals by sheer will. For me, these kinds of goals can be accomplished even if I don’t feel like doing them. I think the difficult part is accomplishing goals that deal with the creative process. You can want to work on your creative projects. You can set the time aside to work on them. You can have a vision of the end result. In the end if your not in a proper frame of mind to work on these goals, none of this helps. Try sitting down with an instrument and say “I’m going to write a song today”. You may get something written, but chances are it’s not going to be something that meets your desired goal. I’ve been experiencing this for the last couple of months. Lots of ideas with a great deal of difficulty in turning them in to reality. So how do you get around this? I believe you have to apply the same principles that you apply to you goals that are not ‘creative’. Put in the time. Expect that some of the time you put in will not produce your desired results. I’ll admit that this advice does not always work. I’ve certainly had trouble following this course lately. But you will eventually revive your creative spark if you just keep trying. Knowing the difficulty involved in creation of music gives me even more respect for the artists we review in the Grapevine. Let’s discuss the songs that caught my ear this month.

First Up: Bonny Light Horseman – ‘Cold Rain And Snow’

The best songs convey a feeling that is able to be translated by the listener. This song certainly has that quality. It flows through both the music and the vocals. Let’s discuss the instruments first. This song is a great example of the importance of the arrangement and production of the song. You have to listen very closely to hear and separate the foundation instruments. You can pick them up the best during the instrumental parts of the song. There’s an acoustic guitar part that the other instruments work around. It may be more than one guitar playing the part to add depth – I can hear some single note guitar lines in the left channel.. The percussion is interesting. I hear the basic beat held down by a snare drum that they’ve given more of a ‘jangle’ to then a ‘pop’. I can pick out a high hat, but if there’s a kick it’s buried pretty deeply. There’s a subdued organ in the background of the right channel. There’s also a bass line following the chord changes. All these parts are mixed at about the same level, acting as the foundation to the parts the band wants to highlight. In this case the highlight is on the beautiful harmony vocals. The vocals are mixed together at a relatively even level and spread across the center of the mix, some in the center and the others placed slightly left and right in the channels. This allows you to hear the vocals as somewhat separate pieces even though they are relatively even in volume. The other important part of the vocals is having the lyrics match the general feeling of the vocal melody. The final piece is the guitar that acts as a counterpoint melody when there are no vocals. I like the decision to make this guitar line electric with some distortion added. It helps put it up front and puts more power in the melody line it’s playing. The great arrangement and vocal harmonies accomplish the goal of any song – make the listener feel something.

Next Up: The Bug Club – ‘Only In Love’

Our second selection of the month shows how simplicity in a song can be the right choice. There’s something relatable to most people when you hear a good garage rock song. I think that part of it is the simplicity. It’s all right there for you. The drumming is simple and straight forward. Snare, kick and cymbals. Not a lot of complicated patterns or fills. It makes a great anchor point to build the rest of the song on. The guitar is a simple strum pattern. This works partly because of the sonics chosen for the guitar sound. Lots of fuzzy distortion on a guitar sound that stays in the crisp top end of the instrument. The bass part is interesting. It’s not given a lot of prominence in the mix. If you listen carefully you can hear the bass part walking around the scale notes of the chord rather than just sitting on the chord’s key note. The vocals maintain the song’s garage based feel. The melody lines are simple and straight forward. There’s not a lot of reverb added to the vocals which makes them easy to hear in the mix and keeps them the focal point of the song. At the :53 mark they go in to the break section of the song. The change in the guitar chord and drumming patterns sets up the last part of the song and keeps it from becoming too simplistic. When they come out of the break change, they go back in to the basic pattern of the song. But the end run of the song feels like they’ve picked up the pace. This is accomplished by keeping the same feel from the beginning of the song but modulating the chords and vocals in to a higher key. At 1:39 the song is short, but for the style and feel of the song the length of time is perfect.

Finally: Alela Diane – ‘Howling Wind’

‘Howling Wind’ is a great lesson on how to build a song using dynamics and arrangement. The song is built around the piano part and the vocals. These two instruments carry through the entire song and provide the basis for it’s lyric story and feel. The song is a comment on how times used to feel compared to the constant anxiety and crisis that are part of our world today. Around these two foundation pieces a variety of other instruments are added to the mix as the song builds. In the beginning before the vocals a harmonica mirrors the coming vocal line. You can also hear a shaker in the deep background adding some steady rhythm. At the 1:20 mark some pedal steel comes in followed by the introduction of drums. By the time the 2:00 mark the song adds guitar and the harmonica makes another appearance. These instruments are added to the edges of the song, being panned more heavily to the left and right channels to keep them from stepping on the main concentration of the song, the piano and vocals. As the song continues more guitar and keyboard pieces are added. This song could be played all the way through with just the piano and vocals. I think the message would still come across powerfully. But the addition of the other instruments gives a feeling of lift to the song. It’s the audio version of climbing to the top of a mountain. You have certain feelings working your way up, but upon reaching the top you look around and feel like the world has been revealed to you. The choices made in slowly adding instrumentation and building dynamics has added extras in texture and emotion that you feel without even realizing it is happening.

Retro: Rare Earth – ‘I Just Want To Celebrate’

This song was released by Rare Earth in 1971. I think a lot of people may recognize the song without remembering the band who recorded it. I’ve always enjoyed the drive and groove of funk rock songs from that era. If bands like Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown don’t make you want to move, your feet are probably cemented to the floor. These are the early songs that made me want to play bass guitar. The drums and bass establish the groove, but the guitar sonics closely imitate 1970’s hard rock. The guitar parts are as much about the beat laid down with the right hand as the notes played with the left hand. You could, in fact, play a pretty decent break in a song like this dead stringing the notes with your left hand and playing a great groove with your right hand and a wah wah pedal (you’ll definitely hear that pedal in this song). Even the vocals are built for the groove. The timing of the vocals are just as important as the melody line. Some highlights are the vocal count in at the beginning, the short and funky guitar solos and the hand percussion you can pick up in the background if you listen closely. You also need to leave some open space in the arrangement. Filling every bit of open space with guitars or keyboards actually waters down the beat and turns a good groove in to mush. If you want to know how to start a great groove, listen to the song at 2:22 where everything drops out except the drums. This is where everything that moves this song along begins.

From The Vault 12 – Conduit Plays ‘Reptilian Mind’ Live

As a new year rolls in we’re going back in to the Vault to take a listen to another track from Velvet Wrinkle Wreckerds artist Conduit. ‘Reptilian Mind’ is another track originally recorded for the album ‘Superior Olive’. This version is from a live session the band did at the studio. We always liked to do live recordings to test out how the song would sound without the ability to do the overdubs that are used in the studio recording. The live recordings include just the basics: vocals, one guitar, bass and drums. These recordings also allowed us to decide which amps, settings, FX pedals, etc are the best options when playing in a live environment. When we record in the studio we’ll often use amps on a much quieter setting because we’re concerned about a clean sound rather than projecting more volume to a live audience. On the other hand we may use amps with much smaller wattage and push them harder (maybe go to 11?) to get an overdriven sound. The studio takes give us a preview of any playing changes we need to make for the sound to be cohesive live.

Have You Heard About The Musical Goats? – A Short Rant –

When I cruise through videos looking for new music to discuss on the Grapevine or just to hear what’s out there I usually look on YouTube. It is the site where most people place their music. It’s where we place our videos. When I listen to a band’s video I very seldom go in to the comments section. I’m not all that worried about what other people think about the song. Also, no big news break here, comment sections can be pretty toxic sometimes. Recently I was looking at videos to watch playing techniques to see what I can pick up. I’m an average player and I’m trying to learn new instruments so watching what some of the best players can do provides some interesting technique tips. When I’m looking through these videos I will often read the comments. A lot of times people will mention other musicians that I haven’t heard of before and it’s one more method of searching out new music and musicians. Unfortunately these comment sections sometimes devolve in to insults and name calling. The one I really don’t understand is the ‘GOAT’ theory. The idea that one individual is ‘the Greatest Of All Time’. These lists have been around forever. The Rolling Stone ‘top 100 guitarists of all time’ has been around since I was a kid. As humans we seem to have the need to rank everything. From cars to peanut butter to people. Here’s my take: I don’t believe there is a ‘greatest of all time’. The concept doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s just look at guitarists (you could pick any instrument). How do you judge the ‘best’ guitarist? There’s so many different techniques. Are you looking at guitarists in all the genres of music – classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, rock? I’m not even going to try to mention all the different styles of music in this post – rock music can be split in to lots of smaller categories as could all the other styles mentioned. Is it just playing techniques or are you also considering song writing? Do you take in to consideration the differences between acoustic and electric playing or how the music affects the audience? It’s a rabbit hole I see no purpose in going down. Yes, there are players who are more talented than others. But ‘greatest of all time’? Nonsense. Some of the best musicians may be sitting on their porch playing and never had any interest in playing in public. They may have been playing before there was a way to record music. And, as stated in a lot of previous posts, art is subjective. What moves me may not move you.

I’m going throw out a few guitar videos for you. This is not my ‘best of’ list (if you didn’t guess from the opening rant, I really don’t have one). Maybe there’s something here that you like and haven’t heard before. If you have anyone you think I should hear, hit me up with a comment or email. I’m always interested in learning something new.

Let’s start with some bluegrass. Cody Kilby won best bluegrass guitarist this year at the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards.

For a jazz selection here’s Wes Montgomery:

For classical, some Andres Segovia:

For rock, how about some Jeff Beck:

The videos of great players could go on forever. Listen to music with open ears. You might just find a new musical inspiration.

December 2022 Grapevine

December has arrived. I thought it would be good to start with a Grapevine article and get back in to the groove of discovering new music. The last two months have been hectic. We spent October on a long trip hiking in some National Parks in Colorado and Utah. It was an amazing trip. There’s nothing better than getting out on the hiking trails to clear your head of all the negative vibes that seem to be piling up. We like to start early and hit the hiking trails before sunrise. There’s a number of positives from early rising. First, the trails are virtually empty. Second, there’s a much better chance of seeing wildlife. Third, you get to see the sun rise over some amazing landscapes. There is a feeling I get on the trails that is amazingly similar to the feeling I get creating or listening to music. It’s a feeling that I wish I could have all the time. You’re totally ‘in the moment’. The rest of the world fades in to the background. You can dedicate your entire being to the music (or the trail). The vast majority of your life doesn’t work that way. So much time is spent completing ‘necessary’ tasks like working to earn money, upkeep of the items you own, taking care of the vast list of things you need to do to survive. That’s why I try to not take the good parts of life like art and music for granted. They’re not a given. They’re a gift and recognizing and enjoying the gifts life presents to you is a key to having a healthy, happy life (yikes! this sounds like therapy!). So let’s get back on a roll and take a listen to this month’s selections.

First Up: Deanna Petcoff – ‘Trash Bag’

Let’s start with something that gives off an upbeat feeling. So we’ll discuss the musical end of the song first. The drum beat is very straight forward. The snare is snappy and tight. The kick drum is also a tight sound, with a lot of top end being presented. With all the drums you’re hearing mostly pop and attack without a lot of ring. That’s really helpful if you’re using the drums as a driving force in the song. They also keep the drum beat fairly straight forward with fills coming in for accents and changes between the verses and choruses. There’s multiple guitars. One is keeping an on beat strum that is also used to drive the song. If you listen there’s a second guitar that strums a chord and then let’s it ring over the rest of the music. In the chorus the second guitar plays some single notes and little lead type riffs that add to the feel and help to differentiate the verses from the chorus. The bass keeps a pretty simple line holding down the bottom end of the song. There’s a great little change in dynamics when the second verse starts. The song drops down to just the bass and a simplified drum beat for a few measures with a nice little drop beat added in before the guitar resumes. When the guitar comes back in it’s strummed and held chords and there’s a few piano chords added. It’s these little changes in dynamics that really make a song work. It breaks up a relatively straight forward chord pattern and adds a interesting dynamic to the music. The song also does a change at the end, dropping down to quieter chords and mostly hi hat on the drums. Everything in the song is created to highlight the vocals and in this song the lyrics in particular. The lyrics are what really caught me. Who doesn’t feel this way sometimes – “I’m acting kind of stupid, get used to it, cause I’m not put together all the time”. Awesome.

Next Up: Jack White – ‘Fear Of The Dawn’

Even though I usually try to find musicians and videos that are less known and ‘under viewed’ I’ll certainly make exceptions if the music or the artist lights a fire in me. OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a big Jack White fan. If nothing else, the variety of styles that White is willing to take a shot at makes him an artist I admire. Let’s look at ‘Fear Of The Dawn’. Even at the level of recognition he now has he’s still a ‘throw it against the wall’ type of artist who will take a shot at making the music he wants to do at the time. This song is a loud, blazing guitar rock tune cramming a whole lot of sound in to it’s two minute running time. It’s pretty straight forward with a heavily distorted and effected guitar sound driving the song. The drums and bass keep a persistent beat pushing the song forward. The rhythm parts aren’t complicated and fancy – that’s the whole point of the song. It should carry the phrase I saw on several records in the 1970’s – “for best results play at high volume”. Drums, bass and rhythm guitar pound the song forward. The guitar solo parts are pretty free wheeling, not a lot of smooth melodic lines, instead using a lot of screaming, effect laden, string bending runs. As with most songs the important part is – does this fit the tune? Here the answer is yes. There’s even more buzz in the song by adding the theremin. The vocals are matched to the song the same way the instruments are. White has said he’s a ‘vocalist’ as compared to a ‘singer’. The vocals are used as another instrument in this song. There’s no overwhelming vocal melody here, but that’s by design. For me, the fact that he also did all the playing, recording and production is pretty amazing. Finally, the video itself is the definition of DIY. He picked a single hallway shot in the studio then recorded the video with friends wearing masks and pounding instruments along to the music. They recorded the video on film then scratched, damaged and painted the film to get the final look. Another great entry that shows an artist who has a vision of a song and knows how to get it.

finally: Wet Tuna – ‘Sweet Chump Change’

Lets finish by listening to something to something a little more funky. ‘Sweet Chump Change’ has a deep groove, dance floor type vibe to it. There’s a lot of percussion sound percolating in the background of this tune. You here the snap of the snare and a tight high hat ringing at the top end of the percussive mix. But if you listen closely you’ll also hear hand drums mixed in to keep the deeper end of the beat rolling. Adding to the bubbling bottom end is a very deep bass sound playing a funky line as well as a repeating organ riff. All these sounds are melded together to form the underpinnings of the song, the canvas and background for the rest of the musical painting. The picture on top is created using a more psychedelic feel. Guitar riffs come in and out throughout the tune. They’re usually heavily effected with lots of delay and reverb. The same is true of the vocals. They’re more spoken than sung and are slathered in layers of echo and reverb. Other instruments and sound effects roll around on top as the song progresses. This is the type of song that gives the feel of being in a black light illuminated room, listening on a bass heavy stereo system or sunk in to a chair with headphones on. This is the type of song arrangement that is recorded to create a vibe rather than highlight a single instrument or a vocal or lyric. Different styles of music are often used for different purposes. Sometimes a song like ‘Sweet Chump Change’ is the perfect track to sit back, space out and nod your head to it’s hypnotic beat.

Retro – The Bottle Rockets – ‘Radar Gun’

Let’s finish with some straight ahead guitar rock. The Bottle Rockets came along in the early 1990’s with their mixture of guitar rock and some alt-country underpinnings. I usually pulled this song in to the set of most of the bands I played in since that time. The reason is simple. It’s fun. Great choppy guitar sound for the rhythm guitar. The beat is four on the floor overdrive. Nice meaty lead guitar riffs throughout. The leads are not overdone. No blazing fast finger work that is there just to show of – just solid bluesy riffs. We have a part at about 2:15 where everyone backs down a little bit for a quieter break. The main purpose of this is to allow the song to kick back in at full force at 2:38. There’s little production ideas that make it work. Vocals are clear and right down the middle. Lyrically the idea is simple, riffing at all the small town speed traps set up to make some cash, but delivered in a humorous way. The drums keep a steady consistent beat. The bass usually stays on the key note of the chord and reinforces the straight ahead beat of the drums. The icing on top is at the end of the song where you hear the phone call home from some small town jail where the driver is probably calling for bail money. Sometimes fun can be had with the simplest of song ideas.

From The Vault 11 – ERP Plays ‘Midnite Cruise’

It seems that when I dig around in our back files I’ll often come across a new song we never finished, old studio songs by other bands or a live version of a song that we’ve already released. In this the case the song I found was ‘Midnite Cruise’ which was released on Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs EP ‘Celebrity Prostitution’. This was a live version of the song we recorded in the studio. We were all in the main studio room with amps placed in other rooms to stop the live bleed through. If you’re in a band that plays out live a lot (which probably means you’re in a city that that has a decent live original music scene) you’ll often come up with new songs and work them in to shape in front of a live audience. You can try different guitar tones, tempos or vocal deliveries to see what sounds best or if a version of the song connects best with an audience. Unfortunately ERP was never usually in a position to work out songs that way – we often did not have a full band and did a lot of our writing/recording by overdubbing parts in the studio. The good part of recording in the studio is you can try a lot of different approaches and can do a decent recording of them to hear what works and what doesn’t. This version we kept as a ‘live’ lineup version – no overdubs or secondary guitar parts. It also play a little slower than the final EP version. It’s interesting to hear how it differs from the final recorded version. It’s also fun to be able to share alternative versions with everyone who follows our blog.