Welcome to our first Grapevine of the new year. It’s been a while since I’ve been really excited about the beginning of a new year. First there’s the continuing nonsense and horror that’s been going on for a few years now. At this point it’s not even worth discussing. We can only continue to hope and work for change, but it’s definitely become a full time and long term job. Second, I live in the northeast. This time of year is overcast, cold, rain, snow, slush. Lack of sunshine is not a good prescription for ambition and happiness. So creativity can also become a somewhat difficult job too. But, as with every new year, we will persevere. Some of our monthly Grapevines follow a musical style or theme. I thought January would be a good month for a theme. So for this month musically, we’re going to simplify. Sometimes I just want to hear a good, simple sampling of garage rock. Straight forward, to the point. The kind you listen to and go, “I could learn to play that”. Start the year simple and build to complex. So for 2022, let’s hit the ground running…..
First Up: The Shadracks – ‘No Time’
Guitar, bass, drums, vocals. And there you are. I’d refer to it as garage rock. Some people might say punk rock, but I think in this day and age the word ‘punk’ has been twisted, bent, flattened and beat up so much that it’s almost devoid of meaning. Originally the word was more about attitude than sound. This song gives me attitude from that first chord strike. It actually sounds more like someone dropping their guitar on the floor. That’ll catch your attention. The band starts rolling in to the song. Four chords is all it takes. It’s like going downhill and slowly picking up speed. There’s a good amount of fuzz and dirt on both the guitar and bass. Then at the :50 second mark it seems like we’re going to step on the gas. But that only lasts about ten seconds. Then they slow down and start the tempo build up again. But it’s another false start and we’re back to the beginning verse style. These great tempo changes continue through the entire song. Even the vocals don’t really have a consistent pattern. If I was recording this I’d be saying “I get it, no click track on this song”. The recording is very crisp throughout. Not a lot of bottom end on any of the instruments. That works perfectly for this style. Brilliant way to keep your listeners off balance.
Next Up: Wavves – ‘Hideaway’
Let’s keep rolling on this month’s theme. Wavves “Hideaway’ gives us the straight forward guitar rock we’re looking for. There’s a bit more separation for the bass guitar as compared to the previous song. I like the double tap on the snare as that gives the beat a bit different feeling. When a song has a relatively simple structure, and that’s what we’re looking at this month, a simple change like the beat on the snare can have a larger influence on the feel of the song. The vocals are placed at a nice level in the mix. You can hear the lyrics, but they don’t overpower the musical end of the tune. The guitar playing has the same feel in the verses and the choruses, with the difference being a subtle change in the chords and some snare rolls added to the drums. Even though the production is simple, there’s some cool subtle effects and background in the production. The guitar sounds as if there is a second ‘ghost guitar’ in back of it. I like the sonics of the vocals. When all the other instruments are playing full out you don’t hear it as much. Listen when the second verse starts at 1:30. The vocal sounds like it is doubled (with some nice effects on it). However they create the vocal effect, it is perfect for this song. At the beginning of the second verse the instruments are pulled back to put the lyrics out front. “The field looks so pretty but it’s covered in land mines” is a great line. Listen closely to the lyrics as this is the theme throughout the song. ‘Hideaway’ does a good job of combining lyrics and music to create emotions in the listener.
Finally: Colleen Green – ‘I Wanna Be A Dog”
Let’s close up our newer selections with a song that has a bit more of an upbeat pop feel to it. This song is another example of how simple a good song can be. The guitar part is straightforward bar chords. There are both clean and distorted guitar sounds in the mix. The second guitar is either a clean electric or possibly an acoustic. And I would guess they they tracked the guitar several times. But the simple idea of multiplying the guitar part makes the song sound so much fuller. If you listen on headphones or stereo speakers you can really hear how they take the guitar parts and pan them left and right in he stereo field It sounds like there is a bass guitar holding down the bottom end, but it is just matching the root note of the chords being played. We also get a nice simple little ‘lead’ guitar riff in the middle of the song. They definitely want to highlight the vocals in this song. It’s a great melody and her singing is more pop sounding than garage shouting. The other thing that drew me to this song was the chorus. Such a great reference to Iggy Pop’s ‘Now I Wanna Be Your Dog’. I don’t believe that is an accident as not just the lyrics but the melody reference The Stooges’ song. Finally, I love any video filled with dogs running around. So Happy!
Retro: The Breeders – ‘Cannonball’
I thought I’d throw in one of the touchstone songs when you talk about combinations of garage, pop and indie rock. The Breeders were a band that were started when Kim Deal left Pixies. If you listen to bands, especially from the ‘grunge’ era, Pixies are usually named as one of the biggest influences. They were one of the best known bands for the ‘quiet verse, loud chorus’ style of song. Kim Deal certainly brought that style to this song by The Breeders. I don’t think they really thought this would cross over to a general rock audience as much as it did. I think the biggest factor in that happening was the vocals being more pop/rock sounding than the songs Pixies created. This song is fun from beginning to end. The quirky ‘vocal check’ to lone bass/spare drums intro is great. It has simple well sung verses with the Deal sisters combined vocals. And then the chorus kicks in……… and the rest is history.
Here we are at the end of another year. I had great expectations for 2021. Some expectations were met, some weren’t. It was definitely a strange and chaotic time. There is one thing I have found to be true. As you get older, every year gets shorter. I don’t know how to account for this in any type of scientific manner. There’s no actual physical proof that this is happening. But it feels true. The question then becomes what to do about it. The answer? Pack as much life in to every moment as you can. Live, dream, create. Take a drive down the road less traveled. Keep the people and things you care about close and boot everything else out the back door. With that in mind, let’s explore some more new music. With music you can always find a stylistic ‘road’ you haven’t traveled on before. You can create something new that you haven’t experimented with before. You can do whatever you want with no boundaries other than the ones you set. So in that spirit of discovery, let’s listen to this month’s tunes.
First Up: The Bug – ‘Demon’
I thought we could venture in to some electronic music this month. Evaluating how this type of music is constructed is very different than describing the pieces of an acoustic song. Rhythmic pieces take priority in this song. The rhythm is created using numerous small sound bites that are placed together in a repeating fashion. It’s interesting to try to concentrate and pull apart all the small pieces. You’ll hear sounds that are consistent pulses and at first don’t seem to have any rhythm at all. But if you pay attention you’ll find that even the background pulses will fall on the same beats per minute in a consistent fashion. There are drum machine (could be samples instead of a drum machine) lines that also keep the same BPM. They are set up to fall on a different beat within the measure. The same is done with keyboard lines. In the song all these pieces are used to create the non stop pulse feeling. Even the vocal lines are constructed with this in mind. The emphasis is on rhythm rather than melody. In the studio this could be constructed using repeating electronic devices, samplers or cut and paste within the recording software. It really does lend itself to a different kind of listening experience.
Next Up: W. H. Lung – ‘Pearl In The Palm’
For our second example of electronic dance music we have ‘Pearl In The Palm’ by W. H. Lung. Although it is built with the same type of rhythm first logic as the first tune, it falls much closer to a conventional song structure. The drum machine follows a pattern much closer to what you would experience using acoustic drums. You can recognize the snare, kick and other drum parts. The keyboards and samples accent the pulse and change throughout the song to keep the background interesting. They even feel more like a traditional bass and melody line. The vocals stay rhythmic, but there is a distinct melody line and the song is constructed to have verses and choruses. There are numerous places where small pieces of sampled sounds are put in to add a little spice and variety to the song. Music has always had the capability to move people physically. That may have been one of it’s primary functions in it’s beginning and creation. I still enjoy songs that make you want to move and dance. The great thing about music is that it can move you both intellectually and physically. This song absolutely led to me dancing around the house. It’s a wonderful release and a whole lot of fun.
Finally: Sturgill Simpson: ‘Ol’ Dood (Part 1)’
For our third song I thought we’d take a sharp turn and bring in something more country/bluegrass. I think it’s a great comparison to the first two songs in how rhythm and movement is created in a song. The song uses the classic bluegrass instrumentation: acoustic guitar, banjo and violin (in this type of song we’d definitely be referring to it as a fiddle). I can hear some bass down in the bottom, added in so the song doesn’t end up sounding ‘thin’. This also has to do with the way the guitar is recorded – when mixing you bring up the EQ on the bottom end. As with many bluegrass tunes the music is created in service of the vocals. It’s a classic story telling song and in many ways the instruments are used as a canvass to paint the vocal story on top. You can hear the difference in the tone of the song between the verses and the chorus. The verses tend to be lighter in instrumentation and have a more minor key feel than the chorus, where the instruments open up and feel slightly more major key. The fiddle often acts as a secondary or counterpoint vocal coming in between the lyrics. This song is taken from an album named ‘The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita’ which is written as a concept album and tells a linear story through it’s song cycle. That’s not easy to pull off and if you find it online it’s absolutely worth listening to start through finish.
Retro: Front 242 – ‘Headhunter’
Front 242’s ‘Headhunter’ came out in 1988. The band is considered one of the pioneers of Industrial Dance Music. The version we’re listening to here is a shorter version of the song. Dance songs often have album versions and much longer extended single versions that are played in the clubs. Once you get moving, who wants to stop? The basics of the song sound very simple. Drum machine that keeps a repetitious beat; keyboard sounds, using a relatively simple structure that matches the drumbeat and a vocal that again reinforces the beat. During the chorus the keyboard notes match the notes the vocal is using. You need the beats per minute of the song to be danceable. Too slow or too fast doesn’t work. There is a trick to this if you want something you record to sound a bit different. If you’re trying to keep your song at 110 bpm you could also try to set the drum machine to 55 bpm or 220 bpm. Even though those times are much faster or slower, they are multiples of the original 110 bpm. Most people will naturally dance on the comfortable beat so, for instance, twice per beat on 55 or every other beat on 220. I’ve always been intrigued as to how some dance songs that sound so simple are really difficult to make.
November. Where we turn our clocks back an hour. Why? WHY? Daylight is in short supply anyway. I know, we don’t actually lose another hour of daylight with the time change, but it sure feels like it. Who wants it to be getting dark at four in the afternoon? I’ve always heard a bunch of reasons why this is done. I’m not sure if any of them are actually true. Bottom line, I don’t care. I’d rather get my darkness in the early morning, thank you. There are places that don’t change the time, maybe I’ll move there. Of course it would be odd being in one town, driving to the next town and BAM, it’s an hour later. Strange when you think about movies concerning time travel and the impossibility of it. Technically, if you could fly east to west fast enough you could experience the same hour of the same day more than once. Or call someone in Australia from the U.S. – your talking to them tomorrow! Time travel! Well let’s move on to music where you can consistently time travel in your own mind. You can listen to new music that sounds like it was absolutely made thirty years ago. Or listen to music you loved growing up. Doesn’t it bring those years all back? Time travel!
First up: James McMurtry: ‘The Horses And The Hounds’
Classic example of a great mix of what a lot of people may call ‘country rock’. Fair enough description I guess, but that description covers so much ground. The difference between a song of this style that catches my ear and others that I’d just pass by comes down to a couple of things. If you’ve been reading the Grapevine series for a while you know that one thing that makes a huge difference for me is the mix. For this type of song I think a clean mix with a lot of instrument separation makes a huge difference. For the drums in this song they’ve given the high hat a very prominent place in the mix. It ends up being the main time keeper, where a lot of times the time keeping duties lie mainly with the snare drum. Bass guitar is there as a bottom end. They’ve kept it fat instead of sharp so it holds the bottom down without stepping on the prominence of the other instruments. Good crunchy guitar sounds. If you’re not listening on headphones or a stereo with good separation between the speakers you might not notice that the rhythm guitar is slightly different between the left and right channel adding to a wider stereo field. David Grissom, well known as a session player, adds some tasty lead riffs. Finally, clear vocals where you can understand the lyrics. The lyrics tell a story you can follow. This adds to the dark feel of the tune and matches the lyrics to the music. Background vocals add that final touch.
Next Up: Willie Nile: ‘Off My Medication’
Speaking of time travel, let’s head back to my early punk years. This song is just fun. A lot of early punk rock was supercharged bluesy rock with a big old attitude. The song starts with a cool guitar walk down riff. Listen closely to the song right after the walk downs and when the vocals come in. Boy, do I hear Sex Pistols (for all it’s ‘punk’ notoriety, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ is an out and out amazing rock album). Great little guitar riffs punch out throughout the song. If you chart out the chords it’s a variation of basic 12 bar blues. Another neat trick is at 1:30 when the third verse starts. The entire chord pattern moves up a half note (a form of tonal ‘modulation’). It moves up another half note for the fourth verse and one more half tone for the fifth verse. Each move up ‘tightens the knot’ a little more and keeps the song from getting bogged down in repetition. So the song feels like it’s constantly changing even though the chord patterns and riffs stay the same. There’s a nice instrumental drop out when they hit the chorus for the last time. Every instrument does it’s part and keeps the song driving forward. Lyrically it’s something I can certainly relate to. You know when life gets to a point where you’re just “WTF”! I think you hit a home run when you have a song that makes everyone want to chant along with the chorus. This goes on my list of songs I’d like to play for a live audience.
Finally: Wet Leg: ‘Chaise Longue’
Well, once I get in to a punky feel, it’s best to just keep it going. Keep driving it forward. This song absolutely revels in it’s simplicity. It starts with a straight forward drum beat and a two note bass riff. They add in a deadpan monotone vocal for the verse. That’s all the instrumentation for the first minute of the song. So simple, yet so effective. When they add in the guitar part, the rhythm section really doesn’t change. The guitar just adds it own repetitive riff on top. It flows this way throughout the entire song. During the rest of the song the only changes are addition by subtraction. That’s all they need to have here folks. When you break a song down to this level of simplicity, it works or it doesn’t. For me, this song works. For some people it may not work. I don’t have a crystal ball to predict when simplicity works and when it doesn’t (if I did, I’d be rich). My analysis for this type of music comes down to – does it make me want to bounce around off the walls? Yes.
Retro: Beastie Boys: ‘Sabotage’
Since we’re on a roll, I decided for the retro track we should just keep rolling. This song was a huge hit for the Beastie Boys. They are considered an early rap band, but when I heard their first album, definitely felt more punk rock to me. Their career moved to more studio and sampling wizardry and they became innovators in that field. This song harkened back to their early days of being a loud, thrashy three piece band (although we do have some turntable FX). Again, so simple, noisy, sloppy. But everyone loved it and a lot of people cover it. Not a lot of musical parts to analyze. Simple – still bouncing off the walls? Yup.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Three months in to 2021. Although I’ll be happy to get to some days of warmth and sunshine, time is passing quicker than I want it to. Every coin has two sides. Anyway……… I expanded my search area for new music this month to some web sites I haven’t been on before. When I can, I mostly like to go through reviews in print magazines. They tend to be pretty concise and relatively short, so you can go through a lot of reviews pretty quickly. Online reviews tend to be much longer. Sometimes you read through a band biography before you start to hear about the album. And I really need something to click with me if I want to be able to write about it, so I look and listen to as much as time allows. But getting a broad view of what’s out there seems worth the time.
First Up: Michael Gay – ‘Long Cold Winter’
Speaking of winter. Saw this video and found it pretty amusing. So I look at a song like this on two levels. The lyrics reflect how I feel a lot of the time in winter. So it’s a good topic to make a funny song and video for. The song is lyrically pretty straight forward which is what makes a catchy fun song work well. So here’s the second part. There’s a pretty great sounding country song musically underneath the lyrics. Very nice pedal steel. Some guitars with reverb and delay. You get a real nice bass lick to start the song. Crisp drums. And a very authentic, well played country sound. I searched around and found info that the song was studio recorded as a live take. Everyone playing at once. That will give a song great feel and it takes a bit of skill. When you listen to it concentrate on the instruments once in while. The song works because it’s a total package of music, lyrics and video.
Next Up: King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – ‘Minimum Brain Size’
‘Minimum Brain Size’ is a rhythmic paradise. I was caught right from the beginning with the interplay of the drums and the first guitar that comes in. I love songs that are built on riffs. And the first combo of drums and guitar feels wonderfully off balance. Bass comes in and adds it own riff. All the instruments play off one straight forward beat, but in different patterns. When the vocals come in the guitar simplifies it’s pattern. The vocal is mixed at the same level as the other instruments, so it forms it’s own rhythm. There are different background instruments that pop in and out. Electronic keyboard, a second guitar part, a few sound effects. One way they keep the song interesting is by having the main guitar play several different riffs throughout the song. Some are simpler, some are arpeggiated chords. It allows the song to have changes in tone while maintaining the same overall feel. If you’re wondering about lyrics, I suggest you look them up and go ;Ahhhhh….’ Wha? When you put lyrics at that volume level in a song it serves a purpose. The vocals become more instrumental and you hear the lyrics in little pieces and phrases. Which suits the content of the lyrics. Ex: “Riddle me this, Did you ever grow? Break the spider’s legs, Just to feed the crow, Sympathetic crowds Are not well endowed, They dance like flies on shit, Swarming in the clouds” Yup.
Finally: Hayley And The Crushers – ‘Jacaranda’
Thought we’d hit this winter month with some upbeat pop-punk. Musically this hits all the best touch points. First: crisp, trebly distorted guitar. Getting the sound just right is really important for the feel and tone of the song. There’s an art in getting just the right sound. Enough distortion that it’s crunchy, but not too much or the sound would blur. You have to be able to hear the individual strokes on each chord. If you don’t have the EQ set correctly the guitar will sound muddy. If the guitar sound is muddy it doesn’t drive the song forward. You also have to set the amp up correctly and have the right microphones placed properly. There are things we all take for granted and don’t give much thought to when we’re listening to a song. But something that seems as simple as getting that guitar sound makes all the difference. The bass sits on the chord’s root notes, mirroring the guitar chords and in essence adding a driving bottom end to the guitar. The drum sounds are also kept crisp, even the bass drum. Again, this is all set to keep the song driving forward. The vocals on top are given pretty much the same treatment. Not a lot of reverb because in this song we’re not looking for the spacey ultra reverb feel. Finally, at this time of year it’s nice to see a video of sunshine and bright colors. Makes me look forward to spring.
Retro: KMFDM – ‘Light’
So let’s end March Grapevine with a bang! German industrial dance band KMFDM (originally Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated by the band as “no pity for the majority”) always kick it. For me this brings back amazing memories of dance clubs that specialized in industrial dance. Being on a full dance floor when this song would come on was an unforgettable experience. Great tempo for dance, but also right up the alley for anyone who wants to ‘headbang’. As a guitar player I love KMFDM for adding amazing crunchy guitar sounds to a style that often lives on electronic keys and various sound effects. We talked about ‘riff’ guitar reviewing King Gizzard. This song has some of the coolest guitar riffs you’ll find anywhere. Top it off with a couple of very different vocals. The main vocal is deep and almost spoken. This is paired with a soaring female vocal that adds a total counterpoint to the male vocal. Lyrically – “The blind inspiration, total disillusion, Instant consecration, mind and body fusion, Frontal assault on the seven senses, Orgasmic waste, eccentric and pretentious”. Indeed! Get on up and bounce off the walls!