Tagged: grapevine

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.

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.

March 2021 Grapevine

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

First Up: Michael Gay – ‘Long Cold Winter’

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

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

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

Finally: Hayley And The Crushers – ‘Jacaranda’

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

Retro: KMFDM – ‘Light’

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

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.

October 2020 Grapevine

October arrives. We’re in the last quarter of the endless bizzaro year 2020. Fall is coming in to full bloom. By now Halloween fun is usually ramping up, but this year has been Halloween all year. Trick or trick. Anyway, let’s take a listen to some more new music to pass the time. Stylistically, I don’t know that there is a real specific theme here. Although, despite differences in style, there sounds like a bit of darkness lurking in each of theses tunes. I think I usually feel some internal darkness around this time of year. Days are shorter, weather in our area tends to become a bit more dismal and overcast. But no matter the weather or date, 2020 has been a year that darkness rules. Let’s let the music save us!

First Up: Iress – ‘Shallow’

Let’s begin with some dark drone. The song builds slowly. It starts out with feedback and reverb heavy guitar to create atmosphere. This original background atmosphere continues through out the song, allowing different elements to be built on top. First to come in is a simple guitar arpeggio. The next addition is a pounding drum. Sort of like someone whacking you in the head with a mallet (sometimes a good shot to the head is useful). Vocals finally enter the fray after the first minute. One of the things I like best in this song is the use and treatment of the vocals. There are multiple vocal tracks, effects and harmonies blended together so the vocals do double duty as a background instrument. The song continues to build with guitar chord distortion, crashes added to the drum sound and wordless vocals to blend in with the background sounds in what would probably be considered the chorus. This theme repeats through the song. They open up the guitar and drum parts for the song outro. Put on your headphones, turn off the lights, fire up a candle and incense and breathe in the mood.

Next Up: Death Valley Girls – ‘Under The Spell Of Joy’

We start out with a great vocal chorus. The mix of voices, including a children’s choir, was a great choice. The vocals establish the melody line that is reflected by the guitar when it comes in. When the drums come in they also reflect the cadence that has been established by the vocals and guitar. The final piece to come in is saxophone. The sax work here takes me back to the early days of post punk. Two of my favorite bands from that era, The Psychedelic Furs and Medium Medium made great use of this style of sax playing in their songs. It takes the place of where you would usually put a lead guitar. The sonic textures you can add using sax puts you somewhere between a guitar sound and a vocal. The drums and guitar continue to hold down the original riff while the top alters between vocals and sax. A moment of scratchy silence hits before the slamming freak out at the end. An interesting thing to listen to is the difference between this ending buzz and the rest of the song. You can make the song sound as if it speeds up without changing the beats per minute by doubling the drum and/or guitar notes from, say, quarter notes to eighth notes. Always nice to end with a good old feedback burst.

Finally: Osees – ‘Dreary Nonsense’

I thought we’d end with an all out assault on your ears. Short, fast and brutal would be a good description of this Osees song. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. I guess you could classify this as ‘punk’ although that term has been so overused in our current musical era as to be almost meaningless. Some interesting things to listen to here. First, let’s talk about the recording and mix of the drums. Using drum tuning and EQ, there isn’t much difference between the sound of the kick drum and the snare. That’s intentional (just guessing – I wasn’t actually there). Using this as the drum mix propels the beat along at a constant frenetic pace. The EQ on the guitar keeps this top end sonic assault. When the guitar is playing the siren like two note riff I can feel it in the fillings in my teeth (better than a sonic toothbrush). The vocals fall somewhere between speaking and singing. The cadence of the vocal adds to the song’s beat propulsion. Even the bass guitar has a lot of top end to it. In a minute and a half, it’s over. Did anyone get the licence number of that car that ran me over?

Retro: Frank Zappa – ‘Montana’

You could right an entire book trying to describe the music of Frank Zappa. There are certainly a few books out there that try. He used a wide variety of instruments to create an orchestral, sometimes jazz version of rock music along with more ‘standard’ rock style songs. I was first introduced to Zappa’s music by my guitar teacher when I was in 5th or 6th grade. Talk about a WTF moment. But once you get past the overall strangeness, you can listen to how deliberately the instruments are placed and arranged in the composition. Some works read more like a symphony than a rock song. Besides your usual rock instruments you’ll hear horns, woodwinds, strings, xylophone and a wide variety of percussion instruments. I also got to see Zappa live in a small college venue when I was in high school. Another WTF moment – strange little skits happened between songs and Zappa spent most of his playing time sitting in a chair. I chose ‘Montana’ because it is probably one of Zappa’s more ‘rock’ songs and one some people might have actually heard. I also chose it because it has one of Zappa’s amazing, blazing guitar solos in it. If you didn’t know that he was probably one of rock’s best guitar players, feast your ears on this.

September 2020 Grapevine

We are officially in Fall of 2020 and things are still so ______ __ (fill in the blanks). My wife and I took ten days to hike in the White Mountains in New Hampshire to clear our heads. There’s hundreds of miles of trails so you can pick trails where you can pretty much avoid all people. Which we did. Great weather and a great vacation. Nothing like crawling up a mountain with a beautiful summit view to give you some positive perspective. Unfortunately, you have to come back. So let’s listen to some music that might help take our minds off being back in the unreal world.

First Up: Brendan Benson – ‘Richest Man’

If you don’t know Benson as a solo artist you might recognize him for his work with The Raconteurs. This song is from his newest album ‘Dear Life’. Some times a song can just make you feel better. This song did that for me. Musically it’s a great little guitar driven pop/rock tune. All the instruments are clear and well placed in the mix. In a song like this it’s good to keep everything crisp. A few well placed horns fit the mood. What you really want to do is highlight the vocals and lyrics. They’re the bread and butter for this type of song. There’s some lead guitar work mixed in towards the end part of the song, but it’s placed where it should be – supporting the vocal, not overpowering it. Sending this out to my wonderful wife who keeps me sane during the insanity. It was also great to get home to see our two four legged furry kids, who are always ecstatic when we return. Can’t ask for much more.

Next Up: Skylar Gudasz – ‘Femme Fatale’

Creating mood is what music is about. Our first song was upbeat and happy. This tune takes us in the opposite direction. Again, the music sets the mood to highlight the vocals and lyrics. Slower tempo, simple drums that rise and falls in the mix to keep time. Synths fill in as strings beneath the vocals. The instrumentation starts out very spare and grows as the song advances. That technique draws you in to the song’s feel and lyrics. There’s a perfectly set up guitar solo in the middle of the song. Just enough fuzz and dirt on the guitar sound to sustain the notes, it’s simple and melodic to match the mood of the rest of the song. It’s the little things like the guitar arrangement that can make or break a song. A lot of times people judge a song on the complexity of the individual instruments but in the long run it’s the arrangement that makes everything work. It all supports her vocals. Wonderful phrasing and very expressive, it pushes forward the story in the lyrics and makes you feel all the sadness or pain.

Finally: Parsonsfield – ‘Paper Floor’

Parsonsfield has been known as more of a folk/Americana band on their earlier albums. Here they throw in electronic drums and a fluctuating, buzzy synth and build the rest of the song on top of that. Really keep it simple with a clock like bass and some acoustic guitar mixed in. This is another song where the simplicity of the arrangement allows the vocals to be highlighted. It has enough beat to keep your toes tapping, but overkill on the beat would be more in line with head banging and that wouldn’t fit the mood of the song. I think the theme for this month could be ‘keep it simple stupid’. Less is more. Mood makes the song.

Retro: Cheap Trick – ‘Downed’

I’ve been a fan of Cheap Trick from their earliest days. This song is from their second album, ‘In Color’ which was released in 1977. One of the greatest ‘power pop’ albums of all time (my opinion anyway). I can’t count how many times I’ve plugged in my electric guitar and played along to this album at high volume from start to finish. Still do on occasion. I picked this song because of the lyrics. The feeling of wanting to escape the craziness has been life long for me. Maybe now more than ever. Some of the lyric lines always resonated with me, the idea of escaping the grind.

I’m gonna live on a mountain
Way down under in Australia
It’s either that or suicide
It’s such a strange strain on you
Oh, i got a mind
Over you it’s not the first time
Oh, i got a mind

Too many people want to save the world
Another problem is it a boy or girl
Some say the weekend is the only world
It’s such a strange strain on you

Some days when the 9 to 5 crawl got the best of me I used to swear that ‘the weekend is the only world’. Stay sane out there.

August 2020 Grapevine

Summer is in full swing. Consoling myself for having to cancel our September National Parks trip (very depressing; once again, thanks Covid) by trying to delve deeper in to some different music. We’re re-watching Ken Burns great country music documentary. If you’re in to music and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You may not think you’re in to ‘country’ music, but if you watch the doc you’ll find so many influences for every type of music that has followed. It also shows the progression of how music recording developed. Early recording was live, raw, and, to me, the most emotional and ‘real’. Like all other genres, the recording lost me a little when all the edges were smoothed out and became more ‘corporate product’. But the ‘good stuff’ was always lurking in the background and all you have to do to find it is look a little deeper. This concept can really be applied to most genres of music. Let’s look a little deeper in to our lineup for this month.

First Up: Tall Tall Trees – ‘A Wave Of Golden Things’

As discussed in previous Grapevines, there’s many ways a song can touch you. The first thing that hits me in this song is the mood. The song strikes me emotionally before I even start to listen to the various instruments and production. I’m a sucker for melancholy. And melancholy does not necessarily mean ‘sad’. It’s a combination of lyrics, melody, music and delivery. If you’re a song writer, you find that’s not easy to do. Some beautiful lyric lines – “cuz you could warm the darkest hue the sun it came and knelt for you”. Then you have to hit the right melody notes. The music perfectly compliments the vocals. Sparse percussion topped with piano and keyboard. The bass line (sometimes played on the piano) anchors the song and provides a deep bottom end. Some nice background effects and vocals add mood. The cherry on top is a beautiful video which plays perfectly with the song. Watching the video helps you travel the path the song lays out, starting dark and lonely and ending up with a feeling of hope, even happiness.

Next Up: Lettuce – ‘House Of Lett’

So let’s take a listen to something completely different from our first tune. Lettuce is a funk band that originally formed in 1992. They started playing together after meeting while at the Berklee College of Music. Musically you can really hear their influences – 60’s, 70’s and 80’s funk/jazz bands. I’ve always had a love for this genre of music and it lead to me taking up bass guitar in the 80’s. There’s nothing better than finding the pocket playing bass on a good funk groove. If you break the song down and listen to all the separate instruments you can tell how technically accomplished all the members of this band are. To start try to hone in on just the drums and bass. This is the foundation of the song and allows the other musicians to break out individually on top of their groove. Great bass tone – very easy to pick out but not too ‘poppy’ or overpowering. The horns carry most of the melodic feel of the song. As with most good funk tunes, the song will break down to it’s simplest parts and build back up again. As with most good funk bands, Lettuce knows the importance of changes in dynamics during a song. I may be adding this album to my ‘bass play along’ collection.

Finally: The Heavy Eyes – ‘Late Night’

Let’s make one more hard turn for our final song. A little bit of sludge/stoner rock to complete our trio. There’s a number of things I like about ‘Late Night’. The mix is really well done to accentuate the different instruments. It starts with simple background percussion and a fuzzy, fuzzy guitar part. The interesting part of the mix is that they place this first fuzz guitar strictly in the left channel. Crisp drums are placed in the center with a second fuzz guitar coming in and out of the mix at different parts in the right channel. Another part of the mix I like is that the vocals are clear and out front where many bands recording this style of music will bury the vocals in the mix and drown them in reverb. Something that separates this song from others in the genre is the amount of open space they allow in the mix. I think the feel of open space makes each part more powerful when it enters the mix. This concept of dynamics is something they have in common with the funk of Lettuce. It shows how important some open space in both the writing of a song and in the recording.

Retro: R.E.M. – ‘Pilgrimage’

This song is from R.E.M.’s first album ‘Murmur’. I’ve listened to this album a few times recently and I’m always amazed at the depth of song writing for a band’s first album. There’s not a bad cut on it and there are a number of songs that are absolutely stunning. The album had the great first single ‘Radio Free Europe’. ‘Pilgrimage’ was the second cut and just blew me away. The song structure and mix are remarkable, especially for a band just starting out. It starts with the quiet background intro in to a kick drum driven guitar and bass riff. The build to the chorus and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. The chorus contains background ‘ahhhs’ as well the call and response harmonies. Dynamics play a big part in this song too. Change in dynamics may well be the theme for this month. The build to the chorus brings chills. Not many bands pull this off. R.E.M. is one of the few bands that lived up to the promise of their first album and maintained this quality of song writing throughout their career.