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!
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.
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?
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.
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.