Bass

Feats of Strength: Radiohead

Nearly twenty years after its initial release, Radiohead’s OK Computer has been endlessly praised and analyzed.  Critics and fans alike have not only pored over every note and probed the meaning of every lyric, but they have also made sure that everyone else knows of their discoveries and efforts.  Not only is this kind of behavior ripe for mockery, but it begs for the album itself to be taken down a peg, with ClickHole delivering perhaps the perfect take with their “oral history” of the album’s creation.

Though discussions about the album have become ubiquitous over the years, and as a result it may have lost its spell on some fans, I still feel an intense personal connection with OK Computer.  Not only do I enjoy revisiting all of my favorite parts that have been more-or-less implanted into my brain after hundreds of spins, but with each listen I am still discovering previously unheard details lurking beneath the surface.  Each member of Radiohead makes several memorable contributions to the album, from the group’s three-headed guitar attack, to Phil Selway’s inventive drum fills and steady beat, to Colin Greenwood’s melodic and thumping bass.  Colin’s basslines are often overlooked, but he usually performs parts that are significant for a song’s success.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was indeed written for a film, and though the fact that it was inspired by the ending of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet may cause some people to roll their eyes,* the movie ended up inspiring two of Radiohead’s best songs (the other being the menacing and magnificent “Talk Show Host”).  It begins with Thom Yorke alone on his acoustic guitar and singing sweetly to his “Juliet”, with a ghostly artificial choir joining in for the “chorus,” which provides not only a haunting effect but also the slightest touch of bombast.  The song returns to a solo Yorke for the next verse, before Selway’s expertly-produced fill kicks the song into the next gear, as the rest of the band, including Colin’s distorted fuzz bass, joins in for the bridge and outro.

Usually, the bass tone is treated as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing by most bands.  Guitarists will trade out guitars for each song to get a specific and precise tone, but many bands just stick the bassist with one bass, and even then the bassist rarely even does anything as simple as adjusting a knob or two to get a different sound; whatever specific sound the group arrived at for their first practice probably will cover the bassist for the rest of his/her career.  So when a bassist does something like stomping on a fuzz box to add some effects to the bassline, it tends to get noticed by most listeners.  However, because the tone can be so distinctive, it is probably best to use an effect like distortion only sparingly so as to not overdose on the sound.

In “Exit Music”, Colin’s use of a distorted bass fits perfectly.  It serves as an excellent counterpart to Ed O’Brien’s ethereal, high-pitched guitar melody, grounding the song by rumbling around in the muck.  Colin also executes a brilliant transition from a straight-ahead chug in his initial part to a big, swinging triplet counter-melody during the song’s explosive climax.  It is a glorious moment that remains mesmerizing to this day.  Colin has used the fuzz bass to great effect in later songs, like the hypnotic riff in “The National Anthem” as well as the delirious “Myxomatosis”, but in my opinion “Exit Music” is still the best use of that specific tone.

*They have been showing Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby on HBO a lot lately, and even though I expected from the previews to see that Baz truly did not understand the novel, it was amazing to see in the forty-five minutes or so that I watched how a director can make so many incredibly poor decisions.  Just everything from the acting, sets, dialogue, etc.–complete trash.

Feats of Strength: Sigur Rós

I remember how when I heard Sigur Rós for the first time, I was astonished that music like this could exist.  The band had constructed a startlingly beautiful and truly unique sound, creating gorgeous, ethereal soundscapes that were complemented by brilliant and memorable melodies.  There was an ethereal and unearthly quality to their songs, and it was difficult to comprehend just how the band was able to craft these songs using standard musical instruments.  This paradox is illustrated perfectly by “Svefn-G-Englar”, my introduction to the band, which sounds as if it was broadcast from under the sea, with its delicate keyboard melody accented by what seems to be the ping of a sonar, as a reverb and feedback-drenched guitar slowly begins to roar until it finally erupts.  And all that is before Jónsi’s vocals kick in–his incredible range along with the fact that he sings mainly in Icelandic helped add to the exotic nature of their music.  It was difficult to comprehend that humans actually created this music.

Over the years, I learned more about the methods the band employed to craft their singular sound, namely Jónsi’s use of a bow on his guitar for certain songs.  Seeing the band live also helped clear up some of the mystery, as sounds that bled together before could now be delineated into distinct guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum parts.  In some sense it was a bit disappointing to confirm that mere mortals were responsible for this music, much like how some of the allure is rubbed off when one finds out the secret behind the magician’s trick.  On the other hand, one can find it inspiring to realize that when it comes to music that magic in fact does not exist.

But just when it seemed that all mysteries were solved, leave it to one of the unsung heroes of the band to figure out a way to surprise listeners.  Georg Holm has been holding down the low end for the band for years with his basslines, but sometimes his contributions can get lost in the mix.  However, his unusual bassline for Hafsól, a track that has evolved from the band’s earliest days, that stands out.  The emphasis is purely on the rhythm, an unusual stuttering pattern that rarely strays from a single note.  It seems the only way to get that precise pattern would be with the use of a pick, but live footage proves otherwise.

In fact, Holm is using a drumstick to create this particular rhythm!  Considering that he is relying on a slight drum roll to create the figure, it is amazing that Holm is able to consistently recreate the same pattern over and over again.  Then again, Holm considers himself a “drummer” and that his role is really “just to try to make the drums sound better.” The use of a drumstick with a stringed instrument is not unheard of, but usually it is for creating only a pure percussive effect and not for anything melodic, with cacophony being the usual goal.  The band deserves a lot of credit for its creativity and its experimentation with tactics like this, and finding different ways to surprise their audience.

Feats of Strength: The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen has largely been forgotten these days, even though it has been less than a decade since their debut album; if they are remembered at all, it is solely as an odd footnote, only to be invoked when listing the wide variety of projects that frontman Damon Albarn has pursued outside of his original work with Blur.  Damon was fresh off his recent work with Gorillaz, and at the time there were plenty of people that were intrigued to hear what the unconventional combination of Albarn with The Verve’s guitarist Simon Tong, The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon, and Feta Kuli’s drummer Tony Allen would create.  Most listeners probably did not expect the hazy and melancholic depiction of modern London that the album didn’t turn out to be, and as a result the record was left to be a curiosity to be occasionally puzzled over when stumbled upon in a record store’s bargain basement bin.

This album came out during my time working in radio, and I remember being one of those eager fans who feverishly anticipated its release.  I ended up playing the single “Herculean” on our specialty music show for a few weeks, even though I found it to be a strange choice–though it had a nice groove and some pleasant melodic ideas, there was no real hook to draw in the listener.  I borrowed a copy of the album for personal use, and eventually found it to be agreeable study music since it didn’t force me to shift away my attention from my reading.

My opinion of the album radically shifted the first time I listened to it on my iPod.  Before, I only paid attention to the finger-picked acoustic guitar arpeggios of “History Song”, but now with the benefits of headphones I was greeted with a surprise in the first thirty seconds.  Hey, I can finally hear Paul Simonon’s contributions to the album!  When I was listening to the band either through the speakers in the studio or through my laptop, the mix was improperly balanced so that Simonon’s bass was swallowed up and barely noticeable.  The speakers were usually not a problem, but there was a sweet spot where the particular tone and level of the bass didn’t come through on this album as it did on others (or I had been lazy with my listening and only could pay attention when I had speakers jammed into my ears for the first time–either explanation works).  Simonon’s bass was a revelation, because it turned what I had previously perceived to be a gentle acoustic ballad into a dank, reggae song.  Listening closely to his part, I was reminded of his classic Clash contribution “The Guns of Brixton”* and marveled at how his dub influences totally changed the feel of the song.

Now that I was fully alerted to Simonon’s presence, my opinion of the album completely shifted.  His bass provided a captivating counterpoint to the album’s more prominent textures and melodies, and now that I could identify his bass lines, each song became much more compelling.  Simonon is able to accomplish a lot even with relatively simple lines, as in the title track–the bass grounds the song even as everything is falling apart around it, making the overall effort much more effective.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is proof then of how the bass can subtly affect the perception of an album–or that you need to make sure to listen to a record through several sets of speakers before finalizing your impression.

*Oh hey look, there’s Paul Simonon on one of the greatest album covers of all time!  Remember that for all your future trivia needs.

Catching Up On The Week (Sept. 12 Edition)

Some #longreads and a handful of other assorted goodies for your weekend…

We always appreciate it when people write articles about Teenage Fanclub, especially those pieces which talk about how underrated the group and their special brand of power-pop was.  The AV Club urges readers to listen to Songs From Northern Britain in particular, and hopefully that inspires people to pick up the rest of their fantastic catalog.

Noisey interviews Interpol as they return to New York in support of El Pintor, and gets the band to open up a bit about the departure of Carlos as well as the band’s new mindset.  It’s definitely worth reading if you’re a fan.

Stereogum has another twentieth anniversary retrospective ready to go, this time taking a look at Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal debut, Ready To Die.

There’s a cool video making the rounds called “100 Bass Riffs: A Brief History of Groove on Bass and Drums”.  It’s a great way to explore the development of music in the last fifty years, and the musicians will impress you with not only their pure skills, but their memory and stamina as well.

Pitchfork interviews Karen O for their 5-10-15-20 feature, as she explains how certain songs affected her over the course of her life.

NPR’s Drum Fill Friday has Jim Eno from Spoon as their guest picker, and I had a real tough time with this one–see if you can do better than 2 out of 5.

And finally, take a look at why “Grandmaster Flash” keeps trending on Facebook.  Unfortunately, it’s not due to everyone re-posting “The Message”.

Over the Weekend (May 5 Edition)

New music, new videos, new articles, and even new music lessons for you this week, so no complaints this Monday.

The Black Keys will be filling up the newsfeeds of most music sites this week, in preparation of the release of their new album Turn Blue next week.  For those who want an early listen, it’s streaming through iTunes, or if you want your new Black Keys given to you in a more piecemeal fashion, Slate has the video of the band performing the new song “Bullet in the Brain” for Zane Lowe.  And for those of you who are more visually-inclined, the band has released a video for early single “Fever”.  It finds the band adopting the lo-fi aesthetic of other videos like “Lonely Boy” and “10 A.M. Automatic”, and features Dan Auerbach as a haggard Evangelical preacher trying to inspire his flock, while looking as if he’s afflicted with the malady from the title.

Coldplay performed two new songs from the upcoming Ghost Stories on the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, and Pitchfork has the video of the songs, plus Chris Martin’s appearance in a sketch as well as an unrelated sketch about the perils that come with daring to speak ill of the goddess Beyonce.

The Antlers are continuing to tease fans with details of their upcoming album Familiars, providing SPIN with the stream of their latest track “Hotel”, which reminds me quite a bit of Burst Apart‘s “I Don’t Want Love”.  The music is still as gorgeous and haunting as ever, and I can’t wait to hear the new album.  Also relevant to my particular interests is the fact that after seemingly skipping out on Portland for their upcoming tour, they will actually be visiting the Rose City as a part of the just-announced MusicFest NW lineup this August 16-17.

Sharon Van Etten shot an interview and performance with the AVClub for their Pioneering series, and for the occasion she chose to cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night”.  Check out the videos here.

For those looking for a #longread for the week, I recommend this Billboard article which excerpts the Fredric Dannen book Hit Men and discusses the long battle over the royalties for Meat Loaf’s mega-selling Bat Out Of Hell album.  It’s infuriating to see the treatment of the original producers by Sony and their continued attempts to duck out of their obligations for proper payment.  In case you had any lingering sympathy for the major record labels, this should help extinguish that pretty quickly.

And finally, for those of you looking for a little help in learning how to play the bass, check out this article from Dangerous Minds which provides an assortment of tracks featuring everything but the bass stripped out, courtesy of the website notreble.com.  Maybe this will help you graduate from Air Bass to an actual Bass.