Glen Campbell

The Brilliance of The Wrecking Crew

The session musicians were the unsung heroes of the early days of rock and roll, often breathing life into the hit records that made up the soundtrack of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  The singers were the stars who got all the glory and attention, while the people who provided the backing music that drove the songs remained relatively faceless.  What audiences did not realize was that it was mainly only a small group of highly talented musicians that were behind most of the big hits of the era, a loose collective that would become known as “the Wrecking Crew.”  They were never a formal group, but together they played on hundreds of songs and provided the instrumentals for stars like The Righteous Brothers, Sonny & Cher, The Ronettes, and more.  To be sure, most people realized at least in the backs of their minds that someone was playing on those records, but they almost certainly did not know that these same musicians were also laying down the tracks for the albums of other touring bands, like The Beach Boys.

These fantastic musicians are finally getting some long-overdue recognition with the release of the documentary “The Wrecking Crew”, a project that has been years in the making and is finally seeing a release in theaters and online.  The film was directed by the son of one of the Wrecking Crew’s guitarists, Tommy Tedesco, and features interviews not only with several of the members of the “group” but with many of the artists and producers as well.  And of course the movie is filled with tons of great music, a veritable jukebox of legendary songs that you had no idea had this common connection.

The film does an excellent job of providing excellent insights into the dynamics of the music industry at the time as well as the recording process, especially the mechanics that went into creating Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound.”  We get a chance to see the insides of his legendary recording studio, and see how all the musicians would crowd together in the same tight space with dozens of microphones perched all over the place. One of the nuggets that we learn is that an essential component to the sessions was running the musicians through hours and hours of takes, so that in the end the feel had just the right amount of looseness and raggedness to feel effortless.  It was also fascinating to learn that although most of these musicians are expertly trained in jazz, they earned their places in the Wrecking Crew because unlike the previous generation they were willing to work on this “dumbed-down” form of music; many of the musicians successfully make the argument that it really was not much of an artistic sacrifice at all, that “work was work” and that they still performed at the highest level.

Along with various great moments from Tommy Tedesco, the documentary provides multiple in-depth looks at other performers, including the legendary drummer Hal Blaine and the brilliant bassist Carol Kaye.  I always love learning about the work of Blaine, especially his memorable performance on the classic “Be My Baby”, and he is an especially engaging presence in the film.  I would have preferred an even more extensive look at the song which features the most memorable drum intro of all-time, but then again the story of its recording could probably fill up an entire documentary on its own (for some additional information, here’s a great article that provides even more details about the recording of the song).  The interviews with Kaye are also a highlight, as not only does she pick up her bass and shows an example of how the Wrecking Crew would come up with their own arrangements from what was written, she also illuminates some of the intra-group dynamics, including the fact that she was treated as “one of the guys” as a fellow musician.

“The Wrecking Crew” does have some flaws, namely that for the most part it lacks a definite structure and a sense of flow, and is more of a hodgepodge of engaging anecdotes.  To be fair, other recent music documentaries suffer from this problem, most notably recent Best Documentary winner “20 Feet From Stardom.”  But the passion is apparent on the screen, and the numerous wonderful stories that the performers provide make it a film worth watching for any music fan.

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Catching Up On The Week (Feb. 20 Edition)

Some #longreads as you finalize your Oscar predictions…

Fans of Joy Division are probably well-aware that the famous illustration that graced the cover of their landmark album Unknown Pleasures was a graphic of radio waves from a pulsar taken from an old encyclopedia.  However, they are probably not familiar with the origins of the graphic itself.  Scientific American takes a look at the fascinating backstory behind the creation of what would eventually become one of the most famous images in music.

Earlier this week we published our review of I Love You, Honeybear, the brilliant new album from Father John Misty, and for those of you are interested now more than ever about the exploits of the man known as Joshua Tillman, check out the profiles on him by Rolling Stone and Consequence of Sound.

Consequence of Sound also takes a look at the trio BADBADNOTGOOD and how they ended up working with the likes of Ghostface Killah, and while you read it you can take a listen to their album Sour Soul, which is now available for streaming on SoundCloud.  The site also catches up with Elvis Perkins and fills us in on what he’s been doing in the years since 2009’s Elvis Perkins in Dearland as he prepares to release I Aubade next week.  Elsewhere, Pitchfork has an extensive interview with Sufjan Stevens available for your perusal this weekend.

If there’s a band that knows their way around cheap beer, it’s Red Fang, and Portland’s favorite heavy metal band recently persevered through a challenge from Denver’s Westword to rate some of the cheapest beer they could find.  Be sure to use that as inspiration for this weekend.

Ratter provides a great explanation of the copyright lawsuit over “Blurred Lines” between Marvin Gaye’s estate and Pharrell/Robin Thicke that is still making its way through the courts, including discussing exactly what parts of a song are copyrightable and how that can potentially affect the music industry.  You can even hear the musical excerpts from each side’s submissions to the court.

And finally, before watching the Oscars this weekend, be sure to read this New Yorker profile on the career and legacy of Glen Campbell, whose haunting “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is up for Best Song.  We’re pulling for him to take home the statue, but we think it may be a longshot.

Judging the Oscar Nominees for Best Song

With today’s announcement of the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, now is the perfect time to debate who should win the most prestigious prize of the entire show: “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.”  Now it used to be that the song that would win this award would be immortalized and become a part of our shared cultural canon.  Who could forget such classics as “Theme from ‘Shaft'”, “Born Free”, or…”Under the Sea”?*  However, in recent years Oscar has selected some real duds that even the songwriters’ parents would be hard-pressed to remember that they had won the Academy’s top prize.

So is there a song in this year’s crop that has a chance of achieving a place alongside such classics as “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp”?  In order to answer this question, we’re going to analyze each of the nominees and judge their relative merits, just as you would expect.  But since we’re listening to these songs for the first time, we’ll be presenting our snap judgments and relying solely on our first impressions for this analysis, keeping an informal running diary as we listen to each song.  And that is probably more listens than what most of the Academy will do when they fill out their ballots.

John Legend ft. Common – “Glory” (Selma).  John Legend is providing quite the uplifting framework….Common’s entrance was a bit abrupt, and featured what you would expect from a Common verse in 2015…Oh, so this song is going to incorporate the present day…Legend comes back…The “Glory” hook is good, but when it deviates from this it meanders…Common’s rapping would be perfect for a high school history class project…This song has a nice build to it, but it better pay off…I don’t think it will…Nice variation with this outro, but doesn’t quite finish.

Analysis: It seems to fit well with the movie and helps evoke some uplifting feelings, but there is no memorable hook and no climactic payoff.

Kiera Knightley – “Lost Stars” (Begin Again).  I was definitely not going to select the Adam Levine version, so we’ll go with the one presumably from the movie…Knightley has a better than expected voice, with the right amount of fragility and delicate touch…nice dash of strings…subtle shift into the chorus…ooh, appreciate the tinkling piano…the pre-chorus is really quite good, though the lyrics I’m picking out are a bit ridiculous…nice bridge…evocative overall build…good job with the slight pullback in the chorus, oh and great walking bassline counterpoint….pleasant.

Analysis: A good fit for the traditional folk/indie slot; it would probably be a solid addition to a mixtape (or probably a “playlist” these days), but it’s hard to imagine it will be particularly noteworthy.

Rita Ora – “Grateful” (Beyond the Lights).  Oh, Diane Warren wrote this, I’m sure it’ll be lovely…what the hell are these strings…Rita Ora does not have the voice I expected…those are some dramatic drum hits…oh, hey, some restraint…this does sound like a Pop/R&B torch song that you would hear on the radio in real life, so it has that going for it…Oh OK, now I know why the song is called “Grateful”…more of the same, but it makes sense…I don’t think I ever want to hear whatever program that created these instruments again in my life…I kind of wish Toni Braxton was singing this song instead…oh this bridge is ridiculous…is this song almost over, I think it made its point…I think she might be grateful.

Analysis: I’ve heard good things about Beyond the Lights and claims that it is underrated, but I hope it’s not on the basis of this song.

Tegan & Sara ft. The Lonely Island – “Everything Is Awesome” (The Lego® Movie).  OH HEY, I REMEMBER THIS SONG.  I ACTUALLY WATCHED THIS MOVIE.  AND THIS SONG REALLY IS AWESOME.  THIS SONG IS SO MUCH FUN THAT I FORGET ABOUT HOW MUCH I DISLIKE TEGAN & SARA.  EVERYTHING REALLY IS AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!

Analysis: Oh fuck yes.  Though I think that Batman’s song (“Untitled Self Portrait”) may be even better, though it worked so well mainly because it stood in contrast to the superfun “Everything Is Awesome.”

Glen Campbell – “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me).  Oh man, knowing that this song comes from the documentary about Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and how he goes on a final farewell tour already has me choked up…that is a a great chord progression from the piano…lovely backing vocals…oh those are some devastating lines, Glen…the sudden influx provided by the rest of the orchestra is reminiscent of Beck during his Sea Change era…that’s a fantastic reply, responding with “I’m not gonna miss you”….this is absolutely gorgeous…here is proof once again that modern country is a total abomination, when it’s a genre that can create wonderful songs like this.

Analysis: That is one beautiful song.

FINAL DECISION: It’s a two-horse race, between “Everything Is Awesome” and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”.  Both are excellent songs, though completely diametrically opposed.  The final winner will be determined by the mood of the voter as they cast their vote, and that’s hard to predict–sometimes they go for the carefree, happy tune while other times they prefer to honor the somber, respectful songs.  We have the feeling that the Academy is going to give Glen one last honor, if only because they seem to think it’s beneath them to honor a movie about a children’s toy.