Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Some Thoughts on Parts 2 and 3 of "Get Back" - or The Long and Winding Documentary (Heavy on the Long)

 At times, I thought it would never end. At other times, I wished it wouldn't end. 

Man, I still love the Beatles but two hours and 45 minutes for one part out of three is a lot to ask of a fan, especially when a lot of that time is spent watching them noodle around and avoid making big decisions. Unless the decision involves whether or not to travel to Tripoli and put on a concert there. 

I didn't finish watching all of the Beatles' Get Back documentary until this afternoon - three days after the last part premiered. I had fully expected to watch each one on the day that it was available, and to write about it soon after. But Part Two took more than two sittings for me to watch. After two of those sittings, I needed a Beatles break.

Peter Jackson did a good job of playing up the drama in the start of Part Two. When we last left the lads at the end of the last part, George had walked out on them. A meeting at his house "did not go well" as it was explained on the screen. Back at Twickenham Studios on the following Monday, Ringo was the only person -  at first. (Yes, folks, the drummer was the one you could depend on to arrive early!) During a long, drawn out sequence Paul finally arrives. Peter Sellers (who would start filming The Magic Christian with Ringo in a few weeks) drops in for an uncomfortable visit. We see Ringo appearing to tear up as everyone sits and waits anxiously. Paul just stares off into space, probably feeling nervous that there's nothing to do but wait for John to show up.

This issue isn't addressed but by this point in time, the Beatles have gotten so big, scaled so many artistic peaks, that they really have no idea how to proceed without being prodded. The whole impetus behind this project was that they enjoyed playing "Hey Jude" on a tv show so much that they decided it was time to get back onstage again. But they had no idea how to really do it. 

There was a time when they could record a whole album in a few days but that was because Eppy wouldn't let them out of the studio until they were done. (Don't take that statement literally, Beatle fanatics.) But now, the prospect of writing and learning 14 songs in a few weeks, with a big concert at the end seems preposterous. This was before the Music Industry (insert trademark sign here) was fully developed, with promoters who could jump in and set all of that up for them. They might have been the biggest thing since sliced bread in 1969 but when it came to business stuff, they were no more focused than an indie rock band.

The story eventually moves along to Apple, where an eight-track studio is jerry-rigged to record the band, who has scrapped the television show by now. With that weight lifted, they work on songs. And ham it up. Ringo seems to be most aware of the cameras in the room and he continually mugs into them throughout the next few days. 

Get Back doesn't capture full songs, if there were any played, but many fragments of them. Between Part Two and Part Three, there are umpteen versions of "Two of Us" which John and Paul sing in a variety of accents. One or two would have been enough. Yes, those cheeky Beatles can be funny but anyone whose been in a band will probably grow weary of the way the songs get continually sabotaged by John's tomfoolery. 

But there are great moments, many of them coming when Billy Preston shows up. The stories have abounded over the years that George invited the pianist/organist to come over but the film makes it look like Preston just happened to be in London and just dropped by. Maybe it's a coincidence that, just a few days earlier, George was raving to the band about how great a player Preston was. Now we see it on film. He sits down and elevates the music, holding a cigarette in one hand while he's playing with that same hand! I thought only Thelonious Monk could do that. It's kind of funny to hear the band talk about how they "should probably pay" Preston, but no one knows how much. 

Therein lies part of the problem here. Without Brian Epstein there to steer the ship, there's little consensus to be made by all the cooks in the kitchen. Paul seems more than willing to call the shots, but he doesn't want to be seen as the dictator. Plus, the whole project was unraveling as they continued and no one knew how to fix it. 

Get Back clears up the misconception that the band was breaking up and that they were miserable when the cameras were on. There are plenty of moments when they are having a good time. The Billy Preston moments were part of that. Linda Eastman's daughter Heather runs wild through the studio, grabbing microphones and wailing into them, but no one seems to phased by it. They seem happy to have her.

Part Two again ends with suspense, with the idea being floated of the band playing on the roof of Apple Studios, so the final installment slowly moves towards that end that we all know will come. An interesting risk comes up - about whether the roof can withstand the weight of all the people and equipment. But then the decision is made..... and they noodle around more, as they try to figure out what they'll play. Billy Preston shows up again and even takes a vocal break in a jam that would eventually become "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" which at that time was built on a Lennon vocal riff based on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. ("He could have been president," the Chief Beatle opines at one point.) During planning talks, George Martin pulls out a list of songs that they've  been working on. Throughout the project, 14 songs has always been the goal (the number of songs on a British Beatles LP) and though I didn't count, Martin's tally comes close.

The payoff to watching this whole thing comes in the final hour of Part 3. If you ever need to point to an example of why the Beatles are so revered 50 years after they broke up - and you don't have time for a long oratory - point to the rooftop concert. It was freezing up there. At least one of them (George) didn't relish the idea of doing it. They left any animosity or anger inside, came out of the building, still probably wondering what would happen, and they rock so hard. So hard, the Irish blood in me gets teary just typing about it. 

Even before they play, the energy is infectious. Paul does a jump before the music starts and his body language says, "Oh my god, we're going to play live again. I can't believe it." If he was uncertain about doing it, that inhibition blew away in the cold wind. Incidentally, that bass line to "I Dig A Pony" is crazy. It's fast with a lot of jumps and Paulie plays it with ease, like it's an open E boom-boom line. This is probably naïve to say, but after that, you'd think they'd want to stay together and play out more.

The concert portion is where Jackson's skills come into play. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg used 10 cameras to film that day - five on the roof, three on the street, one on the building across the street and one hidden in the lobby of Apple. Jackson uses that to create a triple screen effect, giving us the performance and the two hapless bobbies (who look they're about 14 years old) coming into the office and politely trying to shut things down.  These gentlemen are even ID'ed when they first appear. The older ladies who are interviewed on the street are a hoot too, several of them calling the Beatles "very nice, indeed."

The synchronicity of the police in the lobby and the show on the roof adds some comic relief to the program. The Beatles aren't maliciously ignoring the authorities. In fact they seem like they had no idea they would disrupt things so much. (Later, when they're listening to playbacks inside, George is heard asking what, exactly, was the reason the concert had to be stopped.) If they did know, they were still charming about the whole thing. 

A few random thoughts after seeing the whole thing: Mal Evans deserves special kudos for being the guy who was always there for the Beatles, bringing them food and drink, transcribing lyrics that John or Paul would dictate to them, and dealing with the fuzz during the concert. 

Glyn Johns, who was recording and overseeing most of the project, might be the sharpest dressed dude in the whole picture. A friend online said he looks a lot like Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell, the whacked out character in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls portrayed by John LaZar and he's right. His shag, big round shades and fuzzy coat would have Mick Jagger green with envy.

In Part One, George sells himself short by saying that all three of his new songs are really slow. It's funny when you consider the title track of the album that would eventually come out of these sessions, not to mention "The Long and Winding Road," which even with Phil Spector's string section, is still lugubrious. George brings in "Old Brown Shoe" in Part 3, playing it on the piano. Despite his limited keys skills, it sounds awesome.

SPOILER ALERT, sort of. The epilogue of the concert comes a day later when the band was filmed inside again playing "Let It Be," "Two of Us" and "The Long and Winding Road."  These highlights play on one side of the screen while the credits roll on the other. When they finish last song, John says he thinks they finally has a master take. Paul, on the other hand, thinks they should give it one more shot. Then it ends.

Fading after that difference of opinion had to be intentional.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Few Thoughts On Part One of the "Get Back" Documentary

There was a time when the Beatles Let It Be film could be found on YouTube in about nine separate segments. I had seen the film on the big screen once before, when I was about 13. It was less than a year after John Lennon had been killed, and the thrill of finally getting the chance (after missing it at the Pittsburgh Playhouse's film screenings, several months prior) ensured that it was a great film in my young mind. One memory of that screening was that the snare drum break in "Two of Us" sounded like a synthesizer, as it reverberated off the walls of the old Stanley Theater.

Watching the film online - several years after the Anthology series had come out, incidentally - there were some cool moments in it, but the film quality and the lack of energy through most of it made it a little... dull. Not as dull as Magical Mystery Tour but not really all that captivating. I don't buy the whole idea of "you can tell they're about to break up" but it doesn't capture them at their best. Not until the rooftop concert. 

But that's another entry. 

Today, I'm here to discuss Part One of the Get Back documentary that's airing this weekend on Disney+. I started watching it last night, following a Thanksgiving meal that couldn't be beat, foolishly thinking that I could make it through two and a half hours of watching a screen because it's the Beatles. That proved to be untrue. In fact, it started to feel a little tedious again, despite the crisp quality of the film. But when I returned to the final hour this morning, it was interesting again. 

First, here are the distractions. I was bothered by the continual use of audio that doesn't match up with the visuals onscreen. Sure there was a huge amount of footage for Peter Jackson to utilize, but this gets a little annoying when the camera is on George plaing while John or Paul are doing the talking, and they aren't speaking to George. If he had used this device once in a while, it would have been a little better. But he relies on it a lot and feels like cheating.

Second, the idea that the band gave themselves is pretty preposterous, even for the Biggest Band in the World. They want to put on a big concert - in less than a few weeks times because Ringo has a prior commitment that started at the end of the month - but they're going in to rehearsal with no idea where they'll do it or what they'll play. When they look tired or bored, that's not necessarily how they feel. They're under a whole lot of pressure to figure out this big concept in a short amount of time. On top of that, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (whose nasal voice reminds me Inspector Fenwick for the Dudley Do-Right cartoons) keeps suggesting they perform an open-air concert in Libya. The idea is floated in one segment to have the band and a bunch of the fans sail on a ship to the place where they will perform.

Get Back is probably a film for Beatle fanatics only. Despite the quick cuts, watching it compares a lot to watching any band's rehearsal, where things move slowly. You don't always get complete songs. (In fact, it feels like you don't get them most of the time.) There is a lot of hamming up during the songs, not for the camera but for each other. 

At the same time, therein lies a lot of the charm. It's the Beatles rehearsing for Pete's sake. The footage strips away the mythology and the legend and reveals them acting like a "normal" band, talking about chord changes and where to put little tags at the end of a phrase, and what to take out because it sounds corny. 

Most significantly, there is a section where Paul McCartney is riffing on his bass, trying to come up with an idea for a song. As he continues playing, you can actually see the gears click as he comes up with "Get Back." Whether or not you consider it one of his best songs, the moment is fun to see. It's also great hearing the lads take a shot at George's "All Things Must Pass," in which Paul adds a harmony and John plays organ. The harmony is an especially telling moment, revealing how these guys were so in sync with each other than Paul knew exactly what note to choose. 

The Yoko haters will probably be out in full force despite the fact that today's installment should rewrite the record. At the end of this secction, following George Harrison's walk-out, the other three take part in a noisy jam, with Yoko wailing away into the mike. After a major curveball that George threw them, it was good to see them having some fun, which included Paul leaning into his amp trying to get some feedback going. So while Yoko was at John's arm through most of it, she was hardly disrupting the band. And she was also seen talking and smiling with Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) after Linda makes her entrance.

Being a Beatle fanatic, I am enjoying the way Jackson presents the chronology of the event, indicating the start of each day by depicting a calendar and zooming in on the date. The climax of this episode leaves us in suspense. George has walked out, telling the others, "I'll see you at the clubs." I think his walk-out came as a result of a fist-fight or near fist-fight that he had with John, which was not captured on film. (I'm vaguely remembering a passage from a book about these sessions.) Jackson does employ some slow-motion techniques during this part to play up the drama, which seems a bit excessive. But if the cameras were stopped when the whole thing went down, I suppose it makes sense.

Looking forward to Part Two.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

CD Review: Jessica Pavone - Lull

Jessica Pavone

When giving Lull a deep listen, the ears became very attuned to fine details in the performance. The wood of the string instruments, resonating deeply. How loud upright basses can be when two are bowing together. The way all eight players create a flowing sound even if they're each playing one single note. The way Brian Chase's amplified cymbal goes in and out of phase as it moves after he strikes it. Finally, there are several moments when each string player's part can be heard distinctively among all the others, even as they blend together to create a bigger sound. 

Jessica Pavone - who composed the four-section piece and plays viola on it - wanted to explore the way sounds affect emotions, and drew on the work of sound healers to figure out how certain combinations can work together. The music can be jarring when certain combinations of notes are repeated over and over by the two violins, for instance. But the repetition never lasts too long before another instrument is added or the overall shape of the sound changes. "Indolent" begins that way, with the upper strings playing two clashing notes back and forth for 90 seconds. At that point, other strings join them, almost overpowering the initial clashing sounds and creating faster movement in the lower register. At one point, the strings stop sounding like string instruments and more like a droning organ, if only for a moment.

Along with the string octet (violinists Aimée Newman and Charlotte Munn-Wood, violists Pavone and Abby Swidler, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Meaghan Burke, basissts Shayna Dulberger and Nicholas Jozwiak), two additional players pop up in surprising places. Brian Chase (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) opens "Holt" with a series of random whacks on a closely miked snare drum, which, like his later cymbal work, allows for close scrutiny of the resonance that occurs when hitting the skin on the outer edges of the head. 

Trumpeter Nate Wooley adds some splatter to the final minute of "Holt" together with Chase. He stays for "Ingot," adding sustained tones that create some lush overtones with the strings. The performance feels in some ways like a continuation of Wooley's Seven Storey Mountain VI from last year, albeit with a little less storm. This piece eventually morphs into some scrapes and steady bowing before stopping with little fanfare. "Midmost" alternates between unsettling bits where everyone bows together - either in quick pitches or longer crescendos - and long beautiful drones, before the whole thing comes full circle, with the violins wrapping things up.

Lull is not an easy listen but part of the allure lies in figuring out where the music is going. The clashes of pitches and rigid delivery feels abrasive at first blush but this music should be given time, largely due to the fact that nothing else sounds like it. There are moments that might recall the tranquility of post-rock or the repetition of a composer like Morton Feldman but rarely do both of those elements come together in one work, if at all.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

CD Review: Steph Richards with Joshua White - Zephyr

Steph Richards with Joshua White
(Relative Pitch) stephrichards.bandcamp.com/album/zephyr

Steph Richards blows her trumpet in water vessels on some of Zephyr's tracks. (It's unclear what kind of water vessels she employs, though it's not exactly important either.) When she makes bubbles during "Sacred Sea," snatches of pitch occasionally come to the surface, as if the bubbles hold the sound and release it when they pop. 

The piece has a lot of open space, including several seconds where neither she nor pianist Joshua White play their instruments. Richards just taps her water bowls. As the piece goes on, her trills and runs sound like fragments of adventurous predecessors on the horn: Miles Davis, if his track on "He Loved Him Madly" was isolated; Bill Dixon exploring a room's acoustics with his extended technique; Lester Bowie having fun with his horn.

Zephyr features three suites, consisting of between three to five separately banded sections. Richards was six months pregnant when she recorded Zephyr. While that isn't quite a central theme to the whole album, the use of water acts as a link in some of the tracks. Two suites are inspired by environmental topics, and the idea of raising a child while such issues taken on greater significance; the other is influenced by the idea of a baby living in water. 

Considering the baby, though, explains the hushed moments of the Sacred Sea suite. Richards often blows freely, but she isn't always loud, per se. White plays in the title section as if he's trying not to disturb the baby. But on the rest of the album, the pianist doesn't worry about such things. He frequently uses prepared piano as a percussive counterpoint to Richards, imitating a rusty ride cymbal in some moments, adding both pulse and pitch elsewhere. He also does some Cecil Taylor-esque accompaniment in "Nixie," gathering fire as he moves forward. 

But the focus remains on Richards, and she spends her time producing a wide variety of textures that keep the program varied. The Sacred Sea suite is followed by Sequoia, which shifts away from the restless sound to a cleaner tone in "Cicada" before diving into some aggressive wah-wah mute squawks. "Sequoia" almost has a buttery classic sound, which contrasts delightfully with White, who sounds like two pianists playing at once.

The four "Aurora" segments of Northern Lights feature plenty of contrasting moods, from White's emphatic percussive beat in part one - adding fire power to Richards' bent, twisted notes - to the finale, where trumpeter briefly breaks away from some more quick, darting lines to approximate the roar of guitar feedback. It offers an emphatic conclusion to this varied musical journey.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

What Happens When I Go Back Into the Recording Studio

A Facebook memory from nine years ago popped up in my profile today, in which I talked about playing along with a click track for the first time ever, while working at Machine Age Studios. That means my previous band, the Love Letters, had our first recording session a good two years and change before our double 7" single was released in 2015. There were many sessions involved with the four songs that we recorded, including several where we worked laboriously with engineer Dave Cerminara (now a Grammy-winning studio guy in California) to make sure two of the songs sounded as good as the two songs that were mixed by John Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer, many others). But I couldn't believe the first session was that far back in time. 

Fast-forward to last weekend. Well, first, some context. 

The Love Letters drifted apart several years ago. Eventually I found a few guys who wanted to play together and we became the Harry Von Zells. (Despite being named after a guy who I consider to be a funny radio man from the '40s who was later on The Burns and Allen Show on tv, we weren't meant to be a joke band.) The band played one show, back on Thanksgiving weekend, 2019. Other shows were planned in 2020, but like everything else, they were cancelled. 

Somewhere along the way last summer, I hatched a scheme: Let's record an album. We can take our time with it and by the time the pandemic is over, whenever that may be, we can have a release show! We got together and practiced a few times (without using microphones) during the pandemic so we knew the songs pretty well. But then a month would go by and we'd miss practices, or someone wouldn't be able to show up. When we did reconvene, after we were all vaccinated, we were just spending time making sure we retained everything that we had learned in the past. Sadly, there was never enough time to devote to our cover of Van Halen's "Romeo Delight." (Don't knock it. These guys could pull it off.)

As I've gotten older, band practices and studio time become different things. I started wondering how hard it must be to record an album, getting the time to shack up in a studio to fine tune those things. How do you do it anymore? Personally, my psyche feels a big gravitational pull when it's time to leave the house for something other than work. Should I be doing this? Don't I need to stay around the house? The pandemic probably has a lot to do with that. But there are also other things that I feel like should come first. 

Plus the band was starting to unravel as I booked the studio time for us. Prior to our show on October 15, the four of us hadn't been in the same room for at least four months, probably closer to six months. We had one practice before that show, which pretty much came off without a hitch. It was a good night. But it was also the last.

However, the studio session was going to happen anyway. 

That being said, I was nervous about the whole prospect. It's been so long since I've done this. Things are so fragmented, bandwise. I don't have the confidence in myself that I once had. What's the point? I started putting it around that I'm done playing out, anyway.

So this is really where the story starts. Erik, our guitar player, was occupied getting ready for another album session with his wife Emily, which once again was going to take place at their house with none other than Kramer producing and playing on it again. (Emily is Emily Rodgers, incidentally, and Kramer's newly-revamped Shimmy-Disc label just released her album I Will Be Gone this year. It was recorded the same way.) Michael, our keyboard player, said he was available, but it seemed to make more sense to add keys after the basic tracks were down. That left me and Nathan, drummer extraordinaire.

It might be hard to tell, but
Nathan is twirling his stick here.

The two of us had a few practices with just bass and drums prior to the session, albeit it more than a month beforehand. The big takeaway from those practices was how much we both seemed to have the songs down. We knew what worked, knew all the changes, and we barreled through a whole set in one of those nights at the practice space. Maybe this wouldn't be so fearful after all.

We booked last Friday and Saturday night at Ice House Studios, a cool space tucked away in Lawrenceville. Drums could not be recorded until after 7 pm since there are neighbors in the building, but I had requested both days off from work, so my time was pretty open. Then Jon Miller, the owner of the studio, offered to let us set up on Thursday evening. We could set recording levels so we'd be ready to go on Friday. I had to work until 7 that night, but by the time I would get there, I figured Nathan might still be getting levels on his drums, so why not.

Jon (who has his back to the camera in the first photo in this post) made the whole evening feel relaxed and easy-going. He and Nate had the drums levels set by the time I got there, and we got my bass set up pretty quickly. Then the suggestion was made to try a song to see how it felt. It took a couple takes to get the feeling down, but it was there. Try another song? Sure. A few run-throughs later, we had the basic track for song number two. And we still got home at a decent hour.

Since I didn't work on Friday, I was able to have dinner and some coffee before heading back to the studio. (The coffee is the monkey on my back, these days.) Nathan and I were both ready to get some serious work done. Which is exactly what happened. We laid down parts for seven more songs, making sure we were happy with the performance before moving onto the next song. Having just two people playing also cuts down on the number of possibilities of a song screwing up. 

There was even time to do some fine tuning on a song. One of my songs sounds best if I use a pick on the verses, because I'm strumming to strings like a guitar. Anyone who knows me know that I never use a pick. Or at least I haven't since that fateful night in 1986 when Bone of Contention played on Flagstaff Hill and my fingers were bleeding so bad that I needed to use a pick. 

But that doesn't really count. "The Ultimate Treason" (named for a term Mike Watt was used to describe when a bassist leaves a band and starts another one where they play guitar) needs the strum, but I couldn't recreate my walking lines in the chorus with a pick. So we punched in the fingered chorus part after getting the whole track down. 

In another song where I play with distortion (Turbo Rat, for those of you who care), I added a second bass track, so I could do some feedback skronk at the end. That section starts with the second bass mimicking the first, and hearing the tracks back later, it sounded like an angry Moog synthesizer. Nate had only played that song a handful of times, but I think we nailed it in two, or maybe three takes. 

Once that was done, we had pretty much run out of material. There was one song I could have pushed Nate to do, but the time didn't feel right. And really, the nine songs we did seem like the ideal length for an album. (My songs are never as short as I hope they'll be anymore.) At that point it was clear, we didn't need to come back on Saturday after all.

Some of the songs that we did have been around the block many times. Like, through a couple different bands. I go through periods where I'm proud of them and other times when I think that maybe I should just put them out to pasture, and that maybe the quality of my songs are why it's hard to find people to play with me. Maybe they aren't that good. People have reminded me to just do what I want to do, musically. Do it for yourself. That's a good motto - but it begs the question, why even bother renting a practice space and working to get musicians together when you can just hear the songs in your head? 

That sounds bleak or sad sack-like. But that's not where I am. Now I'm at the point where I think, it's time to get these songs documented. Maybe I'll work on these recordings the rest of my life, like my own version of Orson Welles' Inherit the Wind. In the months leading up this session, I wondered if I'd have the focus for a song where I played almost everything, or a song where I got several friends to sing back-up on the songs. Anything is possible. 

But at least the first step has been taken, which seemed unlikely to happen for the longest time.