Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Brief History of Crunch: The Tube Screamer (Part I)

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 27th, 2014

The Ibanez “Tube Screamer” is like the iPhone of overdrive pedals; everyone you know has one, and those who don’t, want one – even if they tell you somewhat contemptuously otherwise. The Tube Screamer (especially its first two iterations, TS808 & TS9) is arguably the most venerated of stomp-box effects.

The reverence musicians hold for the Tube Screamer is due to the sort of sympathetic relationship it establishes with a tube amp: “As you increase the amplitude of an input signal to overload a tube amp’s preamp,” writes Lindsey Tucker for the Premier Guitar site, “it distorts the signal in a way that adds sustain, edge, and harmonic liveliness, while preserving the innate tonal characteristics of the guitar and amp-and without obscuring the player’s dynamics.” The reason for the pedal’s appeal is not unlike that of the Klon Centaur, which was discussed on this here blog a couple months back; if anything, boutique effects like the Centaur were very determined attempted to imitate or even out pace what the Tube Screamer had already done

Ironically enough, Ibanez and parent company, Hoshino, made a name for itself in the late 60s and early 70s for producing Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker knockoffs. Nisshin, the Japanese outfit that supplied pickups for some of Ibanez’s ersatz instruments, was in fact the company that manufactured the first Tube Screamer, and other effects, for Ibanez, but as result of an interesting if somewhat vague arrangement between Nisshin and Ibanez/Hoshino, “Nisshin was allowed to market its own line of effects, which were identical to those it made for Ibanez,” as Tucker writes. In 1979, the fist Tube Screamer, TS808, debuted and was quickly picked up by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitar greats.

But the Tube Screamer wasn’t the only new kid on the block. Around the time of the TS808’s debut, the Roland company was producing the first overdrive by the now ubiquitous pedal brand, Boss. And to the dismay of the Tube Screamer’s circuitry designers, Roland/Boss had already obtained a patent for their overdrive pedal’s asymmetrical clipping system, and so Ibanez was prodded into going with a symmetrical clipping system for their overdrive design. In fact, the different clipping systems were really the only thing that set the two overdrives apart. Boss’s asymmetrical clip was designed to distort the top and bottom of the sound wave in a rather varied fashion, much like a tube amp would. This was a major selling point for Boss, because at the time, in the late 70s and early 80s, amp manufacturers were moving away from tubes toward solid-state designs, and a distortion effect that could really capture the desirable crunch of a tube amp while masking the then poor sound quality of solid-state amplification would almost surely sell like lemonade on a hot, humid day.

But the competition didn’t stymie Tube Screamer sales. The Tube Screamer was one of the first pedals to include the JRC 4558D integrated circuit chip, and as former Ibanez product manager John Lomas maintains in Tucker’s Premier Guitar article, “the sweet, vocal mid-range sound the TS808 is known for has everything to do with that JRC4558D IC chip-which explains why Lomas and many other overdrive aficionados prefer the sound of the original over other permutations of the pedal that have emerged over the years.”

It’s not hard to find internet guitar forums where commenters assert the superior sound of the original Tube Screamer design and that any position to the contrary would be indefensible, even reprehensible. And if this is an indication of anything at all, it’s that the Tube Screamer has left an indelible mark on the sound of contemporary rock music.

(More to come…)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Required Listening: Angel Olsen

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 19th, 2014

I discovered Angel Olsen in a peculiar, almost serendipitous way. I had been struggling to nap after work one afternoon, and thought it’d be helpful to listen to something relaxing, soporific even, something to lull me into an easy sleep. I opened up my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed, and in YouTube’s “Recommended” section was a thumbnail for thisvideo. She seems like a pretty voice, I thought.

But instead of singing me a lullaby, Angel Olsen had me bewitched. I lay on my back, nearly catatonic, the lights out, staring at the ceiling fan as it whirred overhead, mesmerized by the sweet pluck and strum of Angel’s old, shabby guitar and by her truly singular voice – performing in this video the song “Some Things Cosmic,” Olsen goes seamlessly from a gentle lilt to an eerily ghostlike wail as she sings, “I’ve felt my soul/Rise up from my body/Like the way a soul can rise/When it dies in the light.” Needless to say, I couldn’t fall asleep; instead, I felt something akin to an out-of-body experience, and was nervous about my soul getting caught in the ceiling fan.

To call Angel Olsen a folk singer would be misleading. She is doubtless a singer steeped in an American folk tradition, but she’s also so much more than just a Joan Baez or Patsy Cline imitator. She is a musician through and through. Just listen to the brief but punchy garage-jam “Forgiven/Forgotten”, then the harrowing ballad of crime and betrayal “Miranda”, then the slick, bouncy sing-along “Hi-Five” for proof that Angel Olsen is a folky “singer-songwriter” type who’s also capable musically of almost anything.

To date, Olsen’s catalogue consists of two almost flawless full-length LPs, Half Way Home (2012) and Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), and a quiet but really quite stunning EP called Strange Cacti (2010). If you sit down for a couple hours and listen to each album in its proper chronology, you witness not only the growth and formation of a great musician but Olsen’s uncanny ability to shape-shift musically. From the Lennon/McCartney-esque songster of “The Waiting” - “I wasted time to ponder/Here I am now all Alice in wonder…” – through to the sighing matador of “The Sky Opened Up,” with its Flamenco-inflected admonition “No One Will Ever Be You For Yourself,” to the solipsistic narrator of“White Fire,” a cold, disquieting, all-too-cerebral song that would have given even Samuel Beckett the shivers: “I walk back in the night alone, got caught up in my song/Forgot where I was sleeping, none of the lights were on/I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt,” Angel Olsen morphs effortlessly, and at will, into sonic representations of the characters her songs so precisely describe.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Animals As Leaders: Prog-Metal with a Human Heart

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 9th, 2014

I have always been a little leery of the label ‘progressive’. When applied to a politician or public figure, say, who sports the term like a boy-scout badge but whose politics is really no more radical than Joe the Plummer’s, I can easily enough change the channel. No secret here that “progressive” is a designation not to be taken all that seriously; it’s usually just a synonym for status quo with some spice.

Likewise, the notion of progress in music has been debased so thoroughly as to become a meaningless appellation of genre (progressive rock, progressive metal, progressive prog-rock, and so on). These sub-genres are used to refer generally to any type of music made within an established and recognizable form – like rock-&-roll or heavy metal – but have the added flare of disorienting time signatures, odd and elaborate arrangements, dizzying speed and butt-clenching dissonance, among some other strange characteristics.

Now, my problem with so-called progressive music is not with any one of its technical aspects listed above; I firmly believe one could just as well make an interesting and successful rock song in 4/4 as in 5/4. My reservation is that more often than not progressive music seems a tacit rejection of the musical achievements of the past; it’s obsession with moving forward is such that anything that came before is treated not as a tool but as refuse. The ahistorical attitude espoused by such music creates, I think, an almost impassable emotional gulf between the music and its listener. Usually, when I listen to music termed ‘progressive’, I feel as though I’m looking at a Chimera through five inches of bulletproof glass at the Bronx Zoo.

For someone with such firmly rooted preconceptions about progressiveness of all shape and color, it came as somewhat of a shock when I listened to Animals as Leaders’ latest, The “Joy of Motion,” and was genuinely moved by it. When the idea of writing a review of this album had been proposed to me, I was, in a word, trepidatious. The anxiety of trying to discuss a band known primarily for its virtuosic use of 8-string guitars (the group consists, currently, of two guitarists and a drummer, no bassist) lay not so much in any type of contempt for the music as a fear that I’d be at such a remove from the music that I’d have nothing to say.

What moved me about “The Joy of Motion” is how it’s at once a very determined step forward and a sincere celebration of everything that came before it. Listening to the record, you get the very definite sense that Animals as Leaders are not only trying to embed the entire history of music within their songs but also anticipate the course music will take in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Because there are no lyrics on The Joy of Motion, and no story is being told in the traditional sense, the songs function almost as characters, each with his or her own richly developed personality. Every song has its moments of calm and mania, of melancholy and ecstasy, of skull-crushing violence and gentleness. By each song’s end, you can almost make out the form of the character being described by every note and drum beat. “The Joy of Motion” leaves you feeling like you just finished a novel in just under an hour, and for that hour lived intensely in the world of the characters Animals as Leaders so precisely, so elegantly limned for you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Have Another Listen: Kevin Morby’s Harlem River

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 2nd, 2014

On the Friday before last, Kevin Morby (best known as bassist of the psych-folk outfit Woods and singer/guitarist of winsome garage-rock band The Babies) played a set of solo material from 2013’s “Harlem River” at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The show was an intimate one, which was not so much a consequence of the venue’s small size - surprisingly little nudging was required to secure a spot up front – but a result of the inherent intimacy of Kevin Morby’s songwriting.
Appearing on stage in a slightly oversized red button-down to match his candy-red Jaguar, Kevin Morby seems exhausted - the bags under his eyes hung so prominently on his face that it seemed at first glance as though he’d been in a brawl the night before. Morby’s appearance onstage gave new significance and just plain truth to the lyrics of “Harlem River’s” opening track, “Miles, Miles, Miles:” “If y’knew the depths I’d wandered/Or measure that hole that I’m in/If y’knew just how far I traveled/Then, maybe then, only then…”

More than any other album I’ve listened to in a while - the exception being quite definitely Angel Olsen’s “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” (2014) - “Harlem River” really lets you inside; as a listener, it compels you to nestle within the array of musical textures that Morby has so deftly arranged. From the shimmering chords of “Slow Train” and the meandering bass-line of “Miles, Miles, Miles” to the rollicking shuffle time of “Reign” and Morby’s quick, bluegrassy finger-picking on “If You Leave and If You Marry,” there’s a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of sonic nuances to be picked from the album’s soundscape.

But what I want to focus on here is Harlem River’s title track, which is the album’s keystone, keeping “Harlem River’s” whole airy architecture aloft. Clocking in at a little over nine minutes, “Harlem River” is a protracted love song to the city of New York, from which Morby recently left after a number of years for the warmer climes of Los Angeles. “I had kind of burnt out on New York at that point,” Morby said in an interview of the song’s subject and namesake, “and this area in the north of Manhattan, something about it up there is really nice. It’s really peaceful. I don’t think it’s the most desirable river in the world; it’s this dirty, gross river, but there’s something about it I really like.” “Harlem River” is sort of the culmination of the lonely wayfaring aesthetic Morby gropes at in the other songs on the album. With a pleasantly congested Midwestern lilt, Morby has found solace on the quiet, lapping shores that separate northern Manhattan and the Bronx; “Harlem River talk to me/Tell me what you think about/Harlem River I’m in love, love, love, love.” But it’s a love that is requited only after you’ve left for good: “And ride on/ that easy rider/Flow like, that Harlem River…I ride for you.”

“Harlem River” is also probably one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums in recent years. Note the nice but, finally, lackluster review on Pitchfork, in which Jeremy Gordon writes, “Harlem River is mostly concerned with different shades of subtlety, which makes the rare overt moments stick out like an anarchy patch on a wedding dress,” not a bad quality for a record to possess by any means, but then he gives the album a 7.0/10. I suppose we can argue for days about the arbitrariness of Pitchfork’s rating system. My recommendation would be to give the album a listen, or better yet see if you can catch Morby perform these songs live, and decide for yourself if Harlem River deserves what amounts to a C+. In my mind, it’d be a mistake to pass over this album too quickly.