Friday, November 16, 2007

Sellaband's MoRRis...Making It Sound Easy

My son was about seven when he began to show an interest in basketball. This was the golden age of the Los Angeles Lakers and kids patterned themselves after Magic, Kareem and Worthy. If you were white, you were automatically called Larry or Rambis. Seven and eight-year-old kids, identifying with their heroes, called themselves point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards before they had acquired the basic fundamental skills needed to simply become "basketball players." As my son grew (he is now 6'9" and in his seventh year as a pro in the European leagues) he accepted the importance of learning everyone's role on a basketball team. Instead of limiting himself to one position, he acquired, through hard work, the skills and knowledge of the entire game.

And what could this possibly have to do with music? Tonight I had the pleasure of listening to the music of a Danish artist known as MoRRis. And if MoRRis and his fine group of musicians were a basketball team, it would be poetry in motion. Everything about this artist's music betrays years of experience, diligent practice, volumes of knowledge and tremendous skill. And, as is the case with most highly skilled performers, be it sports or music, the end product seems to be delivered effortlessly, with an abandon that can only come with true mastery of the art.

Before I attempt to describe MoRRis' voice, I'd like to say a few words about the instrumental tracks presented on their Sellaband profile. Young musicians, through the exuberance of youthful peer pressure, frequently categorize themselves prematurely before learning the fundamental skills involved with being well-rounded musicians in much the same way as my son's young playmates did. I know this because I did it myself. After being the world's greatest rock bass player, I became the funkiest dog on the block. Eventually, I ended up thinking I could play jazz until my first string bass lesson with the late great Monty Budwig delivered a well placed kick in the nuts to my ego.

Every wannabe jazzer thinks he knows what the concept of swing is all about. It's easy, instead of straight eighth notes, you lope along in either a dotted-eighth/sixteenth feel or a triplet...or someplace in between the two. Soloing is easy too, just blow chord outlines and scales as fast as you can in a dah du dah du dah du rhythm. The only people that won't be fooled are the ones that, like me, didn't know what the fuck was really supposed to be happening. Monty changed all of that and slowly I began to understand why the best studio musicians were usually great jazz players. Take the great Motown musicians for example. The dominant character of their recordings is feel. Every song they recorded, no matter what the style or genre had great feel. And without the rock solid jazz background common to all those musicians, those recordings would never have felt the way they did then and still do to this day.

MoRRis' recordings feel amazing. One of the high points for me is the piano solo of "When You Go." The two-beat feel of the song would be the perfect vehicle for the usual boring "swinging" solo, but instead, the solo plays straight eighths against the swinging track. The result is a short, sweet interlude with just enough jagged edges to reflect the serious nature of the song's meaning. It's only ten bars, but it tells a story.

Each of the three tracks are played masterfully and unselfishly by musicians who are obviously enjoying themselves and in no hurry to get to the end of the song. The resonator guitar on "For Sale" doesn't dominate the track but is conspicuous for its beauty of tone and choice of notes. Everything this band plays is understated and elegantly executed. As I listened for details I found myself caught up in the creamy feel and the songs would come to an end before I could remember what details I may have been listening for.

Readers of this blog will know that I have taught, coached and worked with singers at every conceivable level for thirty years. I've worked with phenomenal voices that had no heart, average voices that sang their asses off, and everything in between. I take particular pleasure in writing this review because it affords me the opportunity of listening to something very unique. Once in a blue moon, a beautiful instrument is married to meticulous technique and MoRRis is just such an individual. He sings as if he is not singing at all and that is where the magic lies. His delivery is natural to the point that the listener is seduced into feeling that he is singing the song himself. Although this may seem effortless, it is no accident. From a technical standpoint, MoRRis has mastered the fine art of letting the song do the singing for him. Anyone who thinks this is easy is probably not a singer.

One aspect of MoRRis' delivery I find particularly engaging is his sense of time. As stated regarding the band, MoRRis sings these songs spaciously without a hint of urgency. It is as if he wants the song to last forever. His phrasing, while deep in the pocket of the track, is dictated more by the meaning of the lyrics than the position of the kick drum. MoRRis has a youthful sounding voice but uses it with the wisdom of a seasoned veteran.

What really sets MoRRis apart from the crowd though, is the pure beauty of his tone. He could probably sing the telephone directory and elicit an emotional response from an audience. The fact that he is singing beautiful songs to beautiful accompaniments takes the whole package to a higher level.

Sadly, Denmark is a bit of a drive from Los Angeles so I won't be seeing MoRRis play live anytime soon. But next time I go to the gym to shoot baskets, I'll have MoRRis on the headphones. Then I'll think of my son, the hard work that made him the player he is today, and the hard work that makes music like MoRRis' sound so easy.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Creating a Fan Base

I read a post on the Sellaband forum recently in which an aspiring artist asked for advice in ways to increase their fan base, specifically, how to increase attendance at live gigs. The Sellaband community, always eager to contribute to the success of its own, responded with suggestions ranging from traditional methods of sending flyers and posting placards to employing the internet in reaching the eyes and ears of prospective fans.

One very simple method of increasing the fan base was conspicuous by its absence from the discussion however. But first a word about the environment in which aspiring artists find themselves today.

There have been many changes in the dynamics between artist and audience with the advent of inexpensive digital recording methods. The line between audience and artist has become blurred by the ability of non-musicians or amateurs of limited experience to create sound recordings which, in the ears of the creator, have the characteristics of actual music. User-friendly multi-track sequencing and massive loop libraries have created a cottage music industry wherein musical chops have been replaced by mouse technique and terms like "cut and paste" make studying counterpoint...well, pointless.

I find it of interest that the number and variety of live music venues has decreased in correspondence with the explosion of massive musical equipment outlets. There are more tools for the making of music and less places to use them every day. Professional recording studios are dying faster than family run restaurants. If one were to look at this trend with a pessimistic eye, embarking on a career in music would seem like a foolish ambition indeed.

Yes, everything has changed, and yet, nothing has really changed at all. The environment has generated a flood of uninspired creativity in all things. We eat food that isn't food, we watch reality television that isn't real and we listen to music that isn't really music every day. But somewhere, a chef is preparing a work of culinary art and and a writer is creating drama from his heart. Optimism dictates that the same holds true for the art of music and that quality will not succumb to compositional methods defined as being "user-friendly."

How does this apply to the question of increasing a fan base? I would suggest that people go to concerts when there is something to go for. That "something" must consist of an experience that they cannot provide for themselves. If an aspiring artist wants an audience, he must set the table and provide a real meal. It isn't a question of getting people to the gig. What is missing in so many live shows is the X-factor...which I define as "Being so goddamned good that they can't stay away." That which an artist provides for his audience must be better than whatever is on television that evening.

There has always been a sense of entitlement in the ranks of the less experienced. It is usually only after years of struggle that experienced artists can appreciate their own responsibility in providing a product that justifies a lasting relationship with their fan base. Many musical acts have "all the tricks of the trade...but no trade" as the old saying goes. Modern methods make recording a great sounding demo almost effortless. When an artist appears on the live stage however, the audience should not be expected to accept any less than that which he hears on a recording. Indeed, the experience should be enhanced by the immediacy of live performance...the "X-factor."

Recordings and live performances have a unique relationship in that each generates interest in the other. Good recordings will move listeners to want to witness the artist perform live, and great live performances will move an audience to buy the recordings which bring back the experience. An artist can insure that his recorded music finds an audience by making the very best recordings possible. And the simplest way an artist can increase his live audience is by shouldering the responsibility of being so goddamned good that they can't find it in themselves to stay away.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sheet Metal...Now That's a Friggin' Band Name!

I was thirteen when, having made the conscious decision to waste away my life in acts of dissipation and iniquity, I joined forces with the neighborhood do-nothings and formed my first band. This was just after guitar amps were being converted from whale oil to electricity as their power source and, ignorant of the idea that we were supposed to actually learn how to play instruments, we convened in the garage for the first order of business, the naming of the band.

The bands we admired had colorfully descriptive names which we were certain had been chosen after long deliberation and under the influence of powerfully psychotropic substances. Names like "Iron Butterfly"," Moby Grape" and "Strawberry Alarm Clock" were at the top of our list...but sadly, these were taken. This was serious business. A band name would carry the weight of conveying our intentions on its shoulders and wasn't to be taken lightly. After long deliberations, two fist fights, a break-up and ensuing band reunion, we decided upon "The Blue Bathtub"...All of us agreed that these three words would very clearly state our position to the throngs of rabid fans we envisioned carrying us on their shoulders to the promised land of fame and fortune.

In retrospect, I can state that I was over-ruled on that day so long ago. I lobbied long and hard for something on the order of "Sheet Metal" but lost my bid. Ah...what could have been. I was quite disturbed to find that a group of Londoners has stolen the name and the thirty years between events does nothing to alleviate the sting of having one's idea pick-pocketed for the benefit of another. "The Blue Bathtub" was good enough I suppose, But "Sheet Metal" has a ring to it that is unmistakable.

But this isn't about thirty years of pain, this is about focusing attention on an excellent London band with a name that describes what they do and how they do it in a most graphic way. Sheet Metal plays a brand of guitar-driven rock music with the classic attitude best described as "We don't give a shit!" And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. They play with precision and chops, write serious songs laced with humor, and in the spirit of the original renegade motivations behind the development of rock and roll, do it with a strut that says quite clearly, "This is what we think...and like it or not, we don't give a shit."

Guitarists Dollop and Grim (I sincerely hope that these are noms de guerre) have a lot of bases covered. Everything they play has balls...there is no polite way to describe the relentless attitude behind their chunky downstroke rhythm tracks. And while there is the occasional excursion into guitar-hero pyrotechnics, their command of harmony leads is exceptional and gives the impression of being a single, massive and toothy saurian guitar stopping just short of biting off the listener's ear lobes. Bassist Chinch plays the middleman, laying big fat notes under the guitars while reinforcing the excellent feel of drummer Pel. As a rhythm section, the band has no soft spots and it is obvious that the players bring out the best in each other.

One area where metal bands tend to show weakness is in the vocal department. Frequently, one can't hear the words, or when the words are audible, they, and/or the sounds made by the singer are regrettable. Metal songs are sometimes overly serious or pedantic, and many times performed in keys so high as to require the singer to pull one nut down into his boot. The front man of Sheet Metal, going by the name of Dreb, sings man songs in a man's voice. As a result, the lyrics are easy to understand and the attitude of delivery has the impact of a well placed fist rather than the whiny handbag smack of so many scarf-wearing screamers.

"Twenty to Life" and "My Name is the Law" are good representations of what this band is about. But of the three songs posted on Sheet Metal's Sellaband profile, "Searching For a Hero" really gave me an image of what fun it must be to play in this band. Imagine a punk metal band falling out of the rafters and landing squarely in the midst of a stage production of "Pirates of Penzance" and you get the idea. The nose-thumbing music hall humor is delivered with the ferociousness of the Ramones and the combination is irresistible.

This is a very good band with all the earmarks of experience. With their blend of meaningful lyrics, aggressively played but comprehensible parts and the uncompromising attitude of pranking teen-agers, there is a lot to love about Sheet Metal. Listening to three songs makes me want to hear much more from this band.

If you are in the United Kingdom, fall by a place called The Peel in Kingston on November 29th and see Sheet Metal live. You won't regret it...Sheet Metal is better than The Blue Bathtub ever was.