Ohio

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The tragic events this week in the USA this week where three students were shot dead at the University of North Carolina brought to mind Neil Young’s powerful protest song ‘Ohio’.

On 4 May 1970 four unarmed college students were killed and 9 were injured at Kent State University when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on an organised protest against the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Young wrote the song after seeing photos of the incident (such as John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph above, showing Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14yr old girl, kneeling over the dead body of Jeffery Miller, minutes after he was shot).

The song was recorded with Crosby, Stills & Nash and rushed to release only a few weeks after the event itself. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming”, Young spits (referring to US President Richard Nixon, whose policy led to the invasion of Cambodia at a time when the Vietnam War had appeared to be winding down) eventually incanting the line “Four dead in Ohio” over and over.

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Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

 

 

Leon Wilson

Pump It Up : Music and Exercise

 

imageI did it. I finally started doing some exercise.

A combination of looming mortality and an upcoming stag weekend involving some mountain biking finally persuaded me to get the old pushbike out and start pedalling. The bike was an obvious choice; I always hated running further than 200m (I was a sprinter at school,you see) and team sports are always dependant on organising yourself to other peoples’ schedules. I used to cycle everywhere as a kid. In the school holidays I would think nothing of cycling to my grandparents house in Nottingham, staying for lunch and then cycling home again – a round trip of around 35 miles.

So, I lifted my cheap, heavy mountain bike down from the hanger in the side entry (where it had sat pretty much untouched for the past 7 years) hosed it down and got it road worthy. I planned out a 10km route and hit the tarmac.

On that first ride out I learned three important things. Firstly, I was unfit. To be fair, I knew this already; the pain in my lungs and legs just reinforced this fact. Secondly, cyclists wear those silly padded shorts/tights for a reason; I now knew the true meaning of the terms ‘saddle sore’ and ‘chafed inner thighs’. Thirdly, I didn’t realise how much the music I listened to on my ride affected my performance and state of mind.

I had a load of songs randomly downloaded onto my phone playing through my ear buds and I found that on one particularly nasty uphill stretch the song ‘Somebody Told Me’ by The Killers really helped me tackle the climb. The lactic acid build up in my quads still hurt like hell, but as I pedalled in time to the beat the music took my mind off the pain and the tempo helped me settle into a rhythm.

With this in mind, I decided to look into the link between music and ex
ercise. I found that a lot of the landmark research has been conducted over the past 20yrs by Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport. “Music is like is a legal drug for athletes,” says Karageorghis, “It can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent.”

Further research by Porcari and Foster of the University of Wisconsin looked at the idea of entrainment or synchronization, where you want to step at the rate the music is playing or you want to pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music. This is something that goes back to the rowers on the Roman Galleys. “The guy is sitting there beating on his drum”, says Foster. “and he drives the basic rhythm of the rowing. Part of that is coordination—you want the rowers to row together—but part of it is that people will naturally follow a tempo. It’s just something about the way our brains work.”

I went online and looked up the beats per minute (bpm) of’Somebody Told Me’ and found it to be 138. This, I figured, was the natural rate (or ‘cadence’ in cyclists terms) that I turned the crank, ie. 70 revolutions per minute (are you still with me?). I then found website called https://cycle.jog.fm to search for other songs around 140 bpm. Next I downloaded those songs that I had in my music collection onto my phone, made a cycling playlist out of them and hit the road again (kitted out in some newly appropriated suitable gear).

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Now we were talking! The song selection had two positive effects on my performance. Firstly, the tempo helped me keep my natural cadence of 70rpm. Secondly, as these were songs from my collection that I knew and loved, I had some sort of emotional connection with them, and this motivated me more and distracted me from the discomfort felt when pushing myself.

I won’t bore you with all the performance details as there are far better blogs on exercise than my fledgling efforts (please check out my friend Malcolm Bradbrook’s excellent blog at http://mbradbrook.blogspot.co.uk where he is currently training for the London Marathon), but two weeks and 5 rides later I had knocked a whopping 11 minutes off my 10km route time.

I’m now getting some off-roading done in preparation for the mountain biking weekend in Wales (there are some excellent bridle paths and woodland tracks nearby to hone some MTB skills). You just can’t beat battling your way through some rutted horseshoe-imprinted tracks, getting plastered in mud and then bombing downhill on a country road with the chorus of ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac blasting in your ears (137bpm FYI).

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Three and a half weeks into this cycling lark and I think I may have caught the bug; I managed 52km (32miles) in my three trips out this week. I knocked another 57 seconds off my 10km circuit in the process, with the help of Elvis Costello and the Attractions who started playing ‘Pump It Up’ (140bpm) just as I was starting the last leg-destroying climb up Duffield Road from Five Lamps towards the end of the circuit. “Let’s f#*@ing do this Elvis” I screamed at no one in particular at 6.30am on a dark, cold Saturday morning.

We did it.

 

 

Leon Wilson

 

 

Nothing but ‘Sky Blue Sky’: Rediscovering The Album

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I have started listening to music in a whole new way because I have changed my car.

I finally sold the old lovable Chrysler rust bucket. She made it to the grand old age of 14 and clocked up 153567 miles, which is just over six times around the world (x times around the world is the official lazy journalism measure of distance, just as x times the size of a football pitch/Olympic sized swimming pool is the equivalent for area). I do miss the heated leather seats (the strange feeling that you had just wet yourself followed by the relief that it was just the seat warming up after all), but I don’t miss the audio system.

It had a tape player (yes tape player!) which gave up the ghost about a year ago and a power outlet which also failed so that I couldn’t power my 11 year old, 3rd generation iPod, whose battery goes from fully charged to dead in less time than it takes Usain Bolt to run 100m.image

I could have downloaded stuff onto my phone to plug in and play but I didn’t because a) I would have to choose a selection of less than 100 songs to fit on my phone’s memory and I didn’t want to face the selection process (eg. which song do I pick off Neil Youngs ‘After the Goldrush’; or do I just pick them all?) and b) I couldn’t be bothered.

I could have done the Spotify/Deezer thing with my phone but still don’t feel entirely comfortable with the concept (yes, I do have an iTunes account, but I think we’ll have a discussion about artists’ right on a future blog, OK?)

I’m sure there were plenty of other options available to me, but I decided to listen to music on the radio. This had some bad points and some good points.

In the minus column was having to put up with some of the vacuous, narcissistic DJs out in radio land. Well, to be honest, I didn’t put up with them at all; I just changed station. (I did have a soft spot for Tony Blackburn on Radio 2 though; he transcends naval gazing banality with his links and comes off as a sort of post-ironic comedy legend- “That was Adele with ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ – please don’t try that at home folks, you’ll only waste your matches”). Because there are so many dodgy DJs out there, I spent the past year surfing the radio waves like a NASA technician searching the galaxies for extra terrestrial life. I’ve literally worn the printing off my ‘Seek’ buttons trying to achieve musical fulfilment (stop sniggering at the back, that wasn’t a dodgy euphemism…)

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In the plus column, I stumbled across some great new (well, new to me) artists and music; more of that in a bit.

Anyway, what I was trying to get to is that now I have a CD player in the car.

“Well done!”, I hear you all say sarcastically, “welcome to the 21st century (about 15 years later than everyone else…)”. The whole point about this particular blog is that it is not about the technology per se but about how that technology influences how we listen to music.

Let me explain. I probably do most of my listening to music (well, music of my choice) in my commutes to work, and I spend around 5 hours a week driving to and from work. In those 5 hours a week over the past few years or so I have been guilty of what I call ‘shuffle mode syndrome’. My iPod (when it did work in the car), was pretty much permanently set to shuffle mode. If I did get a new album (and had gone to the trouble of actually downloading it to my iPod) I would problably listen to it once, maybe twice, before reverting back to shuffle mode again. Now, having random picks from 7000+ songs can have its advantages; you can happen upon some long forgotten songs or get some fantastic sequencing choices (my particular favourite was Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bullet in the Head’ followed by Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’).

I never got to ‘know’ an album like I did in my youth anymore. We all have our favourite albums (and I’m not about to start listing mine as part of this blog); and these were interwoven with our lives and loves at the time. So, one of my New Years resolutions for 2015 (along with ‘getting fit’ and ‘not making any New Years resolutions) was to listen to more albums.

So I have decided to share an album that I discovered recently, which I have only just got to know, and love, properly via my car CD player.

The album is ‘Sky Blue Sky’ by Wilco.

How the hell did I miss Wilco for the past 20 years? I’d heard of the name but never heard any of the music. I happened upon ‘Impossible Germany’ on the radio and literally had to pull over to listen without distraction.

Beautiful melodic, chiming guitars, Jeff Tweedy’s laconic vocals and a wonderful solo by Nels Cline. What’s not to like? This version is a live performance, which gives Cline more room to stretch but it stays close to the studio version.

On the basis of this, I bought the album ‘Sky Blue Sky’ from which the track is taken. It’s a fantastic piece of work, with no weak tracks or fillers. There are strong Beatles and Stones influences with some West Coast and Blues leanings in there for good measure.

‘You Are My Face’ starts off with a gentle Nick Drake-esque verse with some nice harmonies. The eerie bridge section then takes things into a different direction before a couple of crunching guitar chords take the song into a hard handbrake turn to the left. Suddenly we’re in a land reminiscent of ‘Southern Man’ by Neil Young with jarring, choppy guitars backed up with some pounding piano.

Other highlights include the juddering, skittery ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Side With The Seeds’ which starts as a sort of alt-country torch song and ends with Nels Cline shredding his way to oblivion.

I shall certainly be exploring the Wilco album back catalogue (of which there are another 10, including 3 with Billy Bragg). In the meantime I urge you to get hold of a copy of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and listen to it – as an album in its entirety. I guarantee it will make your life better.

Leon Wilson

With a Little Help From My Friends: RIP Joe Cocker

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With the recent sad passing of Joe Cocker I came across his version of The Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ on the radio the other day.

Like most of my generation I first heard this track as the theme song from the tv show The Wonder Years. It has such amazing energy and knocks the original into a cocked hat.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with ‘the Ringo song’ on a Beatles album. It was always a bit ‘here’s one Ringo can sing for the kids’.

It took Joe Cocker to realise the full potential of the song (it’s a Lennon/McCartney composition dammit – there was always a great song in there). He certainly did get some help from one of his friends with Jimmy Page playing guitar on the track.

The use of dynamics on Cockers version are amazing. The song starts off with a soft church-like noodlings by Tommy Eyre on the organ which are rudely interrupted by the rest of the band as they bang out the chorus chords with Page hitting some unison bends. This quietens down again to Cocker, accompanied by the organ and Chris Stainton’s persistent bass, asking us what we would do if he sang out of tune (you go right ahead Joe, I could listen to that gravelly voice all day, even if it was out of key). Drummer BJ Wilson then executes a fill which is exquisite in its power and simplicity to bring in the chorus (I defy anyone not to play air drums to that bit) and ramp up the volume. The female backing singers hold down the main melody whilst Cocker rasps and rants his way through the choruses (no doubt with arms spasming like a malfunctioning windmill to boot).

On the bridge section the girls ask Joe if he needs anybody. The first time he tells them he “just needs somebody to love”. The second time they ask him, he lets rip with a guttural, throaty roar which bends the needles on the VU meters. We’ll take that as a yes.

RIP Joe.

 

Leon Wilson

Bitter, Bauhaus and Bebop: Blue Note Records

imageMy best friend through secondary school was Bruce.

We share a similar sense of humour and similar tastes in music, though not a similar sense in fashion (his colourful mohair jumpers hand-knitted by his mum were, and are to this day in fact, the stuff of legend). We would spend hours playing games on the Commodore 64 or listening to music in his bedroom. We would listen to our favourite tapes (there was a fair amount of Kate Bush and Talking Heads in Bruce’s collection, for which I must thank him), but one of the best things about listening to music at Bruce’s house was his dad’s record collection.image

Now, I learnt a lot over the years from my own dad’s record collection, but Colin’s collection was huge. And, more importantly, he had loads and loads of jazz. We would spend hours poring over the endless vinyl LPs, seeing where the next selection would take us. I was just starting to get into jazz and the great thing about journeying into a new form of music is that one artist leads to another as you start to research the history. Colin seemed to have most of the history of jazz on the shelves in his front room. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk…, it was all there.

Bruce and I would settle down for the evening and journey into uncharted musical waters; sometimes we would happen across something not to our liking, occasionally we would discover a gem which would make a huge impression.

However, the records which most caught my ears and my eyes were those on the Blue Note label.Out to Lunch

First of all, the LP covers were so visually striking and just, well, cool as f**k. Secondly, the music more than lived up to the cover art with a myriad of the best in jazz producing classic albums.

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Blue Note Records was founded in New York in by two German emigrants to the USA. Alfred Lion’s philosophy (as a lover of jazz himself) was to treat the musicians with a degree of respect which was uncommon at the time. He allowed them to become involved with the production of the records and paid for them to hold rehearsal sessions before the actual recording dates, which was virtually unheard of. This was a true independent record label where a fan was using his passion and enthusiasm to produce the music and not be dictated to by corporate forces.

Lion’s childhood friend Francis Wolff was a trained photographer, and his images of the artists shot in the studio sessions helped form the basis of the iconic covers; he also lent some of his business acumen to the operation.image

Two other men were influential in creating the Blue Note legend; one helped craft the sound of the records and the other the visuals.

Rudy Van Gelder’s day job was as an optometrist (good man!), but his hobby as a recording engineer began to take over as he got more and more in demand for his ability to record musicians clearly and concisely. He was introduced to Lion in 1952 and would go on to record the sessions during the ‘golden age’ of Blue Note recordings from then until the late 1960’s. He was very secretive about his studio techniques, but his sound is instantly recognisable; the record have an unmistakable warmth, clarity and signature to their sound.image

The final member of this influential quartet, Reid Miles, started work for Blue Note around 1955 when they started releasing albums in the 12″ format (they were on 10″ before this). Miles was a graphic designer who had previously worked for Esquire magazine, and it was his cover art which was as important in the world of graphic design as the music was in the world of jazz. He used Wolff’s session photographs and tinted them, offsetting the images against Bauhaus inspired strips and sections with simple sans-serif typefaces to convey the information. The results are outstanding and are works of art in themselves.

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But what of the music itself?

For me, the Blue Note sound evokes a period of musical awakening during my teenage years. Whilst my many of my peers were listening to the chart rundowns in the 1980’s, me and my best mate were plundering the archives of cool from twenty to thirty years in the past. If Bruce’s parents went out we would supplement our listening experience by going to the local off-licence and buying cans of Trent Bitter (I think that if we had tried to buy anything stronger, the man at the off-licence, who obviously knew we were underage, would have challenged us…). Heady days indeed.

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If you are not familiar with the Blue Note back catalogue (or even with jazz full stop) then I would recommend any of the various ‘Best of Blue Note’ albums featuring the likes of Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Jimmy Smith and Dexter Gordon (to name but a few) to get you started. I found it difficult to pick one track to leave you with, but I think ‘Song For My Father’ by Horace Silver probably does as good a job as any of summing up the classic sound of Blue Note in its seven, or so, minutes.

The opening bass notes (lifted, incidentally, by Steely Dan for their song ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ – see my last blog here to check that song out) skip across a bossa nova rhythm. The tenor sax and trumpet harmonise the main tune (or ‘head’ as it’s known in jazz) before leading in to a sublime piano solo by Silver himself. He, in turn, then gives way to a fantastic tenor sax solo by Joe Henderson which just builds and builds, punctuated by rimshots and swells from Roger Humphries’ drums, to a frenzied crescendo. The horns then return with the head and eventually the players drop out one by one until Teddy Smith’s bass holds down the root/sixth/root/sixth figure. The rhythm section join him to end the song with an emphatic ‘dum dum’. Enjoy.

 

Leon Wilson

Perfect Packet of Three: The Telephone

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Right folks, It’s time for another Perfect Packet of Three.

They say that good communication is the key to most things in life and, if so, that makes the telephone probably one of the most important inventions ever. All three of our songs are from the days before mobile phones, when STD meant something completely different.

Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman

Quite simply, this may just be one of the greatest songs ever written. It is certainly the greatest song written about longing and loneliness. The writer, Jimmy Webb, was driving along the vast plains of Oklahoma when he spotted a telephone company ‘lineman’ atop one of the many thousands of telegraph poles that stretched into the distance, receiver in hand, tapped into the telephone line. The starkness of the image gripped him and he put himself in the place of the lineman and tried to imagine what he had been saying into the receiver.

What transpired was a song about his first love and his yearning for her which is summed up in the astounding couplet “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time.”

Glen Campbell’s performance and the production of the song is nothing short of miraculous either with the orchestration mimicking morse code and the whistling of the wind through the telephone lines “I hear you singing through the wires/I can hear you through the whine/And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.”

Hanging on the Telephone – Blondie

The opening track off the classic ‘Parallel Lines’ album is actually a cover of a song by fellow US band The Nerves. The opening ring tone makes way for Debbie Harry’s staccato machine gun delivery, “I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall” with Clem Burke’s energetic drums joining in and driving the whole song from start to finish. Harry tries throughout to win over the object of her desire and by the end of the song she emplores him to “hang up and run to me”.

 

Rikki Don’t Lose That Number – Steely Dan

In the days before mobile phones we had to actually write down the phone numbers of people we wanted to speak to. Using actual pens and actual paper. You couldn’t just type the number into your fancy electronic telephone and have it stored there forever more. Now imagine, for example, you wrote one of these important numbers on, say, the back of a train ticket and you then lost that train ticket. Well hard luck buster, you’re never going to speak to that Venezuelan supermodel again. Damn.

Leon Wilson

 

God Only Knows: Sweet Vocal Harmonies

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Vocal harmonies. I just love them. I love hearing them and I love singing them in the various bands I’ve been in over the years. They can give you a big beaming smile, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, or bring a tear to the eye.

So, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of the history of vocal harmonies through the decades, up to the present day and hopefully introduce you to some new, and old, favourites along the way.

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The origins of layering voices to make a pleasing sound started in European post-renaissance churches with sung Masses and classical choral music. In the late 19th century Barbershop quartets becomes popular in the US, which then underwent a revival in the 1940’s. This was followed by the rise of doo-wop in the 1950’s

image‘Whispering Grass’ by The Ink Spots was a popular early doo-wop hit

It was doo-wop and barbershop (along with jazz vocal groups such as The Four Freshman) which were to be the main influences on a young Brian Wilson in the late 1950’s. He formed a group with his brothers and some friends which would, in time, become one of the most influential vocal harmony groups ever: The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys – Sloop John B

This clip is an outtake from one of the sessions for their masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’, and with the vocals isolated from the instruments you can really hear the full depth and breadth of the performances. There were lots of different types of voices in The Beach Boys and they all blended together perfectly to create their unique sound.

On the other side of the Atlantic The Beatles were honing their close harmony skills (heavily influenced by the work of The Everly Brothers) in the bars and clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg in the early 1960’s. The combination of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s voices continued to be an integral part of The Beatles sound all the way through their career together.

The Beatles – Paperback Writer

‘Paperback Writer’ from 1966 was directly influenced by The Beach Boys. ‘Sloop John B’ has just hit the British charts and The Beatles had managed to get their hands on an advance copy of ‘Pet Sounds’. It has an awesome a cappella start before a killer guitar riff and Macca’s whooping bass kick in. There’s also some great textures created by the vocals under the later verses.

The so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the US in early 1964 was a catalyst for many groups on both sides of the pond using vocal harmonies in the next few years. Out if the ashes of some of these came a group which just about rewrote the book in 1969 with their eponymous album: Crosby Stills and Nash.

imageDavid Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash joined forces in 1968 from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies respectively. The album ‘CS&N’ was, at times, very stripped down, with minimal instrumentation; something which allowed the rich sound of their exquisite vocal harmonies to shine through (such as the atmospheric ‘Guinnevere’).

Crosby, Stills and Nash – Carry On

The example here, ‘Carry On’, is taken from their next album ‘Deja Vu’, which featured the addition of Neil Young to the band (but not on this particular track). The breakdown section in the middle is exquisite with Nash’s top vocal part cascading down as the other harmonies hold firm.

In the 1970’s the mantle was taken up by bands such as The Eagles (whose songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey were directly influenced by CS&N). They modified the West Coast sound, giving it more of a Country flavour.

The Eagles – Seven Bridges Road

This track was a live favourite which started out as a dressing room warm-up song and ended up as a set opener, featuring all five members harmonising.

With the advent of electronic music, vocal harmonies became a lot less prominent in the mix of records in the 1980’s. An exception to this would be a mini doo-wop revival by Huey Lewis and the News and their hit ‘If This Is It’

Huey Lewis and the News – If This Is It

If you try and ignore the goofy 80’s video there’s some good old blue eyed soul in there backed up on the choruses by some rather nice doo-wop harmonies

The dawn of the 1990’s gave rise to the girl/boy bands, and with it, a resurgence of groups relying on close vocal harmonies. The pick of the boys in this respect was probably Boyz II Men (how 90’s is the name of that band?!) who had a massive hit with ‘End Of The Road’

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 Those Boyz certainly knew how to rock the suit/jeans combo…

The pick of the girls was En Vogue (whom I had a massive crush on in my university years. There, I said it).

En Vogue – My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)

A looped James Brown guitar sample threads it’s way throughout the song whilst the girls (Dawn, if you’re asking…) hit some great harmonies including the obligatory a cappella breakdown.

In the mid to late 2000’s a band formed in Seattle with a mutual admiration for Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. The sound of Fleet Foxes is a throwback to the late 1960’s West Coast pop sound with some reverb-drenched harmonies worthy of note. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and Mykanos off their first album are fine examples of this.

Fleet Foxes – Mykanos 

So, that brings us up to the present day. Are there any bands out there still pushing the envelope and kicking out some killer harmonies in 2014? Well, the whole inspiration for this particular blog is from a band I’ve just become obsessed with over the past month called The Staves.

The Staves are three sisters with beautiful, pure voices who create the sort of harmonies to make you melt. There’s something otherworldly about sibling harmonies (or ‘blood harmonies’, as they are sometimes known). The same voice overdubbed with harmonies has a pleasing sound to the ear. Get the right mix of people and the experience gets to a new level. Do the same with siblings and it’s a whole new ball game.  There’s enough similarities and differences between the vocals to make the whole thing gel together and create a lush, layered sound with an almost instinctive feel for how the parts work together.

The Staves – Wisely and Slow

This song, the opener off their last album Dead Born and Grown, with it’s sliding, swooping parts is perfection. There’s just the right amount of suspended tension in some of the sections which give way to glorious resolution. They have just released an EP, ‘Blood I Bled’, after recording sessions in a snowy wilderness with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

I urge you to buy it.

The Staves – Blood I Bled

 

Leon Wilson