Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shuffle : Three-Quarters Blind Eyes/Found a Little Baby

I love when songs begin with a count in.
"One, two, three..."
The Ramones specialised in count-ins, obviously relishing the aura of lucky amatuers they provided. Hundreds of songs begin with count-ins, in varying tones and deliveries and with vastly different effects. But possibly my favourite count-in is from "David Watts" by the Kinks, where we hear a few seconds of studio hum before the band kicks in. Count-ins let you picture the band as if caught in a strobe light in the instant before they begin playing, and the beginning of "David Watts" lets us picture the entire studio. There is a hiss, the tapes running, the amps alive and crackling, then somebody - undoubtedly a technician, probably the producer - says "This is the master, guys", the last few words barely audible under other voices. Ray Davies almost cuts him off to say "Nice and smooth", his voice relaxed and friendly, before someone else comes in with a slightly compressed "One-Two-Three-Four" and then we're off.

Liam Hayes of Plush understands the evocative power of a count-in. He just does them his own way. "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes" begins with the near-bum note of a bass string thrumming, then Hayes intones a sleepy "One, two.." and leaves it hanging for a second of silence before the ringing guitar comes in. He even undercuts his half-hearted count with a skittering noise, either clumsy tape-splice or drumsticks clicking together. This is the Hayes aesthetic: shambolic, always sounding as if everything is about to crash to a halt, but wrapped around the most glorious songs.

The Double A-side single including these two songs was the first release from Plush, and Hayes came fully-formed. Reviews instantly invoked the names of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Hayes' songwriting has that sort of classic feel, full of craft but also with great moments of heart-stopping beauty. If he reminds me of anybody then its Harry Nilsson, just as talented but slightly wild and ill-disciplined. Plush songs are so hook-laden that his verses sound like choruses, and yet they never feel lazy or obvious. The melodies are all his own and he augments them with a sensibility in thrall both to his Brill Building idols and the world of US Indie Rock in which he has worked as a session musician for the likes of Will Oldham. Hence the swinging riff that carries "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes" along is always frayed and rough around the edges, the drums kick in with no little uncertainty during the opening bars, and Hayes' vocals are drawled, and often battling with the rising guitar line during the chorus. Much of the vocal line for "Found A Little Baby", a more polished, classic-sounding song, is sort of hummed/coo-ed rather than sung, to beautiful effect. The lyrics shimmer in and out of the songs, sometimes difficult to decipher in Hayes' voice amidst such big arrangements. "Whats so bad about dying?" he asks in "Found a Little Baby", and his only answer is that hummed chorus and the title line.

Hayes is a classically trained multi-instrumentalist from Chicago, who gigged around that city and lent his talent as guitarist and pianist to various indie bands in the early 90s, leading to enduring associations with Yo La Tengo and Jim O' Rourke. He toured with Will Oldham's Palace before the double A-side single under discussion here was released in 1994 on his hometown Indie label, Drag City, and received a lot of praise from critics, particularly in the UK, where "Found A Little Baby" was named Single of the Week by the NME. Hayes got a band together with the intention of recording a follow-up album in the same vein. Two years later he was still working on that album, but getting no closer to being happy with what he heard. So he dismissed the band and recorded a short suite of songs solo at a piano. This was released as Plush's first album "More You Becomes You" in 1998, and it also received rapturous reviews, particularly in the UK. Hayes toured, alone, as Plush, and even appears in Stephen Frears film of "High Fidelity" playing piano and singing in a bar where John Cusack is drinking. At the same time, he had redoubled his efforts to record the band album he had abandoned some years before. It would take him another three years. Drag City walked away from the project, alarmed by the spirallings costs as Hayes piled on overdub after overdub. Hayes persuaded Steve Albini, a friend who had recorded some early demos of the material with him, to extend him a loan so that he could finish his record. When "Fed" finally emerged in 2002 on Japanese label After Hours it had cost over $100,000, taken three years and ended many of Hayes oldest friendships. And its still a vitally flawed, if sporadically magnificent record. Whereas "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes/Found a Little Baby" and "More You Becomes You" both benefit from the slightly ragged nature of proceedings, "Fed" is absolutely slick and utterly controlled, and it gives the album a somewhat airless, constricted feel. But Hayes songs are beautiful and distinctive.

As was made obvious in 2004 when "Underfed" was released on Drag City. An album of those early demos of the "Fed" songs, featuring only Hayes and a couple of other musicians, it reveals the songs in their most naked form, Hayes voice at its most cracked and vulnerable. "Fed" remains available exclusively from Japan, and Hayes is working on a new album. The "Fed" odyssey has led to his acquisition of a reputation as a sort of US Indie Lindsay Buckingham, Lee Mavers or Brian Wilson - obsessive, visionary, perfectionist. But he has yet to surpass his first release, which contains two beautiful pop songs, laid down about as well as they could have been in their mix of roughshod playing and Hayes' almost Carpenters-esque vision.
They resemble the greatest double A-sided singles in that its impossible to choose between them, each song so different yet so good.

Hayes also features what may be the ultimate count-out at the end of "The Sailor", the last song on "More You Becomes You". Once he has finished playing we hear him stand up, walk slowly across the room and leave. Then silence.



Blogger Monsterwork said...

Best slow-motion gunfight since The Untouchables.

8:52 am  
Blogger David N said...

I know what that means, but I don't know what it means, if you know what I mean.

Top 10 gunfights, slow-motion or otherwise. Theres a blogpost one of us should write. I'm having an argument with myself even thinking about it...

1:00 am  
Blogger Ross said...

When you write about films, I want to watch them. When you write about books, I want ot read them.
But this holds no interest for me.

I don't think that's a slight against you, I think that music just holds a lower place in my priorities, my interests. Some people read NME or Kerrang every week, I read the monthly Select magazine, and tried out the odd album sight unseen. But I never felt the need to go out and find new music, experience new sounds, not like I do films.
And games.
But you don't write about them.

10:35 pm  

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