For this Staff Picks we ask the guys in the shop to delve into their Spotify playlists and tell us about their favourite recordings... and why we think you should hear them too!
MILES DAVIS - In A Silent Way
When it comes to recording, performance trumps production every time – at least for me. That’s why I’ll always prefer to listen to a ropey old Bob Dylan record than a beautifully recorded album by [*** insert bland major label artist name here ***]. But sometimes, the way in which a record was made has as much to do with the result as the musicians playing on it – and I guess that’s when the real magic happens?
Released in 1969, In A Silent Way is regarded as the start of Miles Davis’ “electric period” and remains a milestone in the development of jazz. The album was recorded in a single session at CBS 30th Street Studio, NY with the tape left running - as was usual in those days - generating forty reels of tape. The band lineup on this session became a veritable Who’s Who of jazz fusion – Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Tony Williams. Could it get any better?
Miles’ genius as a bandleader shines through, with his ability to throw the right musicians together in a room with a loose composition and see what happens. The players were often bemused with the recording process, unsure of whether they were rehearsing or recording – and there’s a tentative feel to the improvisations that reflects this. Herbie recalled John McLaughlin coming over to him after the session to ask “Herbie, I can’t tell… was that any good what we did? I mean, what did we do? I can’t tell what’s going on!” So I told him “John, welcome to a Miles Davis session.”
Pivotal to the album was Teo Macero’s post-production. Macero was to Miles Davis what George Martin was to the Beatles - the influential "silent" band member/studio boffin who spliced and looped the session tapes together, throwing out almost all the composed parts and giving form to the best sections of improvisation – finally stitching a 40 minute album together from 33 minutes of raw material. For a jazz recording at the time, this was revolutionary, bordering on sacrilege – but of course this post-DAW way of working doesn’t bat an eyelid these days.
In A Silent Way is a fascinating record – at once hypnotically meditative but with an unsettling dreamy edginess that worms its way into your soul. You can almost feel the musicians nervously watching each other to take the next cue, with maybe Miles and Macero the only people in the room who knew where it might be leading. And no matter how many times I listen to it, it still puts a smile on my face when Tony Williams crashes in at 13:09 on the title track, ushering in a searing Miles solo to up the ante.
In A Silent Way was released to mixed reviews, with Davis’ new direction managing to upset jazz purists whilst simultaneously capturing the interest of a new experimental rock audience. Rolling Stone described it as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music… a transcendental new music which flushes categories away…”. Amen to that!
MARK HOLLIS - Mark Hollis
After Talk Talk’s 1986 “Colour of Spring” (including the Top 20 hit "Life's What You Make It") , the next album, “Spirit of Eden”, seemed to come out of the blue. An experimental pastiche of epic soundscapes that apparently drove their EMI A&R man to tears – possibly for its ethereal beauty, but most likely because he knew that Talk Talk had just committed commercial suicide. I love both this, and the subsequent Laughing Stock but it’s front man Mark Hollis’ solo album that followed seven years later which I’m most fond of – quietly released in 1998 before he turned his back on the music industry and slunk off into the shadows.
The album was recorded at London’s Master Rock Studios – now demolished and currently in the process of being replaced by two blocks of flats – and engineered by the formidable Phill Brown. Hollis wanted to make this like a 1940’s jazz album, so a pair of cardioid Neumann M49’s were set up in front of the control room window going through a pair of 1176’s with 1dB peak reduction and no EQ. Musicians were then moved around the room to occupy their space in the stereo field. This tracking setup stayed the same for the entire 4 months the album was recorded. Tracks were recorded to Studer analogue tape (the album fades in with 20s of tape hiss) before being transferred to a Mitsubishi 32–track digital machine for mixing at AIR Lyndhurst using an old spring reverb and EMT plate.
This is an acoustic album, but the unusual orchestration and juxtaposition of instruments produces continually surprising tones. The sparse sound is stripped to the bone with every note essential to the track, giving your ears plenty of space to wrap around and enjoy the individual timbres. Even Hollis’s distinctive vocal seems more about adding another instrumental tone rather than communicating the poetically obscure lyrics - often recorded so intimately it’s almost like he’s whispering into your ear.
Mark Hollis seems to occupy the space between silence and sound, evoking a vulnerable fragility and combining an almost heartbreaking melancholy with a sense of unguarded honesty. For me, this is as close as it’s possible to get to a perfect album. Hollis has been removed from the public eye ever since and if he never made another record I could understand why - this album feels like the perfect farewell… but I still wish he would!
DEFTONES - White Pony
Considered by many to be Deftone’s finest work, White Pony was a seminal release which sky-rocketed the band from being a somewhat left-field underground band to the forefront of the alternative metal scene, with tracks like "Passenger" featuring Maynard James Keenan (of Tool), the groove laden "Change In The House of Flies" (which would eventually become their greatest selling single) and "Pink Maggit" (a track which would later be re-worked and released on its own dedicated EP), gaining lots of air play and video circulation on MTV.
Recorded in 1999 between August and December and released in June 2000, White Pony was released during a time when Nu-Metal was at its peak, but it sounded quite unlike anything else being released at the time. This was due in part to the genius production work of Terry Date – whose name is synonymous with metal and heavier genres of music. Producing everything from Pantera to Fishbone, Date’s diverse back catalogue stood him in good stead to work on this unique body of work. The band initially considered dropping Terry Date for the White Pony project, citing that they’d potentially find more interesting and genre defying results if they partnered with someone who’d never recorded heavy music. Fortunately they stuck with Date for the album and as Deftones' sound matured, Date’s production style progressed with it.
This being their third album, Deftones were no stranger to the recording process. Their previous album Around the Fur was a commercial success and had cemented the Californian based band as one of the key voices in the alternative music scene. But with White Pony, the band took a fresh approach to song writing, sound design and the recording process - their first full album with Frank Delgado handling synth and sampling duties who provided a totally new array of sounds and textures to the band’s sound.
A fusion of atmospheric electronic soundscapes, huge distorted down-tuned riffs, ethereal vocal melodies and a master class in drumming from Abe Cunningham, White Pony opened my ears up to a wealth of different styles of music and was one of the most important albums I listened to in my teens. Effortlessly blending elements of hardcore, shoegaze, trip hop and ambient, White Pony tickled all the pleasure centres in my brain when I first heard it and even now, 19 years later, it sounds relevant with a Chinos lyrical sentiment and style being just as thought provoking as it was when it first came out.
The tone of White Pony feels fresh and inspiring. Even nearly two decades later, it’s genre defying, incredibly well written and produced. With this album, Deftones became the band they are today, elevating them above the nu-metal peers they’d been lumbered with for the previous 5 years and taking them into brand new, unique unheard sonic territory.
Go listen to it now!
PORTISHEAD - Third
It took Portishead 11 years to release their third album bearing the simple title Third. A lot had changed sonically since the release of their previous two albums Dummy and Portishead. People didn't know what to expect and wondered how relevant they would still be in 2007 - would their sound carry through the harder sound of the noughties?
Third was as unexpected as it was brilliant. It was a clear break from the past with a raw sound and sparse arrangement. The earlier blues, soul and hip hop influences gave way to early electronic references such as Silver Apples or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The arrangement gives room for Beth Gibbons' vocals, creating a feeling of intimacy. Not only did Third break with the band's past, but it also contrasted with the sound of its time. While everything else seemed to sound dry and bright, Third is drenched in delay and reverb, with no hyped top end . The sound of the album has a distinct vintage tone caused by the plethora of old equipment used - classic EMS VCS3, ARP 2600 and Moog Model D are recorded through a Trident Series 75 console. More obscure equipment such as Vortexion Type5 and Great British Spring also lent their sound to the record. But it's not all retro - the band used iZ RADAR to capture their sound with perfect sonic integrity.
The result is a stunning and timeless album. The raw sound contrasts and supports Beth's exposed vocals in all their fragility. It's now been 12 years since its release and yet it remains the album that I listen to the most.
ELTON JOHN - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
When the opening track to a pop album is over 11 minutes long you know this is going to be something different. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road released in 1973 by Elton John was his 7th studio album and was just that!
Recording was originally planned at Dynamic Sound Studios in Kingston, Jamaica after the Rolling Stones had just finished their Goats Head Soup album in 1972.
Staying at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics in two and a half weeks and Elton wrote the music in just three days, with production starting in January 1973. However the sessions were scrapped mid-way through and the band relocated to Chateau d’Herouville in France.
Chateau d’Herouville was about 20 miles outside of Paris and Elton had previously recorded Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player there. This was really one of the first residential recording studios and it offered a bohemian-style escape experience with many bands enjoying the creative environment and staying for weeks or months. The 18th century building was turned into a 16-track studio by the French composer Michel Magne and hosted the likes of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, T-Rex, The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac and the BeeGees throughout the 1970’s.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was produced by Gus Dudgeon with Elton and Taupin writing 22 songs of which 18 were used. What was initially planned as a single album ended up growing into a double album release. Recording was completed in only two weeks with some overdubs taking place at Trident Studios, London and featured the band that would stay with Elton for many years - Dee Murray on Bass, Davey Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums.
The opening track "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" starts with an instrumental that was performed on an early ARP 2500 prototype synth by engineer David Henschel and overdubbed to provide an atmospheric piece that Elton imagined he would like played at his own funeral. The track then builds up into "Love Lies Bleeding" which sets the scene for the album's theme - a nostalgic look back at childhood and a bygone age.
With tracks like Candle in the Wind, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Grey Seal and Love Lies Bleeding this is a cinematic album that, combined with the immaculate writing and playing, has gone on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide and is probably regarded as one of Elton John’s best.
DEF LEPPARD - Hysteria
Def Leppard's 4th album was recorded between February 1984 - January 1987 and was the first album that I really started to study the album notes, as they had plenty! I searched out information for producer, engineer, mixer and where they recorded as this basically kick-started my whole love affair with modern recording practices.
At the time nothing sounded as big and bombastic as this album, with producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange brought in after a failed initial recording period with Jim Steinman that was shelved by the band. Lange has stated that he wanted to create a "hard rock version of Thriller - in that every track was a potential hit", developing something that would be unique and providing worldwide cross-over appeal.
Assisted by Engineer Nigel Green, recording took place in Wisseloord Studios, Windmill Lane 2 and Studio Des Dames and took over 3 years. Some of this delay was due to drummer Rick Allen suffering a car accident and losing his left arm, and having to go through rehabilitation to learn the drums again. Using a custom designed Simmons Electronic kit, Allen ended up trigging snare samples with his left foot with the album drums recorded and played back on a Fairlight CMI. A Synclavier was eventually used for drum samples when mixing as those parts were usually added at the end of the recording process due to song structures changing so much.
Lange wasn’t present at the beginning of the recording process due to fatigue, but when he did return to the sessions he immediately scrapped all the bands previous 16 months of recordings, as he felt it was just sounding like their previous albums.
A lot of what was achieved sonically and editing wise on this album is taken for granted today with DAW’s, but back in 1984 everything was done by hand to tape. All guitars were tracked through a Rockman amplifier box designed by Boston’s guitarist Tom Scholz which was used on everything. Lange felt it was more suited for layering and the sound he wanted. The Hysteria album was also the last Def Leppard album to feature the dual guitar recordings of Steve Clark and Phil Collen - with Steve Clark dying of an overdose in 1991.
With multiple layered backing vocals, many which were recorded by Lange himself, and the focus on a ‘production hook’ for every track, ideas were borrowed from many genres and mixing took Lange 5 months - assisted by Australian mixer Mike Shipley (1956-2013). The huge sound of Hysteria in 1987 was totally unique, and created a new way of recording and production which we take for granted these days.
The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig and Howie Wienberg and went to sell over 25million copies worldwide with artwork designed by Andie Airfix. It was a No1 Album in the UK and USA, had 7 hit singles and is still one of the longest ever albums issued on a single vinyl record running at 62m 32s.
KURT ELLING - Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
This cover of a Bob Dylan track was recorded at Sear Sound in New York. With their world-class mic collection being tracked entirely through a Lynx Aurora (n), this live recording really captures the interaction between the musicians. It's as impressive musically as it is sonically.
Listen for the pre-delay on Elling's vocals in the acapella opening section. Notably, the drums are panned almost hard right. Later in the track, when the vocal slickly subsides to make room for the drum solo, they swing to the centre.
Branford Marsalis' soprano sax defines a lot of the tone of the track. It layers on top of the keys, occupying much of the same space but different enough tonally to break away when needed. The slight level bump for the solo assists in punctuating where the piano ends and the sax begins.
Finally, the double bass. The playing competency makes its presence almost unremarkable. It's entirely where it should be musically all the way through. Walking unobtrusively and propping up the guitar and sax. This sensitive playing is done justice by a really mature balance wherein the full bodied lower register doesn't cloud the already rich low end.
Bonus Point: many of the streaming files have an audible pop in the right hand channel during the first few lines!