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 WayWhen 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 . 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 HollisAfter 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 PonyConsidered 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.