Friday, July 15, 2016

Where Did We Go Right?

While listening to Eric Clapton's "Journeyman," a "Slowhand" record I like a lot and a record I imagine came 20 years too late for some of you, I was reminded of just how wrong some of it sounded, specifically, the production on the cover of "Hard Times."

"Journeyman" was released in 1989 and produced by Russ Titleman, a name we all know, and a producer who has amassed a respectable body of work, not to mention winning the Grammy for "Journeyman." The record suffers, as most records of that era do, from the unfortunate use of drum and bass sequencing, Fairlight computers and an overall Brylcreem slickness that can, at times, ruin a perfectly good take. And while there is enough to like on "Journeyman," this is about what I don't.

As a producer, is it Russ Titleman's job to simply go with the times or to help create a sound that is right for the artist? When a producer takes on someone as enormous as Eric Clapton, does he surrender all but his name? In the case of Clapton, we know now that 25 plus years later, Eric has made some terrible musical choices, yet he and Titleman created 1994's "From The Cradle," which by and large, worked well. It was simple, raw and even had some balls. It sounds like the record it is supposed to be. This makes me think that the cheese on "Journeyman" was intentional. And if it was intentional, does this still make Titleman a good producer? Didn't he hear the schmaltz and the late night cocktail bar sax tone on "Hard Times?" Or was it both his and Eric's choice to make a record for 1989 because they both thought that was best for this guitar hero?

Another record that immediately comes to mind is Joan Osborne's 2002 R&B covers release, "How Sweet It Is," a record that was intended to get this amazing voice and talent back in the spotlight. On paper, it was perfect. But John Leventhal, another major talent, produced all the grit and grime right out of its soul. Drum machines on Motown and Otis covers? In this case, Leventhal must have had more control over the project than Osborne, so what was HE thinking?

By now, we have all read the Andy Partridge/Todd Rundgren soap opera. And we all have producers we love and hate. Don't get me started on T-Bone Burnett!

But is there a specific record that you feel was either ruined by its producer or because of its producer, became something it might not have in the hands of someone else? I would leave the 60's alone on this one. Maybe most of the 70's, too.


Rodger Stroup said...

I have to say that Steve Lillywhite buried Marshall Crenshaw's Field Day. Compared to the live-sounding debut, Field Day sounds to me like it was recorded underwater. There are great songs on Field Day, but it sounds like they are struggling to get out from underneath the production. It is a testament to Crenshaw that the quality of the songwriting was still evident, despite the smothering production.

kevin m said...

Frankly I think Don Was is over-rated.

Sal Nunziato said...

Yes and yes, re: MC and Don Was.

Even the songs on "Field Day" all seem just a bit too long, as well.

Troy said...

Steve Lillywhite also destroyed Big Country's excellent second album, Steeltown. I think that album could have been a hit but for the sound. An excellent set of tunes.

I also thought that Daniel Lanois tried to turn Robbie Robertson's solo debut into the next Peter Gabriel record. It's not a bad sound, but c'mon, it's Robbie Robertson. (In spite of that, I still like that record...I just think about what it could have been).

As for Journeyman, it is a strong batch of tunes but the sound is too loud and harsh. However as memory serves, in the late 80s and early 90s, everyone wanted to sound more 'modern'. Today I think there is more value placed on a sort of organic or real sound, but back then, I seem to remember (in very general terms) that many artists were trying to shake off their older sound. Think of the sonic difference from, say Another Ticket or Money & Cigarettes, to Behind the Sun/August/Journeyman. I have never thought that the sabotage was deliberate, only that in trying to stay at the forefront of music and generate airplay in what had become a crowded landscape, there was a sense that the sound had to be more modern.

Anonymous said...

Hello, please remain seated,

Great topic. I agree with your take on Joan Osborne's How Sweet It Is album, so it's interesting to compare & contrast that to her Breakfast In Bed album. Different producer, different result. Man, I love her take on Kiss and Say Goodbye from that album.

To my tastes, the Richard Thompson albums produced by Mitchell Froom tend to sound overly brittle.

Tom Waits....sometimes I just wish he would play it straight.


Anonymous said...

I always wished Jimmy Page would have produced other artists. What he did to for the Zeppelin albums was astonishing. C'mon Sal, let's hear your take on T Bone. Randy

J. Loslo said...

I actively avoid anything produced by Daniel Lanois. I feel like he mostly makes Daniel Lanois albums, with the titular artist lurking somewhere in the background. I bought Willie Nelson's Teatro & listened to it once.

mauijim said...

Daniel Lanois' production of the Neville Bros lp, Yellow Moon might be his best work but Dylan's Oh Mercy has not aged well IMHO
still enjoying his work on Neil's Le Noise though recording only during a full moon is baloney, right?

buzzbabyjesus said...

In almost every case I think they were going for a more "contemporary" sound to reach a wider audience and maybe get on the radio. The studio just got some "cool" new gadgets they wanted to try out.
"Journeyman" won a Grammy. Back in the day, some of us thought it should have been titled, "Hack".

Last week I mentioned Sandy Pearlman vs The Clash, and Dream Syndicate.

I loved Cheap Trick's 1st so much I was really disappointed with the production on Cheap Trick's "In Color". Again, "taming" the sound targeted a larger audience.

I like the Steve Albini production on the (unreleased) 1997 redo much better.

Here's "Downed":

And speaking of Cheap Trick, I was very excited to hear that they were working with John Lennon. And then "Double Fantasy" came out. Awful production.

Anonymous said...

to be fair, if you sign up Lillywhite or Lanois, you know what you're getting. you cannot be surprised by the results.

iirc, Cheap Trick for a long time disparaged Jack Douglas' work on the first album in favor of Tom Werman's subsequent, but they seem to have changed their minds.

my most-rued match - X and Michael Wagener on Ain't Love Grand, but supposedly the band asked for that.

Ken D said...

Have you heard the new Leventhal-produced album from William Bell? I think John should be forgiven. Great record.

Anonymous said...

yeah, mauijim, Neil only records during a full moon.
That's his genius formula.
Yet, his hit-or-miss ratio is actually lower than most of the other artists of his stature who ignore the irrelevant phases of the moon.
So much for the scientific results of Neil's experiment. Neil, the results are in. The full moon does not affect anything in your recordings. You know it merely reflects the far more powerful sunlight, right? Maybe he should only record facing west, or wearing his lucky socks. THEN we'd get another On The Beach.
Note, remember that Neil recorded Fork In The Road in the same phase of the moon that he recorded Harvest.

As for Sal's actual question, I agree about Lanois/Robertson, and as much as I like Jeff Lynne's production on ELO and even the Wilburys at times, I hate that we end up with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and even Threetles tunes that all sound like ELO. I wonder what a rootsy Wilburys alum woulda sounded like? Or if the Beatles reunion tracks sounded more like Beatles.
Even artists producing themselves can fall victim to that 'chasing the new sound" thing. Human Touch is a great example of Bruce ruining great songs by thinking that 1992 songs needed to try to sound like 1989.

Anonymous said...

Elvis Costello's 1984 album, "Goodbye Cruel World." Some good songs, hard to appreciate or even hear beneath the overproduction. In the 1995 re-release liner notes, Elvis wrote "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album. At least that is the impression I've given over the years and I am sure that you could find many people who would agree with me. [...] My gravest mistake for all concerned was in asking Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to produce this record." Writing later yet, EC took full blame. In any case, I'd love to hear some of these songs in more straightforward arrangements. "The Comedians" was reworked for a Roy Orbison cover on Roy's last album. "Deportees Club" was covered well by Ireland's Christy Moore.


Anonymous said...

i keep thinking of the Mixerman epic from Tapeop

Anonymous said...

[not reading all the other posts] The late '80s was the time of moving towards digital production. I remember seeing the "DDD" on the backs of cd cases wondering why that was such a big thing. The late '80s was a bad time for many "older" artist like Clapton and others hitting middle age regarding relevance and inspiration but it was also when recorded music began to sound processed and flaccid (so many reasons why sounds like Nirvana et al's exploded in popularity just a couple of years later). The quest for sonic "perfection" began, with every instrument sounding perfect, every note being perfect, songs being cut-and-pasted. Long gone were (I'm speaking here for myself but others I've talked to) the slight imperfections, the birthmarks and freckles and hiccups that made songs unique and simply "alive" in the '60s and '70s. Like Cameron Crowe's "Untitled", when William Miller and Russell Hammond are talking about "that 'woo'". Those of you know that know what I'm talking about. That said, some records, like Don Henley's "End of the Innocence" sound from the same era (same year as "Journeyman") but the songs hold up better because they're better songs. Middle-aged rock and roll (both the ages of the performers and the genre itself) is a bit hard to listen to. It sure made it easy to create the label "classic rock" at the time and play the artists' earlier and better, songs.


Anonymous said...

I see that Don Was has already been mentioned. For me, his production absolutely ruined the "Rhythm, Country & Blues" album, which was a great concept that deserved better production.

I agree about Field Day, which seemed like such a let-down after that brilliant debut. But I don't entirely agree about the Mitchell Froom/RT albums. I don't think there's anything wrong with the production on 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.


Sal Nunziato said...

I guess it occasionally comes down to personal taste. I agree with the sentiments about Jeff Lynne, but I love the Petty and Harrison records because they sound like Jeff Lynne. I felt the same way about Todd Rundgren's productions in the 70s and 80s. The Tubes, Patti Smith, Rick Derringer, Steve Hillage, P. Furs all had moments that reminded me of Rundgren, which made those records better for me. In both cases though, the producers fail miserably with the drum sound on most, if not all of their work.

I am NOT a fan of Lanois at ALL. I think he and Malcolm Burn ruined Emmylou Harris, yet Willie Nelson's "Teatro" is an all time fave. Love that record, from top to bottom.

As for T-Bone Burnett, he makes everything sound like your record has a mound of dust on your stylus. That "old-timey" thing isn't as charming as he thinks it is. Costello's "National Ransom" is so unlistenable, it makes me angry.

Anonymous said...

Every time I listen to a T Bone record I have to turn the bass down which really annoys me. I agree (mostly) about Lanois and Malcolm Burn, though what Burn did with Chris Whitley's Living With The Law helped make that a go-to album for me. Randy

kodak ghost said...

Bonnie Raitt/Peter Asher "the Glow"
I so wanted this to be good, but it aint.

Dr Wu said...

I enjoyed Malcolm Burn's production on John Mellencamp's 'Human Wheels' and Midnight Oil's 'Breathe'.

cmealha said...

T-Bone Burnett. Everything he touches!

Dr Wu said...

I would submit as an exception to the oft mentioned T-Bone Burnett distain his work with Sam Phillips. 'Martinis and Bikinis' in particular is a favorite. But, 'Cruel Invention' and 'The Incredible Wow' aren't far behind. Also, I neglected to mention Malcolm Burn's work on Lisa Germano's 'Geek the Girl' as a superior effort. Raw and intimate.

Dr Wu said...

Correction: 'The Indescrible Wow' and 'Cruel Inventions'. Apologies. Microbrews are the devil.

Michael Giltz said...

I think Brendan O'Brien is a very bad producer. He's really hurt Bruce Springsteen's albums from "The Rising" right up to now. Somehow his recording of vocals is especially bland and lifeless. He makes Springsteen sound smoothed out and utterly without character. Of course, decades into his career, Springsteen is not gonna produce masterpieces. But even some very good collections of songs are hurt by O'Brien's ability somehow make a great live band sound canned and studio-produced. And it all begins with the vocals. Just to double check, I looked at all the studio albums from The Rising onward. Guess what? Seven albums. Four produced by O'Brien, one co-produced by O'Brien. And the two that he had nothing to do with? The two best albums (by far): We Shall Overcome (Seeger Sessions) and Wrecking Ball.

And Bob Dylan ruined Empire Burlesque with massively annoying over-production. A GREAT collection of tunes (ending with personal fave "Bright Eyes," the rare tune not mucked up by Dylan). He should have hired Jack Frost again.

I'd think of more examples but I gotta get back to Pokemon Go.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...."Field Day" is by far my favorite MC album, and I love the production (I do not hear 'underwater' there, but a big production for big pop songs!) and the "too-long" songs.
And T-Bone Burnett did a great job with Los Lobos' "Will The Wolf Survive", Peter Case's debut, and the BoDeans' debut in the 1980s.
Agree that X abandoning Ray Manzarek was a baaaad move; but then, the songs also were losing their steam by then.
C in California

Steve Mc said...

Re - Lilywhite - he also produced The Pogues 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'. He smoothed out some of the raw edges in Costello's production of the band, and each of them produced a studio version of the sublime Rainy Night In Soho (I prefer Costello's, but it's a close run thing), but he did a good job with IISFFGWG, keeping enough of the rawness that made them a great band then and getting them into the UK mainstream. Fairytale Of New York is now an xmas staple over here. Agree about Field Day, though.

Costello - he also said that Goodbye Cruel World was the worst recording of some of his best songs. I saw him playing solo at that time and he did a lot of the GCW songs, and they were much better, especially the beautiful Deportees. Funnily enough, T-Bone Burnett was the support!

Brendan O'Brien - I liked what he did with 100% Fun for Matthew Sweet, but felt that often his production of Springsteen was too dense, there was little room for the music and the band to breathe, if that makes sense.

Sal Nunziato said...

I think Brendan O'Brien's work with Bruce gets a bad rap. These records often get unfairly tossed aside as mistakes, but I think Devils & Dust (not bland to my ears) and especially Magic, are right up there with the classics. O'Brien's production can be dense, I won't deny that. And maybe some of the material on "Working On A Dream" might have worked better with some space. (Though NO ONE could save Outlaw Pete.) But I think "Magic" is exactly that, magic.

OldRockr1 said...

I love the songs on Magic but the overall sound is just not great to me. I don't think it's all Brendan O'Brien's fault though. Bruce is going to do what he wants. I'd love to hear some less "dense" versions of The Rising and especially Magic.

I don't think anything could save Working On A Dream...

Dr Wu said...

Brendan O'Brien's production on those Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, and Matthew Sweet albums was stellar. Era defining.

Sal Nunziato said...

Two things about Bruce, though I imagine this could be an entire post.

1)- Why does no one ever talk about Born To Run being "dense?" The record is a muddy mess. It's Phil Spector in stereo. It's a GLORIOUS muddy mess, but still.

2) I won't try to sell Working On A Dream as a great record. I am not that silly. But it is NOT the dreck that so many claim it is. There is some dreck on it, but songs like "What Love Can Do," the filthy swamp of "Good Eye," the beautiful baroque/Beach Boys pastiche "This Life," "The Wrestler," and the big orchestral pop of "Kingdom of Days" are all fantastic. These are great pieces of music by anyone's standards. I'll even throw in "Surprise, Surprise" as a great piece of jangle pop. NONE of these songs are "Jungleland," but who cares? We don't need two Junglelands. "Working On A Dream" is a fine record and better than the last 15 Neil Young records.

Sal Nunziato said...

One last comment about Bruce's "Working On A Dream." I can totally understand how one can be completely disheartened by the first four tracks. Those are a tough 20 minutes. But it shouldn't poison the well.

OK, I'm out.

Anonymous said...

hahaha. I'm with Sal on the "denseness" issue, and the Working On A Dream having some great moments issue, and the better than the last 15 Neil Young's issue.

And, just to be anal, Michael Giltz, the Dylan song was Dark Eyes, not Bright Eyes, and I agree wit's the best song on there. But there's some truly great songs on there, ruined by horrible production, I agree.

Anonymous said...

Hello, please remain seated,

Ya know...some cover artist could probably make a pretty good living properly re-recording some of the albums listed in this thread. (Hey Beach Boy buffs...did Brian Wilson sorta do this with Smile?)

John Prine re-recorded a bunch of his own songs because (para-phrasing) he wanted to own the masters of some of his best/favorite songs. Richard Thompson similarly re-recorded a bunch of his acoustic classics. Hope springs eternal....


buzzbabyjesus said...

I have a John Martyn cd, "No Little Boy" on which he re-recorded some of my favorite songs from his classic, "Solid Air", including the title track, in the blandest "yacht rock" fashion imaginable.

Lord said...

There is no more misunderstood word in show business than "journeyman."

It's not a compliment.

Here are two of the first definitions that came up when I searched:

"A worker or sports player who is reliable but not outstanding." And:

"A worker, performer, or athlete who is experienced and good but not excellent."