Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Produce Or Over-Produce? That Is The Question

I have had an innocuous obsession over the last few days over the term "over-produced." A friend, whose taste in music I respect, was not quite as enamored, to say the least, with Bruce Springsteen's new release, "Western Stars," as many, including myself were, citing, "over-production." My immediate thought was, "No it isn't. Not by a long shot." Quite the contrary, "Western Stars" is arguably the cleanest and most realized record in The Boss's catalogue. "Western Stars" was most definitely "produced."

Was "Born To Run" over-produced? How about "Sgt. Pepper?" Or, "Good Vibrations?" What makes something "over-produced" and not just made into a record?

I thought about Bruce's "Dancing In The Dark." Up until the first live acoustic reading of that monster hit, "Dancing In the Dark" meant little to me. It was a fine pop tune. It sounded tailor made for MTV and the then current airwaves. Once I heard the song, stripped of the gloss during a live performance at one of Neil Young's "Bridge Benefits," it became something entirely different; a heartbreak masterpiece, which was all but lost on me amidst the synthesizers and drum machines. So, is "Dancing In The Dark" over-produced? Would it have spent four weeks at #2 on the Billboard charts, and sold one million singles as an acoustic tale of loneliness?

The first time I heard John Wesley Harding's acoustic take on Madonna's "Like A Prayer," I was quite frankly, blown away. Since that time, the ironic acoustic reading of a big and loud rock or pop song, has become commonplace, and quite often boring. It feels like JWH started the whole thing with "Like A Prayer." Hearing the lyrics, sung with an alternate passion, opened my ears to something I did not get with Madonna's hit. It was a good song, as well as a good record! But is Madonna's version "over-produced?" I think not. As a matter of fact, I think it's her best single.

Back to Bruce for a minute.

Many have suggested that both "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" suffer from bad production. A song in particular is "Real World," a song performed acoustically, possibly for the first time, in 1990, then released in 1992 on the former, as a souped up mess, complete with church bells. Is this a case of over-producing or just bad producing? Is there a difference? I know I rarely listen to "Born In The USA." But I rarely lilsten to anything from the 80's, as most of it sounds more dated than a Rudy Vallee record. But I didn't think that at the time. I went gaga over Tony Thompson's drum sound on both Bowie's "Let's Dance" and the Power Station...at the time. Not so much anymore. Neither badly produced, nor over-produced. Just perfect for the time.

Thinking on this for a bit, doing your best not to hastily toss out examples of songs or artists you may not care for in the first place, can you give me an example of a song that you think is "over-produced" and why? Be prepared, my goal is to disagree. My goal is to defend the lost art of record-making. Your goal is to stump me, to get me to agree that your selection is indeed, "over-produced."


Anonymous said...

A note on the acoustic cover - JWH released Like a Prayer in 1989. Aztec Camera did their acoustic version of Van Halen's Jump in 1985. I don't know if that makes it first, tho.

Usually over-production means getting the wrong producer. X agreed to use Michael Wagener, a pop metal guy, on their fifth album, Ain't Love Grand. It's noticeably slicker. It succeeded in getting a little wider airplay, but no hits ("Burning House of Love" is its only concert staple), and it alienated fans of their earlier albums.

Nearly every female singer I liked in the early 70's - Lani Hall, Valerie Carter, Ellen Foley, even Brazil's Flora Purim - eventually succumbed to doing a pop/disco album in the later 70's. While they might have been appropriate for the time, they ultimately are regarded as their lesser records.

Sal Nunziato said...

Yes, good call on the Aztec Camera.

Joe said...

Ok, I am not a music techie. So, this may be off point. The Band's Cahoots LP sounds very harsh (cold) to me as compared to their other records. I recall Robbie saying in an article that Cahoots was mastered to be a very loud record. Not sure what that means, but it clearly does not have the warmth that I hear in all of their other records. I think the songs suffer mightily because the sound is so off putting. Somebody made the decision to shape the sound like that. Poor idea. joe

Bill said...

Second on the Aztec Camera. I especially love the 12-inch version, which goes from acoustic to an electric freakout (check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bzKzbucdnE )

I think some of the later Mitchell Froom-produced Richard Thompson records get to be a bit much, with all the clattering echoes and sounds. Mirror Blue begins to suffer from this, but on the first disk of You? Me? Us? (even the title is over-produced with punctuation!), the songs get overwhelmed by all the additions. Compare this with disk 2, which is a wonderful set of acoustic songs.

Now, I love Rumor and Sigh, which to me has the right balance of the Froom touch without overwhelming the songs. Kiko and the Lavender Moon is another example of From at his best. I just think he went overboard with Thompson.

Shriner said...

Marshall Crenshaw's "Field Day":

Don't get me wrong -- I love the album -- a *lot*. The songs are great.

But I think -- especially compared to the debut -- it's "over produced". It sounds (at times) like a Phil Spector production, but muffled.

Steve Lillywhite's production did not seem "for the time" at the time, either, considering what he also produced around the same period of time. I don't think it's "badly" produced because the songs are too good and they shine through -- but it doesn't sound/feel right.

For an individual song: "Free As A Bird". Good example? Bad example? Best they could do with the source limitations? Because it's not a George Martin production? I could go on. :-)

(And the acoustic cover of a pop/rap song is almost a cliche at this point, IMO.)

Sal Nunziato said...

MC-Field Day is a great example of "over-producing."
"Free As A Bird" doesn't bother me at all. It is what it is.

Troy said...

I don't know if it is over-produced, or just a production sound I don't care for, but I was unhappy with the Steve Lillywhite productions of Marshall Crenshaw's second album and Big Country's second album. I thought they sounded muddy and dense. Especially with MC, you don't need dense, you need clean and clear. Those are perfect pop songs. And I love the songs on Steeltown, just don't love the way they sound.

I've heard the same with Daniel Lanois' production of U2, however I tend to think The Unforgettable Fire sounds perfect. To me, the atmospheric sound helps enhance the songs and really highlights the growth the band made from War to The Unforgettable Fire. But I can see where some people wouldn't like the way it sounded.

Cheap Trick has had several albums where the production did not showcase the band's sound very well. Both In Color and Next Position Please lost the crunch and killer bass of Tom Petersson. To me they sounded a bit tinny, especially when compared to Heaven Tonight or Dream Police. Not overproduced for sure, but felt to me like a missed opportunity. And if you compare the original In Color to the Albini version, it is as clear as day.

Good topic, hope I'm in the ballpark with my comments...

Sal Nunziato said...

Well, I think many have the same feeling about MC-Field Day, Troy.

As for "In Color," I think that is underproduced. It sounds like garbage. Nothing unnecessary. NO extra bells or whistles. Just flat. Could be mastering, who knows. I love "Nexxt Position, Please" because it sounds like a Todd Rundgren record.

jeff said...

MacArthur Park?

Jeff in Denton TX said...

Phil Spector's production of Let It Be (especially "The Long and Winging Road") is often cited as an example of overproduction. Maybe because I'm used to the album, I never had that opinion. Let It Be...Naked was a fun alternate listen, but I haven't gone back to it for awhile and still listen to the original release when I want to hear those songs. There was a trend in the late 90's to early 2000's of mixing albums at a too-high volume that tended toward distortion, but that's not technically overproduction, I guess.

rick said...

Isn't 'The Long and Winding Road' the classic example of overproduction? So much so that even The Beatles hated the final version?

Anonymous said...

There are a few later period Joni Mitchell albums that are cringe-worthy.


Anonymous said...

Hello all...no, please remain seated,

Very interesting topic. Not least because of the potato potahto aspect to the question. Couple of contributions:
* Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell is inarguably, spectacularly, and totally successfully over-produced.
* Springsteen's Girls In Their Summer Clothes is arguably over-produced. I think I heard his acoustic live version on this blog and I felt like you did with Dancing in the Dark.
* Van Morrison's Wavelength comes *very* close to my ears to being over-produced.


Tumblingdice70 said...

Great topic Sal! My nominees:

* Def Leppard Hysteria
* Rod Stewart: Maybe it's bad 80's production rather than overproduction, but boy
Camouflage and Every Beat of My Heart in the mid 80's are painful.
* U2 Pop. This may have just been mismanaged rather than overproduced, but it seems they overthought it so much on a whole it came out overproduced and lifeless.


rick said...

I thought of another:
There's an acoustic bonus track of George Harrison performing 'Let It Down' that is just exquisite; the original is noisy and busy and the lovely lyrics are drowned out.

Sal Nunziato said...

Arguably, a song begins with words, a melody and one instrument. Can't prove it, but it makes sense. I don't see Jim Gordon and Clapton in a room, starting with a piano coda, then discussing how there will be two guitar solos, with a killer riff to start things off. If you don't add to it, you are not making a record. "Let It Roll" is beautiful, acoustically. But George and Phil made a record. They wanted it noisy.

buzzbabyjesus said...

The production, for me, is part of the arrangement. It should enhance the power of the material without getting in the way. You shouldn't necessarily hear it.
Under production can also be a crime.
Sometimes lush and symphonic is exactly right.

I listened to "Western Stars", and "Tucson Train" again trying to figure out what was wrong with them. Nothing really, it's not the sound I object to, it's the arrangements.
I don't think the strings help. I wish the pedal steel solo'd instead. Or fiddles.
Something front and center besides Bruce even if it was only for a bar or two.

Ace F'really said...

Oasis' Be Here Now. Money, coke and other distractions.

Anonymous said...

For me, the most egregiously overproduced album is the "Rhythm, Country & Blues" project -- a great idea that Don Was came close to ruining completely. Number 2 is definitely Field Day.


Rodger Stroup said...

I see that "Field Day" was mentioned, along with "Let it Be." Both are good examples of over-production. I went back and listened to "Magic" and "Working on a Dream" and I can't decide if I would label them over-produced, or just poorly produced. Both albums contain some of Bruce's best pop writing, yet the production is a wall of noise. A good song can survive over-production, but it's a shame that we didn't get to hear Bruce's tunes with more of a pop production touch, instead of the Blue Cheer-style production they received.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I vote for Lou Reed's "Berlin" as the most egregiously over-produced album I know. I've read it almost killed some of the participants.

mauijim said...

Hi Sal

sorry late to the party here. Geo's ATMP is my target for overproduction especially in light of release and boots of the demos did for Phil. My go to example is Let It Down. Great heartfelt demo and then quite the Phil production to it on the released version.
Sure wish the estate would go super deluxe on this album

Michael Giltz said...

I think badly produced and over-produced are synonyms, with "over-produced" just one example of a badly produced album. To me, overly produced means an excess of bells and whistles that ruin or distract from what would otherwise be seen as a really good song/album. The Phil Spector approach done poorly or to excess, which sounds contradictory but isn't. The point of Wall of Sound is not more for the sake of more, but the right level of more for a song that demands it, esp teenagers in love. RichD said it great when he mentioned Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell as "inarguably, spectacularly, and totally successfully over-produced."

My immediate thought when asked to name an album that is over-produced is Bob Dylan's Empire Burlesque, a great collection of songs ruined (even at the time) by distracting, 1980s glossy over-production. There's a reason the acoustic closer "Dark Eyes" was the only song I appreciated at first. I look at those songs and think, wow, what a great album that could have been. As opposed to say some crap album where it doesn't matter how you produce the songs. And I have no objection to Dylan being produced as opposed to just a guy and his guitar. But "Empire Burlesque" isn't just badly produced, it is more specifically over-produced as Dylan himself (I always blamed Arthur Baker) seemed to be chasing a radio hit.