Beer and Pavement

Upgrades in Production

Posted in Records by SM on May 4, 2011

One way bands try to evolve their sound is by upgrading their production. Some do this by hiring a better producer[1]. Another technique is to step into a higher-end studio. Pavement tried this on multiple occasions[2], but the songwriting and performances were the constant. So, even when a band makes this upgrade in production, they still have to bring solid songwriting and dynamic performances.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart hired the legendary Flood as producer for their sophomore effort, Belong. The result is something closer to Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins rather than in-their-prime Smiths. Flood’s effect is striking and significant, but is it a good thing?

I don’t know that The Pains’ songwriting is up to the caliber of a Flood-produced record. That’s not to say that the music isn’t of high quality or that whatever Flood touches is gold. What it means is that this is a typical sophomore record to a pretty successful indie release. Debut records often capture the immediacy and naiveté of a young band, but follow-ups tend to come off as overly-calculated[3].

What the record does do is suggest a new direction or transition for the band. Left behind is Manchester jangle in favor of a bolder, sharper sound. Sadly, this kind of production is distracting to me[4]. I’ve had a hard time getting into the songs on Belong. The simplicity of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut doesn’t hold up to lush production like this. He isn’t called “Flood” for nothing as he fills every crack and crevice of tape with loads of sound and texture. It’s certainly an interesting album from an audiophile’s standpoint, but I’m struggling with the organic elements that seem to be missing.

Overproduction isn’t always the enemy. Wilco, Animal Collective, Destroyer, etc. have found ways to make it work, sometimes to the point of deconstruction[5]. However, these acts all have something The Pains lack: maturity. The band may sound like their from 80’s Manchester, but their songwriting suggests otherwise.

Conversely, Times New Viking actually stepped inside a recording studio for once and may have found a way to develop their material in a manner appropriate to their collective age. The band usually resorts to bedroom tapes and audio via VHS in the recording process as a way to include their fourth member, tape hiss[6]. For Dancer Equired, the Columbus, OH trio enlisted a real-life recording studio and the results are better than I expected.

Another legendary lo-fi band from Ohio once made a similar transition to a bigger, more polished studio sound with regrettable results. That band was Guided By Voices[7]. TNV has followed the GBV trajectory by putting out shitty recordings on a label specializing in lo-fi[8] before hitting the greener pastures at Matador. The two bands are often compared, but there is little similar outside of both bands being Buckeyes and famous for recording lo-fi gems galore.

Still, TVN’s decision to record like professionals was a good one. I always thought they had good songs, if you could hear them through fuzz and hiss. On Dancer Equired, the sound is certainly cleaned up, but it’s not a giant leap to Flood-like proportions that would have overwhelmed the band’s charm[9]. Instead, the minimal production feels right for this band. It’s a slow progression to accessibility that allows Dancer to be appreciated here, even if some would rather turn their back on the band[10].

Where The Pains made a quantum leap from recording studio to super-producer, Times New Viking simply left their bedroom for a recording studio. Little changed aside from that missing tape hiss I mentioned earlier. The recording is not that clean and the performance isn’t much cleaner, but the shimmer of good pop/punk rock is clearer than ever. This album is not a leap, a transition, or a shift for the band. It’s what they do, only you can actually hear it without distortion. And what I hear is what I always thought I was hearing: fucking great rock ‘n roll.

Some expected that Times New Viking would blow us away with epic songs over Flood-like production, but that’s not who they are. They’re from Ohio. That’s how we roll[11]. It’s not midwestern mediocre, it’s authentic. It’s good. Why mess with it? TNV will someday do a polished and epic studio album. It will either impress or tank. Until then, I’m confident that this is exactly the sort of album Times New Viking is built to record.

Don’t assume that just because I prefer Dancer Equired to Belong that I think less is better when it comes to sound production. There is a time and place for almost every band to go hi-fi or expand their studio horizons. Times New Viking understand where they are on that continuum. It made more sense for them to just get themselves into a studio, no need to overdo it. Alternately, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart overshot the mark with Flood behind the mixing board. They’ll adjust and either develop their songwriting and playing to match the production or take a step back and just jangle a bit[12]. The key is to match the production with the performance. In this regard, Times New Viking hit the mark with their upgrade from bedroom recordings to a proper studio album.

1This is usually tied to a large amount of (monetary) success. You make a ton of money and your or your label decide a name producer is the next logical step.
2Well, sorta. They generally worked with similar people recording and mixing, but production typically fell on the band, until Terror Twilight and Nigel Goodrich’s contributions.
3Bands figure that they captured something on the first record and now they have to recreate that, burn it and start over, or both. Instead, what a band should do is just keep making music. Too many bands try to hard on the second record. Some never recover. (see Interpol)
4Sometimes, the distraction of an overly produced album is fine, especially if the music can actually match the production value. Chavez’s Ride the Fader comes to mind. That record is my favorite headphone album of all-time. The production is so dead-on and big, but the music matches perfectly.
5Deconstructing songs often works the first time around, but after a while, it’s just mental masturbation.
6There’s also a growl when they get loud. The tape his doesn’t bother me as I loved my mixed tape days. There are so many records I only know with tape hiss, that it’s hard to imagine that it won’t always be around.
7OK. To be fair, GBV’s “studio” albums contained some great songs, but the production value suggested they were suddenly trying too hard to be rock stars instead of just being the rock stars they are/were.
8Siltbreeze in TNV’s case and Scat in GBV’s case.
9I really don’t remember why I put this footnote here. Maybe I intended to explain The Pains’ charm as having a British quality, much like the Smiths or something. Of course, they’re from Brooklyn, so they don’t have an authentic British charm…moving on…
10As someone pointed out, this is not the first time Pitchfork has turned its back on a band it touted. This is so effing hipster. (see “On Pissing Contests“)
11I recognize that I’m not in TNV. Hell, I’m not in any band, but lo-fi is something in which Ohioans take pride, at least Ohioans my age…who happened to listen to the same music I did.
12British charm alert!

2 Responses

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  1. Steve said, on May 4, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Interesting post.

    While the standard take is often “band hides lack of songwriting ability behind big production”, I think there is just as much truth in “band hides lack of songwriting ability behind tape hiss/feedback/general lo-fi-ness”.

    Essentially, good songwriting will win out, although I do accept that production, in its broadest sense, is key to me enjoying a song or not. But…the best Wilco/Pavement/etc songs would sound great to me no matter how they had been recorded (within obvious reason!). And the more rounded the band, the better chance they have of making the leap to more polished, or ambitious, recordings.

    I do think there is a misplaced romanticism placed in lo-fi recordings, when “lo-fi” can be just as much of a calculated and considered artistic choice/mechanism as making big production numbers. Naturally, circumstances can dictate that a band starts lo-fi, but there is often just as much artifice going on as there would be with a fancy studio recording, it is just that the result is different – often the rough sound is a conscious artistic decision, not an unexpected by-product of the recording process.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on May 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      I agree, but often times, lo-fi is authentic. I always feel like the lo-fi sound better represents the live version than the studio version. When I first heard Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, I thought I was listening to a long-lost Beattles demo recording.

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