Saturday 12 January, 2013
A busy day of (ahem) touching up parts. Fran recorded the last of his organ, piano and accordion bits; Cleg some banjo and a few lead replacements for earlier electric guitar takes. I also replaced one acoustic guitar part with a classical guitar as the steel strings in the original were creaking a little too much for the character of the song.
Mostly, however, today was all about harmonies.
Over the years our voices have steadily become more aligned (if that’s an appropriate word to use in this context), gradually easing into an almost symbiotic relationship whereby they work better together than overlaid. That’s partly to do with a period in which some of us performed as a close harmony busking group, but mostly it’s just the result of being in the same band for a long time, getting to know each other’s particular ranges and what we’re all generally capable of singing.
When we started recording together (the first demo was late 2006, I think), we would take it in turns to dub our parts onto the main track. The harmonies were technically sound, but rather robotic in character. When we made Found Drowned a year later we were doing a mixture of individual takes and posse chants. By the time Get Religion! was recorded in late 2010, we’d almost entirely eschewed the separate take process in favour of microphones set up in a circle with the backing singers (Tom, Fran, Biff and Cleg) recording harmonies simultaneously. It’s rare that everyone will achieve a perfect performance on the same try but, frankly, I think perfection is overrated. The feel of a group take is vastly superior to that of several technically flawless overdubs.
Over two years later we’re still doing the microphones in a circle thing (so that there’s a degree of control over levels in the mixing process), but for this record the majority of backing vocals are simply all of us standing in a line singing, our voices being picked up by two Neumann mics in the centre of the room. It gives a very natural, unpompous choral quality to the sound, with a hint of those old swing records where the horn section would occasionally yell a line or two from the back row.
I’ve always been dreadful at harmonies. I found this out when I was seventeen and teamed up to sing Simon & Garfunkel songs in pubs with my best mate (we both looked old for our age so never got asked any difficult questions). I guess that the necessity for me to sing lead on everything (for no other reason than that I’d always mess up the harmony if I sang the secondary part) maybe paved the way towards becoming a frontman. That’s always been the secret to every bit of progress in my life: being surrounded by people far more talented!
But after years of touring and recording with The Bedlam Six, I find myself finally able to join in with the harmony section. Something clicked during the last few days; we’ve just been naturally finding our notes instantly and nailing the parts on the first or second take. What took days in the Memoir Noir sessions has taken us mere hours this time round. I think these choral parts might be the most satisfying thing we’ve achieved during this whole project, so dependent as they are on being a group undertaking rather than a personal one.
It’s apt that vocal harmonies play such a large part in this new record, representing as they do a sense of collaboration – only ever as good as the worst performance and always greater than the sum of the parts.
Much like this band.