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Classic Mix

Is This Love

by Bob Marley & The Wailers

Following the sad passing of Bunny Wailer, I was inspired to revisit this classic song, the opening track (and my personal favourite) from Legend, the best-selling reggae album of all time. It’s a song that has so seeped its way into the common unconscious that it’s easy to overlook how odd its structure is. Now, if I asked you to sing the song’s main hook, you could probably do it easily. But did you realise that the hook section only appears twice in the whole song? And that it occupies only about an eighth of the song’s total running time? The main ‘verse’ material, on the other hand, occupies more than 50% of the timeline, including the entire ending of the song. If I suggested writing that kind of structure to most musicians, I’d probably be laughed out of court!

Then there’s the verse’s unusual 19-bar section length. Again, let’s say I asked you to go write a 19-bar verse, how would you go about it? Well, I reckon most people would start off with one or two four-bar sections to get a bit of momentum going, before launching into some kind of phrase-extension technique – indeed, there are plenty of well-known songs that take that kind of approach. But what Marley does here is sneak in a three-bar mini-phrase right at the outset, and only then heads into a traditional quartet of four-bar phrases. And, if you’re anything like me, you’d never consciously noticed anything weird going on until you started counting the bars, which makes this my favourite type of structural sleight of hand! (If you fancy another corking example of this kind of thing, try The Beatles’s 'Yesterday'.)

The harmony’s interesting too, because although the song starts and ends on F# minor, which most people would probably agree is the home key, there’s also a strong pull towards A major, effectively trying to recast the return to the F#m chord each time as something like a V-vi cadence interruption. The main verse pattern, for instance, gives us the pattern F#m-D-A-E/G#, where the D-A progression sounds harmonically far more purposeful than the E/G#-Fm progression that ushers in each new four-bar section. And the section “I am willing and able / So I throw my cards on your table” is even more persuasive, ending as it does with the powerful downwards sequence E-D-C#m-Bm that seems destined to settle on A for the start of the next song section. But instead, the bass drops its downbeat note (the only time this happens in the song) and sidles back to F#m for the following verse section. And in a sense, by striving for the major key, but never quite reaching it, the harmony could be seen as underlining the inherent uncertainty of the title hook. Is this love that I’m feeling?

I’d also rank this as one pop music’s greatest ever bass parts, and so important melodically that the song might as well be billed as a duet between Marley and bassist Aston Barrett. The prominent hemiola built into each round of the verse pattern is an arrangement masterstroke, and I’d argue that its foreshadowing of the song’s hook rhythm is an important part of what makes the hook stick in the memory far better than such a seldom-appearing part has any right to. But my favourite moment is just before that verse hemiola, where Barrett anticipates the fourth bar’s harmony by solidly plonking his A root note a beat early, on the last beat of bar three. Like so many things in this song, it’s something you’d not normally consider doing (anticipating a forthcoming chord’s root note in the bass often risks weakening that chord’s sense of arrival), but here it works beautifully and naturally, as if it couldn’t have been any other way!

Now if I’ve piqued your interest enough to relisten to the song for yourself, do be aware that there are, as seems depressingly common with classic tracks these days, a few ‘new and improved’ versions of this reggae anthem doing the rounds. The one that most caught my attention was Stephen Marley’s new mix of ‘the original session recordings’ on 2018’s Kaya 40 where the timing of the percussion parts has clearly been tampered with. Compare, for instance, the downbeat of the seventh bar of the Kaya 40 version (around 0:11) with the corresponding downbeat on 2013’s Kaya remaster (at 0:13) or 2002’s Legend compilation rerelease (at 0:14). You’ll notice that the woodblock sound in the left channel feels obviously later on Kaya 40. In fact, it sounds like the percussion on both sides of the panorama is lagging in general compared with the drums.

There is so much wrong with this! First of all, I was under the impression that the rhythmic groove was absolutely fundamental to a reggae performance, so this ‘remix’ isn’t just an attempt to spruce up the sonics – it’s messing with the very core of the music’s appeal, and for no discernable (or indeed defensible) aesthetic reason. And even if it were an honest mistake (hey, who hasn’t accidentally nudged an audio file along the timeline in the heat of a mixing session?), then what does it say about quality-control standards during the production and mastering process that no-one flagged it up? But what’s even more disturbing is that, comparing the files more closely, I’m not convinced that it’s just a simple offset we’re hearing here, which leaves open the possibility that the timing changes might actually have been a deliberate act of vandalism on this piece of audio heritage.

So, in a nutshell, steer clear of the Kaya 40 version… In fact, I’m not a huge fan of the 2013 remaster, either, which slaps on a big smile curve, recessing a load of the important musical detail in the midrange. Personally, I’d stick with the Legend compilation, either in its original 1984 form, or the later 2002 remaster.

Oh, and one little fun fact to finish with – amongst the children in this song’s official video is, apparently, a seven-year-old Naomi Campbell…

25 Trips

by Sierra Hull

The nomination of Sierra Hull’s album 25 Trips for Best Engineering at this year’s Grammies is unquestionably richly deserved, and the engineer behind it, Gary Paczosa, has justifiably graced that particular award category on many a previous occasion. (Indeed, he’s also nominated this year for his work on Katie Pruitt’s Expectations.) And you could do a lot worse than starting your journey through this album’s delights by listening to the title track, which has to be one of my personal records of the year!

As usual with Paczosa’s productions, the string instruments sound absolutely gorgeous. The opening mandolin is a case in point, delivering a richly woody tone for an instrument that so often comes across as a bit thin and plasticky in lesser hands. I particularly like the way the picking transients are tremendously fat and beefy, so that they really pack a punch, without having any of the abrasive edginess you might disparage as ‘excessive pick noise’. There’s a lovely hint of stereo width to the sound as well, which presumably derives primarily from panning the instrument’s multimics, rather than from added mix effects. Indeed, Paczosa has talked about his multi-miking approach in interview (for example in this Mix Online article: ‘Recording Bluegrass Instruments'), and his descriptions correspond very closely to the recording setup you can see in the song’s official video at around 2:10.

That said, the dynamic use of effects is pretty cool too. Try importing this mix into your DAW so you can instanteously hop around in the timeline, and you’ll quickly hear how the mandolin, for instance, has its effects treatments adapted through the course of the song. So although the tone seems very dry initially, you can hear more of a reverb bloom creeping in during the soloing at 1:08, and that increases to a proper reverb tail by the time we reach the little fill at 1:29 (in that pocket just before the cymbal hit). But there’s a lot more going on in this respect with the vocals, such as the delay spin on “I’ve done my best to wait” at 0:20; the reverb wash abruptly cutting out on “just keep” at 0:32; the sudden burst of reverb on “oh” at 0:49, followed by the slowly riding-up delay effect during the subsequent few seconds; and then the proper reverb wash introduced for the “hello time” section at 1:45. My favourite vocal effects stunt, though, is at 2:16, where we’d kind of been led to expect that the textural buildup would suddenly dry up (as it did for similar moments at 0:32 and 1:06), but instead the long vocal reverb tail is allowed to linger on luxuriously until 2:23, where another trippy new stereo vocal delay arrives to close the song out.

Now, given Hull’s star turn here as a singer and mandolinist, a lesser band might have been content just to tread water in the background, so it’s a credit to them that this record has so many wonderful string-arrangement touches. Not only are the more traditional padding elements beautifully phrased to support the musical momentum (note, for instance, the swell into the downbeat at 0:31), but there are plenty of lovely little details to treasure besides. There’s the brilliantly effective rhythmic figuration at 0:34-0:40, which transforms a single-note drone into something that adds energising contrapuntal complexity to the mandolin’s foreground rhythmic coutour. And there’s further subliminal groove-underpinning with the higher sixteenth-note filligree that starts fading in from around the two-minute mark. You get plenty of nice little pitch-bend elements too, like the fall at 0:48, the wide vibrato at 1:13, and the complicated woozy transition at 2:01. And let’s not forget the specks of fiddle pizzicato at 0:54 and 2:46, or that gloriously glassy sul ponticello note at 2:26. Honestly, it’s an embarrassment of riches!

But, seeing as it’s Hull’s song, I suppose I should give the final kudos to her for the fun games she plays with the groove during her solo licks, first adding an extra beat with that ‘Tom & Jerry’ twanged note at 0:40, and then stretching us out of tempo for the series of five fills at 1:08, 1:12, 1:16, 1:20, and 1:23. Always nice to hear an artist keeping any foot-tappers in the audience on their toes!