View Single Post
Old 01-23-2020, 07:54 PM   #4
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,630
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

Perfect intonation is unachievable, simply put. In the fourth century B.C., Pythagoras defined the octave frequency ratio as 2:1 and the fifth as 3:2. Those ratios make beautiful sounds — octaves and fifths go great together — but they don’t scale (confusing pun intended) up into a system; the ratios don’t work as well with higher numbers, and don’t overlay mathematically. To numerically quantify frequencies in a systematic way — to build intervals, scales and multiple octaves — you need either to make the number frequencies within scales irrational, or round them off. That rounding, which effectively knocks some scale tones out of whack to make others align more perfectly and mathematically, is called tempering. Tempering, then, is like a musical version of Einstein’s cosmological constant, a small fudging that allows a system that’s useful and desirable to stay intact. (And multiple systems of temperament exist, so that obsessives can really get lost in this stuff.)

If you’re a guitarist you face only six adjustable variables, the open strings. (Lightfoot sometimes plays a twelve-string which admittedly is an added tuning burden.) The tools are electronic tuners and your ears, and both are fallible. The obstacles, all inhibiting or actually preventing perfect tuning, and all out of your control, are: environmental/locational contingencies (temperatures move around and wood and glue respond in kind), math (see above), and the set-up of your fretted instrument. Further constraining you is the fact that the first note you tune becomes a standard in itself, and further tunings become relative to it. The limitations are frustrating, but they do save time.

Once when I was sound-checking in an Indiana bar with the banjoist Noam Pikelny, he was disturbed by an ambient hum in the room, coming from a refrigeration unit or something. I couldn’t hear it until he pointed it out. It wasn’t only that it was soft, it didn’t sound much like a note to me. But it was driving him nuts, and so all of us tuned to 442 to avoid clashing with the hum. It’s possible Lightfoot is changing up frequency standards night by night in this way, based on room characteristics. But I doubt it. It’s possible he’s tuning a digital keyboard to a guitar rather than vice-versa, possible he’s switching out saddles of different heights or angles. There’s a number of absurd, time-wasting things he could be doing.

Tuning is more a matter of taste than “science,” and old people’s tastes have a way of morphing into goofy convictions. I strongly suspect Mr. Lightfoot has fallen into a rabbit hole, and I wish he would devote more energy to non-tuning aspects of his craft. On the spectrum of persnickety intonation standards and dissonance thresholds — Katy Perry and Gordon Lightfoot at one end and flying close to the Pythagorean sun; big-city orchestras using their ears and an oboe’s A-note as guideposts; schmucks like me with their Snark clip-ons and on-the-road-too-long hearing loss; a 1960s R&B group pushing the envelope but sounding great anyway; a bar band too proud to give a shit and consequently sounding just awful — my own preference is for music that’s just a little out of tune. Sometimes I like it a little more out-of-tune and sometimes a little less — odd though it may sound, it really depends who’s playing. In all, I think there are reasons to prefer the slightly wobbly music of the younger Gordon Lightfoot to his rigorously tuned and boring records of more recent vintage.


In 1970 Lightfoot paired fatefully with Warner/Reprise’s legendary A&R executive Lenny Waronker, then at the beginning of a career that would come to encompass some of the most era-defining, intelligently arranged pop music of the 1970s: Rickie Lee Jones, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, Randy Newman. The two men began dabbling with orchestrations and working toward the easy-grooving Laurel Canyon-flavored sound by which most people would come to know Lightfoot. For his first production, Sit Down Young Stranger, Waronker brought in a mini-murderers’-row of kind-eyed, flowery-shirted, bigshots-to-be. Ry Cooder and John Sebastian played on the record, and both Nick DeCaro and Randy Newman did string arrangements. Van Dyke Parks played freakish harmonium lines over the back half of “Cobwebs and Dust,” belching low thirds and effortfully (pumping a harmonium always seems to sound a little like a fat man climbing stairs) cranking out demented organ-grinder arpeggios, a surreal contrast to Lightfoot’s mellifluous nursery-rhyme vocals.

From this messing-around came “If You Could Read My Mind.” The song pulsed with sincere, depressive feeling; the lyrics offered up striking details (a “three-way script”) while circling but never articulating the sad central facts; the chord changes and vocal melody were smart; and the audio tailoring worked. Waronker’s presence was a decisive boon, and his production of Sundown three years later proved the game-changer for Lightfoot. That album’s two hits, the title song and “Carefree Highway,” play on adult-contemporary and oldies radio to this day.

Sundown was in many respects no departure. Its subject matter included horniness, the troubled ways of the modern world, the sea: familiar themes familiarly decorated, with an overlay of melancholy philosophy, a profusion of rhymes, and fat-free melodies. The album, like most of Lightfoot’s early discography, offered a little brainy form-stretching that ran contrary to the writer’s reputation for three-chord simplicity. “Seven Island Suite,” like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Cabaret” before it, has mixed meters and a quasi-symphonic layout; it juggles polyrhythms and creatively plays 6/8 against 4/4 over the course of six-plus minutes.

Sundown also has unique elements. It’s Lightfoot’s grooviest record, being the first of two albums that Jim Gordon drums on, and featuring the percussionist Milt Holland. The former gentleman, best known for drumming on “Layla” and killing his mother with a butcher knife nine years after these sessions, proves the ideal fit for Lightfoot, feeling the songs in real time and operating with an intensity and restraint that don’t feel “performed.” Elsewhere in the playing, the record gleams with clarity. Acoustic guitars outline chord patterns, rest behind vocals, and reiterate vocal melodies during solos. Nick DeCaro, whose strings are one of the key ingredients of effective 1970s songwriter music, is, as ever, serene and unostentatious.

Cathy Smith (hey, it’s a two-killer record!) sings on the choruses of “High And Dry.” I love her performance. It sounds non-professionally self-conscious, and is set back and bathed in echo, as though it’s a jagged element that wanted smoothing over. It’s nice to hear a voice harmonizing with Lightfoot other than himself, because his dense timbre isn’t good cloning material. Perhaps Waronker helped tame his vibrato (mercifully dialed back), and admitted fresh voices in. “Cold On The Shoulder,” the title song of the album after Sundown, features the Partridge Family’s Jackie Ward.

continued in next post
charlene is offline   Reply With Quote