Tuesday, April 23, 2013

G. Norton

If you read my last blog and I think three people did (all family members), then you are aware of the song and dance I’m peddling! I have a love for music; specifically the bass in the mix and I'm breaking down some of my favorite bassists and integral albums that assisted in my development. Last week it was Billy Gould and his multi-trick pony bass attack that propelled Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”. Wow, that was a mouthful! I hope you got a chance to listen to the tunes I highlighted. If you haven't caught some of the albums I am going to break down and are interested, then please go to Amazon (you’re welcome) and purchase and enjoy! The compact disc is not dead yet and most of these sell for a few bucks or a penny, which is a shame for them and good news for you!

I have to admit, the next bassist and album that inspired my early playing came to my mind first, but for whatever reason I chose “The Real Thing” to critique up front. Before the proprietors of Nu-metal came along (and I don’t think Faith No More would care for that honor); there was a plethora of alternative and college radio saturating the radio and MTV. Those early college radio bands would entirely shape "Grunge" rock a decade later. I first heard R.E.M’s “The One I love” and wondered what cave I had been dwelling in and why I hadn’t heard of them, because they had already released a half dozen records?! Before Soul Asylum spewed out the sympathy inducing ballad “Runaway Train” to the airwaves, they were a sludgy bar band from Minnesota- and amazingly unrefined! And believe it when I tell you that Black Flack’s angular and riff crazed attack, alongside Henry Rollins coarse delivery wasn’t for everyone, but damn- when the mood was right!

So the first and most significant bassist to even get me hearing the bass was Greg Norton from the influential power pop/punk band Husker Du. The Husker’s were a critics’ darling and as prolific as they were in just a few years; they eluded the “household name” that a lot of their peers would be granted. I caught onto them after they had already disbanded, but fortunately they had left a considerable discography and I am focusing on their last double album released in 1987; “Warehouse: Songs & Stories”. The elastic Norton pumped some melodic life on many tracks, even sounding like a hybrid of Squire and McCartney on the last few cuts; songs that to this day inspire me to pick up the bass! If you read last weeks excerpt I talked of rocking hard in front of a full length mirror with a hockey stick? Well, it was almost exclusively to this album! Something in the way Norton constructed his lines that didn’t just “sit” idle in the groove. They were astute and at times bounced along in grave indifference towards Bob Moulds' open chord wall of crunch! As far as specifics with finger or pick technique, I’m going to have to guess a little here as the album sounds like a bit of both. Live footage of the band has Norton picking on a P-bass and a Gibson (you know, the Gibson that is not a Thunderbird?!) and in the video for “Could You be The One?” we see him playing finger style. There is a warmth that you can hear on some tracks, so my guess is he played both ways.

The track “Ice Cold Ice” has Norton blowing through the verses with tenacity. Eighth note alternation that pulse behind Mould’s single chord strum held out for the measure and then a chorus that sees Norton following the descending pattern with the root notes, while not allowing the rhythm to stagnate. The song drives hard in the verse and it is Nortons’ line that makes that work. Jump ahead to side 4 (yeah, It was a double LP folks!!), and what would be some of the strongest compositions: the Grant Hart song “She’s a Woman (and Now He is a Man)”, the slipperiness of  Bob Mould’s “Up in the Air” and the final track; Hart’s cathartic release of an ex-lover “You Can Live at Home”. The driving bass tone of “She’s a Woman” is where Norton shows consistent ability to make his presence known and felt. The bass tracks on the majority of this release have a density that allows the guitar to “space out” at times and be very minimal (as Mould progressed as a songwriter, he lightened the crunch on his guitar). Regardless of my affections for the bass as an instrument; I believe most listeners would feel and sense it too. The bass grooves are strong without being cluttered. This track is representative of that. “Up in the air”‘, where the buttery and loopy bass leads the entire verse is an example of Greg opening the melodic throttle, as he did on many of the stronger tunes on “Warehouse”.   

The closing track is a steady and booming quarter note bass shuffle accented by Hart’s syncopated ride cymbal and patented tenor wail. The chorus line “Walk, walk away…” has Norton accompanying in a subdued manner until Mould re-enters with an obscene string bend (coming out of nowhere!) that throws the song headlong back into the shuffling outro. The last track fades out with all the cacophony suitable for a massive, sprawling 20 track release, and the final album from a talented band and an exceptional bass player. These songs still makes me shudder and emotive for my last days in High School and will hold a special place inside of my youthful designs.  Memories of me, a hockey stick and a mirror; and my love for something I was only beginning to understand.

Often “Unheralded”, but no longer overlooked…

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