Nashville SkylineI was knocking around Berry Hill and dropped in at Fred Vail's classic Music City studio, Treasure Isle (www.treasureislenashville.com) and discovered 5/01/2005 8:00 AM Eastern
I was knocking around Berry Hill and dropped in at Fred Vail's classic Music City studio, Treasure Isle (www.treasureislenashville.com) and discovered Rodney Crowell and Peter Coleman working on another great album.
Crowell's previous two efforts, The Houston Kid and Fate's Right Hand, were landmark albums in a career already loaded with 25 years of critically and commercially successful releases. Crowell's latest, The Outsider, is perfect for anyone seeking out adult music that offers a provocative marriage of heart and mind.
In many ways, The Outsider is a travelogue of observations Crowell has made during two long European tours last year while the U.S. and its allies were ramping up the Iraq invasion. “I felt like an expatriate during an election year, and I seemed to be writing a lot while I was on the road, so my sensibilities and my perspective in the songs were sort of framed in that light,” muses Crowell.
“Don't Get Me Started,” an angry mid-tempo rocker, is inspired by an encounter with a patron in a Scottish pub. “It's really about being misunderstood and actually having to argue, ‘Wait a minute! I'm on your side, guy! I see this situation the same way you do!’” explains Crowell.
On “Obscenity Prayer,” Crowell sets his sights on “taking the piss out of greedy people. It's not right-wing conservatism that I bristle at — it's heartless greed, like the kind you see in the corporate world,” explains Crowell. “There is no moral center to white-collar corruption and that's what I really bristle at.”
But The Outsider also offers some wonderful observational sketches of moments on the road, particularly in “Glasgow Girl” and “Beautiful Despair.” The latter tune, Crowell says, “is based on a dialog with a friend at a party in Belfast, Ireland. We were sitting on the floor listening to Bob Dylan. It's 3 a.m. and he kind of turned to me and said, ‘I drink because I'll never write like that.’” It was that dynamic that Crowell labeled “beautiful despair.”
Michael Rhodes, who has played bass on The Outsider and many of Crowell's recordings, singles out “Beautiful Despair” as a personal favorite. “I think it's perfect,” he says. “That's a song I have listened to over and over again. It's so dead-simple that it's an exercise in restraint. From the time Rodney showed us the song, strumming an acoustic guitar, we almost automatically went straight for this thing to its final form very quickly.”
Musically, The Outsider runs from straight-ahead rockers (“Say You Love Me,” “The Obscenity Prayer”) to mid-tempo funk (“The Outsider”) to reflective numbers (“Ignorance Is the Enemy”), and even an amazing Dylan cover (“Shelter From the Storm,” a duet with Emmylou Harris).
Besides Rhodes on bass, the album features a number of Nashville's finest players, including drummers Greg Morrow and Eddie Bayers; guitarists Will Kimbrough, Steuart Smith and Pat Buchanan; and guest artists John Prine, Buddy & Julie Miller and others.
These days, when digital is the primary way people record, Crowell and Coleman still believe that analog is the way to go. They track on a Sony APR24. “A lot of people won't cut with analog anymore because they just won't spend the money on the tape,” Coleman says. “They say, ‘Hard disk space is free and analog tape is a buck sixty [$160] a roll,’ so they won't do it — but Rodney does. I still feel like it's the best-sounding format out there.”
After tracking, they do overdubs on Coleman's second setup of choice: an iZ RADAR with Nyquist converters. Coleman, however, prefers to mix to digital at 24-bit/44.1 through a pair of 100 Series Apogees. “The biggest advantage for me is that I can listen to the output of digital as I'm mixing and then I can compensate for what is going on,” says Coleman. “I also listen back, even off a DAT machine at 16-bit, and that gives me some idea of what's going to happen when it gets down to CD format. I've been doing that for years.”
For Crowell's vocal chain, Coleman says, “We use a Fred Cameron — modified [Neumann] 87. Fred tubes it all up and gives you the power pack and the whole works and it's a great-sounding microphone. My mic pre of choice is a Telefunken V76-M. “I also use an 1176, but I don't kill it going to tape. I generally kill it coming back in the mix,” Coleman says, laughing. “I really like limiting. I think it adds a certain angst to some things and it seems to work well with Rodney's voice.”
Coleman also takes the time to find the right mic that captures the tonal characteristics he is seeking for voice or instrument. “I don't EQ his voice and I tend to stay away from EQ'ing things too much, unless I absolutely have to,” he says. “If I don't like the way something sounds, the first thing I usually do is switch microphones. It takes a little bit of time, but it's well worth it in the end.”
Compared to pop records that can employ more than 100 tracks of information, Coleman says that Crowell's albums are comparatively minimal. “It's very rare when we actually used all 24 tracks. One of the biggest downfalls these days is people putting more and more shit on everything because of the abundance of tracks available, as opposed to coming up with a handful of parts that are really cool that would really work well as a complete picture. Any engineer will tell you that, from a mixing standpoint, the less they have, the better they're going to make it sound. It's because they have space, and if you listen to anything Rodney and I have done, you know it's usually pretty spare and simple, and that allows stuff to breathe and let the sound to develop. It sounds honest.”
Coleman also has high praise for Vic Anesini, the album's mastering engineer. “There are a lot of really good mastering guys around, but a lot of them get absolutely obsessed with volume, and the by-product of doing that is you take all of the dynamics out,” Coleman says. “I have to say that Vic's mastering came back sounding as close to my original mixes as I've ever heard. It was 3 or 4 dB louder than my mix, but it was extremely recognizable. I have no idea what the hell he did. [Laughs] I just know I like it.”
When I ask Rhodes about The Outsider, he sums it up this way: “To me, this is a progression of Rodney as a songwriter — I mean, if he could get any better. He's honed it lyrically and musically, and he just keeps getting better. Everybody that's worked on this record feels the same way.”
Special thanks to Scott Campbell and Taner Shores for their help. Send Nashville news to MrBlurge@mac.com.