Music: Noah and the WhaleBRITISH INDIE SENSATIONS SCORE WITH CONCEPT ALBUM 11/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern
“I'm just in the process of buying some flowers, so if you hear me asking about flowers, that's why,” Noah and the Whale leader, singer and songwriter Charlie Fink cheerily explains from a noisy cell phone in the heart of London. “Otherwise I'm completely engaged.” The magic moment comes a few minutes later when I'm in mid-question. Fink tells a clerk, “I'd like a pink rose, a red rose and a white rose.”
Normally, this sort of information would not find its way into a story I would write. But it's significant in this case because Noah and the Whale's just-released new album, The First Days of Spring — already a critical and commercial hit in England — is a deeply moody (but brilliant) concept album/song cycle about a breakup — reportedly, Fink's relationship with occasional Noah associate Laura Marling, whose excellent debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, Fink produced, presumably in happier times. “Are you buying flowers for a girl?” I ask Fink, and he just laughs. One hopes the dark days and nights that produced The First Days of Spring are well behind him now; certainly, he sounds more like the happy-go-lucky soul who warbled (along with Marling) the group's insanely catchy 2008 Top 10 British hit “5 Years Time” (popularized here thanks to a Saturn car commercial and college radio play). The album that song came from — their debut, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down — made it all the way to Number 5 in England; previously, they'd been favorites on the indie folk circuit and released a couple of singles (including a different version of “5 Years Time”).
When I mention to Fink that he doesn't sound like a guy who just made one of the great end-of-relationship albums, he laughs again, and says, “It's a bizarre thing doing music. You write some songs that are incredibly meaningful to you when you're writing them, and there's a gap period of time, and then you record them, and then after an even larger gap of time, you talk about them when the album's ready. I'm always trying to express something that's relevant to me, so what's relevant six months or a year ago in my life might be a little different than what's relevant to me now. Still, the songs mean as much as they did then, and they're expressions of particular emotions so I have no trouble at all singing them and I feel comfortable talking about them.”
Fans of the first album's breezy acoustic folk-pop and D.I.Y. aesthetic are in for quite a surprise when they hear The First Days of Spring. Aside from the bleaker subject matter — though the first album wasn't all “sun, sun, sun,” to quote “5 Years Time,” by any means — the sonics and the overall vibe are completely different. Many of the tempos are languorous, as befits the subject matter, and the dominant instrument on many songs is spare electric guitar — Fink's 1961 Fender Jaguar played through a 1962 Fender Twin — or solemn piano, perfect accompaniment for the singer's fragile and expressive baritone. Brother Doug Fink's percussion ranges from tympani to a conventional kit that's heavy on the toms; in other words, darker tones. There are tasteful string arrangements courtesy of the group's talented violinist, Tom Hobden, as well as occasional horns and a judiciously used choir. One song, “For the Love of an Orchestra,” features a fully symphonic sound blended with one of Fink's more driving tunes. Bassist Matt “Urby” Owens rounds out the group sound with his imaginative playing.
For this album, the group turned to American engineer/producer Emery Dobyns, who is probably best known for his work in this decade with Patti Smith, Suzanne Vega and Travis. Indeed, it was having worked with that last group — another band quite popular in Britain; less so here — that first brought Dobyns to RAK Recording in London, where he later recorded The First Days of Spring over a three-week period. “We'd talked about working with Emery before,” Fink says, “and for whatever reason it didn't happen. Then his name came up again and we did a trial session two months before we went in to record the album proper, and things just clicked. I think one thing that was important was his confidence in the project from the start — he clearly understood and believed in what it was meant to be.” Dobyns engineered the album and co-produced with Fink, working in RAK's large 30×20 main room, which adjoins a control room housing a 1970s API console. (The studio was built in an old Victorian schoolhouse in the mid-'70s by noted English producer Mickie Most.)
While the songs on The First Days of Spring don't tell a linear “story,” they do follow an emotional trajectory that traces our hero's emotional struggles. Fink says, “We recorded it in order — track one, finish track one, go to track two, finish that, and so on. And the album is very much binded together. There are transitions between each song. We'd never heard the whole thing together until we finished recording. It was like putting together all the ingredients of a mad experiment and not knowing the results until the very end.”
The “transitions” are mostly nonmusic recordings of church bells, streams and other natural sounds. “I wanted them to lend an atmosphere, a gentle bed,” Fink comments. “I did those recordings binaural — with a dummy head. I went out to the Lake District, which is in the north of England, and I revisited some of the places that had inspired the songs and captured sounds from there and then put it in the songs.”
Fink says he had a fairly clear picture of how he wanted the album to sound from the outset, noting, “Whenever I write something, I can vaguely hear the finished thing, but that conception is definitely influenced by the mixture of musicians in the band, especially Tom — he is a classically trained musician, and he also used to play in a country band, so he brings those influences and approaches to the way I write songs, and because of that you're inevitably going to get something that's unconventional and still precise.”
How much did the full band play on basics? “There were a few things, but generally it was [layering] tracks. We'd go in and work out the arrangements together live and we'd do a take live together, but because I had big arrangements and we didn't want to spend too much money on this album hiring other players, we decided that layering it was the best way. We hired in a choir and a few people to come play horns and woodwind instruments, but all the strings are Tom's layering. He plays violin, viola and cello.”
“We layered them piece by piece, and on a song like ‘Love Is an Orchestra,’ which Charlie wanted to be this massive orchestra piece, it was quite challenging,” adds Dobyns from his home base in Weehauken, N.J., Hobo Sound, where the album was mixed. “I had him move around in different positions to prevent phasing in one position. So we'd record the violins in one position, the violas a couple of feet over, sometimes with a different mic, and so on. Tom is incredibly brilliant — amazing pitch, an amazing ear. Some of the arrangements came about on the spot — ‘Let's try this harmony.’ Nothing was scored out originally; then when there was a solid part, Tom would notate it. And by the time we brought in the two horn players, we were able to give them a score.” As for the string mics, “I used a Royer 121 throughout the whole thing, but I also used an older [AKG] 414 at times, too.” Dobyns also sometimes doubled and tripled horn and woodwind parts, as well as the work of the 12-voice choir, the Exmoor Singers of London.
Asked about aesthetic antecedents for the sound on the album — its overall spaciousness, the intimate foreground with guitar and vocal, and the intriguing sonic touches here and there — both Fink and Dobyns independently mention engineer Jim O'Rourke's work on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost Is Born (2004). Fink says, “I really appreciate his approach to sound and the way it will work with the song. A lot of those Wilco songs are really beautiful songs, so the crazy, weird arrangements underneath work because you've got that solid framework.” Adds Dobyns, “Charlie and I also both love Smog records [the alias of lo-fi pioneer Bill Callahan], and we definitely referenced Feist a bit, too.”
Dobyns says that all of the tracks on The First Days of Spring were built around Fink's guitar and vocal — the latter captured using a Blue tube mic. “Most of them were first or second vocal takes,” Dobyns says. “Also, I really wanted to get the drums percussive and dark, almost like that [Bob Dylan] Time Out of Mind feel — there might be another drum kit coming in for a bar or something, and in general we really broke down the drums from what was on the demos. The drums and bass are where we did a lot of restructuring. At RAK, they have eight beautiful FET 47s, so I used those a lot on the drums — for kick and overheads.”
How much are we hearing the sound of the big room at RAK? “A good deal of room is on the recordings,” Dobyns replies. “I had a pair of [Neumann] M50s in the room. Some songs really feature the room vibe.”
In preparation for the mix back at Hobo Sound, “I printed a lot of [Pro Tools] stems through the API at RAK and then brought them back here and mostly mixed in the box and put things though my 16-channel Chandler mini-mixer. I was also printing here through a Neve VR60, although we just got rid of that and we're most likely getting a smaller API.”
No new parts were added at the mix stage, Dobyns says. “I mixed it for two weeks by myself and then [the band] came over for five days and we kind of tweaked it; then it was mastered by Emily Lazar, who did a great job.”
After the album was done, Fink went back and directed a 46-minute conceptual video based around the song cycle — it's a fascinating work that captures some of the pastoral quality of the music and actually heightens the album's occasionally enigmatic character. That film is included with the album (along with two unusual performance videos). Since the album was completed, there have been changes in the band. Fink's brother Doug has left to devote all of his life to his real trade — he's a doctor; he's been replaced by Jack Hamson. And now the touring group has a second guitarist — Fred Abbott.
“The new band sounds great,” Fink says. “We've always had the philosophy that a song isn't ever necessarily ‘finished,’ so they can evolve and become different things as they grow. Despite the arrangements on the album, I think we're really capturing the essence of the record live, and all the old songs have been given a new varnish. They've been arranged more like the new songs and the set feels really fluid. I think it's the best we've ever sounded.”