Thursday, January 31, 2013

Day Thirty: Lindsey Buckingham - Gift of Screws


Reprise Records ■ 512970-1

Released September 16, 2008
Produced and Mixed by Lindsey Buckingham
("Gift of Screws" and "Wait for You" co-produced by Rob Cavallo; "Wait for You" mixed by Mark Needham
Engineered by Lindsey Buckingham, Ken Allardyce, and Mark Needham
Mastered by Bernie Grundman/Bernie Grundman Mastering



Side One:Side Two:
  1. Great Day
  2. Time Precious Time
  3. Did You Miss Me
  4. Wait for You
  5. Love Runs Deeper
  1. Bel Air Rain
  2. The Right Place to Fade
  3. Gift of Screws
  4. Underground
  5. Treason
I'm a bit conflicted here. In a few weeks or months, we'll run into Fleetwood Mac proper. We won't see any Green or any Welch (I have none of the former, as I haven't gotten around to it, and only a CD of the latter), and so the focus will, obviously, be Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood. The focal point will be for me (as ever), Buckingham. So, then: do I address my thoughts on Lindsey's musical place in my world now, or save it for then? How could I split it, were I to do both? Should I just give in and repeat information, but write it differently when I get there? I'm honestly not sure. I think the best approach is to go ahead and provide the background that establishes why I even have this album, which ties into all of that. So, pardon me for a moment while I briefly delve into my interactions with the last era of Fleetwood Mac.

I grew up on the kind of radio station termed "classic rock", though a fair amount of contemporary popular music also filtered in via school and my own personal clock/radio. I was also around for the brief resurgences of the Mac in the place of Clinton's usage of "Don't Stop", as well as it's mild re-phrasing for use in a commercial. That melody was ingrained there, but "Rhiannon", "The Chain", "Gold Dust Woman"--those all got planted in my head early on, too. But sometime in college, for reasons I can't claim to recall, I picked up a cheap copy of Tusk (which is likely to make its appearance here on the aforementioned future date). It's a double LP, so I'd often just start it going and go about my business in the dorm or apartment. At some point, something clicked and I started hearing the scattered set of uncharacteristic and generally odd songs, which I learned were the work of Lindsey.

I started branching out from there--I went back to the prior two albums, Fleetwood Mac and of course Rumours, but I was still enamoured of Tusk. When my time at Borders eventually ran into the brief test marketing of vinyl, it was 2008. Largely, I was unfamiliar with the material placed in front of me--I knew names, but I'd yet to listen to Whiskeytown or The Black Keys or Drive-By Truckers. I did pick up more familiar titles, or at least familiar artists, as they showed up, and one of those was Gift of Screws. I think I was most intrigued by the attached sticker: this was not only a 180g audiophile pressing, it was also listed as including an "audiophile CD" made from the uncompressed master plating for the record. I'm often a sucker for an included CD, as it does everything I want from a piece of purchased, physical music. Download codes are nice, but I hate burning a CD for car listening, and like having a real one. It's a compromise, as the CD ends up showing in a paper sleeve most of the time, and then sits in my car forever instead (that's where the Gift of Screws one is right now, actually). Still, it was enough to push me into the purchase.

I hadn't listened to any of Buckingham's "official" solo recordings yet (plenty of Tusk is divided out into distinct feelings of "Buckingham" songs, "McVie" songs, and "Nicks" songs--even if there was some collaboration still occurring), so this was my introduction to it. Tusk taught me Lindsey can be intensely catchy, but very weird. So, when I first played this album back, I got a bit of a surprise. I did actually work it into the Borders overhead music at the time, over which I exercised as much control as I could, leading to some really odd moments--though far worse when we hit closing time and I switched completely to my own music, disregarding whether the store sold it, or even could sell it, occasionally to the chagrin of coworkers.

It was a mild shock to start listening to Gift of Screws, then, as the first thing you hear sounds like some of his Tusk work, but only for a moment--half-dead, muted percussion and his voice--but then his guitar...holy cow. Even if you only know him for Fleetwood Mac, you can hear his sound when he starts playing in "Great Day", but it has so many fewer sounds behind it, it's nothing but acoustic nylon strings in brilliant clarity and absolute beauty. It sounds as though it will just be intermittent, playing only between his vocal lines, but after he finishes the first verse, his playing takes its hold, using simpler, more evenly spaced licks behind the echoing overdubs of his own voice as the chorus. But it isn't just left after that, as a tightly wound solo peels from the obscene heights back downward to rejoin the song. And then a pecking, rhythmic melody takes over, before shifting back to the chorus, which slowly turns from "It was a great day, great day" to "It wasn't such a great day", before a blistering, absurdly rapid solo closes the entire song out--completely beyond the tempo of the rest, yet perfectly placed.

The second song is one that has caused some issues in the past. When I put this album into the overhead, as well as the first time I played it for my father, "Time Precious Time" left a bad taste in many mouths. It's an oddly constructed song: a faint, rapid finger-picked melody opens the song, not stopping for anything and seeming to hit more notes than you can imagine a single hand doing--so long as you're an amateur or non-player, at least. Lindsey sings quietly, low, over it, but then he hits the chorus, and his voice reaches out, singing "Time, precious, time, precious.." as his guitar opens up as much as his voice, layered in a few times to create an absolute waterfall of beautiful notes. The sheer abundance of sound in all of this--despite only being his voice and guitar(s)--is overwhelming as any kind of background music, and blurs and blends too much to sound anything but repetitive and annoying. It needs to be sat and listened to, where its beauty instead becomes jaw-dropping, not just for the skill on display, but for the way it all fits together and sounds so wonderfully separated and clear. Don't listen to this song while talking to someone, or in any way that lets it just sort of fade in and out of your awareness--it will annoy you, and unjustly so.

The first track to feature any other musicians, "Did You Miss Me" brings in the talents of Lindsey's drummer, Walfredo Reyes. Lindsey's guitar is calmer, melodic, but focus more on full chords. Reyes puts in a beat and sound vaguely reminiscent of the more subdued efforts of 80s pop, but without the huge or gated drums that so identify (and often date, for good or ill) those recordings. There's a breathy quality to Lindsey's verses that fits in with the tenor of the album as a whole, the feeling of weary backward looks, of, in maturity, looking back at the world and life. Losing the breathiness--which almost sounds as if it is sung through cupped hands or otherwise mildly and inexpertly "amplified" for effect--the chorus is more plaintive and stronger, as is the bridge that follows it the second time around. There's a sense of emotion, but of a kind that is drained and resigned in most respects--except on the final repetitions of the chorus, where that earlier plaintiveness seems to long for an answer to that central question. The solo is similarly at ease, and only appears in time to fade out.

The sound shifts quite noticeably with the opening lick of "Wait for You", with a distorted and clearly electric sound to Buckingham's guitar, which bends in just the right way, the way that makes you feel it. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are actually his rhythm section for the song and mostly give it a simple backing, that bending lick really occupying the driver's seat for the verses. Almost tinged with a bit of phase, his voice has a kind of kind leer--if you can imagine such a thing--to it. When the chorus hits, the leer suggested by that bend and his voice is suddenly gone, replaced with a bigger sound, and a brighter feeling, his playing turning more open and clean, a stronger pattern from Mick keeping the energy of that chorus at its heights. It's interesting in the context of the album's overall tenor: it gives it that sunny, backward-look that the verses don't seem to carry, like it's the soundtrack to play over sunlit (perhaps rose-tinted) memories, even as it describes a future action. I have a deep and abiding love for Buckingham's choruses, and this is no exception, even bringing out the very quiet, small modulation of the vibrato his voice takes on for long-held notes. The solo he burns out is more in the verse's style, bending and twisting with a wink instead of a cheerful smile.

There's a dichotomous approach to the songs on the album; the ones that feature Lindsey in isolation (or at least only playing alongside himself) are more contemplative and open, less "rocking" and more in tune with the sound presented on Under the Skin, his album from two years prior (more on this later, though). "Love Runs Deeper" is from the other side, though: Walfredo rejoins him for the track, and it has that rhythmic bottom end that anchors it, even as his more aggressive guitar already pushes the songs in this direction. The opening chords are reminiscent of those that open the Church's "Under the Milky Way", but are quickly swept in another direction, becoming brighter quickly, and his again breathy voice sounds again like it's coming from somewhere other than where you might expect, though I cannot for the life of me accurately place where--it's a vague displacement that is tonally fitting, but odd nonetheless. Reyes shies away from the snare and the kick (largely, anyway) for much of the verse, but opens up with the rest of the song in the chorus. While Lindsey's voice becomes louder and more open (though this time with that same peculiar timbre), Reyes makes more full use of his kit, pounding out at toms that give you the impression that he is turning rapidly, a somewhat Jeff Lynne-esque¹ set of up-down-up-down chords being matched with alternating tom choices, that give a lot of drama to the increased range of the chorus. A slow, meandering solo over the verse melody does what a good solo should: it expands on the mood and tone of the rest of the song, but is followed after another chorus, by an even more virtuosic, expansive one that brings the song to a close.

Side Two opens with a song that in some ways mirrors the opening of Side One: "Bel Air Rain" is another purely solo song (though the writing of "Great Day" also involved Lindsey's son Will), with the rhythm and melody both defined by a rapidly picked guitar, one that expands on itself and moves from an already rapid and seemingly-complicated line to a layered, brighter, louder one that has the same essential effect as the fully accompanied tracks, yet achieved in an entirely different way, and with an entirely different feeling. A semi-scat ending brings in more shades of Tusk, too.

While I like all of this album a lot and for varying reasons, "The Right Place to Fade" is undoubtedly the crown jewel in an album that's already great all around. Mixing up the rhythm section, Fleetwood returns, but the bass is provided by one John Pierce. A galloping acoustic comes in alone, overdubbed with a cruising lead electric line, though all of it remains hushed, even the drums of Fleetwood, until the chorus drops its bomb: driving slashes of distorted guitar and the primal drumming of Mick back the clear-throated, passionate but knowing call of, "How long, how long, how long/How long we wait/Waiting for the light that might light our way/Waiting for the right place to fade..." The alliteration and the number of syllables jammed into that chorus after the stretched repetition of its first line catches you up, as does the addition of overdubbed backing vocals that just encourage you to join in. Wild lead lines spiral off in the background, but the drums, the simple distorted chords and Lindsey's voice are the focal point. The solo that interrupts the latter end sounds like a slowly picked solo from someone learning guitar for just a moment, then shifts without warning or transition into rapid and higher-end, emotive soloing that pierces and then suddenly falls back into an expansion of the song's primary melody. This song is amazing.

You would think that Fleetwood was responsible for the pounding, animal drums of the title track--and you'd be right. McVie also returns, and the song doesn't hold for a moment. There's a vague sense of early rock and roll to the simple and repetitive chord progression that moves the melody on, but the affected, half nasal chorus has a sneer to it, that turns to actual crazed laughter--more shades of Tusk!--that seems uncontrolled, then intentional and musical, but catches another jolt of madness as it ends its run. And it repeats, too, and loses none of this. The song ends with Lindsey calling with his voice and answering with his guitar--if anyone else was doing it, you'd think either the vocalist was appreciating the playing of the guitarist, but here it's like the song's constructed object: that feeling of vocal encouragement is part of what we expect in that context, and Lindsey just goes ahead and covers both ends of it himself, managing not to sound like he's fawning over his own guitar work at the same time. Even if it'd be justified.

The pair of closing sounds are more from the less-rock oriented side of the album's sound, and both are pure Lindsey: writing, performance, and production all. "Underground" is more uptempo than his other solo tracks, and has less of the drained feeling of prior ones, seeming more optimistic, though still aged--in the wine sense, not the brittled, yellowing one--the playing is simpler again, which almost seems to fit the easier tone. It seems in the songs of near-glissando playing, Buckingham imbues a sort of tension to the songs with the endless finger-picking, which is then left aside here.

"Treason" is a brilliant choice as a closer. Though "alone", Lindsey does work in some basic drum tracking, and overlays it with a searching voice and simple chord-based acoustics, overdubbing and echoing his vocals with the feeling of a song of final unison, where everyone joins together--and it makes sense. The song, despite the title, is actually named for the final word of its chorus: "Deep down there is freedom/Deep down there will be a reason/At the end of the season/We will rise from this treason". It's optimistic, and carries a sense of wisdom, the knowledge that, at the end of all of it, we'll come out of the betrayals and confusions. The verses tell us he is not there yet himself, but that there's an understanding in him that this is temporary.

I've learned that this album was first proposed in the mid 1990s, but was shelved and picked apart for both solo albums (including Under the Skin, hence my note about returning to the subject) and Fleetwood Mac albums. As such, these recordings date to various times throughout the past two decades, roughly, yet you would never guess that to listen to it. The album is beautiful, weary without being tired, and contemplative and wise, without being condescending or pretentious. When it decides to rock or move quickly, it does exactly that. And, on display as ever, is the care Lindsey puts into his work. The layering of sounds and instruments--especially when no one but him is playing--is intricate but organic, fully functional and only in place to serve the whole. His playing is jaw-dropping, but never feels overly showy, not in solos, nor in moments of less emphatic displays of skill.

It's a very pretty album, and a very catchy and good one--managing to tamp down the more bizarre and unusual things he did with Tusk (though I'd never suggest that was necessary, as I love those songs dearly) to create an album that could--and should--make sense to just about anyone, given the chance.


¹Jeff Lynne is/was primary songwriter for ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and has produced many records since, such as Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever and his subsequent album with the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open. Of course, he was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, and produced both of their albums. He has a very distinct and recognizable, clean, clear, well-produced sound.


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