Welcome back! Last week we discussed the wee bit of history I could unearth about Houston’s ‘Overhead’, and I publicly admitted the deep love I have for it. This week it’s all about geeking out on the songs and my best guesses as to the production. Let’s get going.
- Artist: Houston
- Release: Overhead (1999)
- Buy: Amazon
- Stream: Grooveshark ((Normally this is not the streaming service of choice for us, but since this album is so hard to find, and we wanted everyone to be able to experience the killer music within, we decided to provide this link. We here at Chartered Trips are all about supporting musicians, with kudos and money alike, and hope that your listening to this free stream leads you to seek it out online for purchase later.))
Songs: I’ll try to limit my examples here, but it won’t be easy. I really love this record. In any event, it should be noted that part of the brilliance of this record is how it flows. You really kind of need to experience the whole thing, front-to-back if you want to get the full effect (and I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t).
Cover – As the first real song on the record, it sets the scene perfectly. Lane’s insistent gainy bass and Ian’s martial snare pound out a letter of intent, then Jeff slides on in and they’re off. Then everything turns on a dime, and it’s all tension and syncopation until we get three good chugs and there’s Houston in their glory with a huge hook and big fat slabs of guitar to guide it along. Nice start.
Banner Year – (Bias note: this is my favorite Houston tune. I think it’s best that you knew.) This to me is the best example of what Houston could do when they decided to be efficient and clean. The song itself is done by 2:42, and you never feel like you missed out on a thing. It all starts instantly, if somewhat restrained, because then when it blows right up 18 seconds in we can really enjoy it and be ready for that big beautiful chorus. The breakdown is simple – more of that syncopation with a little stereo singing fun – and then we’re back for one more round of that chorus because why not? And that’s it – I like to imagine them just dropping the mic after that last D chord.
Sunday in December – Another purposeful gem among the experiments. This bad boy doesn’t even waste two minutes of your time. One little flourish in the form of a fat, flanged sound effect and then they’re into it with a taught, integrated verse structure that features absolutely every facet of the band. The drums, guitars and bass all work in a tight sequence while Jeff and Lane weave complimentary vocal lines into the spaces between them. A small interlude between verses and it’s more of that precision before we roll into a chorus/finale that grows ever more furious. And then it’s done. Why waste time?
Ocean – Off the fury of Sunday in December we get this languid, beautiful track. We’re eight tracks in at this point and the band have more than demonstrated their disinterest in being predictable, so you wonder: Can I trust this? Can I sit back a bit and enjoy how pretty it is? Oh yeah, you can. It’s a nice easy ride – just a sweet riff and a pretty melody riding on top of it. With a couple cool harmony breakdowns – you know, for fun.
Bender – Coming out of the very soothing interlude Overhead, Bender is possibly the most aggressive front-to-back track on the record. There’s a mildly spacey breakdown, but even that is applied with two fists. Jeff’s voice is perhaps buried more on this track than any other on the record, and it’s also well-distorted. It’s more just another piece of the angry puzzle they’re putting together than anything else. The spacey breakdown is also probably one of the more indulgent, prog-like moments on the record. While I love the tune, they maybe could have shaved some of that breakdown off.
Track 18 – I have no idea what the hell this song is about, but it’s a simple, trippy thing punctuated by the second most aggressive moments on the record. Ridiculous and yet perfect – a representation of the record as a whole, and a perfect finale.
Production: A quick caveat – I know nothing about the technical aspects of the production of this record. It’s my goal to research and know how things were done so I can share it. I’m a lifelong lover of the liner notes and that love will extend to this blog as much as is possible. Sadly, to this point I don’t have that information to share with you when it comes to this record. I do have some loose anecdotal evidence that it was self-produced, but that’s it. No idea where, or if anyone else was involved. That said, I’ll have at it.
My research indicates that Jeff was producing records after Houston called it quits, and as recently as 2010 had a space in St. Paul where he worked with acts like Hunting Club. Furthermore, I have evidence that in 2004 he was working as an engineer at Twin Town Studio – which is fascinating to me, as I had no idea such a thing even existed. Combined, these bits of evidence suggest that Jeff was recording this record as well – perhaps at Twin Town, though that bit is pure conjecture. At any rate, while the factual evidence suggests that Jeff was at least capable of recording the record, the aural evidence (the record itself), if you ask me, proves that he was far more than capable.
This is an area where someone else might well blast the record, but I love it. There are massive extremes in terms of dynamics, from whisper quiet to good solid chest-punching loud. It’s as if it hadn’t ever seen a mastering room. As such, it can be a challenging record to listen to – if nothing else, you’ll want to be active with your volume control while listening if you’ve got sensitive ears (or neighbors).
Another aspect of production is determining the content and sequence of a record, and again they break convention with the addition of a number of what would perhaps be called skits if this was hip hop. Regardless of what you call them, they’re littered about the record as little rest stops before the next rock song – pastiches of found sounds and other oddities, I don’t know what they are, really. It’s indulgent, and it’s an indication of a band in that happy zone where they can do whatever they want to do. For most bands, this happens very early – first record, second at latest. A very few bands/acts get to a point where they’re so big and established that they can do whatever they want – generally it only happens when nobody’s counting on you to make money.
That’s the bad – or at least what others might see as bad. It all just further endears the record to me, personally. On to some highlights of what is done well on this record:
- Drums are very well-recorded on this record. They’re present, they’re distinct, and they’re mixed to the correct level. I like a heavier kick tone than they chose, but they balanced the set very well. For the most part, they left the sonic experimentation to the other instruments, which is usually the best strategy. Minimal can be fantastic if it’s done well, and this is.
- Guitars. Put as briefly and simply as possible, I love every single guitar sound on this record. As with the drums, my sense is this is simply done – an SM57 slammed into the grill of whatever’s on the receiving end of what I assume is one hell of a pedal board. The clean tones sparkle, and the dirty tones range from punchy to searing. The bass on this record tends to be a bit dirty, but given how well Lane and Jeff lock in with each other, that helps it to serve as a low-end extension of the guitar riffs. I’m guessing that’s intentional, and in any case the results are fantastic.
- Vocals. This is a tough area for me, because I know that the the vocals on this record break the accepted rules. Not the performances, but the presentation. You’re not supposed to bury vocals in the mix. You’re not supposed to leave vocals dry with no reverb or delay or anything. You probably shouldn’t distort the vocals. They do all of this, and I dare you to change a single damn thing. Jeff’s voice is at once distinctive and nondescript – no small feat. And throughout, be it Lane or Jeff, the vocals are treated more as another instrument than some sort of oracle that needs to be heard.
Overall, this production isn’t shiny and what we might think of as “professional” – it’s immediate and intimate and has a purpose that helps it transcend its means. They definitely had some halfway-decent equipment to work with, but they even more definitely maxed out the potential of that gear. The information I can find indicates that Jeff did some engineering and production after the band broke up, and that would help to explain how well this record was recorded. While many can and will quibble over the more quibble-able aspects of the record, it’s an extremely solid release. And more importantly, it sounds like Houston.
And that’s it for Overhead. I hope you enjoyed it and that you come back for our next trip.