Joe Jackson's Rain

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz



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Joe Jackson doesn't waste time with nostalgia. Look Sharp may have been your favorite album in 1979, but when Jackson reunited his original band a few years ago, it wasn't to indulge in a money-grabbing reunion tour or to relive anyone's new wave childhood. He simply had some new songs written and, for the first time since Beat Crazy in 1980, thought that his original bandmates were the best musicians for the job.

So in 2003, Jackson went back into the studio with guitarist Gary Sanford, bass player Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton, and made a rocking album called Volume 4 — so named because it was his fourth studio production with the group. Three years later, Jackson's musical mood was just a bit different. He called back only Maby and Houghton, and recorded/self-produced a stunning piano-trio collection called Rain.

Jackson is a talent of truly broad-reaching abilities and interests. His piano work and his singing are always brilliantly effective. Rock 'n' roll, jump blues, jazz, classical — the style of his music is simply a matter of his own choosing. Rain happens to be a jazz- and classical-influenced singer/songwriter album with a few rocking tracks — easily imaginable for fans who have followed Jackson over the years.

“Joe always has a clear idea of how he wants his music to sound,” says recording engineer Julie Gardner, who recorded Jackson's Volume 4 and live album Afterlife, as well as Rain. “He took the band on tour to warm up before they made the album to make sure they were really tight. But they're amazing musicians anyway, so they were completely tight with each other and knew the songs really well before they came into the studio.”

Jackson, who has homes in New York City, London and Berlin, had chosen Planet Roc Studios to record Rain. Before the wall came down, Planet Roc was an East Berlin radio station that must have broadcast live musical performances — the rooms are big and, Gardner says, “acoustically very beautiful. Sony Publishing in Berlin took Joe around to various studios, and he liked this one because he wanted a great-sounding room where we could record a grand piano and it would be big enough to have the band set up in the same room.

“They had a big range of vintage microphones and mic preamps, which was brilliant,” continues Gardner, whose career included years engineering at top London studios The Townhouse and Olympic. She now runs jamDVD, which specializes in live recordings and DVD production. “There were some problems with the control room — the tape machine and patchbay were a little run down — but we got around these problems and made a brilliant album.”

Gardner's observations about Planet Roc's control room are particularly meaningful, as Jackson records to analog — in this case, an Otari MTR90 2-inch machine. “This is a different discipline to get back to as almost all my work is now done on Pro Tools. With Pro Tools, you have more options: everything is nondestructible, fixable or you can simply undo. With tape, you really have to be precise and know exactly what you are going to do before you punch in, which can be difficult when dropping in on drums and grand piano. Joe is one of the few artists who still likes using tape, which, without doubt, does sound great.”

The tracking setup at Planet Roc began with Jackson and his grand piano. Bassist Maby stood to his left, and drummer Houghton and his kit were situated next to a wall, in front of Jackson. Gardner captured the rhythm tracks first, with Jackson playing along on an electric keyboard and singing a guide vocal. Later, she would record the final piano and lead vocal tracks, and backing vocals. She says she experimented with Jackson's vocal mic on Volume 4 and again on Rain, and both times decided a Neumann U87 was best for his voice.

“For the piano sound, I used a AKG solid tube large-diaphram mic down the bottom of the piano,” she recalls. She also placed two Schoeps CMC 5s with MK2G capsules at the front, above the hammers, and one Schoeps SMC 5 above the highest strings.

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