Music: Noah and the Whale

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Dobyns says that tracks on The First Day of Spring were built around Charlie Fink’s guitar and vocal.

Producer/engineer Emery Dobyns says that tracks on The First Day of Spring were built around Charlie Fink’s guitar and vocal.

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.”

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