Sunday, November 1, 2009

I’m A Bass Whore

I know - I can’t believe I went with that title, either. OK, moving on . . .

Consider me an avid devotee of bass players everywhere. Where I have discerning tastes in vocalists and lyricists, my slutty ears will open wide for just about any sound emitted by a bass guitar. Even when the playing is not great, I still like it; and when the playing IS great, it is usually the primary reason that I am listening to a band in the first place. I am a sucker for all kinds of bass sounds and playing styles: hollow and jazzy, slap percussive, distorted, deep and low, or high and melodic. I will take them all.

I love the versatility in bass sound and playing. It is typically thought of as a rhythmic support instrument that bridges percussion with the more melodic guitar and keyboard sounds. In serving this function, it really is responsible for setting the mood of the song, and often in such an understated way, that many listeners may not even realize it’s role in doing such. Conversely, the bass can have a very heavy-handed impact on the sound and is the cornerstone of genres like funk and reggae. Ron Blair from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is an example of understated, bare bones, rock and roll bass playing. From time to time, his playing is featured more prominently (what would “American Girl” sound like without that bass line?), but for the most part, he serves a support role in a band where guitars and keyboards are the main driver for the overall sound. On the other end of the spectrum is Flea, whose slap-bass style is the trademark of the Chili Peppers overall funk sound, and is, by no stretch of the imagination, “understated.”

My favorite bassists fall between those extremes, and though they are all unique from one another, share the quality of playing guiding roles, or at least very distinguishable roles, in songs they play. Peter Hook stands out for me because he is one rock bassist that - if he were performing solo, just him and his guitar on stage – I would buy a ticket to see him. I think Hook was most responsible for determining the mood of any given Joy Division song. Whether his playing was low and somber like in “Atmosphere” or “Twenty-Four Hours” or high and upbeat like in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” I think he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for any versatility Joy Division had in conveying mood.

Andy Rourke, along with Hook, is a player that I can put into the “why I listen to that band” category. I did not immediately like the Smiths, mostly because Morrissey’s voice was an acquired taste that took me a while to embrace. What kept me coming back to the Smiths was the guitar work of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke, and particularly the way they played off one another so well. I wouldn’t say that there is a great deal of versatility in Rourke’s sound, which is generally high and melodic, but it does make slight transitions that cross over into funky (“Rubber Ring”), twangy (“Panic”), and outright pop-y (“This Charming Man”) at times.

That brings me to Mark Stoermer, who is one of the more versatile bass players in rock right now. He and Ronnie Vannucci make up a chameleonic rhythm section, and they are the key to the Killers’ ability to dabble in so many rock and roll styles. Stoermer’s playing has varied from album to album, as has the Killers’ overall sound. I love the basslines that he created for “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and "Midnight Show,” from the Hot Fuss album. The songs are lyrically dark, and the basslines prominently stand out and accentuate that mood. For live performances of songs from Sam’s Town - an album with a lot of fast American-style rock songs - Stoermer demonstrated the skill and precision to play quick, repetitive notes that are so tight in supporting Vannucci’s drumming.

Songs from the Day & Age album show Stoermer coming into his own as a groove player; when I listen to that album, I can’t help but wonder which of those songs may have originated with his bassline. “Joyride?” “This Is Your Life?” It seems like his playing may be an increasing driver in the songwriting process for the Killers. Perhaps it always has been, but the bass “personality” is revealing itself a bit more in the Killers’ most recent work.

Lastly, I want to mention Chris Wolstenholme, of Muse. He creates sounds that are so different that I am intimidated to write about it, but I will do my best with my lack of technical vocabulary. In his playing, individual notes become almost undetectable because they blend together to create a continuous, distorted backdrop for a lot of Muse’s songs. It is Wolstenholme that gives Muse songs a digitalized, modern industrial sound and, were it not for his style and equipment, the band would lose a key factor in what distinguishes them from many of their contemporaries. Anyone ever wonder what he would do with a Hofner Beatle Bass in his hands? No? Just me, then.

Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg, a few of my favorite bassists. They never get enough glory for diverse melodic and rhythmic role they play in crafting our favorite songs. There are many bass players that I would have loved to mention, both well and lesser known, but I probably exhausted the readers’ attention span back on paragraph two. As I am continually drawn to and inspired by all types of playing, I’m sure it won’t be long before round two of the bassist love-fest begins.

-AZ

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