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Cast Iron Skillet

by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

This is a beautifully coherent ensemble sound, and a little soloing of the stereo mix’s Left, Right, Middle, and Sides components suggests to me that this may be on account of an ‘all in one room’ tracking setup and the resultant blending effects of the spill between all the mics. (After all, who wouldn’t want to use lots of mics when recording at the vintage-microphone Mecca that is Blackbird Studios?) Granted, there does appear to be some long-decay artificial reverb in the mix (perhaps most clearly audible after the fiddle flageolet at 0:16), but this feels like it’s well separated from the dry signals, so is likely responsible more for sustain enhancement than for gluing the core band sound together.

Notice, for instance, how there’s no instrument that doesn’t appear to some degree in both the Left and Right channels – even the gorgeously understated shaker that sneaks in at 1:27. And in the Sides signal you can hear (besides the long-tail reverb) a clear, close vocal ambience that sounds to me like spill from the band mics – it somehow doesn’t feel diffuse or delayed enough to be added reverb, and neither does it have that trace of the chorusey/pitchy side-effects you so often get from dedicated stereo widening effects. The bass is clearly audible in the Sides signal too, although I do wonder in that case whether I can hear a hint of some kind of widener on that – its Sides contribution somehow seems a fraction phasey by comparison with the vocal’s.

Further contributing to the band’s rich sustain is the way the song’s harmonies are all built around ringing upper pedal notes on the tonic and dominant (ie. F# and C#). I always kind of associate this trick with Oasis, because Noel Gallagher was quite a fan, but it’s also a well-worn technique in Americana styles, where it’s especially well suited to alternate guitar tunings where open strings can inherently cater for the requisite pedal notes. Beyond the sonorous texture this approach offers in general, another advantage it affords is that it can add a useful musical tension-release dynamic to otherwise fairly unremarkable chord progressions. You see, the only diatonic chord in which both pedal notes are consonant is the tonic chord of C#, which immediately provides some harmonic momentum for a return to the tonic whenever a non-tonic chord is played. In this particular song, we have three non-tonic chords, for example, all made dissonant by virtue of the pedal notes:

  • the subdominant F# chord, which becomes F#2 on account of the pedal G#;
  • the dominant G# chord, which becomes G#sus on account of the pedal C#;
  • and the submediant D#m chord, which becomes D#m7 on account of the pedal C#.

I’m also intrigued by this song’s alternation of ‘AB’ and ‘AABA’ harmonic structures for the verses and choruses respectively, where ‘A’ is the two-bar progression moving from I to IV (eg. 0:41-0:46), and ‘B’ the two-bar progression moving from iv to VI (eg. 0:47-0:52). It’s quite a subtle thing, but for me the increased frequency of the tonic chord in the choruses does somehow give me a little more of a ‘we’re home’ feeling, if you see what I mean, even though there’s no harmonic difference between verse and chorus for each section’s first two bars. I also wonder whether the longer structural arches of the chorus (eight-bar ‘AABA’ repetitions compared with the verse’s four-bar ‘AB’ repetitions) feed into this impression. I’m not quite sure. Although, just to step back for a moment, isn’t that the whole point of analysing music at all? To grapple with whether measurable musical features might bear some responsibility for less tangible emotional effects? After all, whether or not I ever come to any firm conclusion about this specific case, the fact that I’ve engaged with this thought process means that the next time I feel my own song’s choruses lack some sense of emotional homecoming, I’ll have an extra idea or two about how I might be able to improve the outcome – and not just random ideas, but things that I’ve already earmarked as potentially useful.