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I Won't Let You Go

by James Morrison

The first thing that struck me about this track is how clear and upfront Morrison’s trademark gravel-gargling is in the mix, especially when it first arrives, drilling away at the top two octaves of the spectrum, which have studiously been left clear by the introductory Hammond pad. As with a lot of ballads, an important part of the recipe here is the deliberately mellow backing sounds, minimising HF masking of vocal details even when the band is playing flat out later in the song. However, the vocal tone itself is more than usually responsible for projecting the vocal in this case, with a couple of fairly narrow regions at 6kHz and 12kHz featured heavily. I have to say, though, that I found it a bit grating after only a minute or so, especially during the middle section — the word “disappeared” at 2:38, for example. Part of the problem, of course, is that one of Morrison’s characteristic performance techniques is constantly flitting between different timbral extremes, and while that’s a good thing from a musical perspective, it does nonetheless make it tricky to control the mix’s balance and overall tonality. In fact, the only thing I’ve encountered that can really nail this kind of scenario is detailed EQ automation, and it’s not a technique that I tend to associate with this song’s mix engineer, Tom Elmhirst, judging by what he’s said in interviews.

However, it’s not just the vocal tone that bugs me later on in this track, because the arrangement also seems to run out of steam from about midway through the second chorus (around 1:58). By this point you’ve already got pretty much the whole ensemble thrashing away, and precious little changes about that situation from then on, aside from the musical changes of the middle section and a small rhythm-section drop leading into the final choruses at 2:48. Yes, there are some subtle adjustments to the mix texture and effects, as well as some tweaks to the string chart to bring more higher pitches into the fray, but given the way the vocal pushes all these details into the background of the mix, those measures come across a bit like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic to me. As a result, the onus falls on the vocal performance to carry the second half of the song forward, but Morrison’s not paced himself particularly well either, which doesn’t leave him much in the way of spare histrionics to call on. Maybe they’re counting on the radio DJ talking over all of that stuff anyway…

Despite my reservations above about the vocal tone at times, it’s worth saying that this mix tone is a whole lot more pleasant to listen to than the Coldplay track I also critiqued this month – there’s a particularly dramatic tonality difference between these two productions overall, in fact. I mentioned the string arrangement in passing too, and there are lots of good things to hear going on there – it opens up at just the right points, but still stays out of the way of the vocal most of the time. The swell at 1:02 is a particularly nice touch, doubtless emphasised by Elmhirst’s flying faders.