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This week’s installment is the absolute embodiment of the term “Power Pop”… an album called Redhead, by the prolific industry insider known as Bleu. Super hooky melodies, smart yet interesting production by John Fields, slamming grooves by various L.A. studio players, and tons of unexpected but pleasant twists and turns. This record is a winner.

Redhead, Bleu’s first major label recording, was released by Columbia in 2004. The opening track “Get Up” got a little radio play but didn’t really produce any momentum for the record. Bleu was also able to land the track “Somebody Else” on the Spiderman soundtrack, but that association was also unable to gain any significant notoriety for Redhead, and the album remains somewhat unknown. But seriously… it shouldn’t be. Bleu’s voice is a killer blend of control and passion, with a very pleasant pop tone. Picture what Rufus Wainwright would sound like if he really BROUGHT IT… energy-wise. The playing is great, the songs are even better, and the listener is left with a very clear picture of what a cohesive album is supposed to sound like – a rare thing in these days of EP’s and itunes singles. (If you feel like I’m getting a little out of hand in my praise of this recording, read this…)

The drumming on this record, similar to the Dogs Of Peace album that opened the AOTW series, is a great blend of interesting and emotional playing, with restrained and disciplined pop sensibility. The tracks are evenly divided between Dylan Hallacy and Dustin Hengst, with Jamie Vavra and William J. McAuley making single-track appearances. I’d never heard of any of these guys before buying Redhead, but they all sound GREAT. And then, a special appearance by the great Michael Bland for one song makes this a must-own record for any serious student of studio drumming. A high point on the record is Hengst’s treatment of the 7/4 signature in the record’s second track, “I Won’t Go to Hollywood.” He groups the measures in pairs and then doesn’t turn the groove around at the end of the first bar (so the snare hits the downbeat of bar 2, and the pattern proceeds through the 2nd measure with that “backwards” feel)… but somehow, despite the rule-breaking nature of that move, the groove sounds very cool and works really well within the tune.

Go listen to this record immediately. I’m not kidding… right now.

UPDATE: Bleu is apart of a new band called The Major Labels, and recently released a killer debut album. You can downoad it for free at

In order to get to my studio space at Northwestern College, you have to walk through the Visual Arts department. This morning, as I walked through the art space with my first student of the day, there was some blaring music coming from an art student’s boom box. It would be fair to describe the music as “artsy” (which is the kind of music that art students ALWAYS listen to it seems). Once we were past the art department and in my studio, my student commented to me that he thought the music from the other room was really weird. I thought the music was pretty cool, so I asked him what he meant by “weird.” He said that he didn’t really know… he just thought the music was “really different” and he didn’t like it. So, I proceeded to share something with him that I learned from my former teacher

Everybody brings a subconscious “list” to their listening. This list contains the things that you’re looking for in music – the things that you expect the music to have if you’re going to like it. Normally, the items on someone’s list will be broad and far-reaching, like “good groove”… or maybe a little more specific like “lots of guitars.” The specificity of the list items might get out of hand though, and I’ve often heard people say things like “I only listen to stuff that has odd time signatures and lots of double bass.” Well, that’s fine I guess… except those people will normally go on to decide that if a given song doesn’t contain the things on their list, then that song “sucks” or “isn’t cool.”

It’s important to stop at this point and recognize that, in the example I just mentioned, the music in question has been written off simply because it doesn’t match up with the listener’s expectations. This is problematic, because it’s fair to ask if the artist who made the music was ever really aiming to hit the things on odd-time-double-bass-dude’s list. It’s not at all fair for odd-time-double-bass-dude to give a failing grade to a musician who was never intending to do anything that odd-time-double-bass-dude wanted to hear.

What I’m trying to say is this: the fundamental element in appreciating art is understanding what THEĀ  ARTIST was trying to say with a particular work. This means that it’s the artist’s “list” that matters, not yours. It’s very helpful, when encountering new music, to try and wipe your head clear of all your expectations for what you’re about to hear. Try and take the music on IT’S terms. Sometimes it’s helpful to do some homework in that regard – like looking up who the artist is, what genre the artist is known for, and what kind of influences they cite. But even if you can’t do any background work, you can at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt that they are probably not simply trying to cater to your needs as a listener. True musicians make music they want to make, not music that they think others want them to make.

What’s amazing about all this is that if you take the time to understand what the artist was aiming for when they created a particular work of art, you’ll probably like it more. Or at the very least you will appreciate it more, and you’ll be less likely to give it an automatic thumb’s down.

SUMMARY: It’s safe to assume that most musicians aren’t aiming for (or even aware of) the items on your subconscious “list” of expectations. So try to figure out what a musician is trying to do with their music BEFORE you decide if they’re succeeding, and you will probably learn a thing or two in the process. (PS… It’s also helpful to try and trim down your list as much as possible).

UPDATE: “Part 2” of The Subconscious List can be found here.

I’m going to start a new series of posts… one album each week that I think totally rules. I’ve posted a few times with lists of what I was listening to that particular week, but now I’m going to focus more on specifics.

First up… “Speak” by the Dogs Of Peace. This was recommended to me through my “top ten unknown albums” club. So awesome. It’s a bunch of Nashville studio musicians just throwing down on some killer alternative rock. Gordon Kennedy (who wrote Clapton’s smash hit “Change the World”) on guitars and vocals, Jimmie Lee Sloas (renowned Nashville producer and bassist) on bass/vocals/keys, and John Hammond on drums. The sound is something like STP meets the Posies, with a definite “songwriter” feel to the lyric and structure (not to mention some great vocal harmonies).

From a drummer’s perspective, John Hammond’s feel on this recording is so great. He has a rocking quality that definitely keeps the band from sounding too pop, but his ideas and approach are great lessons on how to play “inside the lines” and “by the book” and yet not make things sterile or plastic-sounding. The fill at the beginning of track 7? C’mon. The Porcaro shuffle in 6/8 on that same track? Seriously.

Everybody should go buy this record, and you can read a review of it here.

I’ve posted quite a few listening recommendations so far, and I’ll continue to do that. The reason is simple: listening to music is a very important part of growth as a musician.

It has been my observation (and experience) that the majority of a musician’s education comes not from lessons/books/videos, but from LISTENING. This makes sense, given that music is an art form. Art has always evolved through artists – not teachers and books, but the artists themselves – as they experience each other’s work and therefore inspire one another to push the envelope with new ideas and new directions.

How often do you listen to music? How many different kinds of music do you listen to? How CLOSELY do you pay attention to the music you listen to? Listening is like your gas tank as a musician. Of course practicing is VERY important, but I like to think of practicing as an oil change, or brake maintenance, or transmission work, or even a wash. But the day to day FUEL comes from listening. Ok, sorry I stuck with that analogy for so long.

That’s it. There’s not much else that needs to be said about this. Some of the aspects of your playing that will grow immensely as you increase your listening are: musical instincts, feel, creativity, musical personality, versatility, tone awareness, and contemporary relevance.

In addition to the great records I’ve listed so far in previous “Recent Listening” posts, I also have a more broad encyclopedia of general recommendations from my own library, past and present… the Albums Every Drummer Should Know list.


After my recent post about doctoring your snare sound in the studio, I feel obligated to mention something about the more important factor in studio snare sound: deciding WHEN to use a doctored sound. Like I said before, the snare tone is a crucial element in the overall feel and vibe of a track, so you don’t want to use a strange muffling technique just for the fun of it. The snare sound you choose needs to fit the song.

The main issue is context. In fact, this is true for music generally, not just studio snare tone. Context is king. A fill is not “cool” on it’s own… it is only cool when it fits well in the moment that you play it. Consequently, a fill that you hear on a record might be really cool in the song where you heard it, and not so cool in your own band’s song (especially if your song is a significantly different musical environment). The same is true of snare tone – the “coolness” of a snare sound is directly related to the context of the track you are playing.

So, how does a drummer develop a knack for picking the right snare tone for the studio? In my opinion, musical skills like this are always gained through listening. How often do you make a mental note on the kind of snare tone your favorite drummer is using on a given track? More importantly, how often do you pay attention to the characteristics of the rest of the song and how they might have impacted the decision to use a given snare tone? This kind of awareness in your listening will jump-start your ear for snare sound and context in a big way.

A good record to listen to along these lines would be John Mayer’s “Continuum.” Steve Jordan produced the album and played drums on the whole thing. The first 5 tracks all have noticeably different snare sounds, and they fit so well with the songs.

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