Revved Up Tracks With The Rev – Sheryl Crow’s “Riverwide”

Album: The Globe Sessions
Producer: Sheryl Crow
Engineer: Trina Shoemaker
Mixing: Tchad Blake
Master: Bob Ludwig
Released: 1998

I have a serious soft spot for Sheryl Crow. From the time she released Tuesday Night Music Club she’s always seemed to me like one of those artists who can write amazing tunes that appeal to the masses, isn’t afraid to experiment and branch out into territory that might not always be associated with her but always maintains her artistic integrity. I love the earthiness and the honesty of her work. Plus she’s a real badass.

By the time The Globe Sessions was released in 1998 I was already a big fan. Just about a year before that I’d also had my first contact with string arrangements that didn’t sound like Disney movie soundtracks or cheesy 80’s ballads (not that there’s anything wrong with that, in moderation) in No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant UnLEDded which, admittedly, I should’ve discovered much earlier. The North African orchestra they had playing with them captured my imagination. When I heard Riverwide it immediately grabbed me and took me to that same, but much more modern, place. It felt like it broke all the rules. The arrangement, which blended some very cowboy-sounding guitars with a loop, that was still very much a pop thing in my head at that time, with those strings, gave music that felt familiar to me some new wings.  Eric Clapton, whom I had idolized, released some loop-based material earlier and I found it extremely bland, almost cementing the idea in my young mind that production techniques used in pop should be left there and not brought into what I held sacred. Hmpff… Kids…  I think this song saved me in that regard.

The song starts with a single riff that drones against a backdrop of reverb that seems like it comes from the scenes in the cowboy movies my dad and I watched as a kid. That reverb is like a pad – even when the real pad parts kick in. It fills a room and comes from a space far behind the speakers. The guitar is bright and articulate, but at the same time earthy and intimate. The part itself is brilliantly written as it serves as the backbone for the whole arrangement, driving the song from the center as everything else floats and weaves around it. Simplicity with some twists that reveals Crow’s brilliance as you try and dissect it yourself. The rotary-speaker guitar parts add a darkness to the arrangement that makes it feel like that whole mix vibrates. The intricacies of the string arrangement make me feel like I’m flying over mountains and over plains on the back of a painted horse. The combined coarseness of the shaker and vinyl noise feels like the sands of the dessert.

I always fear that vocalists like Sheryl Crow will disappear in this age of pitch correction and alignment to the grid. She sings like a preacher sometimes. She goes out of tune and her voice cracks and breaks.  But when these things happen it sends tingles down your spine. It’s pure emotion. And she makes a believer of you in whatever it is that she’s trying to get across. Even with no backing vocals the performance in Riverwide fills the space perfectly.

Riverwide is exactly what I love about Tchad Blake as a mix engineer: Even in his latest work, probably most notably with The Black Keys, he seems to bring together elements that might seem like they won’t fit together in such a way that it hits your ear as fresh, even though the sounds you are hearing are decades old. His work is the sonic equivalent of when I first had shop-bought custard from a box on that chocolate pudding I’ve been eating since I can remember. There are things in this mix that seems, to me, to not share the same space but still sit beautifully together. There are elements in the back of the soundscape that are as apparent as what is right in front of you.  The low end isn’t any smaller than any track that might have had a massive rhythm section but bass still drives the mix in the same way. Some parts of the string section are crystal clear while others sound like they are filtered and saturated in a beautifully ugly way that makes them sit just right. He made the vocals sound like she’s singing right next to my ear and I can hear the emotion in her breath and some of the lyrics that are no more than a whisper. It never falls away and keeps you hanging onto it.

It’s an amazing experience sitting in the sweet spot between speakers and the mix I’m listening to is so three-dimensional that I end up feeling like I could reach out and touch that guitar she’s playing and when I can almost see the singer’s face when I close my eyes. Great mixes are never contained within the speakers reproducing them.

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