Most musicians about to embark on creating their sophomore album are thinking about how to make it better than the debut. Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink pondered how he could make it more than just an album. Consequently, The First Days of Spring [Cherrytree/Interscope] became both an album and a film.
Weathering the end of a relationship, Fink decided to capture the rollercoaster of emotions from the breakup—from grieving and selfdoubt to the rebirth of optimism. “When you’re used to something being there, when you have something available for such a long time and it’s taken away, that’s always going to be tough and weird,” Fink laments.
The London-based folk-pop quartet— also including Fink’s brother Doug, Tom Hobden, and Urby Whale—trekked through the rocky sentiments with help from producer Emery Dobyns (Patty Smith, Antony & the Johnsons). To get the vibe of the visual—the film will accompany a limited-edition version of the album—and aural narrative right, they recorded the album in sequence, from track one to 11. “Each phase is vital, and everything on the album is very precise,” Fink says. “There are melodies and lyrics in tracks that occur in other tracks, so the way each track connects with the other songs on the album is important.” Case in point is the forecasting lyric, “blue skies are coming,” which appears early on in “Our Window” and references a song later in the album, “Blue Skies.”
“The first four songs have most of the sounds and textures found on the rest of the album,” Dobyns says. “With ‘The First Days of Spring,’ we set the bar for the rest of the record: deep and percussive drumming, rich guitars, lush strings, refined bass, and deeply intimate vocals [sung on Blue Mouse and Neumann M 49 mics through a Behringer preamp].”
And the textures on the album were not run-of-the-mill. Fink has experimented with electric toothbrushes, handheld fans, and radios through the pickups of his Fender Jaguar guitar. “The pickups translate sound in a really interesting way,” he says.
Fink played his Jaguar through a ’63 Fender Twin captured with Beyerdynamic M 160 and Royer R-121 close mics and a Neumann M 50 room mic. “I knew I wanted Charlie’s guitar to carry the songs and be the bed beneath his vocal in the mix, so the room sound was very important in giving the guitar the depth I wanted,” Dobyns says.
But toothbrushes aside, the band’s experiments on The First Days… mostly involved a Yamaha grand piano, which was miked with two Neumann U 87s through a stereo Chandler TG1 compressor and API-desk preamps. (“Some of those sounds were quite compressed, with a slow release, to give the sense of the room opening up around the initial attack of the hammers,” Dobyns says.)
The name of the game was prepared piano, which involved releasing objects onto the strings inside the piano: screws, nails, ping-pong balls, tennis balls, and wind-up toys. “At the end of ‘Our Window,’ we have this weird chaos of random strings being plucked, and that was just the [windup] toys walking around the inside of the piano,” Fink says. “So you’ve got the strength of the melody and the tune, but underneath you’ve got kind of really disorientating noises.”
On “The First Days of Spring,” the band and Dobyns used Blu-Tack adhesive to hold down chords on the piano keys for a resonating effect. “We wanted to get atmosphere noises to sit underneath the guitars and the more crunchy sounds and give them a bed,” Fink says. “Say you want the chord of C to resonate without having the initial impact of making it: So when you Blu-Tack down all the notes of a C and then play a C chord really loud on a guitar and then mute it, all you can hear is the sound resonating out of the piano.”
Meanwhile, the two-minute long “Love of an Orchestra” is anything but subtle about its turning point of joyful optimism. It features the Exmoor Singers of London choir, a galloping beat built from percussion and a Slingerland drum kit, bouncing bass (’60s Vox through Ampeg B-series amp), and layers of strings, flutes, clarinet, and horns. “I had Tom [Hobden] and the other players sit in different positions in the room as we layered,” Dobyns says. “This prevented phasing and gave the impression that a full orchestra was playing.”
Percussion on the song included timpani, shakers, rim clicks, wood sticks, and cabasa. “We wanted it to feel like a classical arrangement but with a pulse to it,” Fink says. “But it feels like you’re playing a game of Jenga—if you add one more thing, then it all falls apart.”
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