Dueling Basses

We’re pretty well acquainted with how bands make the most of two guitar lineups: rhythm supporting lead, riffs working against atmosphere, outright doubling, etc. In the last couple of years, a number of tracks have caught my ear that have me hoping we’re seeing a less familiar guitar trend catch on: dueling basses.

Of Montreal uses two basses regularly enough to tour with two bass players–it’s not just a recording trick. Sometimes one deep bass carries a more traditional line while another trebly bass adds a percussive motion to the arrangement. Hard evidence is the best: Around the 1:00 mark of this appearance on Letterman, we see one playing a bouncy melody high on the neck while the other rides a steadier rhythm in a lower register.

Elsewhere in that song, they remain in the same range, playing counterpoint lines. Here’s a clearer recording of the approach from one of my favorite Of Montreal songs, “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider.”

Of Montreal – Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

In the intro, the basses play little harmony licks to set the pace. During the verses, one bass leads the way panned center. But when the chorus breakdown arrives, two basses are now panned opposite each other, their harmony carrying the progression until the full arrangement returns. It’s a fun character that might be accomplished more often with keyboards than basses. But why put those Rickenbackers to waste? Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes is such a diabolical composer, it’s no wonder he’s leading the charge with this technique–it’s yet another way to further conjure his music’s fractured psyche.

Shall we talk about panning some more? It’s common practice on recordings to use two takes of the same guitar part simultaneously, panning one to the right and one to the left. It fills out the sound and helps define the stereo field. On the other hand, because low frequencies need more energy to be propagated, recording engineers typically pan basses and kick drums dead center, so that the work is split between two speakers. All over Spoon‘s most recent album, Transference, the wily recordists in the band subvert that wisdom, doubling bass parts and panning each far opposite the other.

Spoon – Nobody Gets Me But You

Hard evidence is only the best when it’s still available–apparently the great performance of this song on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots‘s rhythm section playing along has been eradicated from the internet. But you get the gist. It’s crystal clear through headphones. We have two unique performances of the same part in the same song with the same instrument, which isn’t that unusual…except when it’s the bass guitar. It’s particularly ear-catching for long-time Spoon fans because it inverts the formula they began with: Britt Daniel’s guitar and Jim Eno’s drums. Instead, a distant, thin guitar deep in our left ear jangles away as if it’s just playing along with someone else’s recording, and a drum machine leads the way while overdubbed live drum patterns appear mostly just to ratchet up the energy here and there. All the while the parallel bass sandwiches the track along. Over the years, Spoon have gone from giving the bass a very small role to making it the key element in their ever-sparser arrangements. As a melodic rhythm instrument, it frees the guitar and drums to interpret more. “Nobody Gets Me But You” takes the shift to a new extreme, magnifying what they highlighted in Gimme Fiction‘s “I Turn My Camera On” with a sly wink from Daniel’s lyrics: “Do you get me?”

Deserved Grammy nominee Bon Iver is far more known for folkloric acoustic guitars and indie autotune than for his work in the rhythm section. On his lo-fi contribution to the two-disc compilation, Dark Was the Night, Justin Vernon serves up a track composed nearly entirely on the bass guitar.

Bon Iver – Brackett, WI

The bass arrangement on this gorgeous and obtusely timed song hybridizes the two approaches above. The basses, in a higher register, panned far opposite each other, define the progression with their harmonies. And while Justin Vernon works his sublime lyrics with that choirized falsetto, he points to his centerpiece instruments with the chorus’ clearest words. Digging low along the edges of the sound, tapping along the mathematical pattern under passing scenes and somber memories, the pair of basses are suddenly sucked out and replaced by tense acoustic guitars for the confessional reveal: “So I’m counting on your fingers ’cause you’ve reattached the twitch. And if you want opinion, I will die along the ditches.” Que suave.

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