Tag Archives: falsetto

Guilty – Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb

In the mid-1970s the music industry rose to Olympian heights after a tough few years. Records by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton sold in thitherto unimaginable quantities and everyone involved made correspondingly astronomical sums of money. But sitting top of the heap, king of the unit-shifters, was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Not actually a Bee Gees album (their picture is on the cover sleeve, but it’s a various-artists record – the Gibbs brothers wrote only six and performed just five of the 17 tracks on the original release), Saturday Night Fever nevertheless turned the Bee Gees into the pre-eminent kings of disco, all off the back of half a dozen R&B songs they’d cut in Miami over the course of three years for various album projects.

Their success made them sought-after producers and writers for hire and, in 1980, Barbra Streisand asked Barry Gibb if he’d write an album for her. Streisand had risen to prominence in the 1960s as a cabaret belter, singing with Judy Garland and Ethel Merman for TV specials, until in 1969 she released an album of contemporary pop and rock material. She stayed in this idiom throughout the 1970s, faring best with ballads (who can deny The Way We Were?) but dismally when trying to be hip with the kids. She even managed to make Donna Summer seem uncool when the two duetted on No More Tears (Enough is Enough) in 1979.

Taking on the challenge of writing for Streisand, Gibb responded by adapting his style somewhat, slowing the tempos and allowing greater space for the lead vocal in the arrangement. The songs that Barry (co-writing some of the tracks with Robin and Maurice) gave Streisand were some of the best she’d ever had to work with, and they brought out the best in her. Singing Gibbs’s material, she dialled down the eyes-and-teeth, can-you-hear-me-in-the-back-row projecting that mars so much of her work. Most of the time when she sings, Streisand sounds imperious, a star who knows she’s a star. It’s a polarising, divisive vocal persona. Singing Guilty and Woman in Love, she sounded softer, much more human. They’re the perfect Streisand records for a Streisand sceptic like me.

Both songs are masterful slices of post-disco balladry, but force me to pick one and I’ll plump for Guilty. I’m particularly fond of Guilty’s asymmetrical phrases and the sudden jumps created by dropping in a bar of 5/4 here (in the verses) or 7/4 there (choruses) – a neat trick that Gibb would repeat in the intro to Dionne Warwick’s Heartbreaker a few years later. Gibb’s contrasting  vocal in the second verse works beautifully, and when those three-part harmonies come in during the final chorus with Barry’s moneymaker falsetto on top, it’s a triumphant moment.

Thirty years on, though, and “We’ve got nothing to be guilty of” is still a grammatical howler.

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Holiday Harmonies Part 5: I Want You by Marvin Gaye

I’ve written about this song before, but in a first for this blog, I’m going to write about it again. Because it’s one of my favourite songs ever.

Nobody ever sang harmonies with themselves like Marvin Gaye. Not Prince. Not Joni Mitchell. Not Michael Jackson. Not even Michael McDonald, the self-harmonising hero of many a Steely Dan tune.

So far we’ve looked at harmonies created by two or more people singing with each other, but since Patti Page first sang the Tennessee Waltz, stacked vocals recorded by just one singer have been an extremely common alternative. Today it may even be the more common of the two approaches, as more and more records are the result of one person beavering away in a home studio by themselves.

In some ways it’s less satisfying for the listener. The way different textures and timbres blend with each other is a big part of what we respond to when we listen to singers harmonising. Some voices that are satisfying by themselves become less so when they double tracked or harmonise with themselves. Too much of a good thing. Too much of the same thing.

Other singers, though, and Marvin Gaye is the foremost example of the phenomenon, can create something magical when working this way.

It’s not just that Gaye’s voice naturally had a different grain when he sang in his low, tenor and falsetto ranges – although it did, and that definitely fed into it. It’s that he was skilled at manipulating those naturally different timbres (for example, making a high harmony part deliberately more wispy and thin to make it sit differently on top of another line that was close in pitch) and that he chose which octave to sing a given note in brilliantly.

Play a C triad on the piano consisting of middle C and the E and G just above it. Now add the A just above that G. That’s a voicing of C6. Now put the A underneath middle C. You might hear that as Aminor7, or as C6, but how you perceive it will depend on the context of the chord progression and the other instruments in the arrangement. Now, play that first C voicing again, add a low C and G in the left hand underneath it, and stretch out the right hand so the A is an octave above where it was in our first example. Each time the effect of that A within the chord is different.

The implications of this sort of game for vocal harmony singing are obvious. Notes that are “distant” from the underlying chord will tend to sound sweeter and clearer if they’re pitched up high. Putting them in the middle of the fray, so to speak, will make them sound darker, or more dissonant. Marvin understood all this and used his adaptable voice and very wide range to create gorgeously rich and often very harmonically dense block chords of oohs and aahs.

I Want You is a symphony for vocals. Although the mix does contain prominent horns and electric guitar, it’s the vocals – the overlapping leads, the ghostly oohs mixed left and right that span an almost unfeasible range – that cut deepest. When they suddenly seem to burst forward in the mix after the line “Ain’t it lonely out there”, it’s a truly spine-chilling moment.

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Marvin Gaye, king of self harmonisers

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 6 – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) – The Delfonics

There’s nothing I don’t like about the Delfonics’ Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Thom Bell’s luxurious sting arrangement, William Hart’s soaring falsetto, the electric sitar (Bobby Eli, I think, rather than Norman Harris), Bobby Martin’s French horn call that begins the song, the key change to A going in to the first verse from the intro, that rhythmically displaced chord change in the chorus – it’s all wonderful, and you can’t give enough credit to Thom Bell for his creativity. But even so, when I put the song on, it’s usually because I want to hear that drum track. And for that, we have MFSB drummer Earl Young and engineer Joe Tarsia to thank.

Earl Young is an unquestionable great of popular music, the supplier of countless great drum performances from the late 1960s and all through the ’70s. But he shines brightest on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Joe Tarsia, engineer and studio owner, and presumably Thom Bell (since, as producer, the decision was ultimately his) were convinced of the need for the drums on their records to be uncompressed, loud and proud. As a consequence, no matter how sophisticated, ornate and opulent the arrangement, the drum tracks on songs coming off the Philly conveyor belt meant business. Young’s studio kit had a 26-inch bass drum. On Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time), Young plays meaty, powerful rimshots all the way through (which, along with his intricate hi-hat work, is a Young trademark), his tom-and-snare build-ups in the choruses have an aggressive physicality to them and his work on the brass is decisive and authoritative. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is a complex, conflicted song, and, to wax psychological for a moment, if the orchestra reinforces and amplifies the tenderness that the singer still feels for his love, Earl Young’s drums stand for the part of him that is delighted to be standing up for himself and finally be proving her wrong.

Young’s magnificent performance is given the sound it deserves by Joe Tarsia, recording engineer and owner of Sigma Sound studio. His philosophy was to attempt to record the session as accurately as possible and save the clever stuff for the mix, but he was not afraid of capturing real room sounds as part of that process. The drum sound on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is noticeably reverberant and big, and it’s not something that was added in mix. Indeed, Greg Milner quotes Tarsia as describing the contemporaneous West Coast quest for total separation and dryness as “ridiculous… it was the producer not willing to commit. He wanted to be able to take the guitar out later, which you can’t do if it’s bleeding into five other microphones.” Leakage was Tarsia’s friend, not something of which he lived in mortal fear, and he sculpted that live sound – and, according to Milner, the session that produced the backing track for Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) was completely live, orchestra and all – into one of the most incredible-sounding recordings ever made.

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Earl Young (photo © Andrew Small)

 

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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