Tag Archives: harmony singing

Attics of My Life – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, ft Amy Helm

I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.

Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.

Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.

In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.

Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.

Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.

Larry Campbell Teresa Williams

Holiday Harmonies Part 7: My Old School – Steely Dan

Steely Dan weren’t a harmony group in the Everly Brothers sense. A few tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill aside, Donald Fagen always sings lead. The other voices are always subservient to the lead, and few songs have sustained two- or three-part harmony sections other than in choruses, though we’re looking today at a song that does. The band members were there for their musical chops rather than their vocals.*

That said, the band’s first line-up had three strong voices in it beside Fagen’s, in drummer Jim Hodder, bassist Walter Becker and kinda-sorta lead singer David Palmer.** Betweem them, those guys are responsible for all the male backing vocals on Can’t Buy a Thrill (including some stratospheric high parts on Dirty Work), so when they bring in (female) session vocalists on Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) and Kings, it has a very different effect.

And achieving different effects was always the thing with Steely Dan. They used harmony vocals in just about every way conceivable, and they cast the parts unerringly, always making the right call on whether it should be a female trio*** or multitracked Michael McDonalds, or covered by the guys in the band.

My Old School is from the second Dan album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Countdown doesn’t enjoy its creators’ favour all that much, but I’m very fond of it. Recorded during breaks from touring, and featuring songs that were written to be played live (and presumably tried out live on stage before they were cut in the studio), it’s the group’s most “rock” album. That it’s heavy on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar playing just seals it; Skunk was always a rougher, noisier player than the clean, precise and more jazz-inflected Denny Dias.

Famously, My Old School is about a drug bust at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, during which Becker, Fagen and Fagen’s girlfriend were arrested, along with some 50 other students. Dismayed that the school was complicit in this, Fagen nursed a grudge for years, even refusing to attend his graduation.

Accordingly, Fagen sings My Old School in a tone of sustained mock outrage, and the harmony voice, whoever it belongs to****, matches it note for note, getting truly querelous at times by going up on the last syllable of the line (“doing what she did be-fore“; “tumbles into the sea“). In the choruses, the backing trio come in and, as so often, the band milk all the humour they can from the incongruity of the soul revue-style vocal arrangement and the lyrical content – “Woah, no,” the singers interject. “Guadalajara won’t do now,” answers Fagen. It’s tremendous fun.

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Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

*And after a few albums, most of the band were regular session players rather than official members anyway.
**David Palmer sings lead on Dirty Work and the amazing Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me). He was brought in on Skunk Baxter’s recommendation because Fagen wasn’t a confident vocalist, particularly on stage. But Fagen’s vocal persona was so crucial to the songs that he was eventually persuaded to handle the job full time and the band asked Palmer to step aside. He went on to write Jazzman with Carole King.
***Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews were Fagen and Becker’s go-to trio, when available. And why wouldn’t you get them on board if you could?
****And who is that harmony singer? I wish I knew for sure. Judging from his vocal contributions to Turn that Heartbeat Over Again it’s very possibly Walter Becker, but it could be the album’s credited male backing singer, Royce Jones. Or it could even be a second track of Fagen, but the vocal sounds less warm and round than 1974-vintage Fagen.

Holiday Harmonies Part 6: Keep the Customer Satisfied – Simon & Garfunkel

Oh yeah. These guys.

Paul Simon gets a lot of love on this blog, but I’ve never really talked about Simon & Garfunkel. So here goes.

I think I’ve said before that when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, Simon was set free as a writer of melodies. He no longer had to make the need to sing, breathe and phrase with a vocal partner a prime concern in how he wrote his tunes. Not only did he hit new heights as a writer as a result of this, he blossomed as a singer too. Add to this his deepening exploration of jazz harmony, and it becomes pretty easy to explain the startling quality of his early 1970s solo work.

All that said (and I can’t really apologise for rating solo Simon higher than Simon & Garfunkel; I absorbed Greatest Hits Etc. before I ever heard an S&G song, and my dad had to explain to me that this Simon singing Homeward Bound was the same as the other Simon), it’s undeniable that Paul & Artie could sing harmonies like few before or since, and their exalted status means we’ve actually found out a fair bit about how they did it. Journalists have taken the trouble to ask them.

In The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon, Garfunkel and engineer-producer Roy Halee discuss the duo’s vocal layering tricks. Simon & Garfunkel sang their vocals into one mic, live, and then overdubbed a double track of each of their parts, separately, and ghosted them up underneath the live performance when mixing, to fatten and clarify. It’s a glorious sound.

Having multiple vocalists sing live into one microphone is a staple recording technique.* Indeed, in some styles of music (old-time and bluegrass), the reverence for this everyone-around-the-microphone trick borders on a fetish. The reasons for doing it are – should be – musical and to a lesser extent technical, not aesthetic.

Singers who are used to singing together, who’ve spent hours practising in a room together unamplified, will probably give better performances if you record the room that they’re singing in rather than them individually. If you try to get the best of both worlds and have two singers singing live in the same room but with a microphone each, you add the complications of bleed and negotiating the phase relationships of the two mics, and you probably don’t gain much sonically on just doing it with one mic.

What S&G did with Roy Halee allowed them to get a huge, fat vocal sound that blended all the excitement, energy and animation of a live take with the warmth and control of close-miked overdubs. You can hear the technique in use on any of their two-part-harmony classics: Homeward Bound, The Sound of Silence, I am a Rock, America, The Boxer or The Only Living Boy in New York.

One of my favourites, though, is the uncharacteristically stomping Keep the Customer Satsified from Bridge Over Troubled Water, where the duo’s voices are fattened up still further with tape delay (I think – sure sounds like). The vocals are amazingly tight, breath for breath, terminal consonant for terminal consonant, all the way through the track, with Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums) driving them on and one of the finest-sounding brass sections I’ve ever heard trying their best to wrest the track away from the singers. On an album full of amazing harmony singing performances, this might be the finest. It’s certainly the most fun.

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Simon, Garfunkel and a single microphone

*In the early days of sound recording, the only way you could make a recording was to get all the musicians in to a room together to play into a recording horn. The sounds waves going into the horn would vibrate a stylus at the other end, which would cut an analogue of the performance into a wax cylinder. So all the musicians playing into one transduction device is the most venerable recording technique there is.

 

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

 

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

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*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing with the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.