Tag Archives: harmony vocals

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

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Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Consider this a late entry in the harmony series. I had it written and lying around but left it out as I’d written about these guys several times before, and CSNY seemed too obvious an inclusion in a series about harmony singing. But I’ve been reading Graham Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, a Christmas present from my dad, and found myself listening to it today as if for the first time. It really is a stunning piece of work.

In May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students protesting against the American incursion into Cambodia at Kent State University in Ohio. They fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. The students, needless to say, were unarmed. The shootings killed four, paralysed another and left eight more seriously injured. The US public, already polarised over Vietnam, became more divided still between those who were outraged that the state would turn its guns on its own citizens and those who thought the little punks had it coming. John Filo, a journalism student, took a photograph of a young woman called Mary Ann Vecchio (then 14 years old and visiting the campus) kneeling over the body of a dead student called Jeffrey Miller and screaming in horror. That Pulitzer-winning picture was only the most potent symbol of that divide. It was by no means the only one.

Neil Young read about the events at Kent State, and saw that terrible picture, while in the company of bandmate David Crosby. There and then he poured his disgust into a blunt D-modal outburst called Ohio: a riff, a verse and a chorus. Recorded as a band, live off the floor and without overdubs or frills, Ohio was a record too serious in its intent to bother with fripperies like ornate melody and elegant vocal harmonies, the usual calling cards of CSNY.

Ohio’s B-side was a Stephen Stills composition called Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, a southerner with a military-school upbringing, was a more conservative figure than his bandmates. He would later suffer from delusions, fuelled by his insane cocaine intake, that he had served in Vietnam, earning himself the mocking nickname “Sarge” from his road crew. His own thoughts were, accordingly, harder to gauge.

Its presence on the flipside of the explicitly condemnatory Ohio cast Find the Cost of Freedom as a sorrowful response to Kent State, whether or not Stills had actually written it as such*. But Find the Cost of Freedom, contemplative and ambiguous where Ohio was declamatory and furious, never identifies the dead it mourns. Who is being hymned here? US troops? Vietnamese civilians? Student protestors? All three? Its power lies in this ambiguity.

I’ve said before that I’m not all that big on Stills’s work generally, preferring the Crosby & Nash duo albums to any CSN or CSNY record. But even to a Stills sceptic like me, Freedom is a tremendously powerful record. Like Ohio, it features little of the bombast and posturing that characterised CSNY’s music in 1970. Instead its simplicity and brevity are stunning. It stands on equal footing with Ohio, which is a highlight of Neil Young’s catalogue. The transition from four voices in unison to four voices in harmony**, spread wide across the stereo image, may be the most spine-tingling moment on any CSNY record.

CSNY

*In his memoir Wild Tales, Nash hints that other songs were under consideration to be on the B-side of Ohio, suggesting that Find the Cost of Freedom had been written before Kent State, though he doesn’t come out and say it in so many words.

**Recorded, says Nash, live with the four band members sitting in a square and facing each other.

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.