Tag Archives: holiday harmonies

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.

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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.

Holiday harmonies, part 2: I Know You Rider – Martin & Neil

What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?

When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.

When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?

After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.

The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.

Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.

Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.

“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.

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Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)

*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)

Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?