Tag Archives: singers who can sing

George Michael RIP

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When I was a kid my mum had Wham’s The Final on double cassette (I think it was double anyway), so George Michael’s voice was an integral part of my childhood. But in truth it would have been even if The Final hadn’t been a regular car-journey companion. Michael was a huge, huge star in the late eighties, never off the radio and almost certainly Britain’s biggest pop star on the global stage. Faith is certified Diamond in the US – 10 million records sold – and was already 7x Platinum in 1990, two years after its release. Even Phil Collins didn’t sell that many records that quickly. But then, George was rather easier on the eye than Phil.

OK, so that gets us to the nub of it quickly. George Michael’s early success owed a lot to his (and Andrew Ridgeley’s) appearance. That’s always been true in pop, from the time when pop singers were also film stars and all-round entertainers. But Michael’s world-domination era was marked by his battle to be accepted just on the strength of his music and leave his Club Tropicana days behind him.

That he succeeded, despite the efforts of many who just wanted to score cheap laughs at his expense (and not realising that Club Tropicana and its video were supposed to be ridiculous), was testament to his talents as a writer and a singer.

And Michael was vastly talented. Few singers are granted George Michael’s creamy timbre or unerring pitch; few writers are capable of penning totally convincing dance tracks and genuinely moving ballads. Michael has half a dozen of both to his name, as well as Jesus to a Child, his greatest achievement – a tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and a song of almost miraculous grace and warmth.

Others will write from much more informed positions than mine about his wider legacy – what he has meant to the LGBQT community, for example. I only know what I’ve taken from his music down the years. But it’s been heart-warming to read in the papers today so many stories by those who’d come across him, all saying how generous George Michael was, how many small and large acts of charity he was responsible for. Not merely the big stuff that made the papers (the free concert he gave at the Roundhouse for NHS nurses; the money he donated to the Terence Higgins Trust, Childline and Ethiopian famine relief), but the little (at least for a man of his wealth) things too. It seems we’ve lost a good man, as well as a very special singer and writer.

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Wham! – Andrew Ridgeley & George Michael in 1986

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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.

Hall-Oates

Let Me be the One – Carpenters

It may seem I bring up Robert Christgau a lot on this blog. There’s a good reason. Christgau is one of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll writers, and his archive of reviews is digitised and freely available. Now, it’s dangerous to assume that his take on any given piece of work is representative of the mainstream critical opinion of the era – he’s idiosyncratic, sometimes ornery, frequently just plain wrongheaded, just like any critic – but if you want an authentic, from-its-time reaction to pretty much any record you can think of, Christgau’s archive is the place to go. So let’s look at his take on the Carpenters’ 1973 singles collection, the only record of theirs he seems to have reviewed:

The combination of Karen Carpenter’s ductile, dispassionate contralto and Richard Carpenter’s meticulous studio technique is admittedly more musical than the clatter of voices and silverware in a cafeteria, but it’s just as impervious to criticism. That is, the duo’s success is essentially statistical: I’ll tell you that I very much like We’ve Only Just Begun and detest Sing, but those aren’t so much aesthetic judgments as points on a graph. 

Hmm.

Richard and Karen did, from the 1990s onwards, begin to win the respect they’d always deserved, and like the Bee Gees, or ABBA, they now have critical credibility in spades, with their reputations as respectively arranger and singer bulletproof. I can’t imagine anyone in 2016 willing to stand up in public and say they find Karen Carpenter’s singing dispassionate. Time has rendered the disapproval of writers like Christgau a mere footnote.

While the Carpenters deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable, after her still shocking early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy in Karen’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as Goodbye to Love and Rainy Days and Mondays. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as There’s a Kind of Hush, Top of the World and Close to You) – to downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

Let Me Be the One comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in Superstar, This Masquerade, Yesterday Once More, I Need to Be in Love, in their version of Ticket to Ride, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic We’ve Only Just Begun.

They can be lighter (as on, say, throwaway covers of Please Mr Postman and Jambalaya), or darker (most obviously on Goodbye to Love), but it’s on these songs that they seem to me most essentially themselves, and when Karen Carpenter is at her best vocally. There was always some hope in her delivery of even the saddest material.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the most inventive arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited both Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the sole architect.

Carpenters

It might have helped if they’d been marketed more like this and less like this:

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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.

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference – Todd Rundgren

I hoped that Todd Rundgren was going to be one of my guys. I absolutely loved I Saw the Light from the first time I heard it, years before I knew who’d made it or what else he’d done, so eventually I purchased Something/Anything? thinking it was going to be the place to get started on Todd properly, confident that he was going to become one of my very favourite songwriters.

Unfortunately, Something/Anything? wasn’t the front-to-back Laura Nyro/Carole King tribute I hoped it’d be. Something/Anything? is a bit of a mess, and if you go into it looking for a double album of 20 or so songs like I Saw the Light – the early girl group sound filtered through The Beatles (Rundgren’s slide playing is pure George Harrison) – you’ll be disppointed. It hops all over the place, from bizarre Gilbert & Sullivan spoofs to ill-advised cock rock.

So I never found it an album I could fall in love with in its entirety. But we’re talking about Todd Rundgren, and Rundgren is some species of genius, even if its not a consistent species. So as well as I Saw the Light, Something/Anything? gives us Sweeter Memories, Marlene, Torch Song, Hello It’s Me and, more than anything else, It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, a song so beautiful and aching in its sadness it goes a long way beyond melancholy, stopping short of desolate and ending up in striking a note that’s comforting. It’s a warm kind of sadness, regretful but not bitter, illuminated by some of the most gorgeous chord changes this side of Laura Nyro herself (those unexpected changes under the line “But those days are through” absolutely make the song).

Rundgren famously recorded the bulk of Something/Anything? on his own, playing all the instruments on sides 1 to 3 himself. His resourcefulness is impressive, and goodness knows he can sing, play guitar and write as well as anyone in pop music, but some of the songs suffer for not having been placed in the hands of really capable players; Couldn’t I Just Tell You, for example, is ill served by its author in its Something/Anything? incarnation, with its numerous feel and tempo changes utterly defeating Rundgren-the-drummer.

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference hits that sweet spot, common to so much successful lo-fi/one-man-band records, where the tension between the quality of the writing and the just-slightly-amateurish execution of it is charming and endearing. It makes you invest more in the song’s feelings and emotions somehow. It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference just wouldn’t be the same if without its slightly unsteady rhythm track (drums centre, congas and tambourine on the left, chimes and other percussion on the right). The charm is how it plays against the lush backing vocals (again, all Rundgren) and Todd’s effortless lead vocal. Rundgren really was an exceptional singer in his youth.

It’s a shame that the rest of Something/Anything? doesn’t really match up to its first two songs, but when those songs are I Saw the Light and It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, to expect it to would be asking for the damn near impossible.

Todd Rundgren in 1973
Todd Rundgren, 1973

Todd’s not the only guy who’s ever done the one-man-band thing:

Harmony-singing heaven – the short and precious career of Tres Chicas

Hi all. It’s a very busy week this week, with my day off tomorrow looking likely to be not very ‘off’ at all. So I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out a post I wasn’t totally happy with about music I really like. Here’s a new and more fleshed-out version to tide you over till the weekend, when I will, I hope, be back.

Where are Tres Chicas? Seven years is a long time not to have put out a new record. Especially when they only made two albums in their initial short burst of activity.

Tres Chicas is the name adopted by its three principal members: Lynn Blakey (Let’s Active, Glory Fountain), Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine). They’re all veterans of the indie country scene of the American south. They met each other and began singing together for fun during the long period where their bands played shows on the same bill, at home and on tour, in various combinations. Their name was coined by the owner of the bar where they performed in public for the first time and it stuck.

In 2004, they released their debut, Sweetwater, on Yep Roc. This label is worthy, not cutting-edge, and has made something of a specialty of signing industry veterans (folks like Gang of Four, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, John Doe, Jim White, Sloan, Soft Boys, Tony Joe White – you get the idea). Sweetwater, recorded and produced by Chris Stamey, was an Uncut reader’s dream come true: a who’s who of alt. country talent. Original Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore (also Caitlin Cary’s husband) was on board, as was pianist Jen Gunderman (who’d replaced Karen Grotberg in the Jayhawks).

And it was a very fine record, too: simple, spare, a little lo-fi, a little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.

Its opening songs (a brace by the normally reliable Lynn Blakey, who is probably the dominant songwriting voice over their two albums) are plodding and somewhat stodgy, which is a shame as Heartbeat especially is a nice song held down by a drum track that trudges rather than bounces, but the album comes alive thereafter. The band work up a little sweat on a high-sprited cover of Loretta Lynn’s Deep as Your Pocket and then brake hard for a beautiful version of Lucinda Williams’ Am I Too Blue, where they’re backed by the members of Chatham County Line. This is where Tres Chicas are at their best: bringing the simplest of songs to life with their peerless harmony singing. If you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, listen on headphones. Cary’s on the left (also playing fiddle), Blakey in the middle and Lamm on the right. Three strong singers breathing with each other, listening to each other, phrasing with each other. It’s not slick, their voices don’t blend into one inseperable whole, but that’s what makes it so powerful

The good songs keep coming: Caitlin Cary’s Desire (written with Stamey and yet another Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly) is clever and funny; In a While (written by and lead-sung by Lamm, with a Cary co-write) splits the difference between Hazeldine and early Gillian Welch. But the album’s highlight is When Was the Last Time, credited to all three band members, and featuring a spine-tingling final section where the singers repeat the opening line and title phrase in the round, their voices popping up in the left, right and centre channels while Gunderman plays a simple churchy piano and the band slowly comes back in. It’s a deceptively artful arrangement, inspired by what is probably the best song on the record, and certainly the one that most captures what’s great about this band: the warmth of the voices, the palpable feeling friendship between the band members, the sense that the stakes here are low and these people have nothing to prove to each other or to anyone else.

Perhaps such an atmosphere couldn’t be captured twice. Their second album Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl (the band’s nicknames for each other apparently – but it’s still a dreadful, unwieldy title for an actual record), recorded in London with Geraint Watkins, Nick Lowe, BJ Cole and a cast of yeoman British musicians, is a less characterful, down-home affair. It does contain a couple of masterpieces (Cary and Blakey’s languorous All the Shade Trees in Bloom and jazzy Only Broken; Blakey’s plaintive Slip so Easily) so it’s worth hearing. The moment when all three singers voices come together to sing the title phrase on Shade Trees is worth the price of admission on its own – a moment that is all the overwhelming for how long Cary’s elongated, sleepy verse has held it back. But, unlike Sweetwater, BR&OG never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, if this is your kind of music, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. Seriously, in the extended hiatus Welch and David Rawlings took during the last decade, no one was making better country music. I’m still hoping there’s going to be more.

Tres Chicas
l-r Cary, Blakey, Lamm

Love Has No Pride – Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 album Give it Up is the sort of front-to-back solid record that sounds better listened to in toto than it does when you pick out individual songs. The trick is how the songs draw strength from those that precede and follow them, right from the start of the record: Nothing Seems to Matter (featuring none other than Dave Holland on double bass, two years on from Bitches Brew – worlds colliding indeed) wouldn’t be so affecting if it didn’t follow the rollicking, New Orleansy Give it Up or Let Me Go. All the elements that are thrown into the mix – R&B, soul, blues, folk, country – sound thoroughly natural sitting side by side with each other, and they add up to a record that sounds substantially earthier than just about anything else being made in California at the time. Certainly anything being made in Laurel Canyon. It’s worth noting too that Raitt, more famed as a guitarist (BB King’s favourite slide guitarist, no less) and singer than writer, was solely responsible for the two above-mentioned songs, which are among Give it Up‘s best cuts.

The last of the record’s ten songs is Love Has No Pride, by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus*, the most LA-sounding cut, but also one of the most moving. In fact, the track succeeds almost in spite of itself. Its opening lyrics are a syntactic muddle so grievous that I promptly switched it off the first time I heard it. Surely no song that started “I’ve had bad dreams too many times/To think that they don’t mean much anymore” could ever be any good? Its middle section is a lopsided 20 bars long and feels like it should finish four bars earlier.

Yet Raitt makes everything out of this song that’s there to be made and turns it into something really special. Her vocal, unaffected as always, is devastating, and her arrangement choices are exemplary: she resists the temptation to pump the song up and make it big with the addition of drums or extraneous instrumentation, instead keeping it simple and intimate. Compare Linda Ronstadt’s much showier version from a year later, which adds strings, gospel backing vocals, and half a dozen instruments. No prizes for guessing which one has more emotional heft.

Raitt’s been doing this time and again over her career. By the standards of their era and locale, even her Don Was/Ed Cherney albums (overexposed and overgarlanded at the time, but so darn likeable it’s hard to begrudge her – they’ll never be a time when I’m not happy to hear Something to Talk About come on the radio, which is just as well) from the late eighties and early nineties sound warm, organic and earthy. If you want to hear what makes her so good, though, skip Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and go back to 1972’s Give it Up.

Check out this version, too, with Raitt guesting at a CSN show, and David Crosby on Graham Nash singing backing vocals. The old-timers proceed to show the youngsters how it’s done:

Bonnie
Bonnie, with Strat and slide