Tag Archives: singing

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

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)

I Came in from the Mountain – Roddy Woomble

The extent to which Roddy Woomble’s voice has changed over the last 18 years is always pretty shocking to this casual Idlewild fan when I revisit the band’s early work. The sneering, American-accented vocals of Woomble’s youth are long gone. Eighteen years after the release of his band Idlewild’s debut, Captain, Woomble now has a voice of deep, rich mahogany. He has matured into a terrific singer, and a very fine songwriter, too.

I saw him play last night with Mel and her friend Louise at Kings Place (sic) in London for the first night of the Caledonian Chronicles season. 90 minutes in the company of his band and his solo-career songbook fully convinced me on both fronts. He did play a couple of Idlewild songs (one I knew – an excellent version of You Held the World in Your Arms that for me outdid the original – and one I didn’t know; Mel told me it was Quiet Crown, an old Idlewild tune, after I’d said to her that the band could have segued from that into American English), but he had little need to fall back on his band’s repertoire to keep the audience rapt. I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around, that probably a lot of the people there wouldn’t have known When I Argue I See Shapes anyway, as perversely enjoyable as it might have been to see Woomble in high-energy yelping mode in an austere concert hall.

He had a great band (featuring Sorren Maclean on guitar, Luciano Rossi on piano and Hannah Fisher on fiddle – all three sang harmony vocals), which helps, but quiet, sit-down shows in concert halls live or die on the strength of the material being played. No song demonstrates the quality of Woomble’s mature writing better than I Came In From the Mountain, from his first (now deleted, he revealed last night) solo album, My Secret is My Silence.

It’s built on the simplest chords (I, IV, vi, V) that are shuffled around in progressions that every songwriter has used at least a few times, and the verse melody is fragmentary, a few syllables at a time, as if the thoughts that the singer is searching for aren’t quite coming together. On first listen, by the end of the first verse, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t much of a song, however nice the line “because we affect each other endlessly” may be.

It’s the chorus where it comes together. It’s a simple tune, though with more movement and a wider range than the verse melody, harmonised on the second and third repeats by Kate Rusby, sometime labelmate on Pure Records. Their voices sound great together. This is the intriguing space that Woomble the solo artist inhabits. Headlining the opening night of a folk festival called Caledonian Chronicles, sitting on stage with a fiddle player, accompanied on record by uilleann pipes, duetting with Britfolk royalty, but nonetheless thinking, writing and arranging his songs like a rock/pop songwriter. Comparisons of Idlewild to R.E.M. were overstated back in 2002 when The Remote Part came out, I think. Nevertheless, there is no songwriter whose phrasing of a melody (and way of matching lyric and tune in surprising ways, so that the line contains unexpected caesuras and enjambements) more frequently reminds me of Michael Stipe.

He ruefully acknowledged once or twice yesterday that his solo career isn’t setting the world alight. Perhaps it’s because you can’t fit him neatly into either the folk box or the indie box anymore. But it’s a shame that he can’t quite fill a 500-seat hall as a solo act, as at this point it’d surprise me if Idlewild are making more vital music than he is on his own.

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A man of the mountains – Roddy Woomble

My recent EP, Little Differences. Available to stream or download