Tag Archives: vocal harmonies

July – Low (repost)

It’s the first day of July. Here’s an appropriate post from the archive.

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the vast, empty physical spaces implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band gradually moved beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporated subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. On the page, the lyrics don’t like like much, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while lyrics that raise questions but give no actual context that may provide an answer may seem vague and lazy, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band, start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

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Low: l-r Sally, Parker, Sparhawk

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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 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)