Archive for category Singing

Demoitis

Studioitis isn’t the only widespread malady in the world of recording. There’s also the much more serious demoitis.

Artists often make quick ‘demo’ versions of songs they’ll consider recording properly later on. In fact, during the making of an album dozens of versions of a song might circulate for the consideration of the creative team in the studio, and sometimes the business team at the label. The differences in the demos may be subtle: slight variations in volume levels, an altered word here and there, a few bars edited out. Or they may be sweeping: a new draft of the lyrics, a different tempo, drastically rethought instrumentation. But when a collaborator or an executive fights to retain elements they’ve become attached to in an earlier iteration of a track they are said to have a case of demoitis.

Debates follow. Often heated, sometimes explosive.

‘I just can’t get used to that new line in the second verse. It feels awkward to me.’

‘Cut those four extra bars before the bridge. The demo got right into it…I wouldn’t have changed that.’

‘This new tempo doesn’t give me the energy the demo had. What happens if we speed up the final mix digitally?’

Though experienced musicians often agree when something is ‘wrong’ with a song, music is ultimately a subjective thing. And it can be particularly difficult to maintain perspective on an ever-changing song you’ve heard played back a hundred times. How do you decide what goes out to the public?

First, try to hold back on presenting a song to the label or the artist’s management until it’s as close to finished as possible.

Making creative decisions by committee can leave a piece of music bloodless. Especially when the incubatory environment of the studio has been opened up for business executives to phone in some input from their offices. I’ve been involved in situations where two ‘final’ versions of a song were given to a room of A&R people at a label to vote on. In the end they asked for the two ideas to be merged, creating a frankensteined chorus that didn’t really preserve what was good about either version.

In my opinion, the Clive Davises and David Geffens of the world—music business executives who aren’t necessarily experienced in creative work but have a golden ear—are few and far between. (Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Berry Gordy at Motown are examples of label presidents with an inside understanding of craft. They spent a good amount of time writing and producing themselves.) From what I’ve experienced, the majority of music executives are business-minded people with a love for music. While they will jump at the opportunity to participate in a creative decision, much of their input seems arbitrary. Suggestions seem to be lifted from trends or rules they’ve heard bandied about in the office.

‘How about a dubstep breakdown in the bridge?’ was popular this past year.

‘What about a filtered radio voice in the intro?’ was big with executives around the turn of the millenium.

I don’t want to fault execs for wanting in on the excitement of making music, but if it’s actually a situation of ‘I want to be able to tell people I suggested this [obvious, trendy] idea in a successful radio hit’ while at the same time being vague enough to claim no responsibility if the song flops…well that’s not helpful. Nine times out of ten the suggestion made becomes an awkward corporate mandate for some clashing parameter the studio peeps now have to work into the song. It’s not a solution; it’s just created more problem-solving work. As evidenced by the most successful labels and managers, who send a trusted producer and artist into the studio and have the wisdom not to open the door until the souffle rises, I think it’s better for all involved if executives use their creativity to come up with a kickass marketing plan instead. That’s something the artist likely can’t do, and the expert executive can take full credit for.

Ahmet Ertegun: Good Executive Input

What about the decision-making that happens between the creatives behind that closed studio door?

Many times I’ve worked with a relatively green artist that wants to take demos home to get the input of their friends, family or significant other: input from people who aren’t necessarily creative but are either regarded as a Average Joes in the target market or a good barometer of whether the song is right for the person they know. I get it. Songwriting is new and mysterious, and on top of that you’ve been thrown into the studio with an opinionated person like me that you don’t know well enough yet to trust.

To be frank, it takes time to develop a sense of what’s working in the studio. When people have to go outside for input, it’s because they’re aware on some level that they don’t have enough experience to feel it when something—a line, a snare sound, a chorus vocal has squarely hit the mark. It’s a palpable feeling most experienced people in the room agree on when it happens. I started to recognize it after I’d been recording for about 6 years, and it took another few years to begin to know how to problem-solve things that weren’t giving me that ‘right’ feeling. (Don’t panic. Some people are faster at getting it than I was. And I make it my mission to help new artists get there ASAP.)

There’s a strong argument against doing a whole lot of market testing in lieu of relying on the gut instincts of a few professionals when you’re being creative. I’m gonna go all granola here and say that the origin of the song’s feelings and ideas is situated inside of the writers. I don’t see how polling others outside of the process can bring the song closer to its emotional center, and therefore closer to emotional impact for listeners.

The beauty of making music is that any new song you work with may have its own set of rules that generate a new approach. When you’re truly open to where a song wants to go, there are always new worlds to visit. No one person in the room has the answers, but if everyone drops their egos and taps in to what the song is dictating, a common direction usually emerges. In some cases of an extreme loss of perspective on the part of the makers, I think you can get an opinion about structural issues or the overall approach from another trusted professional who has their craft down.

Sometimes the demo does have something special about it.

For my solo work sometimes I like to write lyrics at the mic, changing words and lines until the puzzle pieces come together. And I usually feel the most effective vocal deliveries are the takes I record while I’m writing, moments after I’ve come up with the words I’m about to sing. That’s because I’m usually writing about something that’s going on with me at that time, and there can be an honest moment of catharsis or discovery in that first take. I’m not averse to re-approaching the vocal later on to try different things, but almost inevitably I end up with final vocal tracks made up mostly of my ‘discovery’ takes. One great thing about modern recording technology is when I’m co-writing with an artist I can get proper recordings of everything we come up with, using the same microphone as we go. This is like shooting a documentary film, trying to capture something that’s happening now to the singer, or even just a moment of honesty as they recall something in their past with great clarity. You never know when you’ll capture lightning, and I think it’s valid to fight to preserve moments like these from a demo, tweezing out individual recorded lines and conforming them to a later version of the song if necessary.

Other times—usually with seasoned performers that possess both highly developed vocal control and an actor’s ability to inhabit a song—I’ve found that capturing a great performance is a two-step process toward the end. 1. Have them take it home and learn the finalized version of the lyrics. 2. Have them come back in and record it three or four times, more or less straight through, over a fully produced track. The disjointedness of recording line by line with this type of performer tends to break their flow. What they want is to hear the song roll for a while so they can get inside it again and access the emotions of what they’re singing. As a producer, this is more akin to letting an actor play their part in a fictional narrative film. They’re skilled at using the power and nuance of their voice to create an illusion that this is happening to them right now. In truth it might be something they wrote years ago, or a fictional situation someone else wrote about.

When it comes to choosing vocal takes—or guitar solos or drum tracks—it doesn’t really matter how you got there. Whichever take gives you a chill down your spine is the one to go with. Though another version may be sonically better, or tighter, or more lushly produced…I’ll always feel that the version to go with is the one that made me, the producer, feel something. That’s a distillation, ultimately, of a producer’s job.

, , , , ,

No Comments

Sade As Wounded Warrior

It hurts to write a single sour word about Sade. Being a lover of music in many disparate genres it’s difficult to play favourites, but over time I’ve come to realize that Sade does hold the Best Artist spot for me. Against much more obvious competition, ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ has unexpectedly landed as my favourite song, and 1985’s ‘Promise’ would be the album I’d take to a desert island.

She, the woman, and they, the band, have come to represent high taste and integrity in music. They’ve built a trust in their fans that the product will be filtered and distilled before it reaches us: there is no chance for cheapness to get through. Much of their music has been slow-burn: it takes time for such subtle grooves and sparse melodies to get under the skin. The last few albums of new material, each released in a different decade, have been increasingly moody and subtle–increasingly less immediate, but with a satisfying payoff after repeated listens. Although Sade has never professed to be a vocal athlete, the band is always on point and the ambiance she brings with her cool presence makes them one of the few live acts that I cannot miss. With a 10-year gap since their last studio album, curiosity and expectations were high. I put off writing about the band’s new album, ‘Soldier Of Love’ for several weeks in order to digest it and give it a fair shot.

Sade has allowed unprecedented media access this time around, and in the course of it much has been made about her previous insistence on privacy. She shook hands around the room at the NYC album listening party, performed the single on every major talk show, and satirized herself in a guest appearance on the Wanda Sykes show. Articles like this one in the London Times have combined historical context with personally revealing interviews. Soundbites from a recorded interview were made available here. A short film surfaced discussing the making of the album, and then another appeared about the making of the first video.

Sales have been excellent, indicating that the band’s following is still a faithful army in this day where the pirate download has become standard. The album went straight to number one on the Billboard chart and held strong, proving strong radio action is not required to sell such a trusted band these days.

So is the new disc good? It is. I’m afraid to say however that it’s not phenomenal, and certainly not groundbreaking or revelatory.

SadeRecording1

The Making Of 'Soldier Of Love'

Let’s do a little bit of history. The band began as a live jazz outfit. 1984’s ‘Diamond Life’ was made up largely of songs they’d already been playing around London, including most notably their throwback anthem ‘Smooth Operator’. Robin Millar produced, beautifully packaging their organic jazz café sound, a sound which spun out into a movement in 80s England with bands like The Style Council and Simply Red filling out the genre. In the first few videos a narrative was built around Sade as a jazz-club diva mixed up in a gangster plot. Album tracks like ‘Frankie’s First Affair’ and ‘Sally’ brought seedy, urban characters to life. ‘Hang On To Your Love’ and ‘Your Love Is King’ were classic, universal love songs.

The band’s follow-up, ‘Promise,’ arrived just a year later with the melodically sweeping first single ‘Is It A Crime’ continuing the torch song tradition. ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ was a light singsong with darker lyrical undertones, built around a highly original syncopated kick-and-rimshot pattern not heard in music before or since. ‘You’re Not The Man,’ another stunning jazz ballad, only appeared on vinyl as the b-side of ‘Taboo’; it was thankfully included on the non-vinyl versions of the album. ‘Maureen’ and ‘Tar Baby’ were again character pieces, but this time Sade took a page from her personal life, singing about her best friend and her grandmother. The first hint of sequenced electronics appeared on ‘Never As Good As The First Time’ and a quick scan of the album credits reveals that this was one of the band’s first forays into sharing production duties with Robin Millar. It was the first sign of a departure they were about to take.

While it’s easy to see that most of their early material was built around elaborate, classic melody, ‘Never As Good’ is a groove-based song.  Sitting somewhat conspicuously next to fully organic songs on the album, the drum machine loop and percolating synths settle us into a hypnotic groove, and the verse vocal weaves itself rhythmically into that groove, the melody flipping between two neighbouring notes. It is a different way to write music: it comes from the opposite angle, building on a rhythmic foundation rather than a melodic one.

There was a 3-year break. When the band returned with ‘Stronger Than Pride’ in 1988, they had taken over production duties from Millar, who, tragically, had gone blind from an inherited retinal disease during the recording of ‘Promise’. The jazz influence had faded, echoed only on the horn arrangement in ‘Clean Heart’. It was replaced by the band’s own unique R&B sensibility. Most importantly, they were favouring this new approach of writing over programmed loops, and here I believe is where Sade’s melodic and lyrical approach began to change from the lighter character-based storytelling of ‘Sally’ and ‘Maureen’ to a longer, drawn-out process of feeling around for the singer’s own subconscious undercurrents. There seemed to be a belief that the lyrics needed more sombre depth to them, more of a message.

1992’s ‘Love Deluxe,’ and 2000’s ‘Lover’s Rock’ furthered this direction, forging original works over many different feels and grooves. Unlike the big jumps on the first two albums, melodies generally fluttered between a few neighbouring notes, except on the more commercially viable songs ultimately chosen as lead-off singles (‘No Ordinary Love’ and ‘By Your Side’ respectively).

SadeRecording2

At The Microphone

And now ‘Soldier Of Love’.

Despite the band’s insistence that they work hard not to repeat themselves, for the first time I feel there is a degree of repetition going on here. The title track bites chord progressions from ‘No Ordinary Love’ and melodic bits from ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’. The bouncing tambourine in the drum groove on ‘The Moon And The Sky’ also recalls ‘No Ordinary Love’; the rhythm track on ‘Skin’ recycles that of ‘Cherish The Day’. After ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘The Sweetest Gift,’ the title ‘The Safest Place’ looked oddly familiar in the track listings. It is also the obligatory beat-free moment on the album–a tradition that began with ‘Fear’ on ‘Promise’ and carried through, one track per album, with ‘I Never Thought I’d See The Day,’ ‘Pearls,’ and ‘It’s Only Love That Gets You Through’. If they were putting out records every two years, these similarities wouldn’t matter so much. But considering we’ve just had the longest gap between releases, I would have loved to see the band forge new paths rather than rely on old habits.

Once stating that timelessness was one of the mandates of her writing, Sade’s first lapses in taste have now happened: the cheap reference to Kool Moe Dee’s ‘Wild Wild West’ on the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, perhaps meant to show light irony; the reference to ‘Michael, back in the day’ layered with a simulated MJ holler behind it on ‘Skin,’ likely included to acknowledge the loss of a personal hero;  and a few somewhat embarrassing moments in ‘Babyfather,’ beginning with ‘she liked his smile, she wanted more, the baby’s gonna have your eyes for sure.’ The idea of including Sade’s daughter Ila and bandmate Stuart Matthewman’s son Clay as a childrens’ chorus on ‘Babyfather’ points toward a lapse in judgment due to unchecked parental pride. It is unfortunately likely to be the second single because it is the only light storytelling moment on the record, and there’s not much else with an obvious radio hook.

Production- and writing-wise there are some developments on the disc. A blues influence–something we first heard in the band’s cover of ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on 1994’s ‘Best Of Sade’ collection–has emerged more strongly here on ‘Long Hard Road’ and ‘Bring Me Home’ among others. The reggae influence of ‘Lover’s Rock’ has deepened in the form of dub basslines peppered through the album and some lush three-part harmonies reminiscent of The Wailers on the bridge of the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, which also boasts the new sonic colours of army battery drumming, futuristic synth effects and one ferocious hip hop snare. I welcome back Stuart Matthewman’s saxophone lines after their absence on ‘Lover’s Rock’. Upon sitting with the record, ‘The Moon And The Sky’ seems as though it will be one of the songs that will deepen with time. ‘Morning Bird,’ while cryptic and mournful, is exquisite and feels like the gentler moments of the 1996 Sweetback album (the band’s side project without Sade). ‘In Another Time’ feels like lazy writing, full of melodic gaps, but lyrically it is special in the way it captures a mother-daughter advice session.

There is a sentiment of sombre fortitude or bitter resolve present throughout the album; a running theme of being a soldier (the title track) or warrior (the closing track). The rest of the songs tend to lament loss or to wearily offer encouragement. I’m not sure whether this darkness reflects where Sade is at personally, or whether she feels it is only worthwhile to document the heavier things inside her, because the writing itself also feels quite laboured to me. One of her gifts as a writer has been her ability to reach in and describe a feeling directly or metaphorically, yet without a trace of cliché…case in point: the phrase on ‘Be That Easy’ where she states both simply and profoundly ‘for I am a broken house, I’m holding on a broken bow’. However I believe she has become fixated on this one particular gift rather than using her complete palette: for a very long time the songs have not been melody driven and they have not included those narrative stories less related to her personal demons and philosophies.

In the ‘Making Of Soldier Of Love’ footage–the first time information has been let out about the band’s creative process–there is a lot of talk about the ‘struggle’ involved in the writing process. The band and Sade herself express, wearily, an exhaustive search that goes on in the writing of each song. She explains that she stays away from the studio for long stretches of years because it’s such a commitment to go in and make an album. She sighs with the heavy weight of her own expectations that the music be built on truths and constructed with love. She flips through a stack of papers several inches thick saying ‘look how many words, look, all of this, it’s one song,’ revealing that there are endless rounds of adding and chipping away at words in the search for the right ones.

Writing & Rewriting

Writing & Rewriting

She analogizes her process: ‘once I start working on a song I sort of feel I’m on a boat, and the boat knows which way it’s going…sometimes the boat will go off course and I have to fight to steer it back.’ Also, ‘the three minutes where the song really comes together in that moment where it sort of arrives from the ether or wherever, then the rest, a lot of the rest is working on maintaining the spirit that came to you from no will of your own, and that’s the difficult part…being loyal to the original vibration and spirit of feeling that came with that song.’  This struggle, I feel, is a process Sade has put on herself, and in my experience it’s what would produce the heaviness, the laboured feeling of the music. While this gradual syphoning of the subconscious–of connecting to the ether without staring it down directly–is not an uncommon approach and it is valuable for some songs, we also know from her earlier work that she’s capable of balancing out this heaviness by writing sweeping melodic stories off the cuff.

And this is really what I want to say about the new album: it may be that Sade now goes into the studio simply trying to initiate the purge she believes is expected of her. In that way I believe she’s gradually misconstrued, by small degrees, what her job as a musician is. At the other extreme we have artists that push the boundaries as far as possible with each new album to break out of the shell of what’s expected. I feel the best work happens somewhere in the middle, in a space when original ideas are allowed to flow naturally with little reaction to what’s worked before. And the best songs seem to come when the conscious mind vaguely teases the subconscious out, but it is not always helpful to approach the studio expecting drawn-out martyrdom. I want Sade to have fun writing the music she presents to us.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

A Perspective On Madonna

Celebration...and Scrutinization.

Celebration…and Scrutinization.

I’m not a music snob.

As boring as I think Britney Spears is, I own a copy of the 12″ single of ‘Baby One More Time’ because I think that song was a piece of pop writing on par with some of Abba’s achievements: every line of the melody is a hook. When I find myself in conversations with people who pride themselves on being perceived as connoisseurs of far-flung artists just for the exclusivity of being in on the obscure, I tend to bring up top 40 songs like ‘Love At First Sight’ and ‘In Your Eyes’ by Kylie Minogue…not because I’m a fan in particular, but because those are well-crafted songs whose writers chose the right moment to cleverly bite the style of some 80s Olivia Newton-John singles. Whether an artist’s material works or not, to me, is a separate issue from how commercial or anti-commercial they choose to be.

However I don’t think it’s coincidence that many of the biggest female icons in music have been regarded as nothing more than pop fluff.  They are not thought of as making musical contributions on the level of, say, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Prince, or even John Legend or Robbie Williams…in part because, when it comes to music, western society still shows its dyed-in-the-wool patriarchal values: the straight white male audience still ultimately dictates what is perceived as serious music in the mainstream.

But it can be argued that gay men, in fact, stand at the epicenter of pop music. Because, as early adopters and fiercely loyal supporters of the artists that appeal to them, they cause everybody else to look up and wonder what the hell all of the commotion is about.

The undying support of an army of gay men stands behind virtually every major female star from Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Bette Midler to Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, through to Cyndi Lauper and Whitney Houston, past Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, up to Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.  It seems clear that the messages strong female figures are apt to convey help give voice to a part of the gay male psyche. Surnames are dropped as gay men begin to regard these women–from Janet to Kylie to Celine–as close personal friends. Few male artists get that kind of rousing support from the gays, besides passing fixations with boy bands and a handful of gay-like-us mascots such as Elton John, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, awarded the solidarity of the queer masses even when the relevance of their output has dimmed.

Labels know they’ve got a hit act when straight men begin to find themselves dragged to homocentric concerts by their hip girlfriends.  And you won’t find many solo male artists with the staying power of these women, doing huge stadium shows years or decades after first appearing on the scene.

Of all of the female icons, Madonna has carved out the deepest, widest swath. My fellow gays have tried to engage me in ‘Kylie vs. Madonna’ or ‘Britney vs. Madonna’ arguments.  You may be drawn to Kylie because she’s more refined, or you may be drawn to Britney because she’s more Of-The-Now, but personal taste aside those arguments seem somewhat ludicrous to me: it’s a fact that Madonna has had the most impact musically and culturally for the longest period of time. An important distinction: unlike many on the Diva List, she’s been at the helm of her career this whole time…from manipulating her own image to co-writing much of the material she sings (right back at the beginning she wrote ‘Lucky Star’ on her own).  The release of her fourth hits compilation, ‘Celebration’, seems as fitting a time as any to discuss what exactly her contribution has been.

I followed her output with increasing anticipation from the beginning up until the late 90s, around the time of ‘Music’. For me, the golden period was from the release of the ‘Like A Prayer’ video to the release of the ‘Erotica’ single, inclusive, because during that run she seemed to tap into the subjects and aesthetics I was ready to absorb at the time. Through the various phases of her career, that type of synchronistic experience has not been uncommon for whoever her 20-something gay male fans happen to be at the time. After the release of ‘American Life’ I rolled my eyes when a 20-ish gay grabbed my shoulders and shook me saying ‘no you don’t understand how brilliant she is’.  ‘How brilliant she is’ was old news, and this was just a new incarnation of Madonna doing her thing…pushing the hot buttons of the collective psyche of a new generation.

She’s stated that button-pushing is her agenda.  Having been given the name ‘Madonna’ at birth, she then had the wits to parlay those built-in religious connotations into a Mother Mary vs. Mary Magdalene (ie. a Madonna-Whore dichotomy) by introducing a heavy dose of overt sexuality into the balanced equation that became her persona. Other female icons who opt to sexualize their image don’t have that built-in balance, because they aren’t inherently pressing that other universal button…the Religion button…all the while.

In the late 80s and early 90s the trendy way to dismiss Madonna was to say ‘well, she’s a great business person, I respect her for that,’ – implying that there wasn’t much else to respect her for. But I think it bears repeating that she’s often had her finger on the pulse, not just in a surface way, co-opting fashion and dance from subcultures at the right moment, but also in that synchronistic way, tapping into the questions people in their late teens and early 20s are grappling with at any given time.  Her precocious curiosity has caused her to ask the right questions at the right moment…coaxing the public consciousness forward to confront specific sexual, religious and political issues…coaxing a little bit of liberalization here and there.

Nobody ever considered Madonna a great singer, herself included: she admits it in the ‘Truth Or Dare’ documentary, and a few years later, before filming ‘Evita’, she began taking singing lessons in an attempt at self-improvement. In her earliest recordings she was squeaky and uncontrolled. But there’s something else there that I feel is rarely, if ever, acknowledged: there’s a spirit in those performances, an unbridled, uncontrolled passion that made it clear to all of us that she was really throwing herself into it. And because she believed so strongly in what she was singing, many of us bought it too.

Witness the moments of full throttle rasp on this series of clips from her pre-singing-lesson days: ‘Holiday’ (from her self-titled debut album), ‘Into The Groove’ (from the ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ soundtrack), ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Where’s The Party’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘Express Yourself’ (from ‘Like A Prayer’) , ‘Vogue’ and ‘Rescue Me’ (both from ‘The Immaculate Collection’).  On the last three, support from her new mainstay background singers Donna DeLory and Niki Haris drove her to push even harder.

In those days, she also did something vocally that gave the impression she was on the verge of tears as she sang. On certain lines in ‘Stay’ (from ‘Like A Virgin’), ‘Open Your Heart’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘The Look Of Love’ (from the ‘Who’s That Girl’ soundtrack), ‘Dear Jessie’ and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (both from ‘Like A Prayer’) she articulates a depth of emotion by lowering her tone to a throaty yawn.  (The most obvious example is the line ‘your love parade’ toward the end of the clip of ‘Dear Jessie’.)

According to vocal teachers this yawny tone is the result of a singer lowering or ‘depressing’ their larynx, and it’s not considered good vocal technique. However it’s emotionally effective: we hear her veering toward tears and we veer emotionally with her. I doubt this was pre-meditated on her part; she was probably just using what she had available to her, naturally, to make us feel something. To me, this is what music is about…when something works emotionally, technique is quickly made irrelevant.

After training for ‘Evita’ she immediately became self-conscious of her delivery. On ‘You’ll See’ (from ‘Something To Remember’) she’s lost all of her spontaneous passion…and we’ve lost the Madonna that threw herself into things so fully.  On ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Power Of Goodbye’ (from ‘Ray Of Light’) she’s found a more suitable direction, material-wise, for her opera-esque vocal approach…but it was not until many years later on ‘Hung Up’ that she reconnected that improved vocal technique with her passion and urgency.

Self-consciousness has also been her enemy when it comes to lyric-writing. At a certain point, perhaps after the personal, confessional writing on the ‘Like A Prayer’ album received critical praise, Madonna decided she could go deeper lyrically…sometimes to good effect, but more often not. ‘Erotica’ contains a mess of a ballad called ‘In This Life,’ a song dedicated to AIDS victims. While her intentions may have been good, this is the definition of poor writing: going nowhere melodically, and lyrically hitting us over the head with overwrought emotion and clichés.

On ‘Bedtime Stories,’ her foray into R&B, she succeeds in growing, lyrically, on ‘Secret’ and ‘Survival,’ discovering clever ways to deliver heavy-handed philosophical messages indirectly. On the former she delivers the universal truth of ‘learning to love yourself’ in an egoless fashion by presenting it as a secret someone else possessed (and she didn’t); and on the latter she confesses, with humility, that just like everybody else her life is about survival.  After gaining our trust by speaking to us as equals, we can receive her ‘no risk, no glory’ philosophy without feeling that we’re being preached to.

Madonna had also contacted Bjork, asking her to write a song for this album. Bjork culled ideas from a track rejected from her own ‘Post’ album (‘Sweet Intuition’ a/k/a ‘Sweet Sweet Intuition’), remodeling it as ‘Bedtime Story’ for Madonna. Knowing this, one can only postulate that Madonna admired Bjork’s esoteric lyrical sensibility, and, feeling co-opted, Bjork’s response was to work the system by giving her a recycled b-side that then became a lucrative writing venture…after all it became a Madonna single.

Madonna’s writing style on ‘Ray Of Light’ seemed to be an attempt at that off-center Bjork-esque weirdness she admired. Many of the sincerely introspective songs succeeded, but songs like ‘Skin’ rang with an obvious attempt at obliqueness: it’s not believable when Madonna pushes herself to be anywhere near as eccentric as Bjork is. On songs like ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ she takes it upon herself to dispense lofty advice to us from a prophet. Later in the track she tempers her preachiness, bringing herself back down to our level by listing what her life choices have been, for better or for worse.

Much of ‘American Life’, and parts of the albums on either side of it, presented a Madonna that had come to believe she had important philosophies to teach the world. This was likely an intersection of Kabbalah evangelism and her self-awarded position of ‘experienced elder who had been through the fame machine and come out the other side’.  She is equally obnoxious critiquing her country of birth from her adopted home in the UK (on the title track) as she is chastising herself aimlessly on ‘I’m So Stupid,’ a song that seems as though it was written off the top of her head. On ‘Let It Will Be’ (from ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’), she can’t resist interrupting a great return-to-form album with more advice from the other side of fame. This Madonna wasn’t received as readily, partly because her promotion to teacher was not entirely believable, and partly because it’s not easy to stomach famous people lecturing on the woes of fame.

‘Nothing Fails,’ (from ‘American Life) works when she confesses personal feelings of love. It falls apart in the next verse when she speaks to us from her high horse again, proclaiming her own wisdom with ‘you could take all this, take it away, and I’d still have it all cause I’ve climbed the tree of life and that is why I’m no longer scared if I fall’.

What Madonna fails to realize is that she makes music that connects and transcends…but only when she zens out: only when she doesn’t overthink her singing or pressure herself to be deep, oblique or wise. I’m glad this new compilation is themed as it is, because her celebratory songs like ‘Holiday’ have served a more profound purpose than some of her spiritual musings.  Her delivery of the melody in ‘Holiday’ has a tinge of melancholic depth to it and the groove has lifted many a spirit over the quarter century since it first appeared.  ‘Express Yourself’ was a passionately belted call to action that was equally feminist, fun and sexy. The ‘Ray Of Light’ album caught her at a moment of reflective experimentation before she fully decided to crown herself armchair philosopher with a really loud microphone. The meandering path she’s been on since then, only broken briefly by the core of ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor,’ has proven that even after plying us for years with sugar and honey in the form of fun dance anthems, the world doesn’t need every artist to enter a ‘deep experimental’ phase the way the Beatles, Radiohead, Bjork or Joni Mitchell have: Madonna’s rousing anthems and unselfconscious, sincere moments have been profoundly useful enough to earn her a place in many of our lives.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

The Polaris Music Prize

Have you noticed in recent years that Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have performed on every major American awards show? As much as I respect Ms. Keys (and am not particularly offended by Beyoncé) the only way I can explain their awards-show ubiquity over, say, The Roots, is that they’ve made it into The Club…an elite club of ‘artists chosen to be promoted by the majors’.

Widely accepted as the institutions that bestow the highest honours in music, England has the Brit Awards, America has the Grammys and Canada has the Junos. As viewers we watch thinking that we’re seeing musicianship rewarded…yet it always feels curiously like we’re seeing advertisements for pop albums we are expected to buy.

But last week I attended a refreshing and inspirational night here in Toronto: the Polaris Music Prize gala. There’s been an alternate reality taking shape in the world of music awards: since 1992 the UK has had the Mercury Prize, since 2001 the USA has had the Shortlist Music Prize and since 2006 here in Canada we’ve had Polaris.

Awards

Anarchy in the UK, the USA...and Canada.

All three Prizes are similar: the award goes to the band responsible for the best album released that year. Not the album that sold the most copies, but the best album…determined via large numbers of music critics submitting lists and/or voting. For the American Short List prize, nominees’ albums must not have reached Gold sales status (500,000 copies).

The Polaris winner gets a $20,000 cash prize, often used by the band to fund their next endeavor. This year’s ‘long list’ of 40 nominees included veteran folkster Leonard Cohen and newly-indie rapper K-Os.  The narrowed shortlist of 10 bands performed live at the gala, simulcast on MuchMusic and CBC radio. CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was one of ten Canadian luminaries that each introduced a nominee, waxing personal about how the album affected them.

At one point a food-fight broke out between the tables of the obvious forerunners: celebrated new wave band Metric, Somalian-born rapper K’Naan and esoteric rock band Patrick Watson–who won the audience over by performing as a marching band weaving through the audience, wearing backpacks that sprouted bouquets of lights over their heads, the singer manipulating his vocal with effect pedals hanging from his neck, the rest of them handing out cookie sheets and wooden spoons for the audience to bang together as a room-wide rhythm section.

Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! stunned the audience with a performance that came in like a lamb and out like a lion, featuring a huge ensemble of supporting musicians crafting a painstaking climax around singer Tim Baker’s unmistakeable voice. The surprise of the evening came at the end, however, when hardcore punk band Fucked Up took the stage as the final performers and then walked away with the prize. Indeed, we’re looking at an unbiased jury process here!

I was shocked at the sheer amount of talent laid out before us that night.  I was exceedingly proud to be doing music in Canada, which the world has begun to recognize is a disproportionate exporter of great music. Ask me if I cared about the Grammys after that…?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

I’m Only Inhuman: Vocal Trickery Through The Ages

Not content to replace pianos with synthesizers and drum kits with drum machines, producers have spent the last few decades pushing against that final frontier: the mechanization of the human voice.  How have we dehumanized ourselves?  Let me count the ways.

Vocoder1

Classic 70s Korg Vocoder

1. The Vocoder

In the mid-70s ‘robot voice’ tracks began turning up in earnest. Kraftwerk was at the forefront with the Vocoder (not the Vocorder, as it is so often mispronounced, but the Vocoder: it is a ‘coder’ of ‘vocals’).  For many years the Korg Vocoder was the standard unit, but all vocoders work on the same principle: you sing into a mic and the electric signal created by your voice shapes the sound coming out of the synthesizer.

One of the first commercial hits with a female robot vocal upfront was ‘Funkytown’ by Lipps Inc., in 1980.  In 1983 Styx gave us ‘Mr. Roboto’.

Orange Vocoder Software Plugin

Orange Vocoder Software Plugin

In recent years software plugins like the Orange Vocoder have appeared, eliminating the need for another physical keyboard taking up space in the studio. The sound is a little less cutting–as the raw, aggressive squelch of old analog vocoders are still somewhat outside the realm of the computer–but tracks like 2002’s ‘Remind Me’ by Röyksopp have carved out a different niche for the software vocoder’s silkier sound. Korg’s MicroKorg keyboard and Ensoniq’s rackmount DP-4 have kept hardware vocoders alive.

2. The Talkbox

Stevie Wonder began using a talkbox in the early 70s, but after Parliament-Funkadelic alumnus Roger Troutman mastered the physically challenging device and formed funk band Zapp, radio got a steady stream of funk/R&B hits through the first half of the 80s.

A Talkbox

A Heil Talkbox With Hose

A talkbox setup is in many ways the reverse of a vocoder. A synthesizer–typically a Yamaha DX100–set to produce a very strong, pure tone is plugged into the talkbox. A speaker driver inside the talkbox pumps the focussed sound out through a hose which is inserted into the corner of a singer’s mouth. As the singer forms words, their mouth physically shapes the sound from the synthesizer.  This happens in front of a mic, which picks up the shaped synth sound coming out of the player’s mouth.

Roger Troutman’s command of the instrument shines on ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’.

For a visual demonstration, check out the great Stevie Wonder covering ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’.

Akai S1000 Sampler

Akai S1000 Sampler

3. Retriggering

Evolving through the 80s, samplers like the Synclavier, Fairlight and Ensoniq Mirage were initially intended to realistically recreate acoustic instruments. The Emulator seemed to encourage more creative sampling however, and the Emu SP1200 was the sample-based drum machine that spawned the dopest hip hop beats. But by the late 80s the Akai S1000 was the rackmount sampler of choice, and the fact that you could expand the memory to load entire vocal tracks into it made retriggered vocal riffs the next logical step in house music.

In 1989 Black Box sampled parts of Loleatta Holloway’s vocal on 1980 disco hit ‘Love Sensation,’ placing it over new piano chords and a housebeat.  The rhythmic retriggering of her impassioned vocal–the computerized sonic repetition of those growling phrases of sound–brought a clean, futuristic sensibility to dance music, an effect akin to referencing ‘Love Sensation’ in quotations.  However at first those quotations were used without the appropriate footnotes…so court cases followed.

4. Stuttering

Through the early 90s house producer MK (Marc Kinchen) ran with vocal sampling, taking the retriggering concept to extremes.

Four examples of his work follow. On his remix of the B-52s’ ‘Tell It Like It T-I-Is’ he experimented with stuttering the last syllable of individual lines. This became a common technique borrowed by many producers, so MK forged further, finding a more individualistic practice: he began pulling single syllables from various places in the vocal track, reordering them to create hooky melodies (with nonsensical words). His 1993 remix of the Nightcrawlers’ ‘Push The Feeling On’ made massive waves, superseding the original version of the song without using a single intact vocal line. In demand as a remixer, he created hooky vocal stutters for the Pet Shop Boys on his remix of ‘Can You Forgive Her’ and for Blondie on his updated remix of ‘Heart Of Glass’, dropping the full vocal in between stuttered sections…and reportedly turning out one remix per week at $15-20K.

The Amazing Slower Downer

The Amazing Slow Downer

5. Timestretching

In the mid-90s Armand Van Helden took the baton, building a brand in part on the innovation of cheeky vocal processing techniques. ‘Timestretching’ audio using software plugins is a commonplace practice now, to make beats match in tempo or to conform an acapella to the desired speed of a remix. At the time, Armand Van Helden pushed the relatively new technology to the limit, placing ridiculously elongated vocal lines in the climaxes and dropouts of his tracks as dancefloor payoffs.

A few examples of this new intersection of the machine and the biological: he stretches the line ‘Sugar Daddy’ as a re-entry to the beat in his remix of CJ Bolland’s ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’; he stretches the hook vocal to prepare us for a drop out of the beat in his own track ‘The Ultrafunkula’ (the same track also exists as ‘The Funk Phenomena’); and finally during a dropout in his remix of Janet Jackson’s ‘Got Til It’s Gone’ he obsessively retriggers the sample of Joni Mitchell singing ‘don’t it always seem to go…’ (from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’), building to an unidentifiable, impossibly timestretched spoken line before dropping the beat.

All samplers and audio production software have a timestretch function, but it sounds like he used an early version of the ‘Amazing Slow Downer’ Mac program. Either that, or the application was conceived later specifically to achieve that Armand Van Helden sound.

Antares Autotune Plug-In

Antares Autotune Plug-In

6. Auto-Tune

In 1997 a company named Antares marketed a rackmount box that could automatically correct a singer’s pitch in real-time. Shortly afterward, they released a software plug-in that did the same thing but also allowed graphical re-drawing of the pitch of individual notes in a recording.

Strangely perfect-sounding vocals began to appear on pop, country and R&B recordings, like the silky layers of Brandy’s voice on ‘Almost Doesn’t Count’ and ‘Angel In Disguise’ from her 1998 album ‘Never Say Never’:

Applied subtley the processing isn’t obvious, but the singer’s voice does take on an otherworldly pitch-perfection that we’ve all now come to expect. Singers, producers and engineers now assume that one of the phases of recording will be tuning the vocals.

7. Abused Auto-Tune

Put auto-tune into overdrive and you get what became known as the ‘Cher Effect’.  In an interview in Sound-On-Sound producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling attributed the ear-twisting effect they applied to Cher’s vocals on 1998’s ‘Believe’ to a complicated vocoder setup. But what was obvious to most producers was exposed soon afterward: this was an auto-tune plug-in set to ruthlessly round the note up or down, causing lightning fast, perfect-pitch trills in the vocal. Madonna producer Mirwais took things a step further on tracks like ‘Impressive Instant’, redrawing the pitches of notes to create impossible, unexpected jumps in the melody.

Melodyne: The New Auto-Tune

Melodyne: The New Auto-Tune

8. Melodyne

In recent years hip hop hook singers like T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Akon and Kanye West have recorded exclusively with an effect universally referred to as auto-tune. I’m convinced however that these guys are mostly using a newer program called Melodyne. It works in a similar fashion but allows much more precise editing of multiple layers of vocals, as well as control over an additional attribute of the performance: the tonal quality of a singer’s voice–from munchkin to giant– independent of the pitch.

Kanye West’s vocal on ‘Heartless’ and T-Pain’s vocal on ‘Chopped And Screwed’ (a song whose subject incorporates reverence to vocal trickery) demonstrate the metallic sound of multiple takes of the lead vocal processed through Melodyne. On 2009 single ‘D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)’ rapper Jay-Z started a backlash against the generic use of tuning as a crutch for singers.

Celemony, the makers of Melodyne, will soon be releasing a new version that will be able to isolate and manipulate the pitch of each note within chords on recordings (as opposed to individual notes).  It’s anybody’s guess where this will take producers next in the field of vocal cybernetics.

Digitech Vocalist

Digitech Vocalist

9. Digitech Vocalist

For some reason Digitech is not one of the major go-to companies when it comes to effects boxes, but they’ve always pushed the envelope of digital processing. Imogen Heap’s 2005 hit offering ‘Hide And Seek’ was entirely acapella-and-effects, bringing a fresh ear-bending sound that could have been a traditional vocoder but for the oddly futuristic slides between notes. The lush, fanned out harmonies were created from single vocal tracks by the Digitech Vocalist box, which is able to digitally extrapolate live harmonies on the spot based on chords played on guitar or keyboard.

Look for additions to this article as new vocal processing technologies are used and abused by producers.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

Before The Music Dies

Hot documentary alert: I just saw a 2006 film discussing the changes in the structure of the music business that have led us to where we are now.

Before The Music Dies

Before The Music Dies

Erykah Badu, Bonnie Raitt, ?uestlove, Eric Clapton and Branford Marsalis chime in, describing the frightening effects of changes to radio station ownership laws, the practice of song testing and the merging of hundreds of record labels into four majors. The film’s directors, Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, demonstrate how a songwriter, producer and video director can manufacture a pop artist out of a young female model with virtually no musical talent.

Definitely worth watching, though the filmmakers seem to have a strong bias in favour of retro blues-based music.

Watch the trailer here. Download the film here. Thanks to Steve and Chris for passing it along.

, , , ,

No Comments

People In Your Neighbourhood

Boy George: Your Tranny Brother

Boy George: Your Tranny Brother

At the height of Culture Club’s success I remember people complaining that Boy George should have been able to make it solely on musical talent, without needing to resort to gimmickry…ie dressing in cosmopolitan drag. He was a talented writer and singer, but–consciously or unconsciously–he realized that audiences are not attracted to artists purely on the merit of their musical output.

We know this is true because there are endless examples of uniquely talented musicians that never garner a substantial following. That’s because what actually attracts us, as listeners, I believe, is an artist’s identity.

It’s true that this identity is built in part around the style and content of the songs, including the lyrics and the overall tone/sentiment. But for a star to be born, it’s critical that the music align properly with a host of other attributes, including the voice they were born with and the way they choose to use it; the physicality they were born with and how they choose to dress it up; how they move; and how they interview. The persona constructed with these tools needs to be instantly recognizable and compelling. (I won’t go so far as to say ‘appealing’, because there are plenty of celebrities that we love to hate.)

Speaking recently of the Supremes, Diana Ross wasn’t the lead singer of the group because she had the best voice in a technical sense. But her effervescent look and pastel-sounding voice combined to make her a compelling figure: she had instant identity.

Whether it’s the first few lines of a song, or a photo in a magazine spread, the audience needs to get a sense of the artist’s identity similar to the impressions we form of the people in our neighbourhoods we see around but haven’t had personal conversations with yet.

Here are some artists with identities so clear and compelling, whether we like them or not we all feel as though we know them from around.

50 Cent: The Thug That Wants A Hug

50 Cent: The Thug That Wants A Hug

Bjork: That Girl Down The Street That Was Rushed To The Hospital After Swallowing Marbles

Bjork: That Girl Down The Street That Was Rushed To The Hospital After Swallowing Marbles

Tina Turner: That Survivor Aunt Of Yours

Tina Turner: That Survivor Aunt Of Yours

Stevie Nicks: Your Friend's Gypsy Mother

Stevie Nicks: Your Friend's Gypsy Mother

Bruce Springsteen: The Guy Who Works Down At The Factory

Bruce Springsteen: That Guy Who Works Down At The Factory

Prince: Harlequin-Gigolo In A Fairy Tale You Once Read

Prince: Harlequin-Gigolo In A Fairy Tale You Once Read

David Bowie: The Alien In The Book You Read In 6th Grade

David Bowie: The Alien In The Book You Read In 6th Grade

Pink: That White Trash Neighbour With The Pit Bull

Pink: That White Trash Neighbour With The Pit Bull

Madonna: That Brazen Girl In High School That Was Always Saying Trashy Things For Shock Value

Madonna: That Brazen Girl In High School That Was Always Saying Trashy Things For Shock Value

All musicians are driven to make music. Those that are also driven to author every aspect of their public persona–from clothing to video treatments–end up having a lot less time to sleep but they have an edge over the rest, both in terms of career control and potential for success. That’s because most of us lack the ability to stand back and get a clear perspective on who we are, pinpoint what’s compelling about ourselves and amplify it.

Those who can’t must rely on industry executives’ abilities to look inside them and tailor the right persona…a rare feat in itself. If they get it wrong, the project will fail either because the identity won’t be compelling, or the artist won’t be able to carry an ill-fitting persona for very long before the audience sees through it.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

The Cold-Warm Effect

After the sound of monophonic synthesizers, played by hand one note at a time, became commonplace on progressive rock recordings in the early 70s…

After people got used to hearing tapestries of synths triggered like clockwork by unfeeling sequencers and arpeggiators in the experiments of Kraftwerk through the mid 70s…

And after producer Giorgio Moroder pulled late-70s disco into the future by placing Donna Summer’s operetics over a pulsing synthetic backdrop on ‘I Feel Love’…

Yaz a/k/a Yazoo

Yaz a/k/a Yazoo

…Alison Moyet belted ‘Goodbye 70s’ over Vince Clark’s minimal synth and drum machine programming on Yaz’s 1981 debut album ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’.

Clark, the keyboard player and chief songwriter for a fledgling Depeche Mode, left the band after their debut album and formed Yaz (known in the UK as Yazoo). Clark’s working relationship with Moyet also imploded early on, leaving just two beautifully crafted Yaz albums. The detached lyrical attitude was new wave and the melodies were pure pop, but the juxtaposition of the warm human soul in Moyet’s ferociously large voice over top of Clark’s frigid production was a new level of what I call ‘cold-warm’ production.

‘Midnight’ is a great example of this style. After a naturally-paced acapella intro, the synth sequence begins without drama or fanfare. Emotionless and ruthlessly precise, it’s there solely to do the job of defining a framework of chords and rhythm under her voice. Her delivery is suddenly recontextualized: because the backdrop is icy cold, the heat of human breath against it is that much more apparent.

After Yaz, Moyet began a successful solo career and Clark formed Erasure with Andy Bell–whose vocal tone, it has been noted, is curiously similar to Moyet’s.

Annie Lennox: Cold Steel, Cold Tile, Warm Voice

Annie Lennox in the ‘Love Is A Stranger’ Video: Cold Steel, Cold Tile, Warm Voice

Enter Eurythmics. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox had been making music together for some time, first in rock band The Tourists and then as Eurythmics, releasing their experimental but mostly organic (ie non-electronic) debut album ‘In The Garden’ in 1981.

But then they clued in on where Yaz, and other UK synth-based bands like The Human League and Heaven 17 were going and jumped in on their seminal ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ album in 1983.

The liner notes on the 2005 reissues of the Eurythmics’ catalog discussed which drum machines and synths had been used, and also revealed that organic sounds–like drumming on glass bottles–were routinely weaved in. However, these were treated with effects so as to be camouflaged as part of the cold electronics. A manifesto of the pair’s directives was written on the wall of their studio, including the phrases ‘Tamla Motown,’ ‘Electronica’ and ‘Coldness’.  So there it is: soul on ice.

On their best work–the fully electronic ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘Touch’ and ‘Savage’ albums–Lennox’s soulful voice is generally the solitary human element sitting on top of the coldness.  She even sonically evokes the visual of her warm breath meeting wintery cold in her trademark practice of peppering vocal performances with gutteral stabs of exhalation. Very occasionally another warm melodic element is chosen to create that same contrast against the pings and bleeps: the long trumpet solo on ‘The Walk’ and the violin lines of the British Philharmonic Orchestra on ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’.

‘Love Is A Stranger’ is a 3-minute pop song with a perfect balance of soul and circuitry.

Lennox pushed her experimentation with coldness further by developing a suitably cold image. Often labeled androgynous, I believe her main character, sporting an orange crew-cut, would be more accurately described as inhabiting a deadened sexuality. After having established that baseline, she was then in a position to play with the  hypermasculine (dressing up as Elvis in the video for ‘Who’s That Girl’) or the hyperfeminine (her female character in the same video, or the split-personality cougar depicted on the ‘Savage’ concept album) as a way to critique, humorously, the traditionally accepted extremes of gender.

She also brought a detached, frigid air to many of her lyrics.  On ‘Regrets’ she plays a bloodless character listing the chilling powers available to her: “I’ve got a dangerous nature, and my fist collides with your furniture…I’ve got a razor blade smile…fifteen senses are on my palette…I’m an electric wire and I’m stuck inside your head.” After establishing a consistent lack of emotion, lyrically, the slightest hint of tenderness in her lyrics would be magnified tenfold.

Grace Jones a/k/a Terrifying

Grace Jones a/k/a Terrifying

It must be said–because it’s not mentioned very often–that much of the groundwork for Lennox’ success was laid by Grace Jones. In fact Jones’ vocal licks and delivery, her ruthless lyrical style and her arty experimentation with androgyny right down to the signature crew cut were clearly recycled by Lennox in the early years of Eurythmics. What Jones lacked was commercial hooks in the songs, and what was special about the Eurythmics was the starkness of the electronic backdrop that Dave Stewart provided, which in my view couldn’t have more perfectly showcased the warmth of the human voice.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

Pan & Throw

This blows my mind every time I listen to it:

What you’re listening for is a 16-bar section toward the end of ‘Luv Dancin’ by Underground Solution…circa 1991.  Classic house music on the legendary Strictly Rhythm label. The main hook of the track is a female vocal sample from Loose Joints’ disco classic ‘Is It All Over My Face’. There is a version with a full female vocal as well. But there’s a male vocal snippet from the Better Days Remix of Carl Bean’s ‘I Was Born This Way’ weaved into the tapestry and in this part of the extended version the producer decides to riff on that sample for a minute before winding down and man it gets me every time.

It’s partly the sample itself. It’s got that gospel depth to it…he’s feeling that shit…and the way he ends his phrase, trailing down, to a gritty release…there’s tragedy there.

But there are also choices that the producer and/or mix engineer made: the sample pans left and right, sometimes it’s ‘dry’ (no effects), sometimes there’s a delay throw (certain syllables echo) and sometimes there’s a reverb throw (a big roomy sound on it). The patterns entrance me. So simple, yet so complex. So inspired, so not systematic. I could loop those 16 bars all day.

luvdancinremixes

No Comments

Like A Needle In A ‘Reckerd’ Groove

Further to the idea of micromanaging each syllable a singer utters, I want to point out that the natural way we pronounce words when we speak isn’t always the best way to pronounce them when we sing.

Why did Mick Jagger, and the great majority of all British rock’n’rollers from the get go, lose their limey accents and sound convincingly American when they opened their mouths to sing?  It’s so common that a lot of us think it’s impossible to sing any other way.  And yet Lily Allen retains every bit of her Britishness on record.  It’s a choice.

And if a singer doesn’t make cool and pleasant choices–naturally or through trial and error–sometimes a producer helps them along.

In 2000 a young female R&B singer was signed to an American major label cutting her first album and a friend of mine was producing. One of the phrases in the chorus was ‘like a needle in a record groove’. In the girl’s natural speaking voice, she pronounced the word ‘recorrd’. Her sung pronunciation was more like the cooler and often-used ‘rekkid.’ But the producer asked her to sing ‘reckerd,’ because in the context of the song it the coolest choice: more retro, and therefore more current.

Don’t kid yourself…choices like this are made at the microphone every day. Whether the result is an honest representation of who the artist actually is, or more a persona the producer is designing, the identity of the artist on the final recording has to be likable! If the vocalist doesn’t make good choices naturally upon opening their mouth, the producer is left with no other choice but to instigate experimentation of this kind.

No Comments