Monday, March 06, 2006

Just a (Musical) Diversion

As I've probably mentioned in a prior post or two, aside from being a political loudmouth, I'm also a singer. Had I the ambition or appetite for a professional career, it would have been a possibility. However, I hate crowds, loathe the process of travel, and treasure my privacy, so talent notwithstanding, doing it for a living just didn't end up being in the cards.

Point is, this makes me an insufferable music critic, especially in regard to singers. Knowing how tough it can be to execute a good performance, I become incensed over sloppiness and lazy, derivative work. And don't even get me started on the (admittedly cliched) rant about how video killed the radio star...

Anyway, I suffer from just enough hubris to feel compelled to point out some good stuff you may not be aware of:

First, there's the "AcappelaU" podcast. Having spent my entire scholastic life in choirs, many of them a capella, I can attest to how challenging it can be to pull off well. If you're not familiar with this kind of performing, it's exclusively vocal, including the percussion. Simply put, it's a hell of a lot harder than you'd think it is, and anyone that can manage it is worth admiring. This particular show focuses on collegiate a cappella groups and shouldn't be missed if the genre does anything for you. (I'm still catching up on the posted files, but Episode 8 includes some particularly great tracks.)

Now, on to singers of note, but I must preface with a caveat.

I'm generally bored by acrobatic voices. I mean, sure, when Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey first came on the scene they were impressive, since outside of gospel, their kind of style wasn't all that common. Ever since, however, we've seen carbon copy after carbon copy of these vocal gymnastics and frankly, enough already. Think of it this way. Remember when triples were the new big thing in Olympic figure skating? Most attempts resulted in spectacular falls, and when someone nailed such a jump, it really blew you away? Well now, they're standard issue. You can't even get out of regionals if you can't pull a triple, much less get to the Olympics. Once impressive, now ordinary.

I'm sure you can think of other analogies, but I trust you take my point. Showy tricks are cool and all, but sooner or later, everyone learns how to do it and what was once special is now commonplace. This means that we eventually all come back to talent that is pure, unforced, natural. There's a certain quality in some voices that I can't describe well, but I can point out to you not only for sake of example, but because their work deserves every bit of attention it gets.

Jonatha Brooke:
Probably one of the most under-rated and under-exposed artists of the last decade. Not only is her writing complex and compelling, but her vocals are sweet, expressive and silky. Her tone reminds me a bit of Sarah McLachlan, but her songs are edgier and more textured. She uses a lot of alternate tunings on her guitar and is an excellent rhythm player as well. I recommend her "Live" CD and "10 Cent Wings". You'll hear, on the "Live" recordings, nothing short of perfection in terms of performance, and some more really great writing on "Wings". If you like acoustic guitar-centric tunes and graceful alto voices, you need to track this woman down.

Happy Rhodes:
Happy is one of those obscure club singers that enjoys a passionate, but small following. I've never heard her on the radio, I've never seen ads for gigs, but what I gather from her web page she stays mostly on the east coast. Hell, I think she even has a day job. Simply put, she is PHENOMENAL. Mariah Carey's four-octave range gets a good deal of press, but if you've noticed, she really only flirts with that so-high-only-dogs-can-hear end as a matter of flourish, not substance. Not Ms. Rhodes. Not only can she manage 4 (if not 5) octaves, but she's as comfortable in one as any other, and each one is exquisite.

I first discovered her when I saw a P2P song listing ("When the Rain Came Down") that was allegedly a duet between Annie Lennox and Kate Bush. Thinking I'd missed something pretty rare and amazing, I happily downloaded it. Not long into it, however, I realized that neither woman was on this recording and I went about hunting for the actual two artists who produced this impressive track. Turns out it wasn't two women at all, but one. Happy's tenor/alto range is richer than Annie's ever was (and I love her, by the way) and her soprano range rivals Kate's for its effortlessness. Now, her music can very fairly be described as avant garde, not for the instrumental arrangements, but for the melodies, chord structure and lyrics. It's not meat & potatoes music; it's more like filet mignon -- really spectacular, and best when savored on irregular occasions. Then again, I'm a hippie at heart, so my frequency preference is likely driven by my weakness for "wooden music". At any rate, if you want to hear a REAL singer, don't miss Happy. She'll blow your mind.

Eva Cassidy:
I wrote about her once before, but if you missed it, you can catch up here. Your collection is simply not complete without her work, and you'll miss one of the most captivating voices you'll ever hear.

Jessica Andrews:
I wouldn't say I'm a fan of country music, necessarily, but my love for acoustic music means that there are some country artists that get my attention when I'm in the mood. I stumbled across this magnificent creature one day while idly scanning through the channels while stuck in traffic. I haven't listened to country radio in a while, but at the time, her song "Who I Am" was in heavy rotation. Not only is it a great song and a lovely homage to family, what's truly impressive are this girl's pipes. And I do mean girl. I don't know if she was even 20 when her first single came out, but even then, she had a maturity and expertise that most women twice her age never even get close to. Reading up on her history, her producer was quoted at length about her ability to walk into the studio and lay down absolutely flawless tracks in a single take; a feat normally accomplished only by seasoned pros and rarely by anyone of such a tender age. Even if country isn't your bag, it's worth hunting down some of her music just to hear what a completely natural talent sounds like. There's not a single forced note, at no point does it ever sound like she's working hard, but what comes out of her mouth is amazing. Simply amazing.

Ok, that about does it for now. Get to downloading and I'll be back soon with our regularly-scheduled political smart-assery.



Bill Ziemer said...

I have that "When the Rain Came Down" track also, and was puzzled who it really was. Thanks for the research! That it is one woman is amazing, I never would have guessed.
My own favorites:
Aimee Mann -- Something about her voice captivates my attention like few others.
Woman who sings in Zero 7 -- I love her tone and play with word pronunciations.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

You're welome. Happy Happy, as it were.

Aimee's never struck me as an impressive singer, but I appreciate her appeal. A real "this is it, take it or leave it" kind of performance that I like for its total lack of pretension.

Zero 7? Uh oh. Time to admit I'm hopelessly out of touch with contemporary music again?