Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's in a Voice? A light pondering of timbre and its inequities.

Humans are programmed to be prejudiced in a few shallow, sensory ways that most folks never take the time to think on and undo. Mike Nesmith, on one of those end-of-episode candid interviews on The Monkees television show, said something to the effect of, "people should teach themselves to dig things that are ugly because it takes no special talent to dig beautiful things". That's some sound wisdom. (Watch the first 2 minutes of this clip to see what he said. Ok, watch all of it, but come back here.)

It's well known that tall people command more immediate respect; and that someone with a deep, commanding voice will be taken more seriously than someone like, say, Harry Reid, with his Winnie the Pooh delivery, no matter how good their ideas. These prejudices are ingrained in us, and take some conscious evolving and introspection to get over (said the 5'7 writer begging to be noticed).
But anyway...timbre.
Or, more specifically, male pop vocalist timbre, and who is most effective at singing what, and why it's unfair how some get pigeonholed when really, no one can help what they sound like (unless they wanna pull a Dylan circa Nashville Skyline and willfully change their voice to get away from their image). Another point to consider is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Example: Ray Davies' and Bob Dylan's nasal, untrained voices circa 1965-66, were perfect for the biting social commentary/satire in their lyrics of the time. Do we think that because it's what we know? Or is it truly better to hear sharp words from a non-singer than from a trained crooner? is this why David Bowie's mid 60's Kinks-esque stuff didn't make him a star, but once he found the cosmic subject matter that went better with his voice, his stardom was sealed?

Some fodder:

Lennon vs McCartney:
This pretty much sums up the basis of this thesis. There is the conventional, and very inaccurate, opinion that "Lennon is sincere, smart, witty.." and "McCartney is glib, insincere, all craft, song-and-dance and no emotion". Why? Timbre! Lennon was blessed with one of the coolest, if not the coolest singing voices in pop history. He could roar and yowl, make you feel his pain and send shivers down your spine ("Yer Blues", "Anna", Don't Let Me Down", "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"; he could command your full attention and control your emotions when in a thoughtful mood ("I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away", "Norwegian Wood", "Julia"); and he could spike your drink with whatever he was taking that week ("Strawberry Fields", "I Am the Walrus", "Tomorrow Never Knows"). Listen to "Dear Prudence" and you just feel blessed afterward. You feel Lennon's presence.
On the other hand, Paul McCartney, when yowling ("I'm Down", "Helter Skelter", "Oh Darling") can sometimes make one cringe with discomfort. When singing a cute song ("When I'm 64", "Maxwell's Silver Hammer") Paul seems very at ease, which lends credence to the prejudice. Lastly, when singing a serious and emotional song ("For No One", "Elenore Rigby", "She's Leaving Home"), Paul seems distant and cold--he's reporting, not baring his soul.
So let's pretend Paul sang "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite". It'd be just another annoying, cute Paul song about the circus. But John's timbre makes it seem like a rather scary circus, even if he didn't want it to be. If John sang the beautiful "Mother Nature's Son", it'd be seen much more as a deep philosophical meditation than a pretty singalong. It's the Lennon/McCartney double standard that still seems to haunt Paul.

So there's our foundation. Thankfully, the "Paul sucks/John's cool" prejudice has faded with time, even if Paul continues to try and revise history by questioning who wrote what etc. They both were amazing. And Paul, any bass player or serious songwriter would agree, is one of the most musically gifted humans to ever walk
the planet. Plus, he's recently had a very impressive run of records going back to the mid-late 90's. His best stuff since the mid 70's. I recommend checking them out.

Lets look at other examples:

Gram Parsons vs Michael Nesmith.
Why is it hipper to like Parsons, and to acknowledge him as "pioneer of country rock" than Nesmith? Nesmith was strong-arming his country rock tunes onto Monkees albums before Parsons had released anything. One could say it's "because the Monkees aren't cool", but I say it's the voice that has a lot to do with it. Parsons could sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and you'd feel like crying in your beer. There's that warmth, that emotion, that looking you in the eye with a lifetime of pain. He's down and out (er, with a Harvard background..) and nothing's going to change--so you may as well buy him a drink.
Conversely, Nesmith's delivery is soothing and pleasant, but in a cold way. The way Dunkin Donuts is pleasant. He's not going to make you cry, he doesn't want to make you cry. He's not looking you in the eye when he's telling his story. You don't fear that he's going to hurt himself if you don't listen. You know that he'll be OK. He surely means what he's singing--but there's an emotional wall between him and the listener, even when he's singing about a devastating separation (and much of his 72-73 stuff seems to be about the end of his first marriage). He usually gives a moral at the end indicating that things will be ok. "Roll with the flow", "Keep on keepin' on", "You're alone and you sigh, and you try not to cry, but if it's coming, just let it come..don't let fear hold back the tears", "The Upside of Goodbye". Lots of silver linings.
I can tell you that "And The Hits Just Keep On Coming" is THE album to listen to for those who are going through an unpleasant break up but don't want to let it ruin their life; if one really just wants the unpleasantness to give way to a rebirth as opposed to a permanent scar. It worked for me. A bit of Blood on the Tracks, a bit of And the Hits Just Keep On Coming, and I knew I'd be alright in no time.

So..seeing as Nesmith is still with us and Parsons is long gone, is the voice also the mirror to the soul? I've often cursed the slight trace of glib laughter in my own singing voice, even when I'm singing something serious. Is it that I'm afraid of baring it all, or is it just the voice I was born with? I think I have that Jewish American pop voice that dares not let you in for a tour of its inner workings--Lou Reed, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon. Great and distinctive, but always reporting from the sidelines. Let the Irish bare their souls. They're much, much better at it.

Some more:

Elvis Costello--snide and bitter fit him like a glove. Thus, he's loved mostly for those early slabs of vitriol. The words, the image, the voice--all perfect and memorable. His subsequent forays into every genre under the sun often come off as just an act--a "let's see if I look good in this costume".

Joe Strummer--angry; the word from the street. He was born to a fairly wealthy family (like Gram Parsons) but was blessed with a certain distinctive delivery. Punk rock seemed to be invented for his voice. Even when singing funny lyrics, it's a bit like an imposing, slurring, wild-eyed stranger at a bar telling you a joke--you're not sure if things might get out of control in 5 seconds. It's exciting, but you hope no one gets hurt.

Kurt Cobain--again, the lyrics and the voice are tailor made for each other. you believe every fucked up word he's saying. Billy Corgan? Not so much.

Dave Matthews can tell Rolling Stone about how depressed he is and how dark of a person he is, but all the average person hears is...that voice. ("..and there's no mistaking it.." from "Really Dave Matthews" by Don Lennon)

Neil Diamond vs Leonard Cohen--I've often wondered, if Neil and Leonard Cohen traded voices, what would have happened? Would "Bird On a Wire" be heard as shmaltz? Would "I Am, I Said" be quoted by hip English professors? On Neil Diamond's recent two albums, "Twelve Songs" and "Home Before Dark", he wrote some of the best, deepest, darkest lyrics of his career, encouraged by producer Rick Reuben, who had him rewrite and rewrite. And, as a Neil fan, I can appreciate them. But will the casual listener just hear "that voice" and want to scoff? Many will. But there's a lot of good stuff there. Likewise, Leonard Cohen can do no wrong in many people's books, just because of the wisdom and lack of shmaltz embedded in his voice. (Or because he writes really, really, really great words).

Andy Partridge from XTC is another singer whose voice I've always loved, because I know he's gonna keep emotional depth at arms length (again, even if he doesn't want to--it's just how he sounds). I guess that says something about me. Maybe I deserve the voice I have. But Andy, in the beginning, sang frantically. Part Devo, part Joe Strummer (or, in his words, part seal bark, part Lemmy). It was raspier, with spit flying through the speakers. But this dude wasn't going to break a bottle and point it at you, or hit on your girlfriend. He really just wanted a laugh.
Post panic breakdown of 1982, Partridge developed what I assume was more his natural voice. It too is showy, but now there's no pretension to being punk or angry. It's more witty ringmaster. The guy who knows everything about everything but has no degree to show for it. You may actually want to shut him up. I know a few people who can't stand AP's voice. There's also an over enunciation mixed with his Wiltshire accent which gives all he sings a bit of a "smartest guy in the room" air. Put in the glasses, and this person who admits to having not read a book until his teens, is referred to as "bookish", "professorial" etc. Image image image. Not that he's not a brilliant guy...
And again, his voice is suited better to a happy melody, even if the lyrics convey misery ("Dear Madame Barnham", "That's Really Super, Supergirl") than actual down and out songs ("1000 Umbrellas", "Your Dictionary") which come off as a bit Broadway.

"What about the voice of Geddy Lee?"
What about it? Imagine that voice singing an angry political folk song. Now imagine it singing "Love Me Tender". Now imagine "Imagine". "Rock The Casbah". Geddy Lee's voice was no doubt created to sing the lyrics of Neil Pert. Divine right.

Cat Stevens: there's one reason why I can't get into Cat Stevens. His voice. I'm very sorry. Everyone has that voice they can't abide. Mine is Cat Stevens. Oh, and Harry Chapin. Squirm time. Take 2 steps back, chief.

Morrissey and Robert Smith--masters of mope, while straight up acknowledging their sometimes absurdity.
The Cure, while a great post punk band at their beginning, really didn't find their feet until they slowed things down and everything revolved around Robert Smith's hopeless, existential musings. The evolution of the hair and make up helped too. His voice, easily satirized, sounds at the verge of tears always. So "I've been looking so long at these pictures of you.." or "It doesn't matter if we all die.." hit their mark. "Friday I'm In Love", while a great pop song, is just kind of "uh, when are you gonna get sad again?"

Morrissey had the voice, words and image all sussed out from the very first Smiths single. Love it or hate it, here I am. Thus, they were an instant smash. Thus, it's pretty much a ball and chain, lest he risk career suicide. However, for every "woe is me" lyric, there's ".. no reason to talk about the books I read, but still I do.." ("Sister, I'm A Poet") or "I'm gonna be sick all over your frankly vulgar red pullover. See how the colors blend!" ("Our Frank"). Morrissey can deliver a joke like few vocalists can. Detractors can point to "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and say "my god! get a grip!". But all you have to do is point to the previous line "I was looking for a job, and I found a job". It's funny! It's the ever present light and dark of the human condition.
And yet, "Late Night, Maudlin Street" made me cry on a couple occasions. That's a good one.

Ok, well, this has been fun. Perhaps a part two will arise in the future. I realize this was all white men that I covered. An easy launching point. A good day to you.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, it was only a matter of time before you went and got yourself a music blog!
    Welcome aboard.