Saturday, September 10, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: Steely Dan Edition

Steely Dan: Show Biz Kids


Rickie Lee Jones: Show Biz Kids


Steely Dan: Home at Last


This week, we have heard duets and group vocals. But there are also artists and groups who are justly well known for their use of background singers. Surely Steely Dan would be one of these. When I think of Steely Dan, the first things I hear in my head are those wonderful horn charts and vocal harmonies. But Steely Dan was not born sounding that way. The sound developed over time. Show Biz Kids offers an early example. There are no horns here at all. The background singers have only one line, which they repeat throughout the song, turning it into a chant. In interviews, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have always been coy about the words they are chanting. Is it “Las Vegas” or “Lost Wages”? You be the judge. The other feature of the vocal harmonies that is notable in Show Biz Kids is Becker joining in with close harmonies on the chorus.

Now listen to Rickie Lee Jones’ version of Show Biz Kids. She uses the chanted vocals only part of the time, (and the words are definitely, “Las Vegas”). She uses a more complex vocal harmony on the chorus. And she has stripped out the screaming guitar that was so much a part of Steely Dan’s early sound. In short, with the exception of the stand up bass, she has recorded the song as Steely Dan might have if they had done it later in their career. Listen to Home at Last, from Aja, and you will see what I mean. Here are the horn charts, which Jones doesn’t use on Show Biz Kids, but which are certainly part of her sound as well. And, on the chorus of Home at Last we hear vocal harmonies as done by a mature Steely Dan.

Discographers note: the piano and background vocals on Jones’ version of Show Biz Kids is by Joe Jackson.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: Bohemian Rhapsody

The Ten Tenors: Bohemian Rhapsody


Darius was mentioning our lack of vocal groups so far for this week's theme, so I hope this group fits the bill. The Three Tenors in 1990 started a run on various assemblages of classical vocalists performing pop hits to great fanfare (Wikipedia lists the Irish Tenors, Tenor Australis, the Three Canadian Tenors, Three Tenors and a Soprano, the Three Sopranos, The Sopranos, Three Mo' Tenors, Three Countertenors, the Three Chinese Tenors, and Il Divo, among others). The Ten Tenors are a young Australian ensemble who've put out quite a few CDs since their beginnings in 1998. And of course, you can't go wrong with Queen, like, ever. I love how they slip in a bit of ABBA too in their live performance.

Vocal Harmonies: Love Hurts

Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris: Love Hurts


First there was the Everly Brothers version of the song written by Boudleaux Bryant (actually, there were two: the slow original from 1960 and an upbeat take in 1965). Then there was the appalling cover by Nazareth that became a hit. And shortly before the Scottish rockers violated this most tenderly angry heartbreak songs of all, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris did it perfect justice.

Perhaps they did so not only because both were exquisite vocalists (and Emmylou Harris is, of course, a supreme harmonist), but perhaps it was also because they were experiencing the cruelty of love – maybe of the impossible variety, or perhaps unrequited.

Gram and Emmylou are said to have felt a strong attraction to one another. Harris certainly was in love with him, but insists that there never was a romance because Gram was married, even though that marriage was on the rocks. Whatever Parsons felt for Harris (and he had a relationship with a woman called Margaret Fisher), when he died on 19 September 1973 – before ‘Love Hurts’ was released in 1974 on the Grievous Angel LP – his wife Gretchen Burrell barred Emmylou from his funeral.

Gram and Emmylou might never have been together in a physical sense, but ‘Love Hurts’ unites them forever. Note this bitter line: “Some fools think of happiness, blissfulness, togetherness. Some fools fool themselves I guess, but they’re not fooling me. I know it isn’t true.” And then rewind, and hear how Gram and Emmylou harmonise the word “togetherness”; the preceding words are mocked, but the word togetherness soars with longing. As they re-enter the stream of disillusion, their sweet harmonies are drenched in the hot blood of a broken heart.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: Wanting Memories

Sweet Honey in the Rock: Wanting Memories


I am a bit surprised to be the first one to present a singing group for this week’s theme. These groups exist in many traditions throughout the world. Some use instrumental accompaniment, while others rely solely on the various sounds of the human voice. Sweet Honey in the Rock sometimes uses hand percussion, but they mostly rely on the voice alone. The biography on their website uses the pronoun “she” when discussing the group as a whole. This seems stranger if you don’t know their music. Truly, this is the sound of five voices joined as one. Sweet Honey can sing spirituals, hip-hop, jazz, and songs from various African traditions. It always sounds first of all like Sweet Honey in the Rock music. Wanting Memories came out in 1993, when the group was celebrating 20 years of making music together. By then, 21 different singers had been in the group’s line-up at various times, but always joined as one voice. That continues to this day.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Vocal Harmonies: The Prayer

Josh Groban and Charlotte Church: The Prayer


Speaking of power ballads, here's one from 1801. No, sillies, this one wasn't recorded then. This one's a classical-pop cover of the more recent version by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. But I like these two singers more: I present classically trained pop crossover artists Josh Groban and Charlotte Church.

I can't listen to this without tears from the sheer beauty of the vocals. Just sayin'. There's just something about Italian lyrics that make a song special, yanno?

Josh and Charlotte also win my own personal mensch props. Charlotte, for her desperate on-camera realization that her special guest, a less-than-sober Amy Winehouse, is imploding on Charlotte's variety show during a 2006 live duet of Michael Jackson's Beat It. Or maybe because she didn't bitchslap Amy on camera for that "performance."

And Groban, for his latest hit release album, Josh Groban's The Best Tweets of Kanye West, featuring hits like: "Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on" and "Classical music is tight yo."

Vocal Harmonies: Kto Winien Jest

Czerwone Gitary: Kto Winien Jest


   Known, perhaps unfairly, as the Polish Beatles, Czerwone Gitary (The Red Guitars) mastered Fab Four harmonies and recorded superb pop songs in the mid-Sixties and beyond. Their second album sold more than a quarter of a million copies. They toured the Eastern Bloc and eventually began experimenting with exotic instruments just like their British counterparts. As late as 2007 they were still playing together, having released more than 80 albums.

     "Kto Winien Jest" (Who's Fault Is it) comes from the debut album.  It is a bitter song of lost love that may remind listeners of The Beatles' "This Boy". The singers ask "Who took away our laughter and joy and the way we held hands/ The trees sound the same, the seagulls sound the same but the wind no longer sings to us"

To see Czerwone Gitary in all their Beatlesque glory click here .

Vocal Harmonies: Scarborough Fair/ Canticle

Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair/ Canticle


The music of Simon and Garfunkel seems to me to be the obvious place to start a week devoted to vocal harmonies. Originally inspired by the doo-wop groups of the 1950s, Simon and Garfunkel also were aware of harmony as used in folk music, and I would say that the song I have chosen may also shows that they knew at least a little about classical music as well. Let me explain.

There are three schemes of vocal harmonies that come to my mind. In close harmony, the singers are together rhythmically, but they sing different notes to make chords. This is the basis for doo-wop, and it is found in the call-and-response parts in gospel music as well. Then there are rounds. Here, different voices sing the same notes at different times, and that is where the harmonies arise from. Johann Sebastien Bach took this type of harmony to its logical extreme in his fugues.

The third scheme is what Simon and Garfunkel did with Scarborough Fair/ Canticle. The song has a main melody, (in this case Scarborough Fair), and a counter melody, (in this case, a completely different song, Canticle). Counter melodies are fairly rare in pop music, so this was a daring choice for Simon and Garfunkel. The results in terms of reception are mixed. On the one hand, the song was a hit, and a little known folk song, Scarborough Fair, became famous. On the other hand, most people tend to forget about Canticle entirely, and most covers of Scarborough Fair omit the counter melody. Personally, I would never want to be without it. Simon and Garfunkel linked these two songs, and I can never hear one in my head without the other.