Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Unconventional" Vocals

(ed. note: today's post is brought to you by guest writer elizabeth. Please, enjoy)

I have been an unabashed lyrics person since Alanis Morrissette jammed her jagged little pill down my 15 year-old throat (okay, maybe I'm slightly abashed). A song's musical composition may be the hook that brings me in, but it's generally the lyrics that keep me listening. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it does begin to cause problems for me when trying to listen to artists with...ahem...unconventional vocal styles. So, for the purposes of this exercise, I'll take a look at a few artists who I truly enjoy, but whose voices began by grating on me like a fucking power-sander.

The first category, I classify as "What the Hell Were You Thinking," and in my mind, the two greatest offenders are Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, and Joanna Newsom. Both make use of extremely whimsical, imaginative language. Both claim strong literary sensibilities and both offer consistently heartfelt performances. But...

Why, Colin? Did someone tell you, in your early days of performing, that you would sound better if you just went a little more nasal. And that if you keep a Jolly Rancher under your tongue while you sing, it'll make you sound foreign or something. Tell me who it was, 'cause I'm willing to bet they were fucking with you.

I understand that it's a sound; it's distinctive, sure, but it's also the reason I have to tell friends to "just give it a chance." This is not music that speaks for itself; this requires active advocacy. Same deal with Joanna Newsome:

Great stuff, right? She plays the harp for Christ's sake! But try explaining to curious friends why she chose to sound like an 11 year-old. I've seen interviews with her; she does know how to talk like a normal (articulate, even!) human-being, but she's sticking to her self-described "untrainable" style. What's worse: she doesn't like that people call her vocals "child-like." Joanna, sweetie, you're 26 years old and you sound like a child. Pitchfork called your style "bracing." Do you like that better? As in: "brace yourself, this chick might start singing!" *Sigh* Whatever, you know I'll listen anyway.

Okay, I've gotten the big ones out of the way. On to category two: "You Have No Business Being a Vocalist."

Witness exhibit A: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

I love you, John. I do. But look, why not write songs and then give them to people who can sing? Ben Gibbard did a much better job with that same song right here. I understand it's your song (and I really like it, I mean it) but just think how many more people would listen if you weren't the one singing!

On the mix at the bottom of the post (there's a mix at the bottom of this post!), I've included the vocalist from Young People, Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel ad Clem Snide in category two, as well.

Lastly - and this is probably more about me than the bands, themselves - is the "Yes, I Get It, You're Awesome" category. Category three is populated with the overly dramatic and clearly affected vocals:

My biggest problem with this group is that I can't prevent myself from imagining what people they went to high school with think of this. I just assume it's overcompensation.

Now that I've spewed vitriol on all these artist, I really do recommend that you listen to the mix and give them a chance to woo you. As I discovered over the last three seasons of The Venture Brothers, the voice does not make the person.

And Dr. Girlfriend is fucking hot.

"Unconventional" Voices mix:


Jez said...

I never thought Colin's voice was that terrible from the Decemberists. It's a bit nasal, but at least it's in tune, and not nearly as twangy as Garth Brooks. Country artists with too much twang just hurt my ears.

I mean, I haven't had a chance to check out all the offereings you have on here, but I can hardly believe any of them are as bad as J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, who's lyrics I love (and was a self-admitted influence on Jeff Tweedy), as do I Bob Mould's lyrics, even though his voice grates on me.

Renee said...

Really? No mention of Alec Ousworth (not sure if that's correct and too lazy to check) from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or David Byrne?

Still though, supreme kudos for including Neutral Milk Hotel