I have this thing where when someone is both a singer and a musician I tend to feel a little less connected to their music when they make an album on which they don’t play an instrument. I also like it when they do their own vocal multi-tracking instead of relying on backup vocalists (unless the backup vocalists are really, really good).
I don’t know why this is, really. It’s just the way my brain works.
I’ll give you an example. Tim Buckley played acoustic — and later electric — twelve-string guitar on every great album he made. Even on Greetings from L.A., his first somewhat “commercial” effort after the record company clipped his wings and demanded more conventional music they could sell, he’s still in there playing guitar on every song, buried as he is in the mix at times. It’s on those last two albums that you barely hear him playing at all.
In Dream Brother, David Browne’s joint biography of Tim and Jeff Buckley, a friend of Tim’s remembers visiting the studio during the recording sessions for Look at the Fool and being unsettled by the image of Tim recording vocals with his guitar nowhere to be found. That instrument was a vital part of his artistry. When it was taken away you could tell something wasn’t quite right.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the few really great songs on those last two albums all feature the unmistakable sound of Tim’s electric Fender twelve-string. And to hear someone with his earth-shattering vocal range being forced to rely on female backup vocalists, knowing he could probably hit higher notes than even they were capable of reaching…no. That ain’t my Tim Buckley. That’s record company bullshit.
Or here’s an example that’s much more current and pop-culture-approved. There’s this reality TV show called The Voice that’s little more than a slight twist on the old American Idol karaoke singing contest thing. I watched a few episodes of it some months back, because I felt like it had been a while since I really got angry about anything related to shitty music and it was about time I had an excuse to shout profanity at my television again.
Some of the performers were actually pretty good. And in some cases they were rewarded for having some amount of personality. So that was nice to see. It was a fun way to kill a bit of time.
Something happened early in the game that made me angry enough to stop watching the show and promise myself to never watch it again out of silent protest.
For those of you who have never watched it, there are four celebrity singers/songwriters who act as judges and mentors to the contestants. Each judge gets to pick his or her own team, which they whittle down throughout the course of the show. The judges are also competing against one another for the distinction of being the one who can say they discovered “The Voice” when it’s all over. This wrinkle makes it all a little more interesting than it would be otherwise.
One of the judges/mentors is the frontman douche from the band Maroon 5. I know his name, but I prefer to call him The Douche. He’s probably the most arrogant and outspoken of all the judges.
Operating under the apparent assumption that cruelty is the best method of developing talent, after each judge has their team in place they have what are called “battle rounds”. The judges pair up singers on their teams in groups of two and have them perform the same song together onstage. Then they decide who did a better job singing the song.
The winner gets to stay another week. The loser goes home and gets nothing. They don’t even get the chance to perform during the part of the show where people at home are able to vote for who they like best. I think that’s even worse than being sent home because you didn’t get enough votes. The rejection is much more personal, and it’s coming from the same person who gave you the chance to be there — and the belief that you might make it all the way through — in the first place.
For one battle round, The Douche paired up two women. One of them played piano. She was pretty good. He chose a song for them both to sing. When they were rehearsing, he decided he didn’t want to see the one woman behind the piano anymore. He was going to push her to step out into the spotlight.
The piano was a huge part of her musical identity. That was where she wrote songs. She always played and sang at the same time. Without the piano, she felt uncomfortable. Like part of her had been stripped away. She said as much to The Douche, who dismissed her fear and told her she needed to do this to really push herself to the next level. Typical Douche “I know more than you know” arrogance.
So they had their battle round. And you could tell she wasn’t in her element. She wasn’t herself. Part of who she was had been taken away from her. Neither singer really gave a performance that stole the show. There was no clear winner. Even so, everyone chose the other woman over the one who used to play piano until The Douche took the piano away.
One of the judges told her she didn’t seem to be breathing properly during the song. Gee, do you think maybe you breathe a certain way when you’re seated at a piano, feeling connected to the instrument, when that’s the way you’re used to singing, and maybe you breathe a different way when you’re standing with a microphone in your hand, without the piano, having been given almost no time to acclimate yourself to a way of performing that is completely alien to you?
No. Of course you don’t think that. Not if you’re judging a singing contest when your own vocal talent is debatable at best.
The Douche made it clear he wasn’t thrilled with either performance. He sent the piano-playing woman home. He never apologized for ripping her out of her comfort zone without giving her enough time to adapt. He didn’t comment on the hypocrisy of being unimpressed with her performance when he was the one who went out of his way to create the atmosphere that led to the performance being less than what it might have been, had he allowed her to just be herself.
Do you see now why I call him The Douche? Do a little reading up about him and his exploits with women, and you’ll start to feel like you need a cold shower. Writing horrible songs that will make you a dumber person just for listening to them is only the icing on the Douche cake.
That incident on The Voice was what really took me beyond simple contemptuous indifference and into the realm of serious anger. It’s pathetic that people who are this artificial, little more than blobs of unjustified ego bouncing around and shitting on everything they come across, who say and do nothing, are given fame and celebrated as being important and worthwhile when they’re neither one of those things, just because they look like someone you could have sex with without feeling like you were slumming it. What he did to that woman made me want to projectile vomit in his face.
Back to the point.
Maybe the best demonstration of the phenomenon I first started talking about is the way I feel about Chan Marshall. I was, and still am, a big fan of the raw, angry, sometimes almost uncomfortably vulnerable early Cat Power albums. What Would the Community Think? and Moon Pix are two of my favourite albums by anyone. You Are Free and The Covers Record aren’t far behind. Her solo piano version of “I Found a Reason” is the best Velvet Underground cover recorded by anyone, anywhere, ever. It’s so beautiful I almost can’t listen to it. I like the first two albums too, and though I find them a little uneven in places, I like how it sounds in a lot of those songs like she’s making up all the words as she goes along, discovering her voice while the tape is rolling.
When The Greatest came out in 2006, it was hailed in some quarters as Chan’s masterpiece. If I’m honest, it kind of left me cold for a while. The first time I listened to it I almost fell asleep halfway through. Aside from the title track — the only non-Big Star song I’ve ever heard that feels like it captures the dilapidated beauty of some of the piano songs Alex Chilton wrote for Third/Sister Lovers (whatever writer described the song as the sort of thing Alex might have written if he’d been a beautiful woman was right on the money) — and “Love and Communication” and the slight-but-weirdly-effective hidden track, the album felt kind of flat to me.
It dawned on me after a while that part of the problem I had with the album was not being able to really hear Chan playing on it. Aside from two songs where I could tell it was her playing piano and two or three others where it was clear it was her on electric guitar, she let the session musicians guide the music and stuck to singing.
I think she’s got one of the most unique and beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. I could listen to her sing the Yellow Pages. The session players she chose are fantastic musicians with great feel. And still, I really missed hearing her play guitar and piano. It felt like part of her personality had been amputated, and there was no getting away from that disappointment.
The kicker is — and she’s admitted this herself — Chan isn’t anywhere near being a virtuosic musician. On the first few albums you kind of doubt she even knew how to tune her guitar. On the piano she tends to pick a few simple chords and stick with them, doubling them up with the left hand instead of playing octaves or fifths.
But it works. It makes her music her music. And without her being involved in the songs that way, I have a more difficult time getting involved myself.
I did warm up to The Greatest after a while. I came to realize it’s great driving music. I like it now, even if it doesn’t hit me in the stomach like some of her other albums do. I still can’t get into Jukebox, though. And while I was glad to read about Chan conquering her addictions and finding some peace and contentment, it seemed to have that all-too-common effect of the happiness snuffing out some of the spark that used to exist in the music when the artist was a little less sure of themselves.
Today I found out she’s finished her first album of new material in six years, it’s going to be released in September, and she played every single instrument on every song herself because she felt a need to be completely connected to the songs again. She used the dissolution of a long-term relationship to fuel the songwriting.
If I knew how to do joyful back-flips (or any kind of back-flip at all), I would have done one then. I’m not happy a relationship she invested years of her life in didn’t end up working out, but all of those things are almost guaranteed to add up to the best album she’s made in close to a decade. It’ll be fascinating to hear how the maturity she’s gained in the intervening years plays off of the back-to-basics approach.
So that’s something to look forward to a few months from now. It has to at least be better than Sharon Van Etten’s last album. Man, did that thing let me down when I finally got around to giving it a good listen. There are two songs on the album I think are fantastic, two others that are really good, and then the rest kind of settles into a samey soup that gets a little boring for me after a while.
Whatever the critics say, Epic is Sharon’s crowning achievement, at least up to this point. Tramp doesn’t even come close. It just goes to show that a more professional production job provided by someone with more name recognition doesn’t necessarily translate to a better album. It’s also further proof, if we needed any, that the hype something receives is not always a guarantee you’re gonna dig it.
But hey, that’s just my opinion, as always.
(Edit: I had a similar experience here to what happened with “The Greatest”. I put “Tramp” away for a while. Then I dug it out again for another listen a year or two after writing this and was knocked out by how much better it was than I thought. Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake at first. “Epic” is still the album of Sharon’s I connect with the most, and I know part of that is because of what was going on in my head and my heart when I first heard it. But it turns out “Tramp” is a fine album, and there are some gorgeous songs there. “Kevin’s”, “In Line”, and “Warsaw” are worth the price of admission alone. Sharon, like Chan, has one of those voices that just…does stuff to me.)
On a different note, remember how I posted that acidic thing a little while back about the MuchMusic Coca Cola Covers contest? I predicted the person who won would be young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. They would be able to strum a few chords on a guitar and sing in-tune, but there would be no real personality or uniqueness there. They’d be a blank slate waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decided to guide them.
They’re airing commercials on TV now as part of the run-up to the MuchMusic Video Awards, acting as brief advertisements for the three finalists, one of whom will be crowned the winner. There are two girls and one guy. And wouldn’t you know, they’re all young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. All three of them are able to strum a few chords on a guitar, and they can sing in-tune, but there’s no real personality or uniqueness there. They’re all blank slates waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decides to guide them.
Sometimes you just gotta laugh.