On unique vocals

One of the things that has always fascinated me about music is examining the properties that endear an artist to a specific listener. I know I prefer bands that put emphasis on drums and bass, while a friend of mine has distilled her “perfect formula” for listening down to something like: syncopated beat, handclaps, British male singing.

No area of music is more difficult for people to understand their preferences in than vocals. Much has been written about Bob Dylan’s love-it-or-hate-it voice, but that’s just the beginning. A different friend of mine and I have had a long-standing debate on the subject.

It started with an artist named Max Tundra, who asked his vocally untrained sister to sing on a few tracks of his album Mastered by a Guy at the Exchange. Her voice is technically terrible, I’m sure, but I really enjoy it, while some of my friends can’t stand listening to it, calling it “breathy and grating.” Then there was Joy Division, the vocalist for which I find forced and straining, but some of my friends find natural and powerful.

The confusion about vocals doesn’t start and end with my friends, though. Witness critically acclaimed but technically horrendous Slint and Sonic Youth. Or, one person might love old Kate Bush records, the next despises them. More recently there are bands like Battles (who “sound like robots”), Joanna Newsom (who alternately receives glowing praise and comments that she “sounds like a frog” from reviewers), or the Knife (heavily accented and indescribable). The list goes on, full of conflict with little explanation but personal preference.

Then there are artists who do non-traditional things with vocals. Bogdan Raczynski pitches his voice way, way up and sounds sort of like a children’s special gone wrong. Experimental German group Can’s Damo Suzuki blabbers about nothing, repeats words incessantly, and even just burbles vague sounds — yet fits the music surrounding him perfectly. Halfway through Naked City’s “Leng Tch’e” the guitars drop out and an utterly bloodcurdling scream comes in, lasting for 15 minutes. I was actually frightened when I heard it the first time. Would it have been possible to get this effect with words or singing? Would it have been possible with instruments only?

We have a large vocabulary of terms that we use to describe instrumental parts, yet I’m not aware of any technical terminology like this for vocal parts. Is there any? Or are we just doomed to the cliché observation that in popular music, listeners prefer vocalists of the gender they want to sleep with? This correlation is borne out when I think back over discussions I’ve had in the past, but I have to believe there’s more to it than that.

On music blogs and websites

Disquiet (www.disquiet.com)
Disquiet is an excellent blog devoted to ambient and electronic music, as well as the artists behind the sound. It’s a great site to visit for free MP3s from netlabels, record labels who release their music on the Internet. The site is run by Marc Weidenbaum, who writes quite well and devotes equal attention to well known musicians such as Brian Eno and lesser known ones such as Polina Voronova, a Russian ambient artist who many discovered purely through Disquiet.

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog (www.blog.wfmu.org)
WFMU is one of the country’s best freeform radio stations; it is also the oldest. The station’s blog is updated often and contains some of the weirdest music-related stuff you’ll find on the Internet: MP3 downloads of super-rare recordings, as well as various obscure remixes and releases from a variety of genres. For example, one recent entry was an MP3 showdown between two different bands that released albums imitating Beatles material.

The Hype Machine (www.hypem.com)
The Hype Machine isn’t really a blog; it scans many other music blogs and presents links to their songs in a nicely organized fashion. On top of that, the site allows users to listen via an in-browser player, no download required. The Hype Machine is the pulse of the Internet’s electro-mashup-dance-remix obsession — just click on the link labeled “popular” at the top of the page, and the site will treat you to a sampling of what every hipster has on repeat as they update their MySpace.

RCRD LBL (www.rcrdlbl.com)
RCRD LBL is a relative newcomer to the MP3 blog scene, but it’s quickly established itself as favorite for many a surfer. One of the reasons for this is the site’s close connections to a lot of excellent labels (as the name might suggest). A variety of labels contribute music to RCRD LBL, making it a great place to find lots of high quality music. The site provides a genre of music more rock than Disquiet, less dance that Hype Machine, and less obscure than WFMU’s Blog.

UbuWeb (www.ubu.com)
UbuWeb is different from all of the above in that it covers a lot more than just music. The site is a collection of all sorts of experimental art, music, writing, and poetry. It’s definitely worth a visit, as it contains some amazing archived recordings of famous experimental pieces alongside more contemporary sound that’s unlike anything most other websites have to offer. UbuWeb has a section called 365 Days Project, where a new MP3 is posted every day along with a short description.

On sex in rock music

There are several good reasons to write about the song “No Pussy Blues” from punk band Grinderman’s self-titled debut, one of the foremost being to get the word “pussy” into a campus newspaper. This is one of last year’s best and bluntest songs; hopefully this essay will be seen by those who missed this gem of a song because of the FCC-unfriendly lyrics.

NPB’s qualities exceed its naughtiness. Though the song appears on a debut album, the songwriter is not a crude young man; he is a crude old man, a veteran of 25 years in music, as Grinderman is a side project of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, around since the ’80s. Heard through your stereo, Cave is a strong and bitter voice that speaks with archetypal authority. And what is he saying? That he cannot get any.

In the monologue that makes up most of the song, Cave describes how he approached a girl in the crowd at one of his shows, courted her in a variety of ways, and was constantly, repeatedly rejected because “she just didn’t want to.” We don’t know why, but the notable thing is that all tactics fail. Cave cannot clean himself up for her, cannot read poetry to her, cannot buy her presents, cannot talk sweetly to her, and cannot talk dirty to her: “She just didn’t want to” becomes an endless, frustrated refrain that drives the music forward.

Most rock songs are about sex. This is a fact; the name of the genre is itself a euphemism for the act. Yet there is a long history of rock songs featuring depressed young men who are afraid to ask a girl out, are left by a girl and can do nothing, or just don’t know how to love at all. Recently, emo has become famous for these fragile self-haters, but you can’t ignore Belle & Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie, or Weezer, or most break-up songs. Are these bands and songs any less about sex? Absolutely not — they just choose to dodge or sugar-coat the issue.

Nick Cave despises himself as much as any emo naïf; at the opening of NPB he proclaims, “I must above all things love myself — I must above all things love myself!” He then launches into a description of how he fails to do so — and of how it felt to be broken by this anonymous woman. But instead of pushing the sex out of the picture, Cave shoves it to the forefront. His overtures, sweet and harsh, all fail.

The song, mostly consisting of a fast drum/hi-hat rhythm and low, distorted bass, bursts into pulsing squeals on the two choruses, creating an oozy, thrashing scream that is hard to imagine coming from a guitar. Cave yells over this, “I’ve got the no pussy blues!” along with “Woo!” and “Damn!” It’s this amazing release, this sexual burst that is the ultimate response to anyone who thinks that being rejected means wrapping up in a blanket and listening to The Softies. Cave has returned to the song’s premise. He has learned he doesn’t need her, that he must above all things love himself, and, looking down at his guitar, he has realized that he has all he’ll ever need right in his hand.

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