Sunday, November 17, 2013

In his latest Singles Page Neil Kulkarni nails a couple of things that have been nagging away at me for a while as an in-car radio-listener.

One is that quavery, breathy singing style that's rather widespread and that I always think of as "peaky": as in your mum saying, "you look a little peaky, dear", but also because it seems to strain at the upper limit of the vocal chords's capacities (like Chris Martin but more feminine and fluttery). Ellie Goulding is a prime perpetrator and  her "How Long Will I Love You" spurs Neil to observe:

"What's so horrible at the moment is that the most dangerously influential voices are the weak ones, or rather the faux-weak ones, the ones that impart a horrible tincture of fake fragility to their singing, fake conversationality, a prissy, self-aggrandizing 'vulnerability' that's monstrously arrogant. Wonky-mouthed mediocrity Ellie Goulding's ...  'Burn' would have been a fairly emetic slice of EDM-folk in anyone's hands but with her 'broken' 'breathy' 'natural' tones it attained fresh new levels of hellishness."

He talks about this is a new kind of bombast that's actually worse than the Celines and Mariahs and Whitney's of yore:

"Things were easier when bad voices, damaging, dangerously influential voices were the loudest voices, the most stentorian and bossy and show offy.... that surfeit of notes and melisma, that mistaking of technicality and proficiency for emotion that was so analogous to other musicians, guitarists who solo too much, drummers who solo at all." 

It's a bombast of timbre, maybe, rather than octave-vaulting vocal gymnastics.  An imploded bombast.

And just as the HyperPassion of the Eighties had a perfect emotionally-manipulative fit with the charity records of that day, likewise "How Long Will I Love You" is a Children In Need single.  

The other vocal trend is more glancingly referred to, in connection with a Fall Out Boy single:

"Fashionably unplugged acoustic oompah bollocks musically and then, vocally, that hateful thing so much 'anthemic' music does these days - that kind of soaring simpleton holler to the heavens everyone's on a ce moment (see also Bastille, Arcade Fire - who could also be blamed for starting this shit, Lumineers, Fun, Katy Perry, even Derulo now. . . ) meant I'm sure to imply/recall/become a kind of open-throated end-of-the-night wail at the wonder at the universe, coming over as the kind of hateful studenty bellowing singalong shit you scowl at from the gap in the curtains  and can't help wishing will get scooped up by the wrong kind of cab-driver, then groomed into a lifelong nightmare of white slavery and degradation i.e reality shows and reunion tours."

Can't bring myself to listen to the Fall Out Boy single in question but I know what Neil is talking about.  Voices, particularly at the chorus, that mingle uplifting, imploring and resignation. 

A purely euphoric variant of this is the overdriven vocal: as if the lungs were bellows blasting a gust of air through a fuzz-box. Paradigm example here is the brickwall-roar chorus of Neon Trees's "Everybody Talks", a/k/a "It Started With a Wispa". Oasis and Strokes are in this style's DNA but it's more modern rock force-fed.

Neil mentions Katy Perry in his list of banes of our aural existence and "Roar" is a pop version of the latter style. The thing that fascinates me about her voice is that it's almost without timbre, there's no textural width to it, just this stiletto-thin melodic insistence, pure stridency.  Yet despite the lack of grain, the voice is instantly recognisable. 


(Kinda obvious but it had never struck me before: Neil with his Singles Page is doing a form of music-journalism retro. He's  resurrecting that  most glorious of weekly music paper formats, the singles's column. One of the funnest things to read back in the day, and one of the funnest things to... not do, but to have done. Because actually doing it was a grisly ordeal that invariably took you through  the break-of-drawn and often right up to lunch time the next day, and entailed listening to 3 singles to everyone you actually reviewed. Of the ones you reviewed, most of them would be shit. With such a superfluity of shit to hand, the key was to sift selectively, find the shit that could be most entertainingly abused, or the shit that could be used to Make A Point. So at its best the Singles Column could be a format for interleaving Grand Overview Statements / Aesthetic Manifestos with cruel gags.)