Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Compelling A Capella

The human voice has always been a musical instrument in its own right. It would be pretty hard to think of modern popular music without vocal elements. Sure, there’s the occasional Dueling Banjos, Harlem Nocturne, Wipe Outor La Villa Strangiato. But since 1955 most of what has been hot has a vocal component. But what about music that contains only vocal elements and no musical instruments at all?  In other words: A Cappella.

Words of Wisdom from WOOFS!

You have heard A Cappella  even if you don’t realize it. Do you remember the Prius  commercial from a few years back? The one with the cover of Let Your Love Flow? That’s Petra Haden daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The amazing thing about this song is that it is all vocals, every bit of it. Petra Haden recorded all the instrumental parts and harmonies, a piece at a time and then mixed into a coherent whole. (There is really no excuse for not having this amazing track. You can download it for free from Toyota’s site. Do that right now. I’ll wait. Good isn’t it?) This is a technique that she mastered when she used an 8-track recorder to record the entire album The Who: Sell Out. She even sang the guitar solos. Her version of Armenia City in The Sky and I Can See For Miles is incredible! The only effects were a touch of reverb in a few spots. On top of that she performed the whole thing live with a 10 piece choir!

Hard to imagine all that sound in one woman!

So where does this kind of music come from? I’ll bet some of you are thinking Doo Wop. Wrong. Ok well, maybe Barbershop quartet you ask speculatively? Nope.  Although that isn’t completely wrong. A Capella (This is Italian for “in the manner of the church” or “Chapel”) the form actually goes back to the 15th century. Some churches then and now still use music without accompaniment believing that such style is commanded by scripture. As you may suspect, the subject is still debated.

Monks Rocking Out!

Modern A Cappella does have its roots in the late 19th century with barbershop quartets and in the collegiate group the Yale Whiffenpoofs which formed in 1909 (Cole Porter was member at one time). But this kind of a cappella was basically choral in nature, even if the music was mostly popular music of the day.  Doo Wop is strongly influenced by A Cappella, It uses very simple instrumentation (if any )and a 4 part harmony.  It used simple onomatopoeia to represent the instruments. “bom bom bom” for the bass and other nonsense phrases to cover the other parts.
There was influx of new collegiate groups starting in the 90’s, the difference was that these group sang rock and used the human voice to emulate traditional rock instruments. Sadly (or maybe not), this isn’t new either. The Mills Brothers used the same technique in the 30’s.
Probably the best known A Cappella group is probably Rockapella. With 9 albums to their total they have recorded a lot of different music including the theme song for Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?

But they ain’t alone, not hardly.  The Persuasions recorded an entire album of Frank Zappa covers.  The Sweptaways, a Scandinavian A Cappella group recorded an unique version of My Darling Clementine that is not only A Cappella but also has parts of the song sung in round. Lastly, Straight No Chaser, recorded a mashup of I’m Yours and Over the Rainbow inspired by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole version of the 1939 Judy Garland Wizard of Oz classic.

There are dozens of collegiate A Cappella groups ranging from the Brown Derbies (Brown University) to Yale Whiffenpoofs (they actually have 19 recognized A Cappella grourps) making it a very lively scene. Many have put out albums but they are very hard to locate, selling mainly at shows and local venues.
This is all well and good but how do you know if you will like it? I mean, music without guitars and drums? That’s not rock. I have got a deal for you. One of the best music podcast around, Coverville (If you aren’t listening to this, you should be, you really should be), has given me permission to link to a few of his shows that are exclusively A Cappella covers. It’s FREE. Just click the links below and download one of his podcasts and take a listen. Also, some of these albums can be hard to find and pretty expensive when you do. So try and out his Acappellaville episdes to see if you like it.



Till next time, Keep Listening!
Wanna get started with some A Cappella? Here’s some links!

I Can See For Miles

Oh my darling Clementine

I'm Yours/Somewhere Over The Rainbow


Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out

Mills Brothers 22 Great Hits

Modern A Cappella

Frankly A Cappella

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Click the links to fufill your destiny!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Queen is the King

I’m just going to get this one rock group out of the way right now and get it out of my system.  (I hope)  No, it’s not the Beatles. Although I do love the Beatles they are not the one band that I lose my perspective over.  The greatest rock band of all time? – Queen.

The Boys in the Band

How bad is it? Of course I had them all on Vinyl (wish I had kept them), bought the import CD’s, bought the initial Universal  US release (with the remixes), all of the band’s solo work, bootlegs, rarities collections, greatest hit collections, singles, a vinyl transfer of the Star Fleet Project , The Crown Jewels re-masters, We will Rock You cast recording, Numerous tribute (covers) albums. I will probably get the 2011 remasters as well, even though I am hearing some disturbing stuff about compression.  About the only things I am missing are a solo single released by John Deacon that I have never seen and two of the interview discs (Taylor and Deacon)

There is a 21 inch model of Freddie Mercury circa Kind of Magic tour watching me type this. Every year I throw a Freddie Birthday party in his honor, I have friends over, dress up glam style, play Queen music, concerts and toast him with Champagne (not Cristal, too expensive).
Freddie Statue with Cake from a few years back.
August 5th 2011 - Save the Date!
I recognize my bias and embrace it. I’m sure that they put a wrong foot somewhere and did a bad album but you couldn’t tell it by me. That’s right; I even like Hot Space, the much maligned follow up to The Game. It’s a rock album built around dance as a theme, specifically disco. In the US it went down like a lead balloon and that was the end of Queen on the charts in the US until Wayne’s world. The fact that the rest of world continued to buy Queen albums and attend Queen concerts making them one of the bestselling and influential artists of the last century was a matter of complete indifference to the American audiences.

I would assert that The Game has plenty of dance inflected tracks and that Hot Space was an evolution moving away from their more Hard and Prog Rock past toward more esoteric styles. Listen to Another One Bites the Dust.  The disco influence is plain in the back beat and the bass line.

Some in the US had already written them off when they released Jazz despite the fact that the bar I go to still has Fat Bottomed Girls on the Jukebox.  Why? Well they started using synths. That’s right. Night at The Opera and every album before was recorded using nothing but tape and analog audio.  Some people are very strict in their definition of what is acceptable in late 70’s early 80’s rock albums.

I tried once to make a greatest hits album on my own, it ended up as an 8 CD set. Even with that, I left some songs off I really enjoy.

What is it about this group that works so well for me? It’s a number of things. First, Freddie is arguably the best front man in Rock history.  Queen’s live shows were phenomenal and even on DVD you feel like he is including you in the action. Second, there is an extraordinary level of musicianship here. They could all write and sing and play multiple instruments well. Brian May is an incredible guitarist and gets a unique sound out of his Red Special, a guitar that he and his father built out of a fireplace mantle. The music itself is filled with incredible harmonies and vaudevillian showmanship at times. They could and did record just about any type of music they wanted.

God Save Queen...And all the Albums too!

Punk?  - Sheer Heart Attack.  Queen actually stated that this was in reply to rise of Punk Rock and Punks saying that basically Queen didn’t get it. True and False at the same time. They certainly got the musical aspect of it but the “fuck off” aspect of it escaped them.

Romantic Ballad? –  Love of My Life.  Written by Freddie for his then girlfriend and lifelong friend Mary Austin you can hear the love he has for her, although after 6 years he decided that he preferred male bed partners.  They remained close and he left her most of his estate. Take a listen to the vocals. That’s all Freddie. He recorded each individual part on tape and then multi-tracked them so masterfully that sound like a large chorus.

Blues? – My Melancholy Blues. Piano carries the melody and blues base line and a simple snare make this work.

Jazz? – Good Company. Brian May plays Ukelele throughout but if you listen carefully you can hear him imitating a Dixieland jazz Band all played on his electric guitar and it really opens up about 40 seconds from the of the track.

Hard Rock? – Ogre Battle – This is 4 minutes of early 70’s rock that can easily stand up with Zeppelin (taking into account the blues inspirations that drove the Zepp). Probably their heaviest piece.

Prog? – March of the Black Queen – nearly 7 minutes of mastery that uses vocal harmonies and guitars to tell a fantasy/medieval ballad. In addition they use two different time signatures  12/8 & 8/8 This is called and polyrhythm/polymeter and made the piece so complicated that they couldn’t perform it live. It doesn’t get much more prog than that.

Opera? – Bohemian Rhapsody certainly has operatic aspirations but Freddie actually sang opera with  Montserrat CaballĂ© on the Barcelona. Bohemian Rhapsody is another piece that couldn’t be played live without resorting to tape to cover some of the complex harmonies created by multi-tracking.

Film Score? - Flash Gordon - A real gem from 1980 (nothing says quality like Dino De Laurentis), Queen recorded not only the main title song but also a large hunk of the underscore. The Battle is an absolute rocking track that can really get you engergized. (He'll save every one of us)

Flash - a-ah - saviour of the universe
You know - I haven’t even scratched the surface of Queen. Guess I was lying when I said I was going to get Queen out of the way. I guess I will just have to suffice with periodical adoration.

Wanna get started with Queen? Well, the greatest Hits will give you some of their best work, but only as singles. Most of what Queen recorded were meant to be heard as part of a longer program. So I recommend Queen II and Night at The Opera (which is probably just about as good as I think it is) Here’s some links! (Mammon will love you if you click my links and buy something)
Battle Theme


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rock or Not

It used to be very easy to separate music into nice, convenient categories. It was pretty simple to tell Rock from Soul and Funk and so on. Record stores loved that. It made it very easy for the teenager who was helping you find something. You remember record stores don’t you? There used to have these places where you had to PHYSICALLY go into the meat world and spend money to acquire an actual physical copy of an album, they were called RECORD STORES. (No one remembers why they were called that when all they had were CD's, they just were).

This happy state continued well into the 1970’s. True, there was some grumbling about Prog Rock and Hard Rock being different and in England there was something called Glam Rock, but hey, they still had Rock somewhere in there. That all changed with Punk, then came New Wave, Rockabilly (again!) Hair Metal and other 80’s oddities.
From there it just got worse. Now there’s alt, anarcho-punk, power pop, pop-punk, emo, goth, neo metal, grunge, nerd and more. It wasn’t just rock, country got into the act and went all crossover country with modern country sounding most like pop or rock with a twang. Sure there are a few authentic country voices out there, but even those guys stray into stuff with wailing guitars and a backbeat.
But that’s just how it always was.
Go back to the early, early days, before Elvis Presley made it cool for whites to listen to R&B, and take a look at the R&B or Race records as they were euphemistically called. These couldn’t be played on white stations and weren’t stocked by white record stores. Whites who wanted them had to cross the tracks, so to speak, to buy them. When they got there they discovered that it was not a monolithic type of music, there was blues, jazz and stride and hundreds of little subgenres of music that they had never heard of.  
Some of it was raunchy and nasty as hell. Big Ten Inch Record, Sixty Minute Man, I'm Wild About That Thing and a whole host of others that couldn’t played just about anywhere (That’s right Virginia, It wasn’t mine or even your generation that discovered sexual innuendo. Apparently people have been having sex for quite a while) Some of it was hot horns blowing for all they were worth and cool blues that just about made you want to die.
Rocket forward a few years to Sun Studios. Yes, that little place in Memphis where Elvis recorded probably his best work, certainly his best R&B/Rock records. (one of these articles we will have to discuss why Elvis is considered the King of Rock and Roll when he recorded very little that fits most people’s definition ) Who are the big five who recorded there? Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.  They were simply the class of 1955. Howlin’Wolf, Little Milton, Junior Parker, Charlie Rich and a whole host of others recorded there in every genre you can think of.

But is it Rock or not?

My personal favorite from his Sun Studio recordings
In my opinion, Yep. All of it’s Rock. You know why?
Because if you can feel the beat, if it moves your feet, if the music’s hot, if it makes you think, if it says fuck that old shit, listen to this, if it says that new stuff is crap, listen to this, if it makes you weep, then it’s good music and Rock is good music.

Because music is like life, it doesn’t like to be labeled or constrained; it’s all those things and more than we can name.
Because Rock has it roots, not in the 50’s or even the 40’s but in 1920’s!
Because we are more interested in talking about music then in categorizing it and that's why we'll be talking about anything that "rocks" whether it’s called rock or not. 
The shattering of Rock as a type of music has lead to a marvelous diversity in form. We have ‘rock” stars covering standards and the JPop artisits covering Cindy Lauper.  EddieVedder rocking an entire album played on Uklele.  How about Robert Plant recording Appalachian Blue Grass and more incredibly William Shatner recording an awesome cover of Common People better than the original? Mind. Blown.
Then again, this is probably why the record stores went out of business when they couldn’t figure out where to put the new stock.
Until next time, keep listening!

Songs you might want to hear:

I'm Wild About That Thing
Common People (William Shatner also Ben Folds)
Ukulele Songs [+Digital Booklet]

Sun Records 50th Anniversary

Mystery Train (2004 DSD remaster)

Girls Just Want To Have Fun

It Had to Be You... The Great American Songbook

Clicking these and buying means corporate america (Amazon) pays me.