Posts from 1st January 2002

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Jan 02

VOX POPMUSIC – R & B Tunes Of The Year

FT2 comments • 8,864 views

I’ve had this lingering unease about Tom’s “Vox” article since I read it, how his criteria work against his choices, and just what the real underlying criteria are. He looks for the best vocals as those that work integrally to the song. But he chooses the vocals which most distinguish themselves, not by rockist “authenticity” but by indie-rockist studio tricks and nervous tics. Vocals, then, overwhelmed in performance by additional layers of meaning, almost as though there’s something to be feared from the naked voice, in confronting the notion of “authenticity” it carries with it, and in fear of manipulation by the talent of performance.

Tom tars all R&B with the brush of Mariah Carey, all frills and no center, glitter for its own sake. But this can only come from a perspective where vocals, unless they’re full of frills, don’t matter. Why is it voices which “bully everything else into submission” at all? Why does a song need to be about anything but a voice, and why can’t the best voices define themselves not as the aggressive center of a song, but the natural center, as something so appropriate that to burden it with lavish production and effects would only be to bury its impact?

I came to R&B only last year, and only by the most deliberate effort, spurred by a friend who wouldn’t let up. We would take turns napstering files — R. Kelley followed by Daft Punk followed by Keith Sweat followed by Missy. Our only common ground was Aaliyah. She was our girl, our age, wildly successful, and untouchable. And through her, we passed over into different worlds, culminating when we first heard “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and I could only talk about flow while he could only talk about production.

She existed at this nexus, the female R&B star who could pull off slow jams and love songs, crossing into a man’s world while her contemporaries lost themselves in the past or flocked together in production-laden groups, running from the naked voice and finding safety in numbers. We knew the least about her personal life, but with every note she sang we knew everything she had to give. More than any other performer she erased the stigma of “authenticity” — why would we expect her to write and produce her songs when the transubstantiation of her voice was already enough?

He would ask me how I could listen to pop schlock like Destiny’s Child. I would ask him how he could listen to emotive schlock like R. Kelley “Imagine,” he said, “that you’re in a white suit and have roses. Imagine that you’re in a limo, and she’s in mink. That’s how you’re supposed to listen to this music.” And one morning, driving to work at 7am, hung over, head aching, I tuned the radio to K-Ci & Jo-Jo’s “Crazy” and it was the most soothing thing in the world, crawling over my skin and caressing me, subtly insinuating itself into my mood, transforming my upholstery from vinyl to leather. And I began to get it.

Listening to R&B can be draining, like listening to Merzbow. Seventy minute albums drawn with a limited palette, overwhelming in their repetition and consistency. But there’s also extraordinary catharsis to be found and a trancelike purity of meditation, production increasingly less bound to orthodox song structure and more draped over the invention of the singer — all interpretation and personality. The whole notion of arrangement in a traditional sense has been outdated by tracks like these, where classic structures have given way to establishing a relation between elements of the production, just as the sixteen-bar forms of classic jazz have given way to more fluid and emotionally responsive precepts in free jazz. So, then, as an answer to Tom’s vocals from songs not about vocals, I present my list of R&B tunes which are all about vocals.

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The Cottage Industry Of Moments

FT/4 comments • 10,926 views

British Bubblegum Pop 1968-1972

“Sunday morning, up with the lark,
I think I’ll take a walk in the park,
Hey hey hey, it’s a beautiful day …”

Daniel Boone, “Beautiful Sunday”, 1972

British bubblegum pop, circa 1968-1972 – as distinct from its more worldly and sophisticated American equivalent – is a pure insight into a country long gone. It’s simplistic, childish, over-excited, innocent, full of absolute certainties and safe knowledges.

It’s fabulous stuff.

It essentially bridged the gap between the poppier end of the mid-60s beat boom and glam rock

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