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Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday I’m in love

This Friday we continue our new feature—arbitrary but fun value judgments—with a twist:  our first ever guest blogger, the one and only Janet Lyon.  Take it away, Janet!

Greetings, Michael-blog readers:

This really isn’t anything more than a longish addendum to last week’s “perfect pop song” discussion. I am painfully aware that 204 comments have been added to that post, although I didn’t read them all because unlike some people in my household I actually have to prepare classes and show up in the classroom from time to time. So if you’re already pop-saturated, feel free to go grade a paper or boil an egg or download a pop song instead of reading this. Michael will be back soon, I promise.

In my view, the perfect pop song has one or both of two things: perfect (and perfectly mixed) back-up vocals, and/or perfect hooky instrumentation before and between verses (not to be confused with a “solo” in the middle of the song, which is entirely unimportant). Good back-up vocals act as a kind of enchanted glue for a pop song. On the one hand they body forth a lanky little community hanging out around the song: they understand that song very well, and they slip in comments like they were calling from the front porch, and they make that song bigger and chummier than it had any right to hope for. (Hand claps can sometimes accomplish this too, particularly if they’re drunken hand claps. I love hand claps.) On the other hand, back-up vocals impose a certain structural and emotional order that keeps the song anchored firmly in its pop-slot. Back-ups keep lead vocalists from going around the bend, and they also fill up those uncomfortable aural spaces that would otherwise accrue around a vocal line. (Imagine “Spirit in the Sky” without backups and you’ll see what I mean.)

Michael’s vote for Most Perfect Pop Song went to Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind” which, though unremarked upon by my ever-remarking-upon spouse, has perfect backup vocals. They are in any case perfect for the song, being at once banal and cynical. They’re also perfectly mixed. (And I guess, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I notice mixing and everything else about back-ups because I used to sing back-up vocals, and all my sisters and my brother and my sister-in-law have done or do back-up vocals, and my mother and her sisters did back-up vocals.) But “Cruel to be Kind” doesn’t have the other perfect pop component, that is, perfect inter-verse instrumentation—not that it has to, remember, since perfect pop songs need only one of two pop-ponents. My favorite pop song of all time doesn’t really even have discernible backups, but it does have the best before-and-between-verse instrumentation ever. It’s The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and what’s better than that gorgeously fingered Rickenbacker-y guitar that opens the song and weaves its way through to the end, and even manages to make sense of Robert Smith’s smeary ecstatic ululations late in the track, when a mixing engineer less courageous than The Cure’s would have hit the fade button rather than keep up the guitar line?  (Plus the lyrics are fab.)

So now for a couple-two-three examples of back-ups. Usually I like an anonymous chunk of voices, but it should be said that there are some tremendous individual back-up vocalists, like Bonnie Bramlett, to name just one. Okay, she’s got great pipes whether she’s singing lead or back-ups, but to get a taste of what she can do behind a song try to find “Soul Shake,” recorded with Delbert McClinton. (Yes, she’s famous for slugging Elvis Costello after he drunkenly uttered what sounded to her like a racial slur. But she should also be famous for her voice.) Other surprising front-to-back or back-to-front standouts: Lyn Collins, Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell.  As for just-right pop back-ups: early specimens include “The Boy from New York City” (Ad Libs), “He’s So Fine” (Chiffons) pretty much everything by Sly and the Family Stone (think “Hot Fun,” “Stand”), tons of Beatles songs (there’s plenty about the Beatles on this blog already, but think “Girl” and “Paperback Writer”), most early Motown songs, and especially those immaculate Pips backing Gladys Knight, and especially on “Midnight Train to Georgia”; plus the Four Tops—e.g. “Bernadette,” the song that inspired a nearly-religious homage in Londonbeat’s “Thinking About You,” which, by the way, has great back-ups plus great inter-verse instrumentation. And of course, from Chicago, The Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her?”).

Three songs with admirable back-ups that cannot be admitted here: “Walk on the Wild Side” (too much heroin), Joe Cocker’s “A Little Help from my Friends” (too much beer-oin), and Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” (too many verses, too sensitive, but jeez, those back-ups and that plangent, drunken concertina!).  And another that would be admitted if anyone had heard it: Leon Russell’s “Bluebird.” More recently (and really happy-making): The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed” and Futureheads, “Hounds of Love.” It’s so great having a 19-year-old son named Nick.

There are of course dozens and dozens of pop songs that have great hooky instrumentation, and I’ll name only an eclectic few: Blur, “Out of Time”; Liz Phair, “Supernova”; Hollies, “Bus Stop”; John Lennon, “It’s Only Love”; The Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang”; and, dare I say it, Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Michael tells me I must stop.  Something about “band” “width.” And just as I was about to rattle off a a list of rarified pop songs that have both super back-ups and instrumentation that runs like a golden stitch through the song.  I’ll leave you with three: The Easybeats, “Friday On my Mind”; Ray Charles, “Unchain my Heart”; “Chain of Fools” and anything else that Aretha Franklin recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section.  The rest is up to you.

Have a good weekend, and remember to tip your back-up singers.

--Janet

Posted by Michael on 04/29 at 10:05 AM
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