Auto-tune + George Michael = a great combination

Published April 11, 2011

If you’re listening to mainstream pop these days, it’s virtually impossible to avoid the sound of the auto-tune effect on lead vocals. As such, its ubiquity has made it an increasingly controversial “gimmick”, at least among us old-timers who started listening to pop music long before Cher brought auto-tune-treated vocals into the mainstream with her 1998 mega-hit ‘Believe’.

Apparently, Kate Bush fans are currently up in arms because the singer has used auto-tune on her new single ‘Deeper Understanding’ (a re-make of a track from her 1989 Sensual World album). Another recent recording that has caused quite a stir is George Michael’s Comic Relief cover of New Order’s ‘True Faith’, on which Mr Panayiotou’s vocals have been heavily auto-tuned. Most people seem to hate it. Personally, I love it.

Auto-tune is a tool like any other in recorded music: it can be used to enhance a song or to ruin it. In this case, it has brought an elegiac feel to the recording, which I find quite moving. Imagine the opposite situation: George Michael over-emoting (as he has an unfortunate tendency to do) to showcase the “classic song qualities” of a tune us other mere mortals thought was simply a late-Eighties electronic dance track. Doesn’t sound very appealing to me. The fact of the matter is that he does manage to bring out a new dimension in 'True Faith', just by more subtle means. So give the man some credit for daring to take this route and mess with our expectations of both him as a vocalist and the song itself.

 

A kind of great Carpenters album

Published April 08, 2011

Reading the Little Girl Blue book, as blogged about the other day, sent me off on a Carpenters binge. I’ve been re-watching documentaries, browsing the good ol’ www, and, of course, listened to their music. Which got me thinking about how their music is perceived. I agree with Richard Carpenter when he says that “soft” doesn’t necessarily equal “bland”, and Carpenters are a good example of that, although to these ears they did stumble into bland territory on a few occasions.

However, I have to disagree with the general opinion of the 1976 release A Kind Of Hush, which seems to be Carpenters’ most-maligned studio album – the one that even die-hard Carpenters fans feel is bland. Even Richard Carpenter himself dislikes this album. Well, I have to admit that for listening from start to finish, this is my favourite Carpenters album. Remove ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ from the track list, and add the outtake ‘Ordinary Fool’ (not released until 1983), and it’s a near-perfect album. The song that’s often held up as the low-point of the album, ‘Goofus’, is one I absolutely love, just because it’s such a weird choice of song and they still manage to make something of it (I will admit I go through periods when all I want to listen to is ‘Goofus’) – although it’s definitely an album track and I have to wonder what Carpenters and A&M were thinking when they decided that it should be released as a single (was anyone really surprised when it only reached #56 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart?).

What I particularly like about the Kind Of Hush album is its melancholia, its toned-down pensiveness, for want of a better word. Except for ‘Breaking Up...”, the strained jollity that sometimes marred their work, is absent from this album. By 1976 Carpenters were tired, and they do sound tired – not in the “over-the-hill” sense, just like they need to take a step back and think things over for a while.

So if you’re a Carpenters fan and have decided to neglect this album, based on what you may have read in books, on the Internet or elsewhere, I say: give it a shot – you may be surprised.

 

Little Girl Blue - The Life Of Karen Carpenter

Published April 06, 2011

Whether you love them or loathe them, Carpenters certainly had everything to carve their own unique niche in pop music history: a distinctive sound, a strong image – and a back-story that simply couldn’t have been made up. Out of a conservative, wholesome, little-too-close-knit family emerges a brother-and-sister duo, who, despite being adult millionaires, are more or less unable to leave home because their domineering mother won’t let them. And when they finally do, they move in together. At the height of their career the male half of this supposedly “squeaky-clean” act has to take a year out to rid himself of a Quaalude addiction, and the girl develops Anorexia Nervosa, ultimately leading to her death.

If you’re a long-time Carpenters fan, like me, you may have already watched a number of documentaries and perhaps even read Ray Coleman’s authorised biography of the group. But even though Coleman touched on many of the uncomfortable aspects of the Carpenters story, it was clear that he was held back here and there and was unable to tell the full, uncensored story. Randy L Schmidt had no such considerations in his biography Little Girl Blue – The Life Of Karen Carpenter (published last year in the United States and Great Britain). Although it was already quite obvious that Richard and Karen’s mother, Agnes, with her curious combination of coldness, inhibition and the need to control everything and everybody, was probably not someone I would like to spend a lot of time with (regardless of the positive qualities I'm sure she had as well), Schmidt’s book makes it clear that she was often even worse than that.

But Little Girl Blue is mainly about Karen, of course: her amazing voice, the fantastic music and all the other fascinating aspects of the Carpenters story are not forgotten. I was hooked from the first page and found the book virtually unputdownable, although in the final few chapters I kept wishing that the story would not end the way it inevitably would.

A highly recommended book, and I urge you to use one of the ordering links to the right for an engrossing read.

 

What is a golden oldie?

Published March 31, 2011

It was some time during the first few months of 1985. I was listening casually to the radio when the DJ played Foreigner’s late 1984 hit ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, after which she proudly announced that no matter what other people thought, she would go on playing “golden oldies” like this. Needless to say, my jaw dropped. I think you will agree, dear reader, that a song that only recently slipped off the charts by definition cannot be a “golden oldie”. It was the first time that I had heard anyone use the expression “golden oldie” in a context that was so obviously inaccurate.

But is ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ a golden oldie today? Twenty-six years have passed since it was released, so it is certainly “old”. But for the life of me I still can’t think of that or any other hit from the Eighties as a golden oldie. In actual fact, anything recorded after, say, the mid-Seventies could never be labelled thus, as far as I’m concerned. This, of course, partly has to do with my own age. I am now in my mid-Forties and I first heard songs from the Eighties in “the present”, at which time golden oldies were songs from the Sixties and earlier.

I suppose for someone born in the Eighties or later, synth-pop, Phil Collins, Madonna’s first hits and whatever else was around while they were mere toddlers would qualify as “oldies”. But do they even use that terminology? I suspect most of them don’t, especially now that the world has become just one giant archive of music from all decades, where you can mix and match whatever songs that happen to tickle your fancy, regardless of when they were recorded. The need to define “old” and “new” music as clearly separate entities is probably not as prevalent today. Perhaps it has also become impossible.

I think it also has to do with recording techniques. Ever since the mid-Seventies, when 24-track recording came into wide-spread use, popular music has more or less sounded the same. Certainly, there have been technological advancements such as digital recording, and production aesthetics have varied over the years, but the sounds themselves have all been clearly defined with none of the limitations of the more “primitive” recording techniques utilised prior to the Seventies. It’s a long time since anything was produced to sound good on a transistor radio.

 A golden oldie, then, is not only defined by its age in relation to the moment when you’re listening to it, but it’s also about a sound that defines it as “old” in terms of the sound, where “old” really refers to “old recording techniques” – and perhaps “golden” would refer to a more innocent time, before mainstream popular music discovered politics, overt sex and drugs. According to Wikipedia, songs from the Eighties are more often referred to as “classic hits”, and that certainly sounds like a better term for describing ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’. But golden oldie? I don’t think so.

RIP iPod - not quite yet

Published March 28, 2011

Oh dear – yet another story about the decline, demise or, in this particular case, plain death of something related to the music industry. I’m beginning to wonder if it would be better for my emotional well-being never to read any such articles again. This particular story informs me that the iPod is about to become obsolete, because, apparently, what it does can now be done by other gadgets that can also do a million other things.

I do realise that I’ve never been what could be described as “an average music consumer”. I’ve always bought more singles, LPs and CDs, read more music magazines, and watched more music documentaries than most people. But while once I could at least labour under the illusion that I and “the average music consumer” basically wanted the same thing – i.e. owning a piece of music in physical form, to be played and played again –  today it seems Mr and Ms Average are more occupied with a series of “gadgets” that can be filled with “content”.

I’m not against technical development, but I have to admit I do find the subtexts of these stories – in this case, “whether you like it or not, you will soon be throwing away your iPod and buying one of these new gadgets instead” – deeply depressing. Call me sentimental, but if it’s all right with you I will hold on to my iPod a little longer. We’ve only been acquainted for a few years and are only now becoming true friends, and I don’t think I’m quite ready to throw it on the scrap-heap just yet.