Sunday, April 16, 2006

Littlest birds sing the prettiest songs

Little birds

The Littlest Birds - The Be Good Tanyas

Mad Tom of Bedlam - Jolie Holland

Last weekend I was talking to a friend, and I'm not sure how it came up, but he said he didn't think Sasha Frere-Jones was a very good writer. I'm not one of those rabid SFJ fans--I wander over to his blog maybe twice a month and I read his longer New Yorker pieces--but I still felt compelled to defend the guy. Good writing, of course, is subjective. I'm swayed by clarity and elegance, another reader might prefer poetry or pyrotechnics. If the popularity of Pitchfork and Stylus is any indication, there are at least several hundred thousand who like their rock crit with a heavy shot of baroque obfuscation. Whatever. My response to my SFJ-disliking friend was this: Anyone who can get me to read 1,500 words on Mariah Carey and enjoy it is doing something.

The article in question appears in the April 3 New Yorker. In it, SFJ makes a persuasive argument for Carey's economic potency (at 17 number one hits, she's tied with Elvis), cultural significance (she has almost single-handedly "established R&B and hip-hop as the sounds of pop") and "freakish vocal ability" (arguably has hit a G-sharp three and a half octaves above middle C). Does this mean I want to listen to even 30 seconds of a Carey song or care in any way about her career or personal struggles? Uh, no. But I'm intrigued by this rich and complex Mariah Carey trope, this Mariah Carey subject as mediated by Sasha Frere-Jones.

Carey's most notable vocal trait, and one SFJ goes to great lengths to elucidate, is melisma--a technique that makes me want to saw my own ears off. Melisma has kept me from participating in the great communal exercise known as American Idol (even when a coworker's niece made the semifinal rounds) and has been known to drive me to drop potential purchases and rush from clothing stores that pipe in top 40 hits. If these are the olympic athletes of popular music, please, hand over the kids ditching gym class--I'll take em.

I'm being facetious of course. As much as I love indie pop, I'm also growing weary of the shy and inept singing that passes for DIY authenticity. What does attract me are rather ordinary singers with something special--unusual phrasing, palpable enthusiasm--or vocalists with extraordinary natural talent that hasn't been stretched and polished. In a way, The Be Good Tanyas, as captured on the bright, bubbling song "The Littlest Birds" offer all of these.

By the time they recorded their first album, Blue Horse (US, UK), on which Birds is the lead track, founder Jolie Holland had officially left the Vancouver-based band for San Francisco, but she appears on several numbers, including Birds. Her voice is an odd and wonderful thing, honeyed, husky and earthy, but also bearing an otherworldly resonance. Not a few have compared her, accurately I'd say, to Billie Holiday. While Holland lends herself with equal facility and authority to blues, jazz and bluegrass compositions, Samantha Parton, acting as charming counterpoint to Holland on Birds, is more of a country gal. Her breezy, affable soprano carries the spirit of the song, its carefree wanderlust. Lines borrowed from Syd Barrett's "Jugband Blues" suggest graver things might be going on, and there's the fact that both the song's shuffling beat and a line about "soles of your traveling shoes" are reminiscent of Paul Simon's "Diamonds On The Souls of Her Shoes." Intriguing reference points for a lil alt-country song. The overall effect, though, is an off-the-cuff sunniness and you can imagine the Tanyas smiling and nodding and swinging their legs on wooden fold-out chairs on some dusty stage, perfection and professionalism the last things on their minds.

Jolie Holland is set to release a new album, Springtime Can Kill You (US, UK) on May 9. "Mad Tom of Bedlam" appears on her last LP, Escondida (US, UK).


Blogger No Frontin' said...

I have to agree with you on SFJ. While I'm inclined to be a hater his pieces always keep you reading and I suppose there's something to be said for someone exposing hip hop to the New Yorker crowd. What that "something" is I'm not sure.

4:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen to this:
Hope you like it!

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is like three years late, but I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your review. Great writing.

10:49 PM  

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