Friday, June 16, 2006

The Bliss of Good Vocals

A couple of years ago, I received some training to be a director of a barbershop harmony chorus. Most of this training was "on-the-job" and resulted in me actually directing a song during a concert and at several more informal performances. In addition to bobbing my hands in the right rhythm and such to get the chorus from the beginning to the end of the song in the manner I wanted, I also had to listen for bad vowel sounds, slurred words, non-blended notes, bad notes, tempo issues, etc. The experience instilled in me a tendency to wince when I hear such issues on the radio. This is why I love bands that have a great sound without sacrificing vocal quality.

Blue October is one such band. I cannot express the utter glee I feel when I hear the song "What If We Could" and can bask in the amazing ability of a singer to use the words "meet you" without it sounding like "me chew." Justin Furstenfeld has an amazing voice, and the man can enunciate and have good round vowels and perfect dipthongs without sounding pretentious, without sounding like he's working at it. When he does flatten a vowel or otherwise wander away from good vocals, it's because there's something going on with the song that requires a harsh or dissonant sound. For example, during one of my absolute favorite tracks on Foiled, "Congratulations," at one point the words come out as if through clenched teeth, which makes perfect sense because the lyrics indicate he's sad he missed his chance to say how he really felt about a person, and now he's trying to tell this person he's happy for her in her new relationship.

There are many great things about Blue October's vocals, but it makes me beyond happy to hear words that are clear. In fact, the words are so clear in what they are that you actually get a chance to ponder what they mean. The lyrics are often like poetry: images and phrasings and combinations of words that describe something beyond their literal expression. This makes listening to them both a pleasure and a challenge, for me at least. Poetry has never been one of my strong suits. However, I can take cues for understanding the lyrics in the way the vocals are presented and in the music itself. And let me tell you how much fun that is. The music in and of itself is great, but if you want to go deeper, you can. Plus, you don't have silly things like random, superfluous notes or wince-inducing vowels and consonant combos to distract you.

Now, if only other great bands would follow this example. I'm thinking in particular of Depeche Mode and Garbage. They've got such a great sound, but then they do the standard "me chew" instead of "meet you" crap that throws me right out their music. I've tried to ignore it, honestly, but after those few months of directing barbershop, it's impossible. I can't shut down that part of my hearing. Unfortunately.

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