Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

If The NY Times Says So...

The New York Times wrote a big piece in this past Sunday's Arts & Leisure section about soul music's big comeback. Soul music in the air - but the true messenger has not been found yet. John Legend and Corinne Bailey Ray are too polite, the American Idol contingent is a vacuous facsimile of the real thing and the Hip-Hop artists mining Soul are, well, Hip-Hop.

When the right artist comes with the right song, it's going to blow up. It's the only music around that can appeal to everyone, and when it's done right, it rings authentically true in such an ecstatic way that you'd have to be dead not to respond.


NYCD Online said...

"When the right artist comes with the right song, it's going to blow up."

I think that's key. But there is a bigger problem with today's current "soul" artists. No one can sing. Your favorite artists, who also happen to be some of my favorite artists, Aretha, Otis, and Al Green had two very important things in common. They had songs and they could sing. Neither of those qualities exists anymore, ESPECIALLY in today's new "soul" movement.

The reason I think Corinne Bailey Rae is the best new artist in recent years is because she has both of those qualities. Every song on her debut has the potential to be a hit. The songs are hook-filled and most important, she can sing. In the old days, that album would have had 7 top 40 singles. Today, it's just about over. Although, you are correct. She is not the new "soul" queen."

Would it be fair to say that the new soul movement started with Boyz II Men? Their success still baffles me. They could not sing. Watching them perform, fingers in their ears, searching for their notes was comical. Spinal Tap harmonizing to Heartbreak Hotel over Elvis' grave was more musical. Why didn't anyone notice how off-key Boyz II Men were? Their melismatic vocal theatrics were a cacophonus mess. Even Stevie Wonder, the man who brought that vocal style to new heights, was hit and miss when attempting 20 notes per second. And he's Stevie Wonder for Pete's sake.

Since then we have seen the following have their days in the sun: D'Angelo, R. Kelly, Brian McKnight, Angie Stone, Jill Scott, and the Queen of all offenders Mary J. Blige. NONE of these people can sing. How is it that no one hears this? Have you ever heard Aretha, Otis, or Al Green sing a bad note? Ever?! It just never happened. Just because Mary J. Blige slaps her chest, gets down on her knees, and cries out for help, doesn't change the fact that she is consistently sharp. You would think Pro Tools could fix this, but yet, she still has trouble in the studio. Yet, people love her. Smart people. Music people. I don't get it. There is more soul on the first Led Zeppelin album than on any of the albums by these phonies.

I have been collecting old soul for years. I have accumulated hundreds and hundreds of CDs. CDs featuring artists no one has ever heard. Bootleg CDs compiled from scratchy old vinyl, just so someone can hear Ironing Board Sam, Good Time Charlie, and Jimmy Lewis. Artists that never made it out of their small towns in Georgia or Alabama. Artists that somehow managed to record one or two songs, and then never sing another note again. ALL of them can sing better than the artists that are now being touted as the cream of new soul crop.

Their have been some excellent new soul records. Records by Bettye Lavette, Irma Thomas, Howard Tate, Candi Staton, and Solomon Burke have all been brilliant returns to form. Note: all 5 of these artists are 30-40 years into their careers and still haven't lost their touch vocally. These records are real "soul" records, but of course the little fanfare each received, has now faded, while MJ Blige continues to grace the cover of magazines and perform poorly on awards shows.

There will never be another soul movement like that of the 60's and early 70's as long as the people in charge continue to NOT pay attention. They may be able to make money by selling a product, someone good-looking or "hard working." But that doesn't mean it sounds good. People need to "listen" to music. Once that actually happens, then they can start marketing it. Not the other way around.

Ben Lazar said...

I think the most important thing you touched upon is the unfortunate occurance of "melismatic" vocals. Jerry Wexler called it "oversouling." Ever since the rise of Whitney and Mariah, vocal gymnastics have been confused with actual soul. When I used to hear R&B singers audition at Island/Def Jam, so many of them were far more concerned with the gymnastics than actually communicating the lyric to the listener. Unfortunately, lots of people are impressed with that shit. I pray that a great singer comes along to put an end to that.

In regard to Mary J., I'm a fan. Not a huge one, but a fan. I think No More Drama is a great record - but is she the new Aretha? Of course not. I've never seen her live though, so I haven't noticed her being sharp when she sings live.

There will never be a soul movement like there was in the 60's and 70's because, well, it's not the 60's and 70's anymore. Back then, it was the soundtrack to a revolution in this country and while perhaps it might resonate in a larger broader context in the future, it won't be what it was. It'll be something new, and what it will be is still entirely up for grabs.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem with r&b today is so much a lack of good singers, but rather a lack of real songs. Black radio is full of people who can sing. However, a lot of r&b records are just a half-assed melody and cliched lyrics over a hot track (more specifically, a hot beat). The reason oversinging is so prevalent is that the melodies and lyrics are so weak that the singers must go to great pains to convey some kind of excitement, passion and meaning to the listener. Basically, they're overcompensating for a lack of soul in the music & lyrics. It's striking sometimes when I realize that I'm listening to someone doing a whole bunch of riffing and hollering about a bunch of nothing and I think to myself "My God. What are you shouting about?"

There are many artists selling lots of records whom, one could argue, are not great singers - either in the sense that they just can't carry a tune (but can riff!), or in the sense that they can carry a tune but cannot access and convey the meaning of a lyric. However, to say that Jill Scott cannot sing - or Brian McKnight, or Angie Stone - is way off base. Not to mention Boys II Men, D'Angelo and R. Kelly. One may not like their choice of material or may not care for their style of singing, but they can sing, some of them very, very well. Regarding Whitney, the proof of her greatness as a singer was in they way that she could take the corniest material and make you believe that she meant it through the power and soul in her voice ("Yeah, I get it! I want to dance with somebody, too!").

Mary's interesting. I like her, but I don't think she's a great singer. Furthermore, I'm not sure most of her fans think she's a great singer either, nor do they care. I think they relate to her and they've made her an icon. As a result, she's now the go-to soul singer for the industry: when Elton John, Tony Bennett, Sting or U2 want to team up with a soul singer, they call Mary. Her mediocre single is even nominated for a song of the year Grammy, one of 8 nominations for her. I'm not mad at her, though. I think she is this generation's Aretha and it has nothing to do with having the vocal chops. People feel her. Now that I think about it, I guess that's soul, isn't it.

Anonymous said...

I understand the difference between a great singing voice and a "technically perfect" singing voice. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger. The list goes on. These people may not technically have "great singing voices," but they know how to present their material. The artists I listed, ESPECIALLY Boyz II Men and Mary J. Blige, can NOT sing. Mary's voice is many things- powerful, emotional, sexy. But the thing it is most, is sharp. I'm not trying to be Felix Unger and present myself as some snobby audiophile. Just listen. BOYZ II MEN--same thing. When they sang together, it sounded like car horns in a traffic. One or more of them were flat. Almost all the time.

As cheesy as I feel Beyonce and Whitney's material may be, THEY can SING. I don't own any of their records, and I don't care about either of them. But I can recognize the quality of their voices.

An interesting defense of Mary J. Blige. It is hard to disagree with

"I think she is this generation's Aretha and it has nothing to do with having the vocal chops. People feel her. Now that I think about it, I guess that's soul, isn't it."

Yeah, it may be soul, but can you list 10 singers from the 50's, 60's, or 70's that were praised as much as Mary J. , that needed a disclaimer like "it has nothing to do with vocal chops?"

This is NYCD Online by the way. I just couldn't log in for some reason.