Ever since I wrote it, I've been thinking about the way I framed my recent Walkmen post:
Compelling frontmen with strong voices and a grasp of emotional and lyrical nuance are a rare breed in indie rock, a genre that has typically favored effacing the lead vocal through reverb, distortion, a low mix, nonsensical lyrics, or an enigmatic personality for the better part of twenty-five or thirty years.
This line of thought has stuck in my craw for a few reasons, none of which relate to the Walkmen. First, I grant that it's too broad a statement. There are plenty of dynamic and compelling singers in indie rock. Nevertheless indie—I'm using this term as an umbrella for a lot of sub-genres—seems to have more than its share of bands who use an obscured or effaced vocal as part of its aesthetic. (It's also more than indie: contemporary hip hop has been big on obscuring vocals via vocoder for a few years now.)
But as common as it is—as pervasive as it is—I don't find many people thinking of obscured vocals as an aesthetic that has been passed down through decades of music (beyond referencing shoegaze and leaving it at that). Compare to the way critics might analyze, say, harmony—an utterly fundamental element of songwriting, yet something that can be placed within different traditions. This band harmonizes like the Beach Boys, that band like the Beatles, those guys like the Everly Brothers. This act is influenced by doo-wop, that act by choral music. Three-part, four-part, fifths, thirds. Obscured vocals, on the other hand, don't seem to be thought of as being part of a tradition—or, I should say, the tradition has not been formalized or canonized.
There are some obvious touchstones, of course: the Jesus and Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, My Bloody Valentine, the entire shoegaze genre. But I don't think it's that narrow. Nor does it get at the many ways in which bands might choose to blur or subvert their vocals—extra reverb being only one avenue to travel. For instance, I was thinking similarly about the anti-frontman, low mixes (and/or the lo-fi aesthetic), and spoken word as I was writing my Spiderland book. That too is part of the larger tradition in indie rock of obscuring the lead vocal. It's one part studio affectation, one part anti-rock-star persona.
I've been mulling this over for a couple of weeks or so now, digging through my collection and my memory in search of some kind of thread, trying to discover how this aesthetic developed. Clearly it's a pandora's box: I came up with a good 50 or 60 songs stretching back to the 1960s, and that's just what's in my own collection. In fact the whole project has become so overwhelming to me that I'm almost ready to throw up my hands; I was looking for trees but by now all I see is forest.
This is something I'll probably be thinking about for a long time going forward, and may revisit here or elsewhere in a bigger way. But for now I just want to throw the idea out there in hopes some of you readers might think about it too.
Rather than tackle the big picture in one blog post, I'd rather start with a few antecedents as examples of the various threads I have winding through my mind, in some attempt to hone in on this aesthetic and how it has evolved from an experimental recording technique into full-blown musical genres (plural!). Am I forgetting anything? Let me know in the comments.
1. Turn Up the Reverb
- The Flamingos: I Only Have Eyes For You (1959)
- Buffalo Springfield: Expecting To Fly (1967)
- The Monkees: Porpoise Song (1971)
Reverb has been a staple of the studio for decades, and in fact dates even further back to the natural echo supplied by singing in cathedrals or opera houses. It's used on about a million classic songs, so it's hard to say what was the turning point from an artificial studio effect that took away some of the dryness of a cold microphone to its use in a more extreme fashion. These are three songs by acts who didn't regularly indulge the echo, but the effect clearly impacts the loveliness of these individual songs.
2. The Anti-Frontman
- The Velvet Underground: The Black Angel's Death Song (1967)
There are countless ways in which the Velvet Underground were the anti-Beatles and the anti-Stones, and Lou Reed's whole persona as a frontman is definitely one of them. Reed's New York cool was tough and stylish, but it didn't swagger like Jagger or preen like McCartney. Reed's vocals had their hooks and melodies, but they also sometimes veered toward monologue. His voice was also sometimes subsumed by the music; cacophony was often the point for VU songs, and Reed's voice is kept low in the mix (relative to, say, Mick Jagger always front and center). It's an approach that has had a long-lasting influence on countless bands who willingly reject the cliche Rock Star persona and its flamboyant lead singer, to the point that being an anti-rock star is just as much of a cliche.
3. All about the Atmosphere
- Can: Yoo Doo Right (1969)
- Silver Apples: Oscillations (1968)
Around the same time as the VU, the so-called "cosmic music" movement coalescing in Germany was exploring all variety of ways to break down the traditional song form. Repetition and improvisation were major components for all of these krautrock bands, many of whom were instrumental. Can was not. "Yoo Doo Right," from Monster Movie, their first official album and the only one to feature U.S. transplant Malcolm Mooney on vocals, is a 20-minute, side-long epic; it's rhythmic, hypnotic, and constantly forward-moving. Mooney's voice, like Reed's in "The Black Angel's Death Song," is usually equal in the mix to the other instruments, only occasionally reaching above the fray. His repetitive lyrics and melody become just as mesmerizing as the rhythms and the guitar textures.
"Texture" is a key word. It's not surprising that many of the bands and genres that would later embrace effaced vocals are also musically spacious and atmospheric. The Silver Apples are probably the first space rock band (if that's different from cosmic music); the music they made was vast and otherworldly, helped along by Simeon's massive synthesizer set-up and Dan Taylor's steady but unobtrusive drumming. Though the duo didn't exactly treat their voices with effects, their near-monotone harmonies were layered over every song. Each track on their debut album seems like a variation on the same idea. Their twin vocals ultimately fold into the atmosphere of the overall album.
- The Sonics: Shot Down (1965)
As far as I can tell the first use of distorted vocals wasn't acheived through adding a special effect, but rather by simply pushing the recording levels into the red. Garage acts like the Sonics were loud and raucous, and if that meant screaming at full lung a little too close to the microphone, so be it. Push the needles into the red—that's how you know they're not fucking around!
How does this all lead to chillwave and Grizzly Bear and Radio Dept. and the myriad bands today cluttering the indie landscape (for better or worse)? It's a long and winding road, to be sure. To me it seems a fascinating road to travel, even if at times it borders on something so pervasive as to be mundane. At any rate this is something I'll likely return to in future posts (famous last words, I know). If any of you out there have your own theories or input or know of others who have already traced this trajectory, let me know!