I’ve been planning this for a while. Some of my friends have heard me talking about it for a few weeks now. This is my first post in a series where I talk about the music I like and why I like it. At the least, it may generate some interesting comments. At best, I’m hoping to get some suggestions on new music to listen to. I have decided to organize the posts by musical “characteristics”. Going from there, several natural divisions fall out. This post is dedicated to music that grabs me because of vocal harmony.
Before we get going, a comment: if I know you, and you find yourself interested in the post, please drop me an email. I can point you to some more info that you’ll find helpful.
I’ve found that the best word to describe my experience of music is “visceral”. When I listen to a piece of music, either it grabs something in my gut and pulls, or it doesn’t. There’s lots of music out there that I appreciate–for its creativity, for its message, for its simplicity–that I simply don’t enjoy. Despite years of trying, I’ve been unable to draw a circle around the music I enjoy with words, so I’m going to try using examples.
Amy can tell you that if there’s any one characteristic about a piece of music that’s more likely than any other to signal something I enjoy, it’s vocal harmony. I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing in a church that didn’t use instruments. It meant that I grew up surrounded in four-part harmony two or three times a week. It also helped that I inherited a natural ear for pitch and a decent voice. Side note: it’s pretty amusing growing up as a rail-skinny kid who suddenly develops a bass voice.
Anyway, that bass voice leads me to my first example. It’s always a good sign when I can’t help but sing along with a song when it comes on the radio. This one isn’t exceptional, but it’s just fun. The song is Still the One by Orleans. It’s one of the few rock/pop songs that actually has a vocal bass line that I can sing, and I just can’t help myself whenever I hear it on the radio.
Continuing on the vein of light and fun, Aerosmith’s Pump album is one that I keep coming back to. In the context of vocal harmony, The Other Side is a favorite. Again, it’s not deep or complex, but I think there’s something about how they keep siding back and forth between major and minor chords. Also, this one (like Still the One) has a section in the middle where they kind of “break it down” a little and let the voices poke through.
Now… as far as “breaking it down” goes, there’s no way I could leave out Motownphilly from Boyz II Men’s debut, Cooleyhighharmony. I mean, these guys are all about vocal harmony, and the bridge of this song is dedicated to showing off how well they do it. We also get back to that singable bass line again. 🙂 I don’t have the pipes to do this one justice, but I give it a shot when I’m by myself. By the way, this is the only album of theirs I like. Their later stuff just got a bit too sappy (which will sound pretty strange when I get to my post on power ballads, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Before we move onto some of the more unusual stuff, I have to throw in a song from a group that is about as unpretentious as they come: Huey Lewis and the News. Their song Jacob’s Ladder, from Fore!, is probably not the most obvious choice, but it combines their vocal harmony abilities with a nice solid rock base. I find that combination more enjoyable than some of the more obvious harmony pieces, like Naturally.
I know some of you have been waiting for it. I haven’t thrown in a single hair rock band yet. Part of the reason is that I really am finally growing out of a lot of the pure hair rock. The songs that I do still like I tend to like for reasons other than vocal harmony. However, there’s no way I could do this list without throwing in what is perhaps my biggest guilty pleasure. Luckily for all of you, I don’t do this with other people in the room, but I just LOVE singing along on the high harmony parts with the Wonder Twins (my pet name for Gunnar and Matthew Nelson). Nelson’s (Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection will coax me into using my head voice quicker than any other song I know. I know it’s cheese. I know I sound terrible singing it, but it’s just so much fun!
Now I get to have fun by surprising some folks. Everything so far has been pretty standard (at least for me). While I will freely admit that my musical tastes can be a bit narrow, there are a few entries here that stretch a little bit, so I wanted to be sure to include those. In the country category, I have to include a song from my favorite non-whiny country band, Alabama. I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why) is only one of MANY examples of Alabama songs that have hooked me over the years. I don’t know the band members by name, but one of the guys sings a second tenor/baritone part that exactly fits my range. I would be VERY happy to find a group of guys who needed that part filled in a band… just for fun, even. That’s actually another good point to bring up here. I much more often find myself singing harmony vocals on songs than the lead. Part of that is because male leads are usually too high for me, but I also just kind of “get off on” providing harmony backing vocals. If I ever found a group of folks just having fun jamming that are looking for a baritone/low tenor voice to fill in the chords, I would be having some serious fun.
Another country artist that has hooked me is Sara Evans. Her album Born to Fly has a couple of gems on it that grabbed me and pulled hard. Her stuff is definitely pop country, but it’s pretty heavily influenced by bluegrass, and I think that’s what’s hooking me. Why Should I Care is my favorite. Once again, there’s a tenor part in there that’s just way fun to sing. I don’t have the vocal style to make bluegrass (even bluegrass-tinged pop like this) sound good, but I can at least hit the notes. I probably need to dig deeper into some real bluegrass harmony stuff and see if I like it as much as this.
Colter McCorkindale (first a friend of Amy’s) gets credit for this next one. Colter is an awesome musician that listens to a LOT more music than I do. One day while Amy and I were at his place, I started mentioning my penchant for vocal harmony, and he introduced me to a group called Jellyfish. These guys are doing some serious channeling of the Beach Boys, but they manage to do it without singing about surfing and cute girls all the time. The best example I know of what I like about their harmony comes toward the end of Joining a Fan Club from their album Spilt Milk. The harmonies here are just lush. It’s so over-the-top, it’s perfect. I’d sing a part if I could just pick one out. The chords are so tight that I’ve never been able to figure out which voice is singing what. Forget the fact that the instrumental stuff going on is just as big.
So… we’ve gone all the way from the fun but mundane, all the way around to the big and unusual. Well, no discussion of what I like about vocal harmony would be complete if I didn’t bring this back around to my “roots”. As I said, I grew up in a church that doesn’t use instruments in worship. That belief has spawned many groups creating music this way, but one of the ones I’ve always enjoyed the best is Acappella. It was so hard for me to pick one example song here, that I decided to pick two. First is one of their early ones, Better Than Life. This one lacks a lot of the extras that they tried to throw into their later albums, and I appreciate the simplicity of it. As a teenager, I worshiped Rodney Britt’s amazing tone as he hit those bass notes. It’s so unusual to find someone like that with both the range and the tone. My other example from Acappella is from after they had switched most their personnel. The song is called Rescue, and it is simply one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I’m going to end up coming back to this one later in a “lead voices” post. For now, I have to focus on the tightness of this vocal harmony. The word “lush” comes to mind again. They are being helped in this song by more sophisticated production, but it’s still quite simple in arrangement.
Well, that’s it for now. Hopefully I didn’t lose you in all of that. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but I guess I’m hoping that by giving some examples, folks can help me find some new stuff, and I can begin to show that I do like more than just hair rock. 🙂 Drop in a comment if you find this interesting, and once again, if I know you, send me an email.