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Slow Songs Say So Much

http://http://excaliburgraphics.us/everafterplanner/wedding%20dance%20go%20dance%20studio%20austin%20tx.jpgSlow Dance

                                                       During the mid 1990’s when I was seriously getting interested in funk, the only way that was really practical to hear the music that was interesting to me was via the Mercury Funk Essentials  series. The ones that I purchased were through the now defunct BMG Record Club and the artists involved were The Bar Kays,Cameo  and Con Funk Shun (all of whom had two volumes) as well as a double Ohio Players anthology in the same series called Funk On Fire. The interesting part is these compilations contained a good share of slow ballad numbers. And I’d always skip over them to the funk oriented material. Searching on Amazon.com today there was a comment on a music review about how slow songs in soul/funk was “grown up music”. Probably a comment with the tongue planted a little bit in their cheek. At the same time it reminded me of my own approach to funk and soul. Even today only a handful of slow songs (mainly by Ohio Players,Heatwave,Earth Wind & Fire,The Isley Brothers and Con Funk Shun) have truly impacted on me. So for reasons I’ll discuss a bit later in this article, the subject of slow funk and soul seemed a good subject to go into.

                                                 Seems that a few years ago Beyonce’ herself suggested that,vocally fast and slower songs were the biggest challenge while mid tempo songs were the most simple-since apparently the natural human rhythmic cadence is itself in the mid tempo area. With the majority of commercial soul/R&B songs never veering outside the mid tempo today,there is also an enormous proportion of female singers as opposed to musicians of either gender. One thing that has changed enormously is a sexual reversal in the music. Female singers have come to be more aggressive lyrically and musically-and have tended more and more towards dance oriented material and the “oversouling” vocal method. Younger male singers have generally adopted a far less aggressive vocal posture. And most of the soul/funk slow jams recorded today are done not by Whitney Houston,Diana Ross or Gladys Knight but rather people such as Joe and Tyrese-who are more in mold of Luther Vandross and Babyface who really innovated the softer voiced slow jam type singer. Many 70’s and 80’s uptempo funk singers have also gotten involved in this.

                                               One prime example is Charlie Wilson. He was the lead singer and keyboard player of The Gap Band from 1974 up until roughly 1994-including a massively successful string of uptempo funk hits in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Today Charlie is given many lifetime achievement awards for his work outside the Gap Band,again primarily slow ballad oriented. While in political terms this might have to due with Charlie’s involvement in troop support during the decade long “war on terror”, its also important to note that even on his newest album Love Charlie there are always strong funk songs on his album, but they are presented as album tracks at best: at worst,as filler. This was also the scenario for Lionel Richie in The Commodores. The band consisted of very strong musicianship from a group of Tuskegee graduates who actually helped innovate a number of  southern funk sub-genres,with the very rare presence of black management as well.. By the late 70’s the slow ballad songs Lionel had written for other artists such as “Still” and “Three Times A Lady”, as suggested by their co-producer James Anthony Carmichael,were the songs they were becoming known for as opposed to “Brick House” or “Slippery When Wet”.

                                              In the end it would seem that even fifteen years ago my reasons for skipping past the slow jams on funk albums or collections has more to do with music politics than personal taste. On the other hand,often funk bands best songs can be their slower ones. Kool & The Gangs’ “Summer Madness”,Ohio Players “Good Luck Charm”, the aforementioned Gap Band’s “You Light Up My Life” (NOT the Debbie Boon song by the way),”Bootsy Collins “Vanish In Our Sleep”  as well as slow jam Isley Brothers masterpieces such as “Sensuality” and “Voyage To Atlantis”-not to mention Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”,”Love’s Holiday”,”Devotion” and “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. These songs had enormous lyrical heart,spirited song craft and intense instrumental vitality. And are much needed examples of why a slow soul/funk ballad can really do a lot for a band/soloist in the right hands. On that note I bid you adieu for a few weeks for two interrelated reasons. Do to a lot of good and not so good things happening in my life at the moment, I am dealing with a bad case of writers block in terms of totally original ideas. So time to enjoy a bit of the brief Maine summer while recharging my creative batteries. Enjoy your July and your music!

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Overselling,Oversinging And Oversouling Your Music: A Highly Vocal Dilemma

Maroon 5 Video Shoot For "Moves Like Jagger" With Christina Aguilera

                     Christina Aguilera’s photograph is shown here because she perfectly exemplifies the entire topic of this article.  Recently I wrote an article here about singing hinting at what I am about to say tonight. But I wanted to expand on that more. All of my adult life, soul music has always been a passion of mine. In fact its come to a point where I flat out tell everyone that, rather than focusing in on the dreary instrumentation and dry singing that permeates a lot of alternative rock type music its that quality of soul, in whatever genre I find it in, that peaks my aural interest more and more. Basically soul singing could be easiest described as a quality of singing directly from your heart but,most importantly carefully controlling the way in which your voice projects these emotions. Its basically a matter of tension and release.  Aguilera has an enormous performance charisma and the image of a classic Hollywood movie starlette, which is ideal for the image conscious music world of today. In terms of depth and richness, her vocal instrument is actually quite a powerful one too. It is the way in which she, and many others present that voice of which I am about to speak of.

                     Whenever I’d travel with my father during the beginning of my rising adulthood, we would often play music on the car CD player for each other and talk about it among ourselves. One thing we often discussed was the phenomenon of oversinging. It is a term that means what it says, and a very common one too. Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson have all oversung at one time or another. And sometimes, it does actually enhance a song. But you have to know when to use this technique. Yet especially in the modern R&B genre, oversinging has gone to a whole new level since the ringing in of the new millennium. At the root is singers making themselves the center of attention-pushing themselves and their voices out front and center and generally over emoting. I had no particular name for this modern variation of  so called “soul” singing. So I am about to do something very out of character for me: quote another writer because John Eskow of the Huffington Post defined this vocal phenomenon so wonderfully in an article he wrote on February 8th,2011. The word he coined was oversoaling, a term originally conceived by Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler . Here is what he said about that way of singing:

                 “To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem — and “rendition” is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured — was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she “lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony.

           This is the same grotesque style — 17 different notes for every vocal syllable — that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera — who admittedly possesses a great instrument — just don’t seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.

         It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol. The great Jerry Wexler — who produced both Ray and Aretha — coined a great term for it: “oversouling.” He described it as “the gratuitous and confected melisma” that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. “

Jerry’s words as translated by Mr. Escow rang extremely true to me. Again it speaks of someone who has the basic elements of a soul singer, yet they allow themselves to lose control over their vocal emoting to an near piercingly theatrical degree. The result is the quality of  Olympic singing Escow speaks of in his article. In all honesty, this phenomenon did not originate in the 1980’s: a decade that tends to be a pop culture whipping post for critics to this very day. Even pop artists who practiced soul singing of the time such as George Michael and Rick Astley had very careful control of their vocal projection and presentation. It seemed to start in the early 1990’s during a time when every R&B/soul artist looking to release uptempo music seemed to have to do so using the new jack swing hip-hop/funk hybrid started by people such as Teddy Riley in the late 80’s. Dancing frenetically in colorful parachute pants under heavy lights and sweating a lot, these newer singers had to find a way vocally keep pace with the faster music and dances. The result was a phenomenon of “oversouling” vocals, in particular with gospel influenced male vocal groups-many of whom sang through their noses in a therefore nasal fashion that only heightened that quality.

During the time with Christina Aguilera was ascendant in the music world, the patter was reversed. Male singers influenced by neo/retro soul tended to be influenced back in the direction of controlled vocal expression. Whereas female soul oriented singers began to take the oversouling style to new heights. Now just to be aware of my own writing, you probably noticed my constant repetition of the word “control” in this writing. That’s because that seems the most appropriate word for the most vital element in genuinely soulful singing. How to keep vocal qualities such as melisma from completely overwhelming one’s dynamic as a singer. There’s no question about it-it is still very much a singers world in music today. They are the most celebrated in the media. And people such as myself might bemoan that. But if it is to be this way for now a degree of shading,insinuation and nuance to ones vocal expression will likely have the affect of making said vocalist more likable. And their voices will be more appreciate if they are just themselves rather than forcing their singing in desperation for attention. After all those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.

Andre’s Musical Toy Box-Part 1: The Awesome 80’s

Throughout my life,I’ve read many an article (offline and on) about the favorite records and songs of music fans and how it influenced their lives in different ways. When it was presented to me to write a blog about this subject I instantly responded to the suggestion as a cliche’. To a degree it probably is. Yet the more I lived with the idea,the more I realized that I was one of these people. The question in my case is the somewhat unexpected directions my musical journey took me.

Since I’m more than aware I’ve used the words “I,me and mine” more than a dozen times in this introduction,the intention is not in the least bit egoist. This is the first in a series of articles I am writing here showcasing music that has shaped (and sometimes misshape)  the person I am today. And the hope is that these will inspire you to tell your own stories in your own way. I am going to start with my earliest musical memories,which took place during the mid 1980s.

Celebration

Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” was the first song I can recall  both singing and dancing to,usually on my father’s shoulders. Though often considered the beginning to the end of the bands musical peak these days,this song was in hindsight the very first funk record (and likely the first record ever) that I heard. It informed on and laid the groundwork for the kind of music I  still continue to be interested in even after all these decades have passed.
Headhunters

Shortly after I was exposed to “Celebration”,this very unusual record was played for me. It had this exotic flute like instrument at the beginning of it. And I’d never drums played like this,and laid so bare before. Didn’t even know what a bass line or a keyboard was. What I was hearing was “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. As for the full impact of how this particular music had on my tastes over the years,that’s a story for a future time.
If I Fell                 During my younger days,most of the lullaby’s used to help me sleep were sung to me by my mother-usually hits by Elton John,Stevie Wonder or Harry Chapin. As far as my memory recalls there was only one such lullaby sung to me by my father,and quite well I may add. It was a Beatles song. Surprisingly it wasn’t “Golden Slumbers”. It was “If I Fell”. Interestingly enough,if any Beatles song didn’t fit the lyrical quality of a lullaby this would probably take the cake. But I now understand my fathers reasons for singing it to me as such. It’s melody and tempo are in fact very soothing. And even if the lyrics did not match it’s intention with me,it did relax me to hear it and inspired a lifelong interest in the music of John,Paul,George and Ringo.

sugarhill-gang-rappers-delight

My views on hip-hop have continued to bare down with a good deal of scrutiny on it’s musical qualities. And I have this record to thank for that. The first hip-hop I,and most of America had the pleasure of hearing, I had so much fun rapping along with these men and their amusing stories in this song it didn’t occur to me that through them,and the funk band Positive Force backing them up,I was also being exposed for the first time to the music of Chic. If in truth I am extremely persnickety about the hip-hop I listen to and enjoy,it’s only because my entire viewpoint on the genre is defined by this record.

Saturday Supercade

Saturday Morning Cartoons were a major event of my childhood. Though as opposed to music influencing an interest in television,the exact opposite occurred with me. The theme music for Saturday Supercade,a series of different cartoons featuring then popular video game characters also featured a catchy new wave influenced theme using actual video game sound effects for harmony. Literally my introduction to “the video game sound”.

The Zeet Band

When I was first able to talk fairly well,my dad and I developed this idea for a radio satire done on cassette tapes made by the two of us as a father/son “educational” project that would also be an entertaining project for family bonding . We called it WNEPORK. Of course it needed something of a theme song. So my father came out with this early Moog synthesizer record by The Zeet Band. It had a song called “Piggy Woogie”. At the time I thought it was great fun. It was also my introduction to fully synthesized music. And considering what a funky little boogie woogie number this is,intended novelty or not it very much shaped my views on how electronic music is best constructed rhythmically. It was even more exciting to learn the song involved the talents of Donny Hathaway and Phil Upchurch who I know greatly admire.

The Redd Foxx Show

Almost decade after Sanford And Son, Redd Foxx gave TV comedy another try with this show in 1986. Wasn’t too bad a show really. What I remember was the theme song by Kool & The Gang called “In The Heart Of The City”. Except for it’s puzzling synthesized horns for a band noted for it’s brass section,it was definitely a very strong mid 80’s urban funk pop song. So if funk was important enough to be a theme song for a TV show,I guessed after this that it was important enough for aural enjoyment as well.

Genius On The Black Side

Again through my dad and I’s WNEPORK concept,he would often play records he would be given at his job at a local TV station. This was one of them,a series of PSA’s hosted by the late James Earl Jones for the Social Security Administration called Genius On The Black Side. What it was really doing was exposing many popular African American talents,from different eras of music, who’d had to “struggle in the back waters” as Jones himself put it. Through this I was first exposed to the music of Eubie Blake,Donny Hathaway,Chaka Khan,Evelyn Champagne King and Earth Wind & Fire. Therefore this is very special to me,and was tremendously educational for me in learning to understand the “link in a chain” concept that Quincy Jones often speaks regarding African American music.

Human Music

On yet another occasion making one of our tapes,my father put on this record and I had no idea at the time who it was by. What I heard then was the sound of shakers,percussion and men whooping and hollering to the music,along with some electronic effects for good measure. I actually found myself whooping and hollering along and having a great time,thinking it was a gag record. Years later I learned it was not. It was an experimental recording by Don Cherry and Jon Appleton. Avant Garde jazz had entered my life.

Whitney Houston

Still considered a classic and popular record even today,the debut album of Whitney Houston created an enormous stir in my household. My mother in particular couldn’t seem to get enough of “The Greatest Love Of All”,”Saving All My Love For You” and “How Will I Know”. Hardly a day went by when I didn’t either hear these songs sung or Whitney’s name mentioned. Than it all stopped very suddenly when her song and music video “So Emotional” came out a of years later. Never understood why. My mom herself claims it was because of dissatisfaction with Whitney’s creative direction. I’d never heard her speak of music in those terms before. First time I was exposed to a private citizen’s well rounded musical critique actually. But until the day Whitney Houston  passed away,I never stopped being interested in hearing what  would be singing next.

Level 42-Something About You

Alright so this is a story I already told here. But this song represented the first time the radio influenced me on something that would become hugely significant to me years later. Every time I passed a local hill called Chick Hill in the family car,this song would play so I named it the “Chick Hill Song” until I discovered it’s real name almost two decades later. And the name of the band who did it as well. Likely the beginning to the time when the radio would begin to have a certain appeal to me in terms of guiding my musical tastes in the future.

Falco 3

Once again it started with a song that my mom couldn’t get out of her head called “Rock Me Amadeus”. I assumed as with many it had more to do with the popular Milos Foreman biopic out around the same time than it did. At some point,my parents got me a cassette tape of the album Falco 3 on which the song was featured. While enjoying songs like “Vienna Calling” and “America” ,this helped me to view hit music within more of a full album context and deeply affected the way I’ve listened to music. Especially when I learned how much artists like Falco had to offer. Not to mention it was my introduction (and thus far only exposure) to what is essentially Austrian rap/rock.

Stevie Wonder Skeletons

Of course having heard his 1960’s hits on the radio and in my mom’s lullaby’s,I didn’t really become all that familiar with the full flower of Stevie Wonder’s musical creativity until I heard this song. It was presented on a Halloween themed WNEPORK (my request of “Superstition” was not in the family record collection at the time) so we went for this since Wonder’s Characters tape was in heavy rotation in the household at that time. At that time I was convinced this was song was actually about skeletons.

So I learned two important lessons about music from this experience. One was coming to understand over a decade later the meaning of these lyrics (how I tuned out the line about “You know your mama told you don’t lie” is still a mystery) and the value of Stevie Wonder’s gifts for lyrical implication and metaphor. At the time however the lesson was more about the nature of ones level of appreciation for music during childhood. I’ve since heard it said the majority of preteen children are permanent Alpha personalities and are programmed more to accept things at face value. I don’t think my musical comprehension was quite the same after hearing this.

She Drives Me Crazy

Getting excited about the Fine Young Cannibals wasn’t exactly difficult,considering my first exposure to them was seeing the charismatic lead singer Roland Gift’s leaping acrobatics over pianos while performing “Good Thing” with the band on television. Not only that but their The Raw And The Cooked album was again getting heavy rotation in the family tape deck as well. In the end I remember this particular song for a more personal event.  During the time this came out I had a friend named Liza who lived in the same apartment complex. She was very giggly and delighted in jokes of all sorts-practical and otherwise. This included a little bit of pantomime she frequently tried on me. And that for the longest time I didn’t fully understand. Apparently this pig Latin variation on sign language stood for…you guessed it: “You Drive Me Crazy”. Excepting the word “You” and not “She” was used,I had the impression that this particular song (being so popular on the radio at the time) had an influence over that little joke of Liza’s. So as much as I adore this song,much of it might be related to it’s connection to this interesting little childhood event.

Mitsubishi Boy

Sometimes there are songs that leave such an impression on you,they reveal new things each time you hear them. On the WNEPORK tape made for my 9’th birthday,this song was made regarding my interest in WWII Mitsubishi airplanes.  It was by a jazz artist/writer Ben Sidran. For a jazz pop song,it’s electronic Asiatic melody and the haunting story the song told drew me in to listen to the song over and over again to see just where it would take me the next time I listen to it. Well three more Ben Sidran albums later in my collection I’m still working on that.

  ………To Be Continued