Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Trickle Up

As indicated in comments, I showed that Petra Haden song to my friend (and sometime bandmate) James, who records and produces a cappella groups for a living. A sampling of some of his work (done with another producer from NC) is available here.

His take on the Petra Haden track:

I listened to it again and it's pretty amateurish by current collegiate a cappella standards. To make the guitar sound at the beginning she's singing "neer neer neer" into a computer program that emulates a guitar amp (the same one I use on our demos, most likely), which has been around since probably 2000 or so. The arrangement is pretty boring and the talking verse is annoying. To be honest, I don't really like her singing voice all that much either, but I'm willing to believe that other people think it's good. I will say one thing to her credit, though - I did a little reading on her and from what I understand she recorded this to an 8-track tape recorder, which presumably means that she has not used computers to correct the intonation, and most college groups couldn't sound this good without fixing their intonation or taking a really long time to get it right naturally. But again, those intonation programs have gotten to the point that you can't tell they were used, and the end result still "sounds" better to my ears than her track, even though she achieved hers without help.
A pretty diplomtatic critique, I thought. But he was the first person I knew whose reaction to the song was basically a write-off. He also pointed me to a college a cappella forum where similar criticisms were tossed around:

I think alt rock critics are getting a bit hung up on the fact that she actually did it - sang every part, all herself. Todd Rundgren, anyone? Bobby McFerrin? I find her voice a but thin, her arrangements (what I've heard of 'em) uninspiring, the whole thing (excuse the expression) more than a little collegiate.

[...]

I think if most rock critics would hear some of the better collegiate a cappella out there they would be blown away as well, maybe even more so than with the few things that are making it into the mainstream by higher profile artists who think they are doing something never done before.
Which all, upon reflection, does make sense, even though this reaction initially surprised me. You've got this niche of specialty music, living and breathing the creation of a cappella music. So of course they get uppity when some semi-famous singer comes along and, in their view, does their schtick from five years ago—except now it's met with critical acclaim.

But I also think that any niche music that trickles up toward the mainstream is likely to get diluted [ed. spelling corrected], so it's kind of an intractable problem. I offer an analogue, for everyone knows analogies are always helpful and illuminating:

Imagine Radiohead released a klezmer album. Assuming they'd write songs that sounded really good to the average listener, this album would be a big hit. Radiohead would be toasted once again for crossing new musical boundaries, yadda-yadda.

Meanwhile, the klezmernets kvetch about Thom Yorke having the chutzpah to ape their style (and badly, in their view)—and this kvetching goes largely unnoticed, because, there musical style is and remains a niche genre, notwithstanding Radiohead's success with the style.

And with that to ponder, here's a klezmer band.

13 Comments:

Anonymous mrh said...

You know, it's funny. I had kind of the same reaction to the Petra Haden song: really neat that she did all the tracks herself, but as a cappella performance and arrangement goes, only so-so.

But I've never admitted to anyone before that I felt that way because I was embarrassed that I know that much about college a cappella.

9/10/07 8:34 PM  
Blogger The Modesto Kid said...

I agree with him about the spoken verse, that it was annoying. But what can I say, I really enjoyed the rest of it. Also: the video is fucking great. The fat guy in the lime green tank-top? The fried egg? The calculator with the Mona Lisa smile? This is an amazing video.

10/10/07 12:14 AM  
Blogger heebie-geebie said...

But what great Klezmer music!

10/10/07 12:34 AM  
Blogger Ben Wolfson said...

To take a totally unlikely album, what if Radiohead released an album using techno elements, that techno fans thought hopelessly uninteresting and behind the times? Then what?

10/10/07 1:39 AM  
Blogger Ben Wolfson said...

(I'm also unimpressed with the guy's defense of the use of intonation-correcting programs: but they're really good now! So what?)

10/10/07 1:40 AM  
Blogger Ben Wolfson said...

Also also, this isn't a new thing for Haden; she released an all-acapella version of The Who Sell Out a while ago.

10/10/07 1:41 AM  
Blogger James said...

To respond to the comment about the tuning programs - I meant that it used to be that when you fixed the pitch, it sounded fake, albeit in tune, so it was a musical compromise. Nowadays the program just makes it sound like the person sang very well in tune - it doesn't change the timbre of the note almost at all. So while using tuning may still raise ethical objections, it doesn't really raise *musical* objections anymore - stuff that's been tuned in that way just sounds better to my ears and I think to the ears of almost anyone who listens to it, and hers wasn't tuned that way and suffers musically for it, however intellectually/ethically impressive it is that she recorded it without help.

10/10/07 8:35 AM  
Blogger Stanley said...

I should have said in the main post: I did and do like that song, which is why James' assessment surprised me at first. But on reflection, it made sense, since people with more familiarity with the niche (a cappella) were liklier to listen more critically to specific aspects of the music, whereas the general public is going to hear it through a broader, uh, hearing aid tube. I think this thesis has been borne out in comments: mrh and James having more experience with a cappella are more critical. Everyone else seems to like it, with the possible exception of ben, who I think likes the song and just dislikes James' critique.

And heebie, let it be mentioned, is the only one who appreciates the klezmer I supplied. Rest of you's a buncha jerks.

Did I get it (close to) right?

10/10/07 6:47 PM  
Blogger The Neoskeptic said...

i was going to lambaste you for offering up the North Strand Klezmer Band as "a good Klezmer band." But you didn't do that. You just said, "a Klezmer band."

In fact, i think it's obvious to anyone with even a perfunctory understanding of the genre, that these are merely dabblers in the form, as Petra is with a cappella, or Radiohead would be with techno.

I doubt not that they may be capable musicians (exception: bass player's technique is awful - clearly an electric player posing as a *real* bassist), but they seem to just be putting on a cheap klezmer suit, and they come off as some kind of "jazz for jews" parady band. The only instrumentalist performing anything close to the virtuousic style of *good* klezmer players is the clarinetist, and the rest are serving as little more than place-holders. The style of their dynamics and arrangements are perfunctory, repetitive, and hardly inspired. It's a paint-by-numbers; a template.

Do they have the "elements" in place? Yes. Do they perform with "energy"? Yes.

However, this is nothing approaching authentic. To the novice it may seem a novelty, a curiosity, and something exciting. To someone prepared to be enthusiastically critical (self), it is a sham.

Then, they are from Dublin. Damn Irish....

11/10/07 11:26 AM  
Blogger Stanley said...

I actually searched for awhile for a suitable klezmer-band video. There are a lot of weird metal-klezmer mashups and the like. The North Strand clip was one of the few that approached "normal-seeming"—normal to me, that is, and an expert on klezmer I am not.

I would be delighted, neoskepticrat, if you would spend a bit less time disparaging my Irish forebears, and a bit more time enlightening us dimwits with your superior klezmer video clips.

11/10/07 11:34 AM  
Blogger The Neoskeptic said...

your co-blogger had some kick-ass, authentic klezmer music that he played for me once. it was on vinyl.

alas and alack!, the real-deals of the klezmer world don't do youtube videos.

11/10/07 12:04 PM  
Blogger The Neoskeptic said...

here is one of some real jews from israel.

and another very good one from budapest.

and this last one is, to me, the essence of what klezmer ought to be - more like a jam session than a polished, for-teevee performance. this is a music of community. this clip captures that.

next let's discuss gypsy music!

[p.s., your forbears probably killed some of my forbears - you're family's protestant right?]

11/10/07 12:19 PM  
Blogger The Neoskeptic said...

gosh this is fun,

one more, John Zorn's Masada - the best example of electric, modern Klezmer.

and another one of Masada with trumpeter Dave Douglas (who won the Downbeat trumpet player of the year back in '02). Stanley, dig the drum solo. (!)

11/10/07 12:28 PM  

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