The other night as I watched the six remaining contestants slog through another week of American Idol performances, I got to thinking about the music I like and what aspects draw me to it. A few things come to mind right away: sincerity and conviction--I like when artists mean what they say. Yes Jackson and Chrispy, even protest songs. If you mean and feel what it is you are singing or playing I’m going to listen. I like energy--whether it be loud and proud distorted guitars or, a well placed piano twinkle. If it adds energy to the song I’m going to listen. Emotion--of any kind, anger, love, loss, joy, etc... If you can convey it well enough for me to take notice I’ll listen. I have not mentioned virtuosity on purpose. Virtuosity, while noble and worthy of constant pursuit is not essential to making a great song. Many artists can simply imply what they are trying to do and be successful. We can all name plenty of great artists and song writers that are not virtuosos, but on account of what they can make you hear with suggestion, where they want to go with it if you will, they can make your ears fill in the blanks. There are more but, these top the list of prerequisites to my particular listening taste. Having said that, by far what gets me to listen the most is a good vocal melody. Amercian Idol singers take note.
My mother is a life long musician. She plays or has played many instruments throughout her life, but what she is best at is playing piano and singing. She has a great singing voice. All our lives my brother, sisters, and I have listened to her play and sing. When my dad was away in Vietnam and later on a hardship tour in Korea, she played and sang a great deal at night after she put all of us to bed. Singing was just a normal thing in our house.
As a kid, I listened to a ton of top 40 radio in the seventies and the songs always had catchy vocal melodies. My first pop idol back in fifth grade was Elton John. I wore out the grooves on Yellow Brick Road, Honky Château, and Capt. Fantastic. Even after I moved onto hard rock, a strong vocal melody was a requirement for me. While Kiss Alive! was never far from my turntable back then, Destroyer solidified my obsession with them. There’s a lot of great singing on that record.
During my metal mania years this factor continued to ring true. I was always reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of many bands my friends and bandmates were digging at the time if I thought that the singing lacked crafty enough melody. Conversely, I caught a lot of grief from this same crowd when I’d let on to liking some more pop oriented tune of some sort (ah, the metal head days…). While a huge fan of great guitar playing, I’ve always thought that great guitar players alone cannot save a band without a good melodic singer out in front.
It’s more than likely that I feel this way because of this conditioning and it’s why I’ve continued to enjoy a great deal of pop music. It’s got to be one of the reasons why I vainly attempt to sing myself. I’m in awe of good pop singers, not the fake autotuned Ashley Simpson’s, but guys like NSync. I saw them do an acappella version of a tune called “I Thought She Knew” on Saturday Night Live years ago and was blown away. They may not make much music that fills the other prerequisites listed above, and I own none of their records, but the guys can definitely sing.
I also spent a year or so of weekends interning at a pretty big recording studio during my senior year in college. The place was owned by a couple of journeymen staff songwriters formerly of CBS records. I sat in on many sessions where the owners and producers would be crafting tunes to sell to major recording acts including Whitney Houston. The studio's session singers they’d bring in were amazing to listen to in their own right. I spent a two week spring break working there while Bon Jovi came in and did song writing and preproduction work for their New Jersey album
(There's a track recorded at Chalet Sound that made the album titled "Love For Sale"). While not a huge fan, I was still simply blown away when John and Richie Sambora would go in to track their vocals. I couldn’t believe it when Bruce Fairburn would make them track something over. He’d say, “That was flat” and I be thinking, “That was fucking perfect”. Bottom line was that these guys could write and and sing a helluva vocal melody.
It’s also why I enjoy country music. If you can’t write or sing a melody, you simply can’t play country music.
This may be blasphemous for Chrispy and Dave, but I traded Rush’s “Caress Of Steel”
for the First Starz album
noted on my sidebar back in 1977 and by a long shot thought I got the better end of the deal. The guitar riffs on that Rush album are fantastic and I liked them then, but when Geddy kicked in with the screeching, he lost me. By contrast melody, or Geddy’s ability to find it vocally, is what drew me back to Rush with later recording efforts like Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, both most excellent albums.
Still, a good vocalist who can sing melody cannot make a song worthy on it’s own. Songs still require some combination of good lyrics, good subject matter, and well crafted instrumentation to endure. Basically, singers need good songs to sing. It’s the difference between Bad Company’s debut album and Straight Shooter and all others subsequent.
Certainly my own experience has been that a good vocal melody is the hardest part of writing a song. I’m a terrible guitar player, but on occasion I can put together a pretty cool riff and sometimes a complete song worth of parts, but when it comes to attempting to place a melody on top of it the struggle begins. This short fall is one of the reasons I like collaborating a lot. I am completely amazed of those who can just whip something up after only hearing a G chord strummed for a few bars. To me, it’s like they have a piano in their heads or something.
My favorite singer song writer of all time? Hands down, Peter Case
. Fronted a pop band called the Plimsouls
in the eighties after living through the seventies on the streets of San Francisco writing and playing folk tunes. He’s ridden the wave of fame a couple of times before settling into his quite life of brilliant and melodic song writing mostly of the folk and blues bent. He writes in a tune called “Hidden Love
”:Far from the fields, the bright lights, and the boulevards
In this empty room a guitar make a band.
Our last conversation still echo’s off bare walls
Like child’s painting of everything we planned…
Conversations accompanied by guitar, I like that. A most awesome singer, singing great songs, with great stories to tell. Who could ask for anything more.