I’m sitting in my office on a cold, bright morning listening to the GREAT new Joe Henry record, “Reverie”.
A new Joe Henry record, actually any Joe Henry record, makes for very good listening but a new one is always a special experience – full of beauty and surprise. His songs are amazingly full of emotional depth, humour and brilliant wordplay. They are played by genius musos (often jazzers) and produced (by Henry himself) with a particular vibe which he describes as “the smoke in the room”.
GO BUY THIS RECORD!!!!
But to the topic at hand, which is not entirely disconnected from a Joe Henry record. You see, Henry is not a great singer as some would understand greatness. He has likened his singing voice to a character actor; it may not be to everyones taste but is valuable in communicating what it needs to (if I understand his metaphor). And the topic of the day is the voice and what or how it communicates.
I have a good friend (who shall remain nameless for the present) who gets very riled at the mention of Norah Jones. My friend’s contention is that there is no way that Jones should have sold so many records or be considered a good artist because she sings flat. This friend, herself a very gifted singer, is rather attuned to precision of pitch in singers and comments on it regularly whilst listening to music. I have, on a number of occasions, been surprised at her critique of artist I really like because I hadn’t noticed. Precision in pitch isn’t something I’m overly concerned about though, as a singer, I do notice rather obvious examples of singers for whom pitch is a rather… shall we say fluid, concept.
Take Brandon Flowers, the singer of The Killers for example. There is a lot I like about The Killers music: the energy of Queen, the romanticism of Springsteen, the (attempted) grandeur of U2. But Flowers’ pitch is all over the place as he sings. In case you’ve never heard him, listen to this example.
I’m sure you can hear what I’m talking about. Yet it works somehow, doesn’t it? I always wonder about why this is when I listen to this record. There is so much music out there for which being this pitchy would be unacceptable. So why is it okay here? Is it that rock music is flexible (or powerful) enough to incorporate an out-of-tune singer? How does it work?
Another example is a song called The Judgement from Solomon Burke’s record “Don’t Give Up On Me”.
Solomon Burke was a gospel/soul singer and preacher for most of his life. This record (produced by Joe Henry) and the follow-up “Nashville” revived his career and displayed his incredible voice in all of it’s aging splendour. But this particular song (written by Elvis Costello), features Burke displaying little if any regard for tuning precision. But the performance is incredible. The world-weariness of the storyteller comes to the fore even while he sings with great power and conviction. And though he may have just learned the song earlier in the day that it was recorded, he manages to own it. When he died just over a year ago (in an Amsterdam airport while on tour), the world lost another one of the greats.
So how does this work? These two examples are perhaps much more obvious than most but they do illustrate that one can be quite out of tune and still put in a very solid vocal performance worthy of repeated listening. And clearly, pitch perfection is not necessarily a high value of the masses if my friend’s assessment of Norah Jones is correct.
When you listen to singers what is the most important for you? Correct pitch? A pleasing tone? Emotional resonance? The right ‘feel’? Something else?
Please discuss. I’d love to hear your comments.