Do you ever remember thinking that the Beatles or Led Zeppelin were great American bands? As a five or six year-old lacking sufficient context, that was a legitimate thought of mine. Was it just the fact that they were working in an American of music like Rock and Roll or Blues that made me believe that? I’m not totally sure and I’m guessing that even though my ear has matured enough to know better, I’m still nearly as easily tricked into thinking singers must be fellow countrymen…or maybe I’m just hoping that was the case. I can’t exactly tell.
Twist and Shout by The Beatles - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVlr4g5-r18
I Can’t Quit You Baby by Led Zeppelin - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONRyqvsCJLQ
Perhaps its my deep-seeded American Exception sawalism, but I always think its justified when I find myself trying to learn more about a band and when their tour will bring them to a nearby venue.
Take, for instance Tame Impala, a perfect example of a band I’ve indulged recently; they have made me listen to lyrics (kind of a departure for me) and do so with pleasure. I was pretty sure they were foreign (and they were, hailing from Perth, Australia) but their vocals, often trance-inducing and seeming to float along with the melody, had me paying more attention to them more closely. Were they English and trying to draw on some retro sound of the late 1960’s? Were they American and forcing some kind of Lennon-esque lilt? I wasn’t certain about it, but I found myself digesting a bunch of their songs listening not only to their intriguing instrumentals but figuring out some of possible influences that I could hear in their lyrics. Have a listen:
Elephant by Tame Impala - https://soundcloud.com/#other-voices-web/tame-impala-elephant
Really though, did it matter that they are not from around here? Not in the least…their coming to me (Richmond, VA) in June and I couldn’t be more excited. And I perked up more when I found this video of the kids from PS 22 in New York singing an A Capella version of Tame Impala’s Feels Like We Only Go Backwards. To hear how a different set of voices can perform a song and be just as listenable as the original version, its hard for me to think that words have little to do with that being the case.
Feels Like We Only Go Backwards by PS 22 Chorus - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GPGiJCzSK4
Feels Like We Only Go Backwards by Tame Impala - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljzehPvr9zk
Listening carefully to their music wasn’t what surprised me since they have put out great stuff, top to bottom. But paying attention to lyrics is something a little different for me. Like I said before, its a bit of a departure for me. When I learn song lyrics, its kind of by mistake. I’ll listen to the song as a whole and maybe pick up how the vocals are delivers the words against the instrumentation and if its clear enough, I’ll remember some words.
So, when I began thinking about why I presume a band or singer to be American when I’m not totally sure about their background, I also wondered if, of the whole, I like foreign artists more than American ones. I can’t say whether that is true and I would like to think that’s not the case, but I realize now that I’m just more susceptible to singers with quirks in their singing voices. While a great deal of American singers I like have prominent accents or dialects (Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash, Jack White), the majority of singers with those vocal varieties come from overseas.
In recent years there have been a few artists that stick out in my mind. In past six months in particular, I discovered the British band Django Django and the Danish group Efterklang. When I heard these bands I was aware that they were from overseas and I enjoyed them because their spectacular music, but was really drawn in by their vocals. It was immediately noticeable that had a quality that differed from the typical middle-American style.
Default by Django Django - http://noondaytune.com/post/43216669073
Apples by Efterklang - http://soundcloud.com/efterklang/apples-efterklang
But I recall another foreign singer whose interesting background coupled with an equally exceptional set of pipes that I found attractive. A couple of years ago I first heard of Charlotte Gainsbourg, after she had done some work with Beck. She was the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg; a French pop icon known for his love songs, who at one point recorded an album with her when she was a teen. Charlotte has since been an actor in numerous films and but had also recorded three more albums on her own. The one I referred to at the top was “IRM” (the French acronym for MRI) which was called as such due to a life threatening boating accident she suffered from prior to recording the album. The song I found so enjoyable was the titular IRM, in which her voice was mono tonal as she explaining her experience while undergoing the procedure.
IRM by Charlotte Gainsbourg - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7KxvSwmzkY
Part of what tells the story is that monotone, but I also believe there’s something to her being a non-native English speaker. For some of her work this might be more obvious, but her voice is not great because its a sexy French voice, its exotic because it introduces a variance to the listening experience, especially for my American ears. I love it because it brings something else to table for me, as does all of these other artists. Maybe that’s why I secretly wanted them to be American.