4/24/2007

Bobby Continues To Sing Rufus

Doing a four-part vocal chorale is one of the richest, hardest, most brain-and throat-pummelling pursuits in musicdom. And I don't mean Rufus' version of throat-pummelling either.

It's a lot like arranging a string quartet but the attention that needs to be paid to phrasing is even tighter. Every breath, every rubato, every quaver needs to be matched as closely to perfect as possible.

The holy grail of every four- or five- part pop chorale is of course The Beach Boy's live 1966 performance of "And Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring". This is completely Music Of Th' Polesmokin' Spheres right here, and while it can never be attained by mere mortals, the lessons exposed in this utterly seamless vocal ballet are harmelodically on par with any Bach cantata. One is also well-advised to acknowledge th' Hi-Lo's and those other guys for their role in pioneering the harmonically dense, jazz-soaked modern four-part a cappella.

I rarely allow myself the luxury of biting into an a cappella piece because while it is a sweet, sweet ride indeed it can be a devourer of time and that is certainly of th' essence. But a musician has to keep their chops up so you can really just sort of look at it as a form of stretching.

I did this version of Rufus' "In A Graveyard" because I haven't been able to take this cd out since I did the version of "Poses" and I started getting all sorts of interesting voice leadings and suspensions when I listened to "Graveyard". As recorded it's a take on that whole stately Whitman/Frost American thing, done solo with piano. The triadic, gospel piano part suggested a series of moving harmonies with cool added tones. I was thinking about the various things Aaron Copeland does with interesting added tones that can sound so martial and then so voluptuous.

I recorded the song by doing a piano/vocal take like the original and started building harmonies around the lead vocal. All the harmonies are improv-based; I didn't do a score. I set up four tracks and designated them falsetto, alto, tenor and bass and zipped through getting the parts I wanted. I returned to it for a couple of nights and a day, punching in all over the place, refining and tuning it, and when I had the arrangement I returned to each part and rerecorded it with a minimum of punching with all inflections, breaths, rubatos, crescendos and trills in place.

I buttressed three short sections with a doubled fifth harmony. When you record any single tone in multipart harmony overtones will begin to emerge; one can hear a "fifth voice" and sometimes the part is so otherworldly that you just have to sing the part along with it on an overdub.

Then I took the piano out of the mix, set up a beautiful, plate-reverb drenched monitor and resang the final lead vocal. I did it this way because by now in the process I'd be so completely, intimately in touch with the phrasing that it would be second-nature and I'd be able to focus on the performance.

No pitch correcting or pitch shifting. What you do is, you sing all good and in tune and stuff like they used to do.

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11 Comments:

Blogger XTCfan said...

Beautiful.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Great work as always. Seriously, no prior arrangement? Wicked hardcore. Your string-arranging experience shows here, and it occurs to me that voices, like strings, allow for greater voicing possibilities. You can suspend stuff over all sorts of bass notes, and it sounds perfectly natural. Not to put down Pet Sounds or anything (it is, after all, one of the greatest things in the universe), but one of the things that makes that album hard to digest for a lot of listeners is that he uses instruments as if they were voices, and it can be counterintuitive. Think of the weird instrumental breaks in Hang On To Your Ego. They're brilliant and beautiful, but they would go down easier if they were sung harmonies, rather than played. Am I making sense? Didn't think so.

Speaking of Beach Boys albums and "Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring," I feel compelled to add that the first album I owned (given to me by my parents when I was two years old, in the hopes that it might make me stop talking about the Beach Boys constantly - in vain, apparently) was that Beach Boys Live In London album. I inadvertently cracked up an adult who asked little three year old me what my favorite song was by replying "God Only Knows," which was, of course, misunderstood. Anyways, back then I thought the lyrics to Hearts Were Full Of Spring were "On a hill where robbers sing." A poetic image, n'est-ce pas?

Seriously, no prior vocal arranging? Nfbff.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

Wow, that's a very interesting and perceptive exposition on a facet of "Pet Sounds" and Wilsonian arrangement that I'd never even thought of. It rings really true to me when I think about how lush Wilson likes his vocals and yet how charmingly disjointed his insrumental passages can sound. You also have that famous one before the bridge of "God Only Knows" where the melodic voice is jumping all around following fuck-all logic.

Further bolstering this is how beautiful and consonant and jazzy his string writing is- quartets("Put Your Head On My Shoulder") and full sections.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous cleek said...

yowza. you got the stuff, Mr Lightfoot. that's awesome.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

wow, thanks dude(s).

I'm actually more impressed with you lot for having Big Boy enough palates to be able to savor th' musty Camembert that is and has always been my art.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Beautiful work as usual. It's too good for people not to enjoy, so I posted some links to these up on the official Rufus message board.

Figured i might as well ask this here:

Ok, so thanks to you, I've thrown myself deep into Cecil Forsyth's 1914 text 'Orchestration' and a few pre-sixties similar ‘Songwriting’ texts, trying to raise my game.

While analyzing the melodic change from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building style, I noticed how melodies of the later era seem to be much more static and ‘horizontal’ and tend to follow smooth stepping patterns with rarely anything larger than major third intervals. (The exceptions would be ‘He’s a Rebel’, which was written by Gene Pitney and anything by Bacharach and David).

This horizontalness seems pretty common to commercial pop music of the modern era (try a song like ‘Baby One More Time’ by Brittany Spears), reaching such boring melodic lows as ‘Wind It Up’ by Gwen Stafani, or ‘Drive’ by R.E.M.

The writers who grab me all seem to have a sense of movement up and down a scale, and as such have complicated melodic lines full of wider intervals within each phrase. Bacharach / David, ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys, Andy Partridge (‘Dame Fortune’ is particularly ‘leapy’), pre-’85 Kate Bush and especially Paul McCartney circa ‘Rubber Soul / Revolver’.

These sort of complicated lines are a lot harder for the average person to sing, but when they’re handled by someone who can handle the wider interval leaps with ease (Dionne Warwick) or make them sound breezily effortless (McCartney ‘making each day of the year’, all of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’), the melodies truly *SING*, and are hugely emotional, memorable and attractive to professional singers but probably less appealing to a wider market.

Here’s where I can see that although we’re vastly different in terms of talent, I think we’re coming from a similar place in terms of *melodic intention* of our work, we’re both more ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ than ‘Satisfaction’. The rise and fall of the melody through the scale – upward movement balanced by downward movement: (‘Brattleboro’, ‘Paul McCartney’, the ‘that’s all over now’ hook in ‘Station Road’). The main difference being, you really know how to support the melodies with well-written harmonic support.

As such, I’ve finally come to peace with not being able to sing my work, because I’m an amateur singer and, for the most part, I’m writing demanding melody lines with wide interval leaps. (I’m sure you noticed the octave drop in the chorus of ‘Unexcepted’, followed by the octave leap up to the start of the next phrase, or the alternating balancing of the upward movement in 'Such Sinful Things' with the downward, even if that one was more 'steppy').

So, if any of this makes sense of you, I’d like to pick your brain for ways to make the harmonic bed support the vertical, to make the leaps sound less ‘desperate’ and more refined.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Actually, was listening to Split Enz this afternoon, and really should have added Tim and Neil Finn to that list. The joy of 'Six Months In A Leaky Boat' is all about the constant leaps upwards.

4:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

Took me a while to get to these covers, Bobby. They are things of beauty.

They inspired me to track down some RW records and Poses is now on the iPod. So far, it sounds pretty beautiful, too.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Here's a perfect example of what i'm talking about, Jerome Kern's use of melody in "A Fine Romance". I think i've got the intervals right, correct me if i'm wrong:

"a (perfect fifth down) fine (major sixth up) romance with (minor seventh down) no (octave up) kisses
a (perfect fith down) fine (minor seventh up) romance (minor sixth down) my friend (major sixth up) this is"


That kind of melodic sophistication is almost now completely alien in modern rock music. But hear how it 'sings'!

This is why it frustrates me when people snub your music, because they simply don't understand the complexity of what you're singing with apparant ease. When I wrote 'Unexpected' I didn't realise the bridge had leaps upward of Major Ninths (like spring bursts..).

The textbook i'm reading now states this:

"The skip of a seventh (major or minor) upward or downward, while difficult, is most exciting... ...But the skip of a ninth, while equally as exciting, is so hard to sing that I'd suggest you avoid it".

Not only did you nail the ninth with what sounds like effortless ease, you did it *three more times* in each succeeding phrase. Let's see those Garageband kids do *that*.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

Thanks Kev------ appreciate the kudos from your musically erudite, great-taste havin' ass.

Simon- Hey thanks for putting those linx on th' Rufus BB. I've gotten many hits from them. We'll just ignore that fucking little queen who chucklingly used me as an example of "why we have artists like Rufus", what with my lack of control and poor phrasing.

Yeh, you don't have to convince me that a well-articulated melody is a great thing of beauty and hence a thing of True Value.

We're all funny, you know? We're like our grandparents bitching about how great music was once but it's *our grandparent's music*. I should be bemoaning the passing of *my* generation which is Nirvana and Smirshing Pimpkins. There's a chuckle for you. We're just a bunch of Cole Porter-loving dweebs.

Yes, there's all this with shitty music ruling th' day. But we must make peace with it.

I didn't throw the towel in on being Pop because I didn't think I had The Stuff. I did it because I was into my thirties and when you get up to that age the idea of living life based on the moods and vagaries of others becomes unappealing.

The reason 42-year-olds don't rocket up th' charts isn't because they're uncommercial and unviable. They don't rocket up th' charts because the thought really doesn't give them much of a hard-on anymorea and you really have to have a rager for something like that. It just sounds like a hassle and people would be telling you what to do all the time which
SUCKS.

And here's the interesting thing (and anyone who knows me real good and knows my work over th' many years will back me up): dude, I didn't get to DO the cool stuff like now when I was on the Crap Train. I could HEAR it, you know? But I had to do songs with big guitar slabs and choruses and melodies that The Great Retarded could sing.

And god fucking damn it if I didn't just say, "fuck that, I'm writing the good stuff now" because I KNEW that that was the end of the story of Bob, Rock Star registered tm.

It ain't gonna keep me from skiing or getting fucked up or thinking about buubies.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

An aside: Now that I've heard some Rufus, I must say his voice is remarklably similar to Ron Sexsmith. Except Wainwright's got the better voice and, I'm guessing, much more natural range.

Also, listening to Poses, I'm hearing some Nilsson in there. Is anybody else hearing that or is it time for an ear check up?

Re older artists, they've been successfully segregated on their own chart, Adult Contemporary or Old Folks or whatever they call it. What scares me is the younger artists who kind of fit that mold already (Josh Groban, Michael Buble) and yet seem to have about one tenth the talent of the old farts.

11:20 AM  

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