Sounds like the start to a bad joke with a groan-inducing punchline, but it's meant to be an honest rhetorical question. The thing about mushrooms is: When I was a kid, I hated them. They were slimy and tasted weird, and I couldn't get over my loathing enough to even give them another shot until I was well into my teens. Wouldn't you know that when I tried a mushroom again later in life, it wasn't too bad. Within a year, I was eating them willingly, and now, as an adult, I literally go out of my way to occasionally order mushrooms in restaurants and buy them in stores. All this is really just a long-winded way of saying that I used to hate something, and now I enjoy it.
No matter what methodology of thought you subscribe to, there's no denying that our tastes change as we move through this thing we call our life. I've heard it said, nay insisted on, that one's tastes for food change about every seven years (interesting correlation to the idea of the Seven Year Itch, don'tchathink?). There may be something to that, I'm no expert--though that would be a scientific paper I wouldn't mind reading, if only because the idea of how arbitrary it seems strikes me as a bit absurd, but I digress. The simplest answer being usually correct, I generally tend to think that the reason for tastes changing results from nothing more than changes in people as a rule, both physical and mental. Meaning that the reason you like something when you're young is the same reason you may dislike it when you're older, or vice versa. (It's splitting hairs, the difference in these two ideas--the only difference is in the assignment of a length of time to these internal and biochemical changes--and in the end none of it matters, it's just a tale of two ideas, as it were.) When we're young and growing into adulthood, and we really don't know ourselves all that well yet, changes of this nature can seem at the least mysterious and occasionally downright inexplicable. But they happen...oh-bla-di, oh-bla-dah.
Again, back to myself as a youngster. I had appetites for swirling guitars and stadium-filling drums that led to an addiction to deep, ass-rocking basslines and star-reaching synth melodies; this, in turn, led me to blood-curdling needs for cinematic and orchestral mellowness, music-as-movement-as-music, and on and on and on. These different techniques and sounds led me through hundreds of genres and sub-genres over the course of nearly twenty years. And the reason any of this means anything with regard to the opening of this piece is that after all that, when I thought that, to some degree, I had heard it all (or most of it, anyway), I'm finding that my tastes are changing again.
I've been more drawn to vocals as a rule over the past year or two. I was always into lyrics and vocals, but never as pulled by them as I have been of late. Even more remarkably, there are a couple of vocal approaches that have really resonated in that time, and they are each very well encapsulated by a release from the past spring and summer. So, y'know, I thought we could talk about the approaches...and the records. Is, uh--is that cool?
The Group Vocal
With all the technology out there in recording today, it's easy to multi-track vocals to make it sound like several people are singing at once. Don't be fooled. There's only one way to do a true group vocal: several to many people singing, yelling, screaming the exact same words at one time, all recorded together. Accept no substitutes. You have to look no further than good ol' punk rock to find lots of examples of this, and there's no other way to make something anthemic than to have lots of people say it (power in numbers, right?). But there are some great examples in indie over the past decade also, see "Breakin' the Law" off The New Pornographers' first album, or "Cardinal Rules" by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
Now, we could probably have the chicken-and-the-egg argument all day about how The Group Vocal relates to a choir. I choose not to. Surely one begat the other, but I don't care which. For me, a choir is really just the culmination of The Group Vocal--the only natural and logical ending point for the practice. The only thing better than a choir, is a choir full of children. The only thing better than a choir full of children is a choir full of children singing indie songs for a great cause and selling it dirt cheap on Bandcamp. Can you see where I'm going with this?
Stream or download it here:
These kids wring all the emotion out of each one of these songs, and cement themselves in as one of the greatest choir performances ever put on tape because of the novelty of the songs they're performing, all indie and folk pieces by such Pacific Northwest stalwarts as Grand Hallway and Damian Jurado. It's an ispired idea, and it works every bit as well as you think it should, not least because of the amazing use of The Group Vocal. I've been listening to this through the summer in fits and spurts, and loving a bit more each time. Hearing kids this young give all the weight and heft you can handle to a song as epic as "The Commander Thinks Aloud" (originally by The Long Winters) will make you stop short every time. Highly recommended, especially if you're into The Group Vocal to the degree that I am.
Not to take anything away from some amazing releases in the past few months that prominently feature some of the best falsettos in the business (James Blake and Peter Silberman, I'm looking at you), I think one towers over them in its sheer scope and willingness to veer into new and unexpected territory: "Bon Iver, Bon Iver".
This thing is majestic, and there's literally nothing I can say about it that hasn't been said or won't be said for the rest of the year before it ends up at or near the top of every Top 10 list that matters. So I won't expend a lot of effort here trying to explain it in any real way. Just a couple of points for me personally: 1) I always have an immediate and (usually) irrevocable aversion to anything that comes along with the hype that Bon Iver hit with upon the first release, "For Emma...", a few years ago. Credit to my little sister for making me listen to it and appreciate it, for making me see past the endless hype, which, as it happens, turns out is pretty much warranted. 2) This album is above being good or bad. I know how that sounds, but the listening experience is all viscera and cerebrum--there's no room to judge the songs for their own sake, no id or ego in the equation. It is not above being liked or disliked, mind you (nothing is), but it is above notions of whether a phrase is placed correctly, or whether a bridge is unnecessary. The songs aren't good or bad: the songs serve the album, and the album is too primitive an experience to be viewed in that light. My humble opinion, of course, but spend a couple of weeks with this thing and then tell me I'm wrong.
But back to The Falsetto. Interestingly, these vocals are almost all multi-tracked. Normally, this would serve to give the illusion of The Group Vocal (see above), but in this case, the layers of Falsetto only give more and more complexity to a voice that is, by itself, without equal in the realm of heart-wrenching falsettos. So, what we have here is kind of a perfect storm of the perfect falsetto voice being given the layered treatment to simulate what would, in theory, be a near-perfect Group Vocal. The reason it can't ever be that perfect storm is that, say it with me, the only way to make a true Group Vocal would be several Justin Vernons singing the same thing at the same time. Until science can deliver us disposable human clones, that particular perfect storm of awesome will never materialize. It's OK, though. I'll be happy just listening to this one for a few years.
So, mushrooms, jangly guitars, high voices...what does it all mean? Nothing significant, I guess. It's just another way music keeps giving. As we grow and change, all of our tastes and preferences are at the mercy of our chemistry. If we grow to dislike a kind of food or drink, we kind of have to be done with it, unless we like masochism (that's a whole other essay). But music isn't that easy to shake. No matter which direction our tendencies begin to lean, music can accommodate. We can re-set the types of music we enjoy, but we can't outgrow music as long as we stay engaged in it. So stay engaged, question yourself, question music. Find what you like. It's out there. And if you're not sure, just stick it in your mouth...er--ears...and see what happens.