A Capellooza

Fat Amy

So Mrs. YHT and I ummm… sorta… kinda… maybe… [looks around nervously] watchedPitchPerfectagain.

It’s not our fault! It was on HBO, we were bored, one thing led to another and yadda yadda yadda… another notch on the ol’ TV cabinet. Bing bang boom.

I don’t know what to say — it’s not like we were big into a cappella groups when we were in college. We certainly weren’t in any. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I think I’m safe in speaking for both of us when I say we wish we had that kind of talent…) Pitch Perfect is just such an all-around feel-good exercise, with outstanding one-liners, some solid vomit humor, a healthy sense of self-awareness and a dynamite final routine that raises goosebumps even when I’m consciously trying to suppress them.

Ditching Pitch for a moment, there is one type of a cappella performance I can enjoy without feeling the need to equivocate, but you won’t see a movie made about it anytime soon. I’m talking about isolated vocal tracks from classic songs. I love when these hit the interweb, as Marvin Gaye’s from “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” did earlier this week. They’re so revealing and personal. You can picture the dark-grey foam of the recording booth’s sound-proofed walls… you can hear the bleed from singers’ headphones, bringing you amazingly close to what it would have been like to stand next to them as they sang… It’s also fun to wonder whether they know, ya know? That they’ve made something special. That the take they just did was a keeper, destined to become a piece of history that will live on in people’s hearts years after they’re gone.

Vocals from newer songs don’t have the same effect on me (I think the portability of vocals in the remix/mashup era takes some of the thrill out of it), but give me the vox from a 30 or 40 year old hit that I’ve heard 30 or 40 times and I’m one happy camper. Just for fun, I thought I’d hold a mini A Cappellooza by sharing Gaye’s brilliant “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” vocals and two other isolated tracks that are definitely worth a listen.

In each case I’ve posted a YouTube video of the isolated vocals and the full version of the song below. Enjoy!

Marvin Gaye — “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Hearing vocals this way can seem ghostly. In general, I think it has something to do with how, without the instrumentation that our brains are so used to hearing, the voice seems disembodied. Creepy, almost. This effect can be particularly strong when the singer met an untimely or unnatural end, and that’s certainly the case here. The shinier side of this coin is that the work that was left behind — especially when you consider that people weren’t autotuning the crap out of vocals back in 1967 — takes on an added preciousness when viewed through this type of microscope. Gaye’s performance here is exquisitely skilled, and there’s a characteristic sweetness to the pre-chorus “oooo”s that you can practically taste. Like eating a musical Krispy Kreme donut, or something.

Marvin Gaye — “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” [Spotify/iTunes]

The Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter”

Forget ghostly — this one is just plain scary. Backup singer Merry Clayton is chaos in this song, and not the “This day has been so chaotic! Starbucks forgot to half-caff my latte and the kids’ swim meet ran late…” kind of chaos. Nope — Clayton is singing about rape and murder in a completely maxed-out voice that cuts so, so deeply. Add in the fact that the song’s title was used to name the documentary about the Stones concert at which someone actually did die, and the whole thing takes on an incredibly sinister, realistic hue.

The Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter” [Spotify/iTunes]

Queen & David Bowie — “Under Pressure”

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