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!
I have some pretty strange eating habits. Mind if I share one? I promise to make it snappy. It involves Hot Tamales, which are almost certainly Mrs. YHT’s favorite non-chocolate candy. Whenever I manage to wrest one away from her, I apply squishing pressure to either end of the capsule-shaped Tamale until it looks like how movies sometimes depict catastrophic explosions in space (it more closely resembles this yo-yo, but that’s not nearly as dramatic, is it?). Once the capsule’s modification is complete, down the hatch it goes. I don’t know how my Hot Tamale ritual started, and I sure as hell don’t know why it makes me so happy. It just does.
I have a listening habit just as idiosyncratic that I’d like to share, and unlike the candy custom above, you can join in on the fun right this very minute! It has to do with cover songs. Often, when I find a cover I really like, I’ll listen to it, then listen to the original version, then the cover again, then the original again, cover, original, cover, original, over and over, until I absolutely, positively have to take my headphones off and and pay attention to something else. A little crazy, right? I’d say it’s like being a tennis spectator, glancing left and right to follow a rally, but if I’m being honest, it’s more like being the ball. And as nutty as it may sound, I could go on forever like that, comparing the songs, finding little differences in the phrasing of the lyrics, trying to imagine why certain decisions were made during the respective recording processes.
Wanna play a little cover tennis? C’mooooooon, it’s super fun. I’ve picked out three pairs of tunes, and I’ve even assigned a tennis player (two of whom are competing in the London Olympics) to each pair, based on how obsessed with them I’ve become. So let’s crack open a new tube of balls, take a sniff — because it’s the best smell in the universe — and get to thwackin’!
The best music conversations are the ones that never really end. They live on in the reminders you enter into your phone’s notes application — a band name you don’t want to forget or the title of a documentary that needs to be added to your Netflix queue. They pick back up thanks to the follow-up emails, tweets and texts in which the recommendee shares a reaction with the recommender, or the recommender finally remembers the album name that a few too many beers spirited away. They leave traces, like the stack of records that flew out of the crate because they demanded to be played (you can only talk for so long about how Exile on Main St. was recorded before you’re morally obligated to put it on).
Mrs. You Hear That and I hosted some friends from out of town over the long holiday weekend (the same friends who clued me into Moon Hooch a little while back), and our many music conversations — exchanges about Exile, the George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, Jack White’s Blunderbuss and the mention of King Sunny Adé in Pitchfork’s vicious Body Faucet review — are still bouncing around the front of my brain, just as surely as the above-pictured records are still leaning against the side of my TV stand.
I have one more Nashville-related story, and then I swear I’ll stop. (You didn’t think I could squeeze 5 blog posts out of one 4-day trip, didja? Consider yourself lucky that I ran out of disposable daylight hours before I could visit the Ryman Auditorium and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.) To be honest, though, the events described in the paragraphs below could have taken place anywhere, not just in Music City, and that’s more or less the point I’ll be making.
You often hear people say that there will never be another Beatles, or another Rolling Stones. Of course these claims are correct in the literal sense, but I think they’re also accurate in a more general way; it’s hard to imagine a group having that sort of massive cultural impact now that the musical landscape is so fragmented. I often wonder if any of bands that I adore now will be considered by my hypothetical grandchildren as part of some unified musical canon, or if the diffusion of listeners’ attention across a multitude of sub-genres means that there will be several different canons, each with its own revered membership. It’s a depressing thought in some ways, one that makes this Gen-Y’er feel like his favorite bands aren’t quite as important as they ought to be (or that they might have been 50 or 60 years ago).
But guess what? My glass-half-empty, future-phobic ranting ends there, because I believe, with every fiber in my being, that songs are as important as they ever have been, and that their import isn’t going anywhere. Even if my kids’ kids’ kids’ kids don’t know who the hell Journey was, I bet they’ll still be fist-pumping like idiots to “Don’t Stop Believing” at some dive-y lunar bar in 2162. That’s because truly great, canon-worthy songs transcend genres, nations, races, ages, even the people who wrote and performed them — they become a part of us. And I’m not speaking figuratively; they literally become part of our physiology by reorganizing the neural pathways in our brains to make singing along with the lyrics easier (this would be creepy if it wasn’t so awesome). So why do I bring this up now? Because events that took place in Nashville lead to me believe Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” is one of these transcendent songs.
Are you ready to play a kickass game of connect the dots? Since today’s edition largely takes place in the south, we’ll call it, affectionately of course, co-redneck-t the dots. I really think you’re going to like what we find, so let’s get started with the fine gents of Raleigh, North Carolina-based American Aquarium, who, on Friday at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia, country-rocked their way through an amazing set opening for Jason Isbell, who hails from northern Alabama, just like former Drive-By Truckers bandmate Patterson Hood, whose father, David Hood, was the bass player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as “the Swampers” — ya know, “They’ve been known to pick a song or two”), the legendary band that recorded with some of music’s most recognizable names, like Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine and many, many more, all of whom, in order to record with the Swampers, had to to make pilgrimages to one of two studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is where American Aquarium just finished recording their new album, which was produced and recorded with the help of Jason Isbell, with additional contributions from the lovely Amanda Shires, Isbell’s girlfriend, who appeared on stage with both Isbell and American Aquarium last Friday night at the Jefferson Theater. Whew. Crazy, eh? And that run-on sentence doesn’t begin to cover how entertaining American Aquarium’s set was (a real-life love-at-first-listen experience) or the remarkable impact that Muscle Shoals has had on popular music. A few weeks back, I wrote about the idea of musical centers of energy, and Muscle Shoals most assuredly qualifies. Though the town’s population is just 13,000 or so, the area still has a tremendous amount of musical history. So many canonical musicians have been drawn to Muscle Shoals, and it’s wild to think about how the Swampers insisted on recording on their own turf. And Grammy wins for albums like the Black Keys’ Brothers go to show that the town maintains that gravitational pull to this day. Judging by the songs I heard at the Jefferson Theater, American Aquarium’s upcoming album is sure to be a hit as well, so to whet your appetite, I’m posting “Reidsville,” a song from their 2010 album Small Town Hymns that tells the story of a southern town with a very different legacy than that of Muscle Shoals. Listen below and snag the album on iTunes here.
American Aquarium — “Reidsville“
Drive-By Truckers and Phish in one weekend? You’re all like, “No Way!” and I’m all, “WAY!” Yessir/ma’am, after seeing Drive-By Truckers for the first time on Friday, I headed up to Merriweather Post Pavilion (noooo, not the Animal Collective album, the concert venue … yes, that was a very good album … why yes, I do have tickets to see them there on July 9! We should carpool, you know, to save gas and stuff … wait … what were we talking about?) to see Phish on Sunday night. It was a very good show, and it reminded me of one of the things I love most about seeing live music. Like the Grateful Dead before them, Phish is known for phaithful phans (see what I did there?) who phollow the band on tour (ok, I’m stopping now) and know their music inside and out. I have seen Phish a number of times, but Sunday’s show featured more unfamiliar songs than any other time I’d seen them. Some were covers, some were tunes the band just doesn’t perform often, but all of them gave me the gift of musical homework. I love musical homework. I love finding a setlist when I get home, so I can learn about the songs I didn’t know – songs that may have never known had I not heard them live. My favorite from Sunday is the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless,” not just because it’s a great song, but because it gives me an entry point to explore the rest of the Talking Heads catalog. One of Sunday’s cover songs that I did recognize was the Rolling Stones’ classic, “Loving Cup.” Check out the video above, and the original version below for some historical perspective.