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Thursday
Nov292012

« In Which She Performs For A Willing Audience »

The New York Review of Hooks Vol. 5

by BRITTANY JULIOUS

We listen to Mary J. Blige because we are lonely or heartbroken or distressed. "No More Drama" is infallible because it is so familiar. Blige is not lovely or pretty on stage. She almost writhes, perched in desperation. Her performance during the 2002 Grammys was particularly captivating.

Clad in a gold form-fitting suit, sporting her soon-to-be signature short hair, Blige needed nothing more than a wireless mic and a clear stage to perform the song, a hybrid of emotional ballad and raucous, self-esteem power statement. She looked up again and again. She shook her fists; ignored the audience. This moment for her was a point of revelation and regeneration.

Blige's personal troubles (drug abuse, difficult relationships) were no secret to her many fans, but this particular performance was revealing to the world and a moment of catharsis. It is difficult to not feel taken in by her facial expressions - this is a woman with a lot to say, a voice that demands attention.

I grew up with her music, but I also grew up listening to Brandy and Aaliyah and in recent years Rihanna. These women made R&B, but their style is different from the power Blige demands. Their voices contain a lighter quality and a less memorable affect. It's obvious a great deal of work by producers goes into the final product, creating music made to please through manipulation and calculation. The listener is never carried away by the visceral quality of the audio. Instead, we remember the pop melodies, the sleek production and the overall package of the performer.

Post-dubstep as an emerging genre gained traction in 2010. Releases by British artist like Joy O (originally Joy Orbison), James Blake and Mount Kimbie sparked a trend that continues to develop and define its aesthetics two years later. Most of the output relies on slightly-danceable electronic production, glitchy synths and cuts, and samples by female R&B vocalists. Blake's CMYK EP, released in early 2010, stood out in particular as some of the best examples of the genre.

I heard the title track for the first time during my day job and the rush of sounds was overwhelming. Blake sampled Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" and Kelis' "Caught Out there." The sampling came off pronounced and eager: Blake wore his influences on his sleeve, proudly highlighting the memorable qualities in the original.

"Are You That Somebody" - Aaliyah (mp3)

Like many hip hop singles from the 90s that sampled funk, disco and quiet storm, post-dubstep artists like Blake involved themselves with music previously ignored or isolated within the stylistic constraint of its genre. However, unlike the previous era of samples, these musicians find an inherent worth in the vocal performances rather than the instrumentation, melody or production. It is Kelis' voice that twists and turns, jumping between octaves and pitch to create the perfect complement to the mood of Blake's song.

But to consider these singers strong vocalists without the backing of high-end producers like Darkchild or Timbaland would be an aural stretch. We consider Mariah Carey's voice powerful for a reason. She hits notes that might come across as posturing, but her talent is unparalleled. Despite their lack of vocal prowess, performers like Ciara or Rihanna find perfect singles through the assistance of world class producers. Their music is less of a solo performance and is instead indicative of a collaboration between singer and producer.

To create something unique, producers utilize vocal samples that add to, rather than take away from the finished products. The singers need to compliment the hard beats, the dirty synths, or the heavy orchestration. The voices are equal to - rather than more powerful than - the instrumentation of the record. A Mary J. Blige or a Mariah Carey exists on a different vocal plane than a Rihanna or a Brandy. They are remixed, but rarely sampled in this same deconstructed capacity. And the voice of a Blige or a Carey would only clash with the final product. It’s no surprise then that as Blige and Carey age, their music is further isolated in the traditional realms of r&b. The production behind each of their songs must not take away from the selling point of their music - their voices. And as the state and style of mainstream music continues to masticate into an unrecognizable free-for-all, it is vocal talent that is one of the least important elements of a successful single.

New producers in the post-dubstep genre are able to use the weaker vocalists perhaps because they’ve already demonstrated how well their vocals work in collaboration with the instrumental and creative processes of a producer. Less than demonstrating a lack of desire to manipulate the vocals of stronger singers, new post-dubstep musicians like Blake, Jamie xx, and Mount Kimbie have found a clearer route to the sounds and aesthetics that help to define their emerging genre of music.

The rise of the “alternative” or “indie” idea of R&B continues to flourish in 2012, with no end in sight. In interviews, many of the core producers and singers site their childhood influences, their listening habits as young adults. But through the evolution of this “new” sound that has flourished online and in the headphones of lonely internet obsessives, something continuous has emerged.

Two popular tumblrs, MTHRFNKR (previously known as Post-Dubstep) and Indie R&B, have monitored this growing sound. It’s hard not to draw a connection to the sampling of the last couple of years. Personally, I began listening again to all of the R&B albums I amassed throughout my childhood and adolescence during this same period of time. Why am I just listening to these reconstructions, I thought, when I could relive the purity of the real thing? It’s not that I had forgotten about them as much as I had grown into sounds and scenes that were different than what I had always known.

"110%" - Jessie Ware (mp3)

Two of the most compelling examples of this unique return to the soulfulness of R&B in the 90s was evident in full-length releases from Jessie Ware and Sonnymoon. Ware worked with producers such as Julio Bashmore to create songs that were almost austere in their simplicity. “110%,” so passionately light, is one of the best new songs of the year. It sees the noise, the “drop,” the dirty synths of the past few years and positions Ware’s voice as the true star. In this case, they were correct.

"Just Before Dawn" - Sonnymoon (mp3)

Similarly, although Sonnymoon’s self-titled release incorporates a wider array of genres into their overall sound (especially jazz), it is Anna Wise’s voice – soulful, earnest – that makes songs like “Nothing Thought” and “Just Before Dawn” sound like vestiges of a past that feels increasingly more appealing that the mainstream music of the present. Similarly, 21-year-old Lulu James, who released a new single “Be Safe” earlier this year, exhibited more soulfulness than has been heard as of recent. James reminds me of vocalists who began in the r&b genre but veered somewhere left of that in time with the popularity of EDM aesthetics, shining so quickly and profoundly.

"The Wilhelm Scream" - James Blake (mp3)

Blake released his first solo album in the winter of 2011. At first, I thought it was about the lack of lyricism, the direct quality in the phrases and the instrumentation that made it so appealing. But Blake’s voice wrapped around me, all smooth-like. There was an assuredness evident beyond his age. Or possibly the way he sings is exactly of his age - the soulfulness competing with the energy and exhaustion of the world around him.

After having lived with the album for close to two years now, it’s multitudes have become more evident: the weight of a single idea, the minimalism among the occasional barrage of noise. Blake moved away from his sampling, something that made sense. Blake’s voice is unique, is at times strong, but he’s not a crooner in the same way that a Jamie Woon or a Jamie Lidell exhibit in their music. Choosing to sample himself opened up another level of experimentation in creating his sound. He didn’t need other vocalists to create new works. He could – in essence – build from within, completely.

"Whatnot" - Machinedrum (mp3)

Machinedrum, another producer of music ranging in genre from minimalist footwork to house to lo-fi rock, uses this same method of production. As his output as a dance music producer has grown, so to has his use of the manipulation of his own voice. Again, it’s not particularly strong, but there’s something captivating about it in the same way that Brandy or Rihanna’s voices are captivating. The uniqueness is beyond the normalized idea of a strong vocalist. The weirdness in their voice, in his voice, means that songs like the recently released “Whatnot” or the entirety of his Room(s) LP create a fuller, lusher overall sound.

I have to remind myself that music is personal, and the way we respond to it stems first from the self. But there is something special happening here. Perhaps the growth from sampling to creating to embracing is just the path of least confusion. Perhaps it is just the desire for the universality of soulfulness, the desire for the reality and presence of a voice, any voice.

Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find the first volume of The New York Review of Hooks here. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (6)

There is a difference between "its" and "it's"
November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGrammarfiend
i saw one instance in which it's was used incorrectly. but glad you pointed that out as it's definitely the most important part of the essay. also, it would be "grammar fiend," not grammarfiend!
November 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterperson
1. Is any term more often misapplied than "R&B"? 2. Too much production, not enough Music.
November 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Augustine
I can't take anyone who uses No More Drama as their favorite Mary J Blige song seriously. This is so far past her prime that it's embarrassing.
November 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternot a child
loved this.

what about solange and her cover of that dirty projectors song. also, her new album is great.
November 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercool
Your analysis of Marry J Blige's vocal quality compared to that of Rihanna was spot on in my opinion. I have noticed that as well, that electronic producers who go for a highly produced and technical sound will tend to choose weaker vocalist, ones that don't dominate a recording with the sheer power of their voice. This is unfortunate, I wish that someone would take the time and effort to try and fuse both a powerful production approach and a truly powerful vocal approach. Much harder to do, but probably not impossible!

Sincerely,
Tom from http://elitedubstepmaker.com
September 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom K

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