Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Hear Voices - Subtle Female Vocalists

It's no secret that the rock and heavy metal worlds are overwhelmingly dominated by male voices.  There are plenty of notable female vocalists in these camps, to be sure, but when the vast majority of vocalists are male (despite the boon of female-fronted goth metal bands in the last 10 years), it's safe to say that this market is harder to crack when you're a woman.  Contrast that with the pop music world: while the production, A&R, and ownership segments may still be male-dominated, when it comes to vocals, the women have the corner on the market.  Sure, there are boy bands, Justin Beiber (yes, he's male) and male pop superstars like Elton John and George Michael, but women have consistently been the driving force in pop music since the late 1960's and early 1970's when men began turning their attention to harder rock music.
Female vocalists also range quite a bit as well.  You have your bona fide divas, the women who could sing you the phone book (thanks American Idol, for that nugget of wisdom) and you'd be amazed, due to their vocal quality, ability to be on-point with notes and delivery, and often their incredible range.  Then you have women on the other end of the spectrum who get by almost entirely on attitude and swagger, despite some of them having decent to good voices.  You know, like Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, or Wendy O. Williams.  Some women have that one-two punch combination of power and versatility where they can bowl you over with powerful vocals, then in the next breath be delicate and dynamic, like Heart's Ann Wilson, Pat Benetar, Barnabas' Nancyjo Mann, or perhaps Evanesence's Amy Lee.  Some pop singers have reasonable voices but make waves simply by exposing themselves more than they should, and earn the adoration of throngs of fans because they're so "daring".

Then there are the subtle voices that are just so smooth, pure, and velvety that they just make you melt when you listen to them.  There's nothing inherently powerful about their vocals, no "big" notes, no inhuman vocal range, no giant crescendos that draw you to them instantly.  These are the singers whose understated performances become the stuff of legends because they are just really good at what they do, and while they may not turn heads like the Brittney Spears' of the world, they impress fans by simply doing what they do and doing it well.  Voices like these I like to think of as "quietly captivating".

Is that a Covergirl model?

Everyone knows Sade has a good voice, and most everyone has heard one of her early hits like the sultry "Smooth Operator" or "The Sweetest Taboo" on the radio at some point.  But the hits aren't enough to truly appreciate Sade Adu or her talent.  She has such a rich, smoky tone to her voice that has a unique quality to it.  But it's more than that - her singing is so accurate, even if she's not doing anything overly complex.  Listening to Sade sing is a simple joy entirely because she just sounds SO GOOD when she does.  When she took a break after her 1992 album and came back 8 years later with "Lovers Rock", some folks might have thought she would make no impact, but with that smooth voice of hers subtly crooning the lead single "By Your Side", it was inevitable that she'd be back in the spotlight again.  All I can say is, it's a good thing enough people with taste supported her return.

Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies)
Yes, she is feeling the music.

I'm slightly less familiar with the material of Cowboy Junkies than I am of Sade's music, but after listening to just a few minutes it's easy to hear that same kind of quality in Margo Timmins' voice - hers is a very subtle way of getting your attention, by simply singing sweetly and almost lazily along with the songs.  Of course, most of the Junkies' tunes are pretty laid back anyway, but Margo underscores that with what can almost be called a lackadaisical performance.  That's not a bad thing, mind you - the way she sings over the lazy sort of country/folk/rock the band plays is breathtaking in its own special way.  Take Sarah McLachlan and strip out the overly emotive nature of some of her stuff, and you have a slight idea of what Margo sounds like.  This is especially true on the band's 1996 album "Lay It Down" where Margo just floats along over the music so perfectly.  Don't take my word for it though, go listen for yourself and discover this woman's subtle vocal talent.

Norah Jones
She's just so cute! ^_^

Last, but certainly not least is Norah Jones, a woman who, over the last 9 years has captivated audiences with her slightly soulful, understated voice and her ability to take a song and just add that little extra to it that makes it transcend just being a song.  Her voice has such a natural, pure tone to it that words can't describe it - you simply have to listen to her sing to understand it.  In addition, she has stylized herself a bit of a musical chameleon.  Sure, her material is (mostly) grounded in pop-jazz, but she has explored country, folk, and indie pop within the framework of her voice and piano playing.  Norah is an artist I'd consider to be brilliant in her way of singing/playing the material "just right".  She doesn't over-sing stuff, she doesn't go nuts with the piano and do all kinds of crazy runs or whatnot - everything is so tasteful that it's always in service of the song.  In an age where showboating seems to be all the rage, Norah Jones is a shining example of what an artist can accomplish when they just do something and do it really well.  That doesn't even take into account that she is famous Sitar player Ravi Shankar's daughter!

So there you have it - understated voices that thrill me.  I love powerful voices too, as evidenced by much of the music I highlight on this blog, but sometimes the simple, elegant voices just hit the spot as well.  I'll be highlighting other vocalists over time, touching on ones that inspire me (as a vocalist myself), some that I just find amazing in their talent and abilities, or vocalists that I feel have brought something unique and interesting to the table that perhaps other vocalists haven't done in the same way before.


narcispy said...

but this isnt metal :/

MetalFRO said...

True, but good music is good music :)