Before electronica, distortion and even a simple string attached to a bucket and broom handle, musicians fed sound through vocal chords and clapping hands while their own beating hearts kept time. The Bloomington, Ind., label Secretly Canadian has captured the lucid essence of stripped-down, seductive, natural sound through its a cappella compilation, The Unaccompanied Voice.
Almost a study of the human voice, the album leaves in all the falsetto cracks, off-key notes and missed lyrics. Each contributor was chosen because of his or her characteristic voice, most of which aren’t easy to swallow. Drunk, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk (Low), David Grubbs, Modest Mouse, Richard Buckner, P.W. Long, Songs: Ohia, Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters) and the Grifters all pitch in. Needless to say, the CD wouldn’t work well as background music.
Each song represents the feeling of being alone yet not lonely. Even with the duet and choral components, the absence of traditional instrumentation creates a sense of isolation. The static of silence lends to fuzzy, tape-rolling, atmospheric noise and a bit of a security blanket to artists used to screaming over amplified electricity. Nikki McClure belts out “Blackberry” like she’s singing along to her favorite song with headphones on or making up a song in the shower. With the unabashed volume of the chorus mixed with mumbling over certain lyrics, you can sense a feeling of nakedness and discomfort, and it’s almost voyeuristic. Robotic, outer space-futuristic takes on doo-wop (think — “dip-dip-dip” Sesame Street alien puppets), chanting, rounds and harmony all use voice as an instrument to help cover up a little as well. And on other tracks, it almost sounds like someone was playing a Casio keyboard using the “human voice” option. The Grifters’ song, “Hits Keep Comin’,” has the most apparent “something’s missing” feeling, but the uneasiness of it keeps it engaging. The vocal effects on that track and “Leaflets Gabe” (Modest Mouse) give the album a sense of low-fi, even though they’re the most electric of the bunch.
Humming as you walk down the street, singing along with the car radio, chanting before settling to bed; song has always been a natural, everyday occurrence. But so rarely is it captured on tape in its truest form. The Unaccompanied Voice has whisked the art from the world’s showers, bus stops and birthday parties, and created a meditation on humanity.
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. E-mail [email protected].