Monday, July 28, 2008

7/28/08 - In praise of the lead singer

I don't know when the lead singer sans instrument fell out of favor, but I'm just about ready for a serious comeback. The point I think was made, and made well, and probably first by Bob Dylan: you don't need a classically "good" voice to be a good rock vocalist. But Bob illustrated the other side of that coin, namely: sometimes a "good" singer would really, really improve a song. I think specifically of his croaking work on "Lay Lady Lay", which obscure band the Stands turned into a gorgeous pop song merely by subbing in some competent vocals. I pity the poor lady that Dylan tried to convince to get on his brass bed - had she not been able to see his face, she might have assumed she'd been kidnapped by an asthmatic bear cub.

But taking shots at Dylan's voice is too easy, and I do it out of lazy reflex - the man has proven himself to be for the most part an exceptionally expressive vocalist, even if his limitations do rear themselves every once in a while (ok, often). But not every singer/songwriter is on the level of Bob, able to turn a pretty abrasive instrument into a thrilling, expressive one. Sometimes they're just bad singers.

I think the DIY influence of punk and '80s indie rock caused a whole lot of bands to decide that they didn't need a good singer, that the songwriter behind the band could do just fine with his nasal whine/atrocious croak/etc. Some songwriters/band visionaries have great voices, and this works, but some could have really benefited from having some vocal talent behind the mic. And hey, sure, maybe sometimes a band can use the flawed voice of one of the songwriters, but keep a real singer around (see: the Who).

Bands that really could have used/could use a decent lead singer:

1. Dinosaur Jr.
2. Foo Fighters (love Dave Grohl, but he should be the Pete Townshend of this band's vocal output).
3. The Jesus & Mary Chain
4. Imperial Teen
5. Sebadoh
6. Drive-By Truckers (love Patterson Hood and Cooley, but their ranges are both limits on their songwriting ambitions)
7. Jellyfish (nothing ruins power pop like thin, reedy lead vox)
8. Calexico
9. Meat Puppets
10. Steely Dan (had one, got rid of him)
11. Smashing Pumpkins

Bands that have really benefited from a good lead singer:

1. U2
2. Rage Against the Machine
3. Pearl Jam
4. Magnetic Fields (lead singer farming out singing duties)
5. Van Halen
6. Guns N Roses
7. Blur
8. The Allman Bros.

Incomplete lists, both, but I'm ready to see the comeback of the lead singer in all of the bands just now flowering into being.

The trouble is one of range - the limited vocals of a J. Mascis are fine on one song, but they get wearing on an album length. When you've got an Axl Rose or Eddie Vedder, or even Stephen Merritt's stable of singers, to throw around, the songs are capable of being a lot more versatile.

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