I was once at a party where I got into a conversation with a girl about A-Ha’s seminal 1980s hit “Take On Me” (I’m sure it’s happened to most of you). While she could remember (and sing) all the words, the bit of the tune that stuck most in my mind was the opening keyboard phrase – note for note (which I also drunkenly reproduced). I have a much keener memory when it comes to music than I do for lyrics, to the point where I’ll walk down the street humming basslines to myself.
It’s strange, then, that I have an extreme reaction to many singers. If I dislike the voice, I simply cannot even listen to the music without feeling genuinely pained. While I might admire the technical abilities, the obvious passion, and even cleverly observed lyrics, the voice just grinds away at my brain, obliterating everything else I may be hearing.
This isn’t about whether the singer in question is good or bad. There are plenty of terrible singers I can listen to. Ian Brown’s inability to hit more than every third note makes me snigger, but I don’t run screaming from the room. John Lydon, Mark E Smith – hardly anyone’s idea of technical brilliance, but I love the Fall and early PIL. But Antony Hegarty’s tremulous castrato makes me want to slap him. Liam Gallagher’s flat, nasal sneer sounds like a cat drowning to me. Then there are cult artists like Laura Nyro – overblown, overwrought and my hands are over my ears.
Occasionally I get over it. My knee jerk reaction to Joanna Newsom’s woodland pixie meets old crone vocals was pretty extreme. But I quickly grew to love them. And sometimes there’s little logic to such polarized opinions. Alison Shaw of Cranes = good, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir of múm = extremely annoying. Despite both adopting that little girl lost voice.
The point about this seemingly pointless ramble is an album I’ve had for review for a week or so now. I’ve enjoyed Herb Recordings’ output up to now, so I had high hopes for Orpheum Circuit, the debut album by Shoosh (Herb HERB008CD). Right from the start, though, it was a struggle. Singer Neil Carlill (formerly of Delicatessen) was the problem. His narcoleptic, nasal mumbling was an insurmountable stumbling block. The slightly queasy, folky ambience of the music was interesting and atmospheric. But I couldn’t even get to the end of the record. I realised that trying to do an objective review was impossible. As I’ve pointed out, it’s a loathing that short-circuits any attempts to judge the merits of a piece of music. A hatchet job based on the fact that I can’t stand the vocals would be both unproductive and unfair. Best you should judge for yourself. If it seems like a cop-out, then so be it. But we all have our blind spots.
I should have added the details of the Shoosh LP.
1. Elastic Soil
2. Snake Eyes
3. Come In From The Cold
4. Mock Table Rakes
5. Boo Ssh
6. Peddle Picnic Wires
7. Space & Thyme
9. Overthrow Turn