[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 7: Voices Special

I made a two hour mix for NTS Radio of songs with vocals that are significant to me. I had originally set out to focus on experimental vocals, but I realized that so much of what might sound experimental to western ears—Tibetan chant, Inuit throat singing, Chinese folk—is deeply traditional, not experimental at all. Instead, I approached this as two hours of vocal milestones, be they from technical, stylistic, or emotive standpoints. It’s not possible to make a two hour comprehensive survey of strong vocal traditions, nor of the most important singers, though there are quite a few of both categories in here. Putting this together was hard, and while I could easily have spent years digging and rethinking, I set a month time limit to ensure that I would finish it at all.

As I was making this I also thought a lot about how Björk framed her almost entirely vocal record Medúlla as a response to September 11th–both the event itself and the subsequent wave of patriotism and xenophobia that she experienced as a foreigner living in New York. Making an all-vocal album was, for her, a coping mechanism and a means of trying to reconnect with what it means to be a human.

Lastly, a note that this isn’t as listenable or poppy as the mixes that I typically make, though I did try to arc it in a way that feels good. I’m not really sure what its ideal listening environment is–it probably involves headphones–so I hope that you enjoy it all the same! If you’d like an mp3 version you can download it here. Thank you for listening 💜

Tracklisting:
1. The Impressions – For Your Precious Love
2. Meredith Monk – Strand (Gathering)
3. Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Genesis (abridged)
4. Bessie Griffin & The Gospel Pearls – Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
5. Philippine Madrigal Singers – Pamugun (comp. Francisco Feliciano)
6. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes – Jusqu’à Ce Que La Force De T’aimer Me Manque (excerpt)
7. Emma Kirkby & Gothic Voices – O Euchari (comp. Hildegard von Bingen)
8. Björk – Pleasure Is All Mine
9. The Ronettes – Baby I Love You (Isolated Vocals) (excerpt)
10. David Hykes & The Harmonic Choir – Arc Descents
11. Unknown Artists – Sumi Yeinyo (Hani Crying Song) (Southern China)
12. The Beach Boys – Surfer Girl (Alternate Version)
13. John Jacob Niles – Go ‘Way From My Window
14. The Tallis Scholars – Spem In Alium, Motet for 40 Voices (comp. Thomas Tallis)
15. Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Doll’s Polyphony
16. Young Thug – All Over
17. Ghédalia Tazartès – Une Voix S’en Va
18. Yma Sumac – Taita Inty (Virgin Of The Sun God)
19. Arthur Miles – Lonely Cowboy, Pt. 2
20. Angkanang Kunchai With Ubon-Pattana Band – Isan Lam Plearn (excerpt)
21. The Hilliard Ensemble – Viderunt Omnes (comp. Pérotin)
22. Ustad Ghulam Ali & Asha Bhosle – Salona Sa Sajan Hai Aur Main Hoon
23. Patti Page – Confess (excerpt)
24. Monks of Gyütö Tantric College – Sangwa Düpa (excerpt)
25. Amália Rodrigues – Gaivota (excerpt)
26. Unknown Artist – Akazehe Par Une Jeune Fille (Burundi)
27. Anna Homler & Steve Moshier – Sirens (excerpt)
28. Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – Stani Mi, Maytcho (Get Up, My Daughter)
29. David Hykes & The Harmonic Choir – Rainbow Voice
30. Lucy Amarualik & Mary Sivuarapik – Song Of A Cooking Seal Flipper
31. Dr. Octagon – Halfsharkalligatorhalfman
32. Judy Henske & Jerry Yester – Rapture (excerpt)
33. The Hilliard Ensemble – Sabbato Sancto – Responsorium 5 (comp. Carlo Gesualdo)
34. Linda Jones – Your Precious Love (excerpt)

Scott Walker – Scott 4, 1969

Very deep love for this record, and a very big crush on Scott Walker (no, not that Scott Walker). Walker’s career has been wholly singular, and it’s impossible to accurately describe him, his work, or the thematic ties between such seemingly disparate records–the only way to make sense of it is to listen to it. Walker started out in an LA-based pop trio called the Walker Brothers, though confusingly Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel, another member of the group was named John Maus (no, not that John Maus), and all three used Walker as their stage names—though for Scott, it bore out over a long and strange career. The group attained enough chart success in the UK that they were briefly considered a sort of inverse Beatles export, with screaming mobs of fans and a Tiger Beat cover to prove it.

As their brief window of fame closed, Scott Walker had embarked on a series of solo records, all called Scott, and all vessels for dark, heavily orchestrated and meticulously arranged pop. Though the music felt traditional and baroque enough to be almost regressive—this was the 60s, after all—the subject matter of the songs was dark and heavily referential. Walker wrote about Joseph Stalin, venereal disease, poverty, addiction, child abuse, and Bergman movies, and he sung the songs in a theatrical, almost Sinatra-esque baritone that belied their subject matter. The joke was always on us: Walker was able to pass off drippingly sentimental delivery as sincerity while barely masking his biting cynicism. His music appealed to the elderly, to the suburban, to those who wanted to cling to tradition as the world and its sounds were being lit on fire. Walker was the Carpenters’ evil twin, with a similarly surgical approach to arrangement and production, and the Bacharach pedigree to back it up. Bowie was a huge fan. I imagine that Van Dyke Parks, sharing a penchant for thematic exploitation of traditional orchestration, was also a fan. Leonard Cohen too.

But for Walker, the real god was Jacques Brel, Belgian master of theatrical showmanship and literary lyricism, and arbiter of chanson as the world knew it. Brel paved the way for Walker’s Trojan horse smuggling of a tortured psyche under a palatable, market-friendly facade. Walker covered Brel nine times on the first three Scott records, with 4 serving as his first entirely self-written release, and it was arguably the best and strangest of his 60s releases. Despite the weight of Walker’s persona bearing down on it, 4 attains glimpses of very direct beauty—the weightless “Boy Child” comes to mind—and it readily winks at Morricone’s spaghetti Americana. Yet when 4 failed to chart, unlike all his prior releases, Walker asked his label to delete it from their catalog, tried to swing more commercial, failed, and churned out a slew of half-hearted records just to get out of contract. He then all but disappeared for twenty years, reemerging in 1995 with the left-field Tilt as challenging and abstract proof that he had finally allowed his inner demons to break from the confines of polite genre. 2006’s even more mutinous The Drift was my introductions to Walker when I was 16—at the time, it was the most explicitly avant-garde record I had ever heard—so I can’t listen to Scott 4 without hearing the early inklings of sonic assault, and I love it.

Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle, 1967

Another one from the canon. Song Cycle is deranged. It riffs on all things Americana: gospel, bluegrass, orchestral ballads, folk, show tunes, marching bands, movie scores, ragtime, waltzes, girl groups, and pop rock, but it never settles into any of these shapes. People call it impenetrable, but I think it’s, ahem, too penetrable, too open and slippery and rife with forks in the road. It’s psychedelic insofar as every measure seems to want to tug away and break off into several different songs, leaving the listener in many places (and times!) all at once, volatile and hanging off of a musical precipice. It’s nauseating, beautiful, and a tiny bit misanthropic.
As a teenager, my first dozen listens left me unable to remember anything about what I had just listened to, what had just happened, and yet despite it being so elusive, you can’t stop listening, trying to grab hold of it. Im sure this is a pretty typical response, and Parks himself sums it up best in this anecdote:

When I played the album for Joe Smith, the president of the label, there was a stunned silence. Joe looked up and said, “Song Cycle“? I said, “Yes,” and he said, “So, where are the songs?” And I knew that was the beginning of the end.

A massively expensive commercial flop, the record was originally supposed to be entitled Looney Tunes, and it does feel cartoonish and larger than life. Most of it is accompanied by Parks’s reedy, androgynous vocals–he sounds like a jaded, aging chorus girl who’s smoked a few packs too many, singing sardonically to an empty theater. Clearly he’s amused by this whole thing. The opener, “Vine Street,” is Steve Young covering a Randy Newman song, and it fades in midway through the song and fades out before it’s finished. Track six, the cheekily titled “Van Dyke Parks,” is a minute long clip of a gospel hymnal, almost completely masked by what sounds like a helicopter making a water landing. The closer, “Pot Pourri” (probably another joke title, given that it’s the least hodgepodge track in the cycle), finds Parks alone with a piano, padded by a thick hiss of room tone, and the song doesn’t exactly end so much as stop–presumably leaving it open-ended and the cycle unbroken, ready for another go round.