Tag Archives: Led Zeppelin

Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

Hello again and Merry Christmas. As you’ll have gathered from the fact that I am here to write this, I am both alive and uninjured following my alpine adventure. What follows are reviews of the things I managed to take in before and since that adventure. I didn’t totally disconnect from pop culture in the mountains, but I did disconnect from thinking about it. If you want the definitive image of my last couple weeks, picture two snowsuited white men in a Mazda 3 singing along to this.

It strikes me that my two picks of the week are both at a pivotal moment in their history as texts. The first has been recently reawakened by the publication of a new book that I’m going to try and get to before New Year’s Eve. And the second has just reached its bittersweet conclusion after a run as one of the greatest achievements in podcasting. Read on.

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass — My 11-year-old self’s favourite book is still a masterpiece. Reading the first two instalments of His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult, I was struck by how similar an experience it was to what I remember feeling as a child. But reading The Amber Spyglass felt different. And I think the reason for that is because my first encounter with The Amber Spyglass actually changed the kind of person I was. When my well-meaning but not entirely in-the-know mother bought me these books, I was being raised, nominally, as a Christian. I went to church most weeks and learned Bible stories in Sunday school. For the rest of the week, it wasn’t really a concern. But the incontrovertible truth of the Bible and the inherent goodness of God were things I had been led to take for granted. So, reading this book, I could accept that the church depicted in its pages was corrupt and evil. Certainly, that was never in doubt. They tried to kill Lyra! Trying to kill any child is bad enough — but Lyra! Still, when they talked about Lyra’s coming role as the second Eve — a girl who would be likely to fall victim to the temptation of the serpent — I just thought they were wrong about her. They just don’t know Lyra well enough. Surely, she won’t fail the test like the first Eve did! She’s far too good for that. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what Pullman was actually on about: that God himself was as evil and authoritarian as the church he begat, and that it was therefore best for Lyra to accept the temptation. For Pullman, original sin is something to be celebrated and Eve is a hero. All of humanity’s most admirable traits spring from that mythic moment in Eden, and the villain of Genesis is God. This hit me like a thunderbolt when I was 11. I didn’t immediately renounce my faith or anything, but it was one of the first moments in my life when I was made to recognize that received wisdom shouldn’t be accepted as a default. Reading it 16 years later, I had mostly forgotten the specifics of the plot. But this time, I read the book hoping for Lyra to fall. I think I can award Pullman a share of the credit for this transformation. Reading The Amber Spyglass with the benefit of 16 more years experience in the world made me admire other elements of it as well. Pullman dramatizes a “first contact” narrative in Mary Malone’s plotline, which is roughly analogous to the sorts of stories we hear from the early days of European colonialism — except that in Pullman’s telling, Malone comes to regard the strange creatures she encounters as her equals. It’s worth quoting here: “When she saw how they worked, not on their own but two by two, working their trunks together to tie a knot, she realized why they’d been so astonished by her hands, because of course she could tie knots on her own. At first she felt that this gave her an advantage — she needed no one else — and then she realized how it cut her off from others. Perhaps all human beings were like that. And from that time on, she used one hand to knot the fibers, sharing the task with a female zalif who had become her particular friend, fingers and trunk moving in and out together.” There is not enough YES in the world to express my feelings about this passage. Where Malone could easily have gone on thinking herself superior to the inhabitants of this new world, she instead has the self-awareness to recognize that their way of doing things has its own value that hers does not share. Would that people could always be like this. There are some complaints to be had about this book. Is Lyra sidelined for a good chunk of it? Yes. Is she in need of rescue by a cast of largely male characters? Yes. Is this frustrating? You bet, for a couple different reasons. But does it undermine her role as the primary hero of His Dark Materials, with the highest amount of agency? No, it does not. She is still the character whose decisions matter the most at the end of the book. She is still of cosmic importance in a way that Will, for instance, is not. I daresay the reason that Lyra is given a whole book to herself, before Will is even introduced, is that Eve is the hero in Pullman’s reading of Genesis. She is the originator of original sin, and therefore the single most laudable and important personage in the history of creation. That is the company into which Pullman thrusts Lyra. The reason we come to love her so much, and that we are so frustrated by the stretch of The Amber Spyglass that finds her drugged and comatose in a cave, is that Pullman himself has such obvious affection for her. This is also the reason why we can never accept Lord Asriel as a hero, in spite of the fact that he is a great leader on the right side of history. His indifference towards Lyra makes him a monster. Even the vile, murderous Mrs. Coulter does not commit this sin. And frankly, if there’s anything in The Amber Spyglass that isn’t entirely convincing, it’s the transformation of Mrs. Coulter from irredeemable villain to perversely doting mother. It’s an obvious attempt on Pullman’s part to cast her as a foil to Asriel: the monstrous, inhuman “white hat” vs. the humanized, tragically flawed “black hat.” But to Pullman’s credit, he realizes that both of these characters are so irredeemable in their respective ways (and also because they are both child murderers) that the only sensible ending for them both is to die horribly at the climax of a vast historical conflict they were on opposite sides of. Whatever the flaws of their plotlines — and Coulter’s in particular — their endings are perfect. And speaking of endings, all of my most vivid memories of The Amber Spyglass come from the last few chapters, after the cosmic war the entire trilogy has been building towards is over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about His Dark Materials is that God literally dies in it, and that’s not even the climax of the story. The larger, more contextual story of His Dark Materials concerns the huge vortex of theological conflict that Lyra and Will find themselves drawn into. That narrative climaxes with the death of God. But the more crucial story in the trilogy, which may have even more importance within the story’s cosmology, is the story of Lyra and Will as the new Eve and Adam. And, of course, with Dr. Malone as the new serpent — a character I barely remember from my first readthrough, but who I’m now convinced is the second-best character in the trilogy. The smaller story of these three characters plays out quietly, intimately, and heartrendingly in the final chapters of the book. Pullman saves his most beautiful writing for after the cosmic war is over: all of the sound and fury of the war in Heaven is eclipsed by a simple, elegant story about marzipan, and a star-crossed young love affair of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the great endings conceived by any novelist of our time, writing for people of any age. The Amber Spyglass is nearly perfect. It is exhibit A in sticking the landing at the end of a series. If I ever have kids, I really hope they read these books. But I would never force them to: Pullman taught me too much for that. Pick of the week.

Philip Pullman: Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North & “The Collectors” — While I’m revisiting Pullman, I figured I may as well check out the three miniature books he’s written to tie into His Dark Materials before I move on to La Belle Sauvage. The first, Lyra’s Oxford, is a beautiful short story that demonstrates Pullman’s ability to write beautifully and movingly even when he doesn’t have a gigantic narrative canvas to work with. The story is low on continuity, though it relies on one’s familiarity with His Dark Materials for effect. The note the story ends on — the idea that Lyra and her daemon are being protected by Oxford itself, the city they call home — is much more effective when you know that Lyra is responsible for freeing the dead so that they can become part of everything. More than anything, Lyra’s Oxford is an illustration of the grace Lyra has received in return for her heroism and compassion in The Amber Spyglass. That makes it worthwhile. Also, I appreciate that there are only a couple of mentions of Will, as if her love for him was something very important that happened to Lyra, changed her, and now is over. That said, one of the most moving things in the book is a real photograph of a real bench in the botanic gardens at Oxford, where we are to assume, I suppose, that Lyra and Will still meet once a year in their separate worlds. The picture is shown on a postcard sent by Mary Malone, who jokes about what a crap postcard it is — because presumably these are just pictures taken by Pullman, or somebody working for him, of landmarks chosen for their narrative importance rather than their actual beauty. It’s a nice touch. Once Upon A Time In the North is a slightly more substantial read. Lee Scoresby was always the supporting character in His Dark Materials who seemed most likely to spin off. And indeed, this is a satisfying adventure story for him, with a substantial walk-on part for Iorek Byrnison. But the real heart of the story is more development of the relationship between Lee and his daemon Hester, which is probably the most colourfully rendered human/daemon relationship in the books. Rather than simply being a sort of emanation of her person, Hester is a snarky manifestation of his better judgement. Pullman knows well what Lee’s most memorable scene in the main trilogy is — his final stand in The Subtle Knife — and he’s sure to subtly evoke it just once. This is, among other things, the story of how Lee got his Winchester rifle. And because it’s Pullman, it cannot simply be a rollicking shoot ‘em up action story: it is also a political allegory for how demagogues hide their agendas behind hateful rhetoric. Philip Pullman: teaching kids the important shit since 1995. As for “The Collectors,” a short story available only as an audiobook read by Bill Nighy, it focuses on the specific element of the His Dark Materials universe that probably initially attracted me as a kid: namely its roots in the crusty yet oddly seductive world of British academia. I was a weird kid, and the culture of these head-in-the-cloud scholars that Lyra grew up with seemed nearly as romantic as the northern wastes where The Golden Compass’s adventure begins properly. It’s the most intimate of these three stories, consisting largely of a conversation between two art collectors, with its connections to the main trilogy existing mostly by implication. And perhaps unexpectedly, given all of this, it is also more straightforwardly horror-tinged than most of Pullman’s other writing. In this conversational setting, Pullman’s explanation of his version of the many-worlds theory comes off like something out of Borges — but horror Borges. So, basically China Miéville. I love that Philip Pullman can channel that. My only complaint is the recording: a better engineer might have rolled off some of Nighy’s natural sibilance. Funny how this is only an issue in audiobooks and never in the more professional echelons of podcasting. Taken together, these three stories really do enrich the world of His Dark Materials. I’m unspeakably excited to dive into the next proper novel.

Stephen King: On Writing — I bought it impulsively and it turned out to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. It is also approximately half autobiography. I came to this for good solid advice, and then suddenly he’s writing about how his wife’s poetry made him fall in love with her and suddenly I’m crying in the airport. THAT’S NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. Still, the autobiographical sections of the book are lovely illustrations of how a writer’s craft can interact with the rest of their life — without superseding it. That’s crucial. Of King’s many wise dictums, this may be the wisest: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” As for the more practical section of the book, I was surprised to find myself seldom disagreeing with King and taking a lot of what he wrote to heart. I love King’s writing, but it’s really different from the more ornamented sort of prose that I usually admire. I somehow expected to find him dogmatically insistent upon simplicity and directness, like George Orwell. But he’s actually one of the least dogmatic writing teachers I’ve ever encountered. Mostly he just wants you to focus on the story. His thoughts on theme and symbolism are wonderful: don’t start with either of those things, but they’ll certainly help your readers make sense of the story if they arise naturally. I can see myself revisiting this periodically when my worst impulses as a writer start coming out again.

Movies

Lady Bird — A beautiful movie. Greta Gerwig’s story takes its name from its protagonist, but it could just as easily be called Sacramento. Lady Bird is a movie about the specific experience of growing up in that town: a hard place to be for a kid with a big sense of herself. Speaking as somebody who was once a highly performative small-town teenager with a penchant for weird music and theatre, this movie sooooo gets it right — the drama club scenes in particular. Those are the kids who are in drama club. And those are the songs they sing at auditions. And that’s the way they sing them. The thing that makes Lady Bird such a brilliant coming-of-age story is that it focuses on Lady Bird’s changing sense of her place in the world. Her character arc starts with shame: shame of where she’s from, shame of her class and the neighborhood she lives in, shame of her parents. Then, we see her try to escape from the life that causes her shame. We see her attempt this through theatre, through a deeply misbegotten relationship with another theatre kid, through an even more misbegotten relationship with an antisocial aesthete type, and finally by actually leaving. And finally we see her accept her circumstances. Much of what’s been written about this movie focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, which is only appropriate since that’s actually the core of the movie. (And because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both give incredible performances.) But it’s the sense of place that jumped out at me more than anything: the sense that every human settlement is a network of connections and memories and regrets that have richness for the people who live there, whether they like the place or not.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Hey, this is fun! I never have much to say about Star Wars movies because it’s just not a franchise I feel a lot of attachment to. I get why others love it so much, but for me it’s just something that exists, and I’m not really engaged enough to have strong opinions one way or the other. I have opinions of middling strength. I liked The Force Awakens because it had a fun cast of loveable new characters romping through familiar story beats. I didn’t like Rogue One because it was dull, had a cipher for a main character, and Mads Mikkelsen was badly miscast. I can’t quite access the sort of adoration for this franchise that leads people to proclaim their childhoods ruined when it puts a foot wrong. I do, however, have some strong opinions about Rian Johnson movies. I think Brick and Looper are two of the most dazzling genre movies of the last two decades. And I think The Brothers Bloom is maybe the only Wes Anderson impression that’s actually worth anybody’s time. Among Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi is firmly in my upper echelon, along with the first two instalments of the original trilogy. But alongside Rian Johnson’s other work, I’d put it in the bottom half. I find it hard to credit the notion that anybody would find this more accomplished than Brick, with its virtuosic dialogue and flawless location shooting, or Looper, with its complex but comprehensible story and outstanding action. But it’s a good movie! You should go see it if you weren’t planning to.

Music

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy — I dunno what possessed me to listen to this just now. It’s been like five years since I even thought about listening to Led Zeppelin. But this is still awesome. Either this or Physical Graffiti is my favourite Zep album. They’re a bit more elaborate than the more celebrated first four, and I like that. There are clunkers on Houses of the Holy (“The Crunge,” “Dancing Days”), but the best bits are sublime rock and roll. “The Rain Song” is one of their very best. It finds Jimmy Page elaborating on a few very simple ideas, including one of the most delicate acoustic riffs he ever devised (that syncopated thing in the sixth measure). The song’s slow build, from John Paul Jones’s elaborations of the harmony on Mellotron through John Bonham’s brushes, to the point where the band kicks into full electric mode, is to my ears a major refinement of the same idea in “Stairway to Heaven.” (Yeah, “The Rain Song” is better than “Stairway to Heaven.” Fight me.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” might be my favourite of the band’s major singles. Perhaps it’s a bit clichéd, but don’t blame Led Zeppelin for that. Blame the second-best guitarist at your high school. The one who was better than the dude who could only play “Smoke On the Water,” but not as good as the girl who could play “Eruption.” It’s a song where Jimmy Page’s abilities as a producer are really becoming obvious. Listen to the way the acoustic guitar starts off dead centre of the stereo image, as a matter-of-fact statement of the song’s musical material, then splits into a wide open binaural image on the second time through. It would sound hollow in the long term, but then Robert Plant comes in dead centre and holds it all together. Lovely stuff. And that little ten-note riff that Page brings in just before the outro is one of the loveliest tossed-off moments in the band’s catalogue. My other highlights are “No Quarter” and “The Song Remains the Same,” which is the best thing in the world when you need a sudden jolt of energy. I’d forgotten how much I like this.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow — This album came out when I lived in Edmonton and it immediately became a winter tradition. It’s an album I can only bear to listen to when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been living in Vancouver for a few years now, and the opportunity to get a good, full listen to this in the proper surroundings hasn’t really surfaced. And Christmases at home in Fort McMurray don’t lend themselves to a lot of deep listening in general. I seem to listen to it most frequently on the train to the airport, weirdly. But I can’t make it through the whole thing on that ride. Even if the train were travelling very slow indeed, this is quite simply not the city for it. But this year — hark! — we have snow in Vancouver! Not much of it, mind, but enough to make this album feel at least vaguely à propos. It is certainly Kate Bush’s most underrated album, though I can understand why it wouldn’t hit home for some listeners. No other music in her catalogue is this spare and spacious. Songs stretch on two or three times longer than her average — more, in the case of the 13-minute “Misty.” But if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find that 50 Words for Snow’s slow pace is never without purpose. Take “Wild Man.” It’s probably the most accessible track on the album, with something resembling a rousing chorus. Still, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it stretches on for more than two minutes past its climax. But those final two minutes give Bush’s protagonist — a mountain explorer who has just helped the Yeti avoid detection by the locals — time to process what she’s just been through. A rare thing in pop music. That ability to use musical structure to express meaning is one of the biggest reasons why Kate Bush is my favourite songwriter. The album’s crown jewel, of course, is “Misty.” The basic idea of the song is so simple and so perfect that it seems truly strange that it hadn’t been done before. Maybe it had. But the premise “a woman has sex with a snowman then wakes up to find he’s gone, leaving only a puddle on the bed” was a new one for me. But the beauty of the song is that Bush makes the whole thing feel like a normal, slightly melancholy human interaction (“so cold next to me”). That, and the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful music she’s ever written. I’m thinking specifically of the piano line that first appears at 2:26, and only once more (with strings) in the song’s whole 13-minute duration. That’s nearly as perversely withholding as the Sibelius violin concerto, which uses its gorgeous melody only twice in about 17 minutes, give or take a couple depending on the performance. In both cases, the restrained use of such beautiful material gives the same effect of fleeting euphoria giving way to melancholy. It’s a glorious construction. There are less effective tracks here. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” never quite makes me believe in the supposed eternal love of its two protagonists, even though both Bush and her esteemed duet partner Elton John both give deeply committed performances. And I’ve never really gotten “Among Angels,” which is a fairly austere way to end the album. Clearly Bush sees something in the song that I don’t, because she also used it as an encore at her Before the Dawn shows. I hope to get it eventually. But this album’s high points (“Misty,” “Wild Man,” “Snowflake”) are some of the best in Bush’s catalogue, and therefore quite simply among my very favourite music.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Power Trip” — Worth hearing for Brooke Gladstone’s forthright take on WNYC’s own struggle to deal with revelations of sexual abuse in its workplace culture and Bob Garfield’s attempt to have a frank conversation with a far-right lunatic without having said far-right lunatic hang up on him. (He fails.)

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2017,” “What Makes A Great Album Last” & “Poll Results: Listeners Pick The Best Albums Of 2017” — I haven’t been following this show all year, which means I haven’t really been following new music. There’s lots here that’s new to me, and I doubt I’ll actually check out very much of it. As great as the albums by SZA and Lorde sound, I just can’t keep on top of everything. Still, it’s nice to hear Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and their associates summing up the year. It wasn’t a year full of stuff I connect with especially. It is what it is. Also, nice to be reminded of Reflection a year later. I should check out the seasonal editions as well.

The Heart: Five-episode catch up — Little did I know when I started this run of five episodes backed up in my feed that they’d be the last five episodes of this wonderful show as we know it. And they’re five episodes that demonstrate many facets of the show that make it great. “Signature Research” is a brief, gutting childhood story from a producer who hadn’t made a radio story prior to this one. The Heart has always been great about giving new voices a platform. “God + The Gays” is a deeply personal story from one of The Heart’s staffers about how her sexuality and her religious upbringing bounced off each other. The Heart has always been, quite simply, the best show about the intersection of sexuality and everything else in life. “Man Choubam (I Am Good)” is an expression of a very specific conflict in a very specific person’s life. The Heart has always known that the very personal and very specific are interesting and worthwhile, whether they intersect with broader concerns or not. “An Announcement” is a functional rather than complete episode, existing to inform us of the show’s coming hiatus. But it’s still full of personality and life. The Heart always is. And finally, “Dream” is the most adventurous and sonically beautiful thing I’ve heard in months. The Heart has always been the best sounding, subtlest and most technically masterful podcast in production. I’ve learned a lot from this show, about life, and other people’s experiences of the world, and also about how radio can sound when it’s made by someone with an open mind. Its whole catalogue, taken together, is one of the crown jewels of the medium. It’s a sad loss, but I’m looking forward to hearing what Kaitlin Prest, Mitra Kaboli and company will be up to in the next year. Pick of the week.

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Ian Anderson is a better singer than you probably think.

If you’ve never actually had a conversation with me, count yourself lucky.

There are only a few things I can really talk about, and they’re almost certainly not the same things you like to talk about.

One thing I prattle on about all the time is my love for Jethro Tull. And, once I’ve found myself deeply involved in a satisfying rhetorical conversation on that topic, I almost always get the same vaguely disinterested response from my unlucky company: “Yeah, that guy can sure play the flute.”

I know that they all mean well, when they say that. But they’re entirely missing the point.

Ian Anderson’s flute playing isn’t what makes Jethro Tull a great band. It’s not even what makes Ian Anderson a great musician. Or, not the only thing, anyway.

So, let’s take a look at a different side of everybody’s favourite rock & roll man-flamingo – his singing voice.

Anderson makes no claim to be a good singer. He’s said before than when he joined the band that would become Tull, as a harmonica player, the mic was thrust upon him because his voice was slightly less awful than everybody else’s. But Anderson can do more with that nasal baritone than he gives himself credit for: indeed, more than anybody gives him credit for.

Here’s my argument in brief:

Proposition: Ian Anderson, the unsung hero of rock vocalists, is in some respect as agile a singer as some of his more acclaimed contemporaries.

…which of course begs the question, in what respect?

Well, for now, let’s consider Anderson’s use of melisma. That’s when you sing more than one note on a single syllable of text. It’s the opposite of syllabic singing, which is when you sing one note per syllable.

This should make it clearer:

We often associate melisma with ornate, baroque vocal music and gospel-inflected pop. In recent years, it’s become popular as a tasteless mechanism to show off your dubious technique on TV talent competitions. But, there’s no question that it takes some vocal agility and control to pull off highly melismatic singing.

Ian Anderson sings melismas kind of obsessively. He’s even mentioned in the Wikipedia article on melisma: “Melisma is also used, though rarely and briefly, in the music of Jethro Tull: examples include the eponymous track of the album Songs From the Wood, and the song Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day).”

Actually, Anderson’s melismas are neither rare nor brief. Almost every Tull album up to Crest of a Knave is loaded with them.

So, here’s the crazy thing I did to prove my proposition.

Method: I chose three songs by three different rock bands of the 1970s. One of the bands is Jethro Tull. All of the songs chosen show an accomplished vocalist at the peak of his abilities. I analyzed each song to determine which is, on average, the most melismatic.

Of course, trying to rank rock singers’ vocal abilities by any objective measure is a fool’s errand. But maybe when you see the way this shakes out, you’ll listen to Anderson’s snide, sardonic rasp a little differently.

Let’s meet our contestants:

Ian Anderson

Contestant #1: Ian Anderson

On behalf of our intrepid contender, I have submitted the track “Minstrel in the Gallery.” It’s a powerhouse vocal performance that shows Anderson’s approach to melodic, acoustic music and riff-powered hard rock in equal measure.

 

 

 

Freddie Mercury BW

Contestant #2: Freddie Mercury

It was an obvious choice, really. Mercury’s four-octave range is enough to ensconce him in the top tier of his generation’s great singers. Add expressiveness and flexibility to that, and he’s a shoe-in for a spot in our contest.

“Somebody to Love” sees Mercury singing in every corner of his massive range. And, unlike most Queen, it’s got a bit of church in it. Church is, of course, the ultimate domain of the melisma, so we can expect Freddie to score pretty high with this track.

 

Robert Plant BW

Contestant #3: Robert Plant

Sometimes, when you listen to music from the ’70s, you wonder what the singer gets up to during the ten-minute instrumental breaks. Not so with Led Zeppelin. Plant is right there in the thick of it. No rock singer understands that the voice is an instrument quite like he does.

We’ll judge him according to his performance on “Kashmir.” The track is mostly based on repetitive patterns in the guitar and drums, with an orchestral arrangement that doesn’t command much attention. So, the responsibility of keeping the listener’s interest throughout the track’s eight-and-a-half-minute duration falls squarely on Plant. He “oohs” and “whoahs” his way through the task with great finesse.

Process:

If you’re not interested in how I reached my conclusions, and I wouldn’t judge you for that, you can skip to the section titled “Results.” Just take for granted that my methods are totally precise and scientific, and that there were no grey areas for me to exploit for my own purposes. I would never cook the books like that. Trust me.

The ultimate goal of this little experiment is to calculate the ratio of notes per syllable in the lead vocal of each selected track. That means we need to count the syllables and the notes in each performance. So, we need an accurate transcription of the lyrics of each song as sung, complete with any incidental “heys,” “yeahs” etc. Then, we can count the syllables in each text, and listen closely to each recording to count the notes.

Here’s what I came up with:

Minstrel in the Gallery

Transcription

The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, observed the spaces between the old men’s cackle.
He brewed a song of love and hatred, oblique suggestions and he waited.
He polarized the pumpkin-eaters, static-humming panel-beaters;
Freshly day-glow’d fact’ry cheaters, salaried and collar-scrubbing.
He titillated men-of-action, belly warming, hands still rubbing
On the parts they never mention.
He pacified the nappy-suff’ring, infant-bleating one-line jokers.
T.V. documen’try makers, overfed and undertakers,
Sunday paper backgammon players, fam’ly-scarred and women-haters.
Then he called the band down to the stage and he
Looked at all the friends he’d made.

The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, observed the spaces in between the old men’s cackle.
And he brewed a song of love and hatred, oblique suggestions and he waited.
He polarized the pumpkin-eaters, static-humming panel-beaters;

The minstrel in the gallery looked down on the rabbit-run.
And he threw away his looking-glass – and saw his face in everyone.
Hey!

He titillated men-of-action, belly warming hands still rubbing
On the parts they never mention, salaried and collar-scrubbing, yeah.

He pacified the nappy-suff’ring, infant-bleating one-line jokers.
T.V. documen’try makers, overfed and undertakers,
Sunday paper backgammon players, fam’ly-scarred and women-haters.
And then he called the band down to the stage and he
Looked at all the friends he’d made.

The minstrel in the gallery looked down on the rabbit-run.
And he threw away his looking-glass – and saw his face in everyone.
Huh-hey!
The minstrel in the gallery, yes.
Looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, yeah.
Mm, the minstrel in the gallery.
Mm, and he waited, yeah.

Notes

For our purposes, it’s important to note the way that Anderson pronounces the words “suffering,” “family,” “documentary,” and “factory.” Each of these words could be sung with a varying number of syllables, depending on the context. Anderson always chooses the shorter one. For example, “documentary” becomes “documen’try,” so that it’s pronounced with four syllables. Accounting for this, Anderson sings a total of 458 syllables.

Counting the notes isn’t quite so black and white. I frequently wondered whether Anderson was singing six notes on a given word, or seven; seven or eight; nine or ten. It’s easy to lose count when the notes fly by as fast as they do here. Where there was ambiguity, I generally erred towards the lower number, to counteract my pro-Anderson bias. In the end, I counted a total of 704 notes in the lead vocal.

So, the average number of notes per syllable in “Minstrel in the Gallery” is about 1.54.

Here’s a picture of my notes for this track, which look like something only an insane person would produce. They show the number of notes that I heard in each word of the song. All in the interest of transparency:

MITG Transc

Somebody to Love

Transcription

(Note: This is a transcription of the lead vocal only. Mercury does sing backup in this track as well, but for the sake of comparison, I’ve left that out. Also, like I could seriously pick him out in the mix…)

Can…

Ooh…
Each morning I get up I die a little,
Can barely stand on my feet,
Take a look in the mirror and cry,
Lord what you’re doing to me,
I have spent all my years in believing you,
But I just can’t get no relief, Lord!
Somebody, ooh somebody…
Can anybody find me somebody to love?

Yeah…
I work hard every day of my life,
I work till I ache my bones,
At the end,
I take home my hard earned pay all on my own,
I go down on my knees,
And I start to pray,
Till the tears run down from my eyes,
Lord somebody, ooh somebody,
Can anybody find me somebody to love ?

Everyday – I try and I try and I try,
But everybody wants to put me down,
They say I’m going crazy,
They say I got a lot of water in my brain,
Ah, got no common sense,
I got nobody left to believe.

Ooh somebody – ooh,
anybody find me somebody to love?

Got no feel, I got no rhythm,
I just keep losing my beat,
I’m OK, I’m alright,
I ain’t gonna face no defeat,
I just gotta get out of this prison cell,
Someday, I’m gonna be free, Lord!

Uhhh-ooh
Find me – Find me – Find
Ooh – Find me – Find me somebody to love
Ooh

Ooh, can anybody find me
Somebody to love.

Ooh
Find me somebody somebody somebody somebody to love
Find me find me find me find me find me
Ooh somebody to love
Ooh
Find me find me find me somebody to love
Anybody anywhere, anybody find me somebody to love love love love
Find me, find me, find me
Love.

Notes

Once I stuck all of Mercury’s improvisatory flights of fancy into the transcription, I found that he sings 369 syllables in total, not counting backup vocals.

The number of notes that he sings is even more ambiguous than in Anderson’s case, due to the fine line between melisma and portamento, which is where you slide up or down between notes, singing all of the pitches between the two. There are two key notes in such a gesture, at the beginning and the end, with an undefined number of pitches in between.

If we were to make a distinction between melisma and portamento, we could say that in melisma, the singer moves cleanly between the notes, and in portamento, he slides between them in a more relaxed fashion. Still, that’s a pretty fine line to draw, so in the spirit of generosity, and to once again counteract my bias, I have counted some of Mercury’s portamenti as two notes, rather than one “bent” note.

I have only done this where Mercury clearly intends to move from one note of the melody to another, rather than to ornament a single note. An example of the former would be the word “look” in the line “take a look in the mirror and cry.” That gets counted as two. An example of the latter would be the word “stand” in the line “can barely stand on my feet.” That’s just one.

This is one of those grey areas that I said didn’t exist.

All said and done, I counted 442 notes, resulting in a notes-per-syllable ratio of 1.20.

Here are my notes.

STL Transc

Kashmir

Transcription

(Note: Where the vocal fades out at the end of the song, I assumed that Plant follows the same pattern as previously, both in terms of words and notes.)

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream,
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been,
Sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen,
Talk of days for which they sit and wait – all will be revealed.

Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear,
But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear,
Whoah, whoah.

Oooh, oh baby, I been flyin’…
No yeah, ah-mama, there ain’t no denyin,’
Ow, Oooh, yes. I’ve been flying, mama-ma, ai… ain’t no denyin’, no denyin’.

All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground,
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land,
Tryna find, tryna find where I’ve been-ahh.

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream,
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream,
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again,
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin’ through Kashmir.

Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years,
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear,
Whoah-ohh. Whoah. Ohh. Ohhhhh.

Well, when I’m on, when I’m on my way, yeah,
When I see, when I see the way, you stay-yeah.

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I’m down…
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I’m down, so down,
Ooh, my baby, oooh, my baby, let me take you there.

Oh, oh. Come on. Come on. Ohh.

Let me take you there. Let me take you there.

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, let me take you there. (faded)

Notes

Another one of those fine lines: Is he singing “whoah,” or “whoah-ohh?” Anyway, it sounds to me like Plant sings 348 syllables, here.

The same distinction between melisma and portamento applies here, as it did with Mercury. I’ve treated it the same way.

When I calculated the notes-per-syllable ratio of this track, I realized it’s kind of unfair. The end result is a higher score than Mercury received, but the majority of Plant’s melismas are only two notes long: hardly melismas at all, compared to Mercury’s nine and eleven note beauties. Nonetheless, Plant sings two notes on a syllable frequently enough to put him just over the top, for a total of 440 notes, and a ratio of 1.26.

Another page of notes:

Kash Transc

Results:

The proposition stands. Ian Anderson’s notes-per-syllable ratio of 1.54 is the highest of the three by a clear margin. Robert Plant is the runner-up with a ratio of 1.26, and Freddie Mercury, in spite of singing far longer melismas than Plant, brings up the rear with a score of 1.20.

These may seem like small numbers, but bear in mind that the standard number of notes to sing on a syllable of text is one. Melismas are the exception rather than the rule, even in the three songs examined here.

Perhaps it seems slightly trivial to rank singers based on inconsequential little numerical values like these. But it certainly pegs Anderson’s claim not to be a good singer as false modesty. For all his shortcomings, whatever they are, he has a lot of vocal flexibility.

Moreover, it’s always used in service to the song. “Minstrel in the Gallery” deals with the relationship between the performer and his audience. It uses the image of a medieval minstrel to shed light on the public personas of ’70s rock idols. A teeny bit of technical showmanship can be expected, given that theme. You can also find a lot of melisma on side two of Aqualung. That’s the churchy side, so it fits. (See “Hymn 43” in particular.)

But also, that guy can sure play the flute.