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I have a weird relationship with good singing. My official stance is that it’s unnecessary. When American Idol became the biggest TV show in the country and a few of its winners or runners-up became big (or at least medium-sized) stars, I was confused: didn’t we all sort of agree around 1960 or so that technically impressive singing was, if not entirely outmoded, at least somewhat limiting? Obviously there were exceptions like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, but in the American Idol universe, there was mainly Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, and this wasn’t the world of pop music that I recognized. Maybe it was because when I was growing up, I didn’t really know anyone who listened to Mariah or Whitney, beyond the occasional parent — and not even cool parents, parents who seemed sort of at a loss for how to respond to the question mark of new music made after 1975 or so.
So generally, yes: I pledge my allegiance to Bob Dylan and the wonderful range of voices who are allowed to sing rock-and-roll type songs. Trilling and melisma and whatever else fall far behind the idiosyncrasy of the voice, the smartness of the songwriting, the catchiness of the melody — almost anything but Broadway-style singing quality.
And yet: sometimes, when I’m not expecting it, big vocals really hit me. The marathon of key changes that close Beyonce’s “Love On Top,” for example, much more a technical feat than a songwriting one. Or take Slow Club’s “The Queen’s Nose,” a track off their recent record Complete Surrender. It has a lot going for it, but then, so do most Slow Club songs. The group’s core members, Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson from Sheffield, UK, work together beautifully as a duo: they trade off songwriting and vocals, drifting apart for some tunes and snapping back together for others. But there’s something especially massive about “The Queen’s Nose” that I never could have expected from listening to the sweet strains of “When I Go,” the first song off their debut.
Maybe it’s that exact progression that makes it so thrilling: Slow Club started off as a strummy, excitable folk-pop act and each progressive album has moved further away from that while retaining their generally clean, earnest, often-rueful songwriting style. The song itself progresses, too. It starts with simple, slowdance-y guitar-playing and a plaintive if soulful vocal from Rebecca. Horns kick in, and the vocal gets a little louder, but it’s two minutes in before Rebecca is holler-singing with the horns swelling in the background, and the song keeps strategically dropping out instruments before sliding them back in. It’s halfway done before you realize it’s becoming a girl-group-style torcher, and the final build to Rebecca’s climactic, almost Broadway-level cry of “I can’t go on/living these songs,” with horns and guitar blasting behind her voice like fireworks, is an unlikely candidate for my favorite minute of music this year.
When the band performed “The Queen’s Nose” this week at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, they didn’t have those glorious horns at their disposal. But they did have Rebecca Taylor, and she confirmed — all night but especially during this song — that she sometimes is, as Karen O sang, bigger than the sound. I don’t mean to discount Slow Club’s collective acumen as musicians (both Rebecca and Charles play multiple instruments). In fact, Taylor uses her voice as an instrument, and just like you don’t want your guitar constantly squalling with feedback or engaged in elaborate fingerpicking, you (by which I mean I) don’t want your big-voiced singers using every opportunity to vocalize with precision. On Complete Surrender, “The Queen’s Nose” is preceded by the aching balladry of “Number One” and the girl-group-at-the-disco title track. Live, it was followed by a rollicking “Our Most Brilliant Friends.” Everything made everything sound better.