Everybody does it. In the shower, in the car, around the campfire. At one time or another you, me and everyone’s cousin have sung a capella. It doesn’t always sound good—believe me, you don’t want to be share a long trip with a Barry Manilow fan and no car stereo—but even when it does, as an art, as an expression deemed worthy for mass consumption, a capella music is fading away.
These days, with every budding musician able to record their own mini-symphonies with computers, 4-tracks, Casiotones and guitars, the recorded, unaccompanied voice is rare to hear. Sure you have your standard-issue barbershop quartet at store openings and the odd novelty track on a Boys II Men CD. Some adventurous artists, Todd Rundgren and his A Capella album comes to mind, have tested the bounds of the human voice as an instrument on larger projects. But by and large, words and music go together like, well, words and music, and never the two shall part. Imagine Britney Spears giving a capella a shot: The knob on the pitch control machine would break off in the producer’s hand before that recording session was done.
But it wasn’t always thus. Used to be folks like John and Alan Lomax and Harry Smith roamed the country to document the hundreds and thousands of original songs being sung on front porches, farm fields and prisons. These folklorists would pull up, pop the trunk and start rolling tape, capturing the voices of a nation.
Day-job duties with such tapes at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University got the folks behind Bloomington, Indiana’s Secretly Canadian Records thinking. Why not take a stab at a contemporary collection of a capella performances? A wishlist of 28 performers was drafted; 24 chose to participate.
The criteria was simple: record a song with voice as the sole instrument. Some artists chose to play it straight, like Appendix Out’s Ali Roberts, who sang into a cheap cassette deck. Others, like Jarboe, created a cacophony of voices, using sampling and loops to create a grand work from one voice.
The resulting collection, The Unaccompanied Voice: An A Capella Compilation, contains mostly original material, with a few traditionals, children’s tunes and cover songs scattered throughout. It is as varied and compelling as any music-bound song collection, perhaps more so, because the performers’ voices, stripped of the standard guitar-bass-drums lineup, can’t hide behind genre or arrangements. This seeming level playing field instead serves to highlight the differences.
And those are many. Within the first six tracks alone you find Appendix Out’s drunken Scottish reel on that handheld cassette player, the Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek’s soaringly gorgeous, hi-fi reading of John Denver’s “Around and Around,” Mia Doi Todd’s French reading of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” and Nikki McClure’s atonal girl school taunt “Blackberry.”
A few of these, like Todd, Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado were recorded in the basement of Secretly Canadian’s Jonathan Cargill, a reversal of sorts of the Lomaxes traveling recording studio. Others are more traditional, such as the tune from Richard Buckner and P.W. Long, captured on tape by Cargill before one of the two performers’ shows. A capella is no chore for Buckner, whose song “Fater” from his Devotion + Doubt album is one of the modern classics of the form, and it shows in their downright creepy version of “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” The two mesh with an otherworldly harmony that is more jagged edges coming together in spots than the sweet glow of modern voices intertwined. One of the two keeps time with a martial clap throughout.
Others, like Jarboe, stretch the bounds of what is traditionally thought of as a capella music. Sure, voice is the only instrument on “And I Name Myself Hag,” but the densely layered vocals, sampled and drenched in effects, create a ghostly atmosphere that stands out among the stark tracks elsewhere.
Elsewhere, the Grifters accompany the vocals with a bit of pre-beat box mouth music (think the power chord sounds you made while air guitaring in the mirror with your tennis racket), Low turns in a beautiful duet between Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar offers a basso profundo version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and David Grubbs takes his recent slide into simplicity to its logical extreme, with a medley of two traditional tunes done straight a capella.
Listening to the disc, an hour of music in all, is trip back in time, but at the same time it’s perhaps a look to the future. With recording being as easy as punching a button on your PowerBook, and with distribution systems like MP3 just the first of what is sure to be a whole wave of high-tech jukeboxes, what’s to stop musical techies like Aimee Mann or Robyn Hitchcock from uploading a music-free ditty for their fans? It’s the ultimate Unplugged, no electricity? Hell, no instruments!
Wishful fortune telling aside, these 26 tracks make for a pretty enjoyable here and now, a way to hear music in its most pure, unadulterated form. One song, one voice.