Black

In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Ed Vedder speaks briefly about melody becoming a more recent goal for himself to concentrate on when writing songs, and that during the first three records, if there was any melody on his part it was unconscious. “Black”, he goes on to say, may have had some melody in there. For me, both as a musician and a Pearl Jam fan, this section of the interview is one of the most enlightening, revealing bits of information to come out of a PJ interview in a long time, heartening though all too brief.

There are of course plenty of stories and angles with which to approach “Black”:

1. The story of how Ed, while hiking on break from the recording of Vs. overheard some young people singing the song together, and wished them to stop.

2. How Ed drew a line in the sand when Epic wanted to release “Black” as a single and video, believing the band to be already popular enough, and the song too personal to want to sell in that manner.

3. Covers ranging from unintentionally humorous (Staind’s Aaron Lewis, Stone Sour, et al) to intentionally humorous (Redbug), adding to “Black”‘s status as one of the most iconic, if not the iconic Pearl Jam song.

But none of these facets or stories regarding “Black” are possible without the song itself, how it was constructed (or not constructed), and performed. That would appear to go without saying, but it’s easy to imagine “Black” as somehow having always existed as is, without being the product of five individuals. My primary interest in discussing “Black” is the same as it was for “You Are”: Ed’s voice, particularly as looking at both songs in close conjunction might give us insight into what Susan identified as a common gripe from some Pearl Jam fans, that Vedder has somehow lost something from his vocal delivery over the years. I would actually agree that Vedder has lost something from his voice since the days of Ten, and “Black” specifically, but I would argue that it has been a positive development that underscores his increasing, rather than decreasing, skills as a singer and artist.

The maturation of one’s vocal chords over time, how best to sing in order to preserve and not damage one’s voice, and an uncluttered, unimpeded expression of oneself through singing are all intimately connected. Obviously, as we age, our bodies reach peaks and then deteriorate, often exacerbated by lifestyle. The voice is no exception. Beyond the natural cycle of its development, how we live affects its tone and quality (and even its existence at all if we’re exceedingly reckless): drinking, smoking, screaming, etc. However, there are ways in which to sing that are healthier than others. If one is singing as naturally for themselve as possible, without strain or affectation, the complete range of vocal expression remains available to the singer with little fear of damage–even screaming, within reason. And the tone that results from proper technique will the be the clearest expression of the individual.

Consider that if I want to cover a song by Elliott Smith, I can manipulate my voice to affect what were for him (I’m assuming) natural qualities in his voice. But as they are not natural to me, my throat will hurt like a son of a bitch after a while. Then there’s the question of why I would want to imitate Smith in the first place, as opposed to attempting to add my own sensibilities to his work? Hurting my voice through the act of affectation seems an appropriate punishment. We can hear Vedder address the artistic and vocal dishonesty directly on “4/20/02”, but we can also hear it in the legions of bands that from the mid-’90s on, have built their mostly (and mercifully) short careers aping the vocal style of “Black”.

When, in the shower or otherwise, you feel like goofing off and mimicking Ed’s voice, which song’s sound is easiest to approximate? “Unemployable”? “Can’t Keep”? “Light Years”? Nope. The sound of Ed’s voice on “Black” is the sound easiest to parody and to affect. By pushing down in one’s vocal register, tightening the mouth, and pocketing a little air on either side of one’s tongue, that grumbly barrel-chested baritone can (almost, but not quite) be yours. And as mentioned above, too many singers have co-opted that sound as a signifier of sincerity. The sound of Vedder singing “Black” has become synonymous in the mainstream rock world for really really meaning what you’re singing, even if most frontment might as well be singing about fabric softener. And that’s a pretty unfortunately development for everyone involved. Because when I hear “Black” on Ten, I do hear sincerity, but I also hear inexperience.

When singing deeply, it’s often hard to sing loud, or to effectively inject as much nuance as one can when singing in higher in one’s range. The temptation for young singers is to push one’s voice harder, or to use the cavernous qualities of the mouth to somehow get the voice to resonate more. This is what I hear on “Black” and much of the Ten era, and why it’s not hard to spot suspected late-era vocal retakes on some of the tunes on Lost Dogs (“Hold On”, I’m looking at you!), because Vedder has learned not to do that, or at least not as much, over time. Now, Ed can sing as low as he wants and not worry as much that the “emotion” isn’t coming across, because he’s trying to serve the melody first, and sing as honestly as possible, with the least amount of affectation. Some, maybe many, might lament this because they fell in love with Ten and Vs. first. But the change over time does not mean that the man has lost his passion, or ability, or any such hoo-hah. It’s evolution, baby.

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~ by Michael on June 11, 2007.

8 Responses to “Black”

  1. I think Ed started to do whatever your saying he did around the time of his collaboration with Nusrat Fatah Ali Baba Akbar Kahn Smith…no disrespect intended by any means…I just can’t remember his name right now and don’t have time to look it up…that collaboration on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack…I remember thinking at the time how “different” Ed sounded on those songs, (Long Road and Face of Love, right?) “Different” isn’t really the right word, and it’s not “better” or “worse” either…maybe “fuller” I don’t know…more controlled…I remember thinking, He must be trying to learn how to sing, to do something with that blessed gift of a voice he was given…lessons, maybe. And looking back, it seems obvious, but the truth is I haven’t thought about it since then…when was that? And in the end, whether he made a conscious decision about melody or his voice, or whether it’s just, as you mention, a natural consequence of age and life (though, I’m sure there’s a voice viagra out there for all our aging favorites…Dylan obviously won’t touch the stuff!), the point is…who cares? He sounds great…and I’d prefer to know more about the emotion of Black than the story of Ed’s voice and what you and all those pathetic sound a like bands sing in the shower. On the other hand, I’ve never read about Ed’s voice before…so thanks for the new perspective. And I know this isn’t the place for these kinds of comments, but they opened with Porch the other night in Madrid. They opened with Porch. I still can’t believe it. Some nice jams along the way, but it’s still too soon to remember it all. Now that I think about it – Europe crowds are to American crowds as Ed’s voice now is to Ed’s voice on the first three albums.

  2. I think you were able to perfectly convey your point, C13, and I tend to agree. I think Ed’s voice has aged perfectly over the years. And I enjoy that he now used melody more than force (most of the time). Are there times when I wish his voice was as “strong” as it was in 93? Sure! There were some pretty rousing versions of “Corduroy” and “RVM” back in the day. But I enjoy listening to these songs now. I enjoy guessing how Ed will try to create a melody during the bridge, rather than vocally barreling right through it. I know many people disagree and wish for old Pearl Jam period. And that’s ok too, but, as C13 said, things have evolved.

    My two favorite Pearl Jam tours were the 95 Vitalogy tour and the 06 tour and I enjoyed them most, particulary, because of Ed’s voice. In 95, he was absolutely SCREAMING everything. There was little melody and even less subtlety. But it worked for me at the time. The new songs, (Spin, Not For You, Corduroy) and the band’s current temperment, demanded that kind of vocal rage. But in 06, with his voice having lost a notch along the way, Ed turned to melody and I thought the songs, new and old, sounded refreshing on the last tour. Forced to actually “sing” the songs, Ed often provided new deliveries on songs we’ve heard for years. Ten-era songs sounded brand new to my ears, and yet, let there be no mistake, Ed could still deliver on the harder songs as well. There were vocal creaks and cracks along the way, but it worked perfectly for me.

    I really enjoyed this post. Good stuff!

  3. Oh yeah, seeing as this post is about “Black”, I guess I should weigh in on the song….It’s good, what can you say? It’s not my favorite but I like it. McCready’s solos are always great live and any time EV starts doing some improv vocals in during the middle of the song, it is always spectacular.

  4. Thanks No Coder & Oleyver.

    Oleyver: The point of my discussing Ed’s voice rather than emotion is the former is something that can (to some degree) with looked at with a degree of objectivity, whereas talking about the emotions of the song would be even more guesswork (and guesswork that is unique to everyone who listens to the song). Much more interesting to me at least is to examine the craft and technique of the band, how they’ve changed, grown, and why. For instance, your statement that Europe crowds are to American crowds as Ed’s voice now is to Ed’s voice on the first three albums, is extremely interesting! That would make a great thesis for exploration.

  5. C13, that was a great discussion. I think that as you move through the catalog, you’ll find yourself needing to revisit this to some degree. It’s such a contentious topic. I’m also one of those people who enjoys Ed’s current style more that his earlier style. Unlike NoCoder, I have the hardest time with 1995. It’s just painful to listen to. I find that interesting because they were starting to work on No Code during that time, and I think that he really began to transform his style in No Code. I was comparing the delivery of SMALL TOWN on Vs. to what he does with OFF HE GOES. I think that he has improved as a singer, technically, but I also think that all of that screaming did cause him to lose the smoothness that he was capable of in the early days (but didn’t often use). That said, he sounded wonderful in 2006 and most of my favorite shows are from 2006.

    The BLACK that we’ve been hearing over the past few years is so delicate and so beautiful. For me it’s like a new song. Some of those 2005 versions were just incredible.

    To Oleyever: I downloaded the Madrid show, and I thought the same thing. PORCH OPENER!!!!!!

  6. Susan–I can definitely see this topic getting stirred up again and again, though it feels like I’m getting close to the halfway mark, with about 5 or 6 songs per album completed! I much prefer the recent versions of “Black” as well. It would also be a great candidate for a complete workover a la “Jeremy”. I’m always up for one of those.

  7. When it’s time to change (when it’s time to change),
    Don’t fight the tide, go along for the ride,
    Don’t ya see?
    When it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange,
    Who you are and what you’re gonna be.
    Sha na na na na na na na na
    Sha na na na na.

    As for this topic getting stirred up again, first of all, thanks for the warning…and second, I did some research into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and found out that not only is he dead, but that collaboration took place between Vitology and No Code…right when we all seem to agree Ed’s voice changed. But again, it’s like comparing apples oranges, or american and european audiences…I don’t see the point. It’s akin to debating why he doesn’t swing from rafters and stage dive as much as he used to, or whether he sounds better with or without a mohawk. His evolution as a singer hasn’t really impacted the music that much. Certainly not as much as other Pearl Jam evolutions in craft and technique. Like Peter Brady so eloquently squeaked, “Don’t fight the tide, go along for the ride, Don’t ya see?” The Brady Bunch has the answers to all of life’s imponderable questions, in case you don’t know who you’re ever gonna ask…

    Last thing…I think you won, but I enjoyed the fight. Enjoying your blog.

  8. I agree with you completely about how EV is able to better use and understand his voice to enhance his range. Case in point, during last year’s tour he consistenly hit high notes during the ending improv. He blew away Neil Young at Bridge night 2 and he went even higher at Hawaii 12/2.

    There are so many great things about the song. My favorite is the anticipation to what kind of ending he and Mike will improv. Holding a long note, Mike doing a huge crescendo, interaction with audience (see Benny Hall 03 and much of Europe in 06), etc. and now he is mixing in a high note ending.

    I may have to post a few times with this song as I recommend you might repost a part 2 for this song.

    One other thing. EV aside, I have the instrumental demo of this song and it’s still powerfull, so it’s not all about EV. The music demands great attention. You can feel the emotional build up through every cord played.

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