A Commanding Voice
Singing the Praises of Unconventional Singers

It’s February! Holy hell.

So let’s talk about singers and voices, and why I think they’re different. I’ve been getting into a few musical arguments lately (some of which have gotten out of hand – sorry about that), and one of the topics has been just what qualifies someone as a good singer, and whether those qualities are important. One of my frequent sparring partners is a trained singer, and looks for the same kind of training in any singer he encounters: good pitch, good control, good tone.

And that’s admirable, I think, but so few singers in the worlds I inhabit ever get there. Kathleen Edwards, whose terrific new album Voyageur I reviewed last week, is one of them – her voice is a strong and supple instrument. But I’d be hard-pressed to say the same about Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, last week’s other contestant. And I like the new Nada Surf album more.

This is going to sound disingenuous coming from a guy who doesn’t like Bob Dylan, but if your voice is interesting, and holds the listener, and you’ve arranged the music to suit it, then it doesn’t have to actually be “good.” A classic example is Tom Waits. He sounds like a gorilla that’s spent the last 30 years swallowing razor blades, but there’s no one else I want singing a tune like “Flower’s Grave.” Tom Waits sings Tom Waits songs like no one else.

And then there’s Leonard Cohen. Never the world’s greatest singer – he sounded like an old poet even at 32 – Cohen’s voice has atrophied into a low, tuneless bass rumble. He’s 77 now, and on his 12th studio record (cheekily titled Old Ideas), he doesn’t really sing. He speaks, in a whisper that could move mountains. But sweet lord, this record is wonderful, and I wouldn’t want anyone else at the microphone. Cohen’s voice, far from being some sort of detriment, actually makes this thing.

Old Ideas isn’t much different from the work Cohen’s been doing lately. The songs are spectral blues pieces, spare and ghostly, and his voice is contrasted with female backup singers (longtime collaborators Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters). Anjani Thomas and Jennifer Warnes make appearances, as they have for years. Cohen’s mind is on God, ruined love and old age, and he’s still finding new ways to plumb these well-worn topics.

So yeah, this is a Leonard Cohen album, but it’s a particularly good one. It’s largely shorn of the synthesizers Cohen’s been using since the ‘80s, with producers Patrick Leonard and Ed Sanders casting him in more timeless jazz and gospel settings. The absolutely wonderful seven-minute “Amen” is drums, banjo and pump organ, and little else, as Cohen sings of his own unworthiness: “Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober, tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror, tell me you want me then, amen…”

“Darkness” is a dirty blues that tackles the album’s grimmer themes head-on: “I got no future, I know my days are few, the present’s not so pleasant, just a lot of things to do, I thought the past would last me, but the darkness got that too…” Its follow-up, “Anyhow,” is a plea for mercy: “I know you can’t forgive me, but forgive me anyhow…” Cohen is close-miked here, and you can feel the shape of his voice, over a shimmering shuffle and some lovely piano work from Leonard.

There is light within these shadows, however, as there always is. “Come Healing” is a prayer for solace, for water in an endless desert, and it sounds like it. Dana Glover’s harmonized vocals take center stage for nearly a full minute, over spare electric piano: “And let the heavens hear it, the penitential hymn, come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb.” Cohen’s voice fits into this perfectly, worn and weary and seeking grace.

And on “Lullaby,” he offers that grace in return. One of the few songs here with the Casio percussion that has been a Cohen trademark, “Lullaby” is a balm: “If your heart is torn, I don’t wonder why, if the night is long, here’s my lullaby…” It’s almost a shame when the album ends with the bitter “Different Sides,” a song of recrimination. But it’s just as well. Cohen remains a fascinating figure, torn between the sacred and the profane, and the off-kilter conclusion to Old Ideas retains that tension.

Leonard Cohen remains a singular artist, and this album would not work nearly as well with a more traditionally “good” singer. It’s his old-as-time, deeply authoritative voice that gives Old Ideas its power. For more than 40 years, Cohen has found the perfect collaborators and written the perfect music for that voice, and on Old Ideas, he does that better than he has in some time. His is a voice worth treasuring.

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Another idiosyncratic singer is Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. I’m not sure just how to describe his voice, if you’ve never heard it – it’s pinched, with a rough-hewn quality and something of a sneering tone. It works well in his band, which spits fire all over its tumbling Springsteen grooves. In that setting, it’s another part of the vibe – rousing, nostalgic and yet pissing on nostalgia at the same time.

But so much of what makes the Hold Steady work is that fire. Would Finn’s voice work apart from that setting? Finn’s first solo album is a chance to find out. It’s called Clear Heart Full Eyes (an inverted take on Coach Taylor’s catchphrase from Friday Night Lights), and it’s a quieter, more diverse take on the Hold Steady sound. Finn the storyteller is in full bloom here, but the music behind him is more acoustic, more sparse, and full of color.

Does it work? Sure. Finn doesn’t sound much different here, spitting out complex lines full of consonants, but where the Hold Steady would turn something like “Terrified Eyes” into a punky wall of noise, Finn’s crack band renders it as a sorta-folksy driving song. You’ll notice the difference right away: “Apollo Bay” starts off with a slow beat and fumbling guitars before bringing in the lap steels, and the song takes off about halfway through, but never picks up steam.

“New Friend Jesus” sounds like Uncle Tupelo, Finn’s voice taking on a Jay Farrar twang over rollicking acoustics. It’s my favorite lyric here too: “Now people give me sideways looks when we set up on the strand, but it’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band.” Jesus is a recurring character on this record, cropping up in “Western Pier” and “Honolulu Blues,” and conceptual links connect most of these songs. When the album ends with the sad “Not Much Left of Us,” you feel like you’ve been following a set of characters that have come to their dissolution point.

The sonic shakeup seems to be exactly what Finn needed – this is a much stronger effort than the Hold Steady’s last release, Heaven is Whenever. In retrospect, that album may have been an attempt to do songs like these within the Hold Steady framework, and it simply didn’t work. Clear Heart Full Eyes works, and I hope Finn can bring some of this more reflective sense of adventure with him when he rejoins his band.

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I haven’t heard a lot of complaints about John K. Samson’s voice, but I’ve always found it a little odd.

The Weakerthans singer has a high, reedy quality about him, sort of like Ben Gibbard, but less distinctive. It works very well in the context of his band’s driving, folksy rock, but like Craig Finn, Samson has just stripped everything down to its quietest point for his solo bow, Provincial. And where Finn’s effort is decent, even pretty good, Samson’s is wonderful.

Like the best of the Weakerthans’ stuff, Provincial is sad and wistful, but the music here matches – it’s acoustic guitars and strings and icy textures. A few songs (most notably “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” and “Longitudinal Centre”) crank up the volume and hit the distortion pedal, but for much of the running time, Samson is reflective and thoughtful. These tunes are twisty things, full of little surprises, and Samson’s voice is in fine form.

There’s real sorrow here, and a true sense that these people and places Samson is describing live in his head. Samson has long been an underrated lyricist, and his poems here read like little stories. “The Last And” so completely paints its picture of a broken love affair between a schoolteacher and a principal that you’ll feel like you’ve watched the movie of their story. “After Christmas holidays you never asked to drive me home again, and sometimes in the staff room I catch your eye with ‘why’d it have to end,’ but I know from how you worry at your wedding band, I was just your little ampersand…”

“Grace General,” in fact, could stand by itself as a short story in an anthology. Here it is, in full, in paragraph form as it appears in the liner notes:

“Cruel snow, cracked lips, sun lost by 4. Cold winces through the cardboard window where the cobblestone was smashed into glass, and the bare bulb of moon swings over Portage Avenue, lights the icy ruts they sprinkled with sand, down the dim hall of chain stores to Grace, where the parking lot is full again and I don’t bother locking up. The face, before the doors slide apart, is hers, the day they took away the candy and left gift-shop tulips to frame her alarmed ‘what will I do now?’ What will I do now?”

Elsewhere, Samson devotes an entire song to a petition to get former Philadelphia Flyers hockey player Regge Leach into the hall of fame. But he also finds new ways to describe isolation and inertia in “Stop Error,” and puts you in the driver’s seat in a dead-end small town on “Cruise Night.” Provincial is a lyrical tour de force, and is musically just as strong. It’s a fine solo project from an underrated talent, and his voice carries it beautifully.

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That’s it for this week. Next week, Van Halen. I’m actually hoping this isn’t horrible, but I’m not counting on it. Also possible: Of Montreal, Paul McCartney, and the Fray, plus catch-up reviews of Ian Axel and Jonathan Jones.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.