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Speaking and Singing at the Same Time Dry Cleaning didn't invent the chatty vocal style...

Speaking and Singing at the Same Time

Dry Cleaning didn't invent the chatty vocal style...

by Duncan Jones, Poet in Residence
first published: April, 2021

approximate reading time: minutes

[These songs], they've all long since haunted me. I don't know that I like them but I can't leave them alone

First I heard songs with spoken intros: Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson and Bobby Womack’s Woman’s Gotta Have It. Easy to take the rise out of now but I liked how the speech patterns were at odds with the music. They were getting familiar with us. Fausse intimité I suppose but that was part of the pleasure. Who worries about being fed a line when they taste that good. 

Then I bought The Show by Doug E Fresh. The metre was tidy, well measured.  I learnt all the words and some of them were filthy. It’s a daft record. I was 10 years old and not sharp enough yet for any of the ur-texts. Rap was something new to us then and we were babbies. Everybody told us that speaking on records wasn’t music. People who’d make you listen to Led Zeppelin and get upset if you got bored.

Sprechgesang is a term that comes into use during the Second Viennese School. God love those Germans, splicing terms at odds for the fun of it. It’s some way between speech and song. The sound is uncanny. The term fits with what we’re looking at here. In everyday speech,  we play with intonation and rhythm and such in pursuit of our own ends and affections. Some of us can do magic. Dissolve received ideas. Straight song is inadequate for just and crafted hatreds, Lancastrian half dreams and system breaches. If we were just lost in the melody, we’d pass on the disruptions that wake us.

So here’s three pieces to harken to in lieu of a proper introduction. They’ve all long since haunted me. I don’t know that I like them but I can’t leave them alone.

Nina Simone - Pirate Jenny
Nina Simone
Simone goes a little sharp from the start. It’s important to remember the warmth and measure of her usual voice. When it was harsh it was to definite ends. Here, she’d cheapen the thing if she gave way to the priced beauty of melody. Besides, something has to be said. It’s a performance. A number from a show. One that inches under the skin and gives the shivers. She’s talking to herself and we shouldn’t be listening but we do and once we hear that voice, the sotto voce of a cleaner’s spleen amplified, we’re trapped. Scrubbing our floors while we’re talking. She messes with the tempo, slows down and works it over with a little sandpaper when she thinks on our ends for us.

She sings when she comes to each chorus and for a brief while it sounds like La Marseillaise or the Internationale or A Nation Once Again but Pirate Jenny isn’t any of those ready to hand rebellion markers.

It’s the last verse that does it for me. Puts me in mind of Le Gibet from Gaspard De La Nuit. She’s not messing with the tempo so much now given that the clock is calling time and eating up the air. It’s noon after all. Here the thing shifts from song to blistered speech imperceptibly. “Right now”. She’s on her time now. She takes her hands from the piano. Everything’s quieted. “That’ll learn you”. At once comic and glimmering with vitriol, words for an imaginary audience.

The Fall – Garden
Mark E Smith
Is he telling a story? I suppose so. 

A very different voice to the one you hear in interviews. For journalists it’s held in and untrusting, made for scanning enemies. The voice on the records is more hieratic. It’s bang on for invoking the three gods here.  It’s very different to the great mass of vocalists of the time who seem to be set on conjuring up a very boring anger. It’s hard to catch hold of any standard feeling when we hear MES. I don’t think there’s ever a sentiment we can take possession of.

The slow descend of his voice at the end of each phrase sometimes splits a sentence in strange places. He liked fucked grammar, everything peppered with errata. These disruptions mess with any plain comprehension.

Often in songs, Smith will draw us to varieties in register, taking on another voice halfway through. Here, a letter from Mr Reg Varney caught on some itchy dictophone spools on (there’s another buried voice there too, some unquiet spirit). Varney is business like – the grammar is near enough conventional. The content however is deranged – scrawled after too much strong coffee and 6 half bottles of Smirnoff smuggled in at some plastics conference’s close.

At the end there’s a Jew on a motorbike. he gets near ecstatic, ups pitch, all wonder at this messianic entrance. Walter Benjamin’s strait gate opening on some Prestwich back street. “He’s HERE! At Last!”

Laurie Anderson – Closed Circuits
Laurie Anderson
“You’re the snake charmer, baby, and you’re also the snake”.

Often, Anderson seems to be speaking from some hypnagogic territory. An enchanting disenchanter. You’d shit yourself if you found her sitting at the bottom of your bed with that weird light coming from her mouth. 

She likes to take on other voices, sneaking troubling notions past the skull  A pilot gone AWOL. Some midwestern Mom mediating the state. A distrait lover. Processing the voice on this track makes it a harder school of alienation.

Dragged vowels and crisp consonants. I heard a preacher in an Assemblies of God who used their voice in the same way. A long S fixed the congregation, setting off tongues in their heads and sleighing in the spirit left right and centre. It was like turning on a strobe light in an epilepsy clinic. I’d never seen all the tricks so clearly. I’m sure Laurie must have known that game well enough herself.

Though it must be said: whoever it is here, it’s no preacher. The voice is leatherclad, smokes fierce cigs. It calls us to collusion, to bad knowledge that can’t be shook off. The tricks here take us to truths. Outlining the pattern of the world we would rather stay hid. Laying out our unfreedom as if it were some dirty treat we should learn to enjoy.

Duncan Jones
Poet in Residence

Duncan has lived and worked in Birmingham for over forty years. He does things with words and pictures.

about Duncan Jones »»



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