Why does popular music have to make itself so complicated these days? Why can’t the agents, the promoters, and the rest of them just let the music speak for itself? The tendency toward making intellectual-sounding claims about a pop song or group’s antecedents is not only ridiculous, it sets up expectations that no pop song can ever live up to.
There’s also the fact that the whole genre thing seems to have just gone completely out of control. Can anybody tell me the difference between rock and roll, roots rock, country rock, rock, hard rock, alt-rock, classic rock, and golden oldies? Obviously there are differences between rock and roll and soul music or rhythm and blues, but every time I’ve been forced to listen to the radio recently, everything has sounded the same with the occasional slow wailing ballad thrown in to show their sensitivity.
When I read Dan Bejar, one half of the new duo Hello, Blue Roses, describe the music on his and Sydney Vermont’s new disc as being “completely untethered to any of the bullshit streams coursing through the scene right now”, I was of two minds. First, because I’ve heard his music before and respect it, I’m hopeful about the prospect of hearing good solid pop music, but I have to admit to a little nervousness at the vagueness of that statement. It could mean absolutely anything.
Thankfully, after listening to The Portrait Is Finished And I Have Failed To Capture Your Beauty, Hello, Blue Roses’ debut CD on the Locust Music label, it turns out he’s referring to returning to a less complicated approach to pop music. What, after all, should be less complicated than a collection of pop songs written and performed by a duo?
They have focused on creating songs with lyrics and music that work together regardless of genre classifications or what may or may not sell. They approach each song individually and ensure that the arrangement fulfills the needs of the lyric and the overall impression they want the piece to create. The result is thirteen original tracks, and one cover (Kevin Ayer’s “Hymn”), that are reflections of their musical tastes and nothing else.
The most prominent feature of this recording is without a doubt Sydney Vermont’s voice. She has a strong and clear soprano she is not afraid to let shine. Right from the start you know it will be playing an important part in the proceedings, as the opening song “Hello Blue Roses” starts with her in full voice. It was a bit disconcerting to hear a high, clear soprano at top volume coming through headphones with no musical build-up, but there’s no doubt that it gets your attention.
Unlike so many female pop vocalists who have high voices, Sydney has the breath control and vocal ability to create a full-bodied sound. There’s nothing of the baby voice squeak or false sentiment breathlessness about her as she uses volume, texture, and phrasing to create modulations in meaning and expression. It’s a pleasure to hear a soprano voice that sounds like it belongs to a woman and not some pseudo ethereal creature that could sprout wings at any second and leave the atmosphere.
While Dan Bejar’s voice is nowhere near the spectacular instrument that Sydney’s is, it has a distinct enough quality that it’s not overwhelmed. In fact, the difference in tone between the two voices makes the times Dan sings enough of a diversion that Sydney’s soprano never begins to feel like too much. That’s not meant to be a judgment on her voice, but any sound repeated for extended periods can end up becoming overwhelming.
Dan and Sydney also make it clear they’re not afraid of doing things that at first breath might sound odd and even discordant. Heavy fuzz guitar played under a clear soprano may sound strange, but in the context of their songs it works perfectly. What I liked is that it removed any chance of Sydney’s voice sounding precious or “pretty”, and kept songs like “Hello Blue Roses” from becoming clichéd.
Lyrically the songs are more than a few steps above average intellectually, without ever once sounding forced or pretentious. These are genuinely intelligent songs written by someone who is not afraid of sounding smart, and real enough for them not to be artificial. There are moments of near poetic imagery, which is a definite rarity today. “Heron Song” stands out in particular for me, as the words evoked standing solitary figures against a background washed with grey watercolours.
I’m sure comparisons will be made between Sydney Vermont’s voice and other sopranos who have sung popular music, but she has her own style and I think it would be an injustice to compare. She and Dan Bejar have done their best to create a CD of pop songs that reflect their musical interests and thoughts on life without becoming heavy handed or over the top. Instead they show a firm grasp of what can be done within the framework of popular music, and a great admiration for the form.
If you want to hear some really well performed popular music with no pretensions, then look no further than Hello, Blue Roses’ first release The Portrait Is Finished But I Have Failed To Capture Your Beauty and you won’t be disappointed. You will have to wait a bit as it’s street date isn’t until January 22nd, 2008, but you can pre-order it from Amazon.com.