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"...so little costumery or ornamentation..."

I am a new subscriber to Oxford American, with the first installment of my subscription being their annual music issue. I have a real weakness for serious literary discussions of music (enough so to once brave Greil Marcus - but never mind that), and when those writings are accompanied, as was this issue of OA, by a sampler CD full of wildly diverse music, all of it is impossible to resist. And while magazines-with-CDs aren't uncommon, this disc isn't something that was just slapped together and thrown inside the shrink bag - looking at you, Believer - but instead, each artist is honored with a profile article. The articles are all solid, sturdy, well-informed pieces, but nearly all of them are standard fare written with just enough journalistic distance to prevent any true emotional engagement with the subjects. In other words, professional music writing by professional music writers.

With one wonderful, singular exception: novelist Kevin Brockmeier writing about the country singer Iris Dement. Unlike the other writers here, writing about Dement was clearly much more than a mere assignment for Brockmeier. Instead, Brockmeier has deep feelings for and a strong personal connection to Dement's music, particularly the album he explores in depth, My Life. I recommend reading the entire piece, which unfortunately is not online. One passage in particular struck me. After naming several other "polarizing vocalists" (those whose singing voices take much getting used to) whom he admires, Brockmeier elaborates on Dement's voice:

...Iris is unique among them, however, in that both the people who adore her without qualification and the people who bristle at the very sound of her will point to her voice in explanation. Her voice is, quite simply, where the personality of her music lies, and unless it speaks to you, nothing else she does will register.

It took me a few listens to grow comfortable with the way she sings, but when I did, I quickly realized how expressive her voice could be. It is capable of holding such exultation on the one hand and so much sorrow on the other, with so little costumery or ornamentation, that it can seem as if she has lived an entire life inside each note she delivers. And yet her vocals are always crafted to lend attention to the song rather than herself. She happens to sing well, but beyod that, she sings with the unmistakable stamp of experience, hard-won and cherished, so that the overall effect of her music, no matter how sad, is cleansing, invigorating.

It has always seemed to me that the best singers are the most evocative ones, which is a separate consideration from how conventionally pretty their voices might be...

It brought me great pleasure to read Brockmeier describe her voice in this way because, in doing so, he could just as well be describing Joel R.L. Phelps, another idiosyncratically-voiced singer who has long been one of my favorites. Phelps, as it turns out, admires Dement's work to such a degree that he included not one, but two songs of hers on Inland Empires, his 2001 covers EP. While I had been vaguely familiar with Dement's name for many years, I hadn't heard any of her work until I indirectly heard it through Phelps.

Phelps, like Dement, sings more from his soul than from his intellect, striving to release his emotions without any close attention to technical proficiency. He gets the notes right, for the most part, but the focus is mostly on getting his thoughts and feelings across. And yet, while Phelps' voice may be grating to some, this outpouring of emotion is never done with the slightest bit of bombast. No 20-year-old emo singer here, wailing about his broken heart and empty middle-class upbringing. Like Dement, Phelps has that "unmistakable stamp of experience, hard-won and cherished", and because he seems so real I've never found Joel Phelps' music to be anything less than thoroughly invigorating.

Oh, and of course, the OA sampler disc finally, at long last, formally introduced me to Iris Dement. Her "Sweet Is the Melody", from My Life, is quite lovely indeed. Her voice, despite my narrative above, doesn't seem anywhere near as idiosyncratic as that of Phelps, but still I can very much see Brockmeier's point. She may be smoother around the edges than Phelps, but she's downright rough-hewn compared to all the glossy million-selling country singers out there. Her voice seems genuine, and by extension she seems genuine as a person as well. Hearing this song, I'm not at all surprised that Joel Phelps is such a great fan of hers.

November 18, 2007 in Music | Permalink

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