Soul Unhinged : The Art of “Melisma”

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At some point in the very late 80’s a vocal plague spread across R & B and pop music. The name of this affliction was “Melisma”. “Melisma” is of course defined as singing a single syllable of text while moving between several notes. And while Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston, 2 outrageously gifted singers, were the initial purveyors, to these ears Boys II Men were the real starting point as far as spreading the plague, the true guilty party ( “Motownphilly” excepted, because shit, who doesn’t love “Motownphilly”). Anyway, they employed the technique on literally every track they released, and once they hit it big, that was it. It was the signal for every up and coming R & B group to feature ” the Melisma” on what felt like every single song on the radio. Screw economy and grace, gratuitous vocal runs became the norm. And people loved it. “I Will Always Love You”, “What A Girl Wants” and of course the Boyz/Mariah collaboration “One Sweet Day” ( and an interminable number of others) were all beyond massive hits. The standard was set forever. The pop delicacy of a Mary Wells vocal, like the kind you’d hear on “My Guy” was instantly an artifact from a bygone era.

The style reached it’s peak of manifestation on American Idol, and a little bit later, on The Voice, and continues to fester to this day, generally in the most predictable, immaculately produced, and technically manipulated ways. Now I know this all sounds very “get off my lawn” but I honestly don’t hate “Melisma”, it’s just that this slick, show-offy version of it feels like just that . The only thing I can liken it to is a painting that looks just like a photograph : it becomes all about technique and not so much about content, which makes the art feel kind of empty…the fact is “Melisma” coupled with unbridled, unrefined, imperfect emotion can make for some amazing, spiritual, mind blowing listening. Let’s go back in time for a minute….

Linda Jones was both Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight’s favorite singer. Linda’s recording career was short, running from 1964 to 1972, when she unexpectedly passed away at the far too young age of 27. Within that time, she achieved only middling success ( couple of hits on the R & B charts in the late sixties , the biggest being “Hypnotized”, which was also top 20 on the Billboard pop chart). While she never made what would be considered a classic album within that time, she did kick out some incredible singular songs that positively beggar belief. As in, the vocal performances were nuts. Listen to this insanity :

 

I know, that thing should come with a warning attached. In less than 4 minutes Linda has crushed the entire earth into a dust like powder. I’ll be honest, the first time I heard this, it made me laugh because it was just soooo over the top…but I immediately loved it, because it felt lived. You believe Linda. That’s “Melisma” in the hands of a master. That’s technique and content in one giant heart-shaped mass.

Then there’s this. McKinley Mitchell’s vocal on “Town I Live in” starts oh so sweetly, full of longing, and lonely love…but then about halfway through it turns into this raw, raspy, desperate monster and obliterates everything in it’s path. It happens so suddenly, and jarringly it’s like being woken up from a deep sleep by someone throwing cold water on your face.  This song was recorded in freakin’ 1962, and still sounds weird and off kilter in 2018: a perfect marriage of rough and smooth that transcends time. Check it out:

I know. It’s nuts right? 19-freakin-62.

Screw the visuals. These were records. And yes, in some way the relics of a bygone era…but lord, aren’t they beautiful ? Has anything on The Voice/Idol ever come near these ? Okay “East Coast Family”, as you were….

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