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volcano! - Paperwork

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Artist: volcano!

Album: Paperwork

Label: Leaf

Review date: Sep. 25, 2008

I want to examine, briefly at least, the pedigree of volcano! singer Aaron With’s vocals. While volcano!’s latest album Paperwork is worthy of a number of topics, examining the path a certain musical form through history may tell us more than any two-bit one-sheet or florid prose piece might. As it stands, the musical form I mean is the style of With’s vocals, which are rather strong. While indie rock often attracts those who are not “classically” good, but can mostly hold notes and construct melodies, With seems at the very least well-practiced, if not trained in some way, as he commands a wide, wide range.

In a review of the latest Bodies of Water album not too long ago, I suggested that using the term “theatrical” to describe their music seemed more like the well-meaning surrender of a press agent grasping for adjectives than it did an honest assessment of their music, that to be really theatrical meant to be dramatic, and that while Bodies of Water certainly were grandiloquent, they were missing that necessary facet of drama. I hear drama in With’s voice. I see drama in bands like Dirty Projectors and Frog Eyes. And it certainly seems somewhat incongruent with the genre conventions. Indie rock attracts ironic detachment as well as colossal amounts of melodrama – vocally, at least – but it is certainly lacking in honest melodic drama, and to see a number of bands choose this musical strategy is moderately confusing.

I’ve been going through Elliot Gould’s ‘70s output lately, and last week Harry and Walter Go to New York was up. Through a number of plot devices, the film ambles to a big climax, a theater piece that Harry and Walter intrude upon. Watching the musical-within-the-movie, it dawned on me that “theatrical” when applied to indie rock isn’t simply a way of denoting a dramatic way of singing, but rather has actual roots in theatrical melodies. While the film only shows snippets of the show, what’s very obvious is the mode of classical singing, not quite operatic, but strong all the same. These are fluid and dynamic melodies that flow from the hidden logic of theoretical construction created in such a way that the listeners can feel this order without composers revealing their hands.

In this classical mode, it makes sense. When it shows up in contemporary indie rock in the more theatrical artists (Frog Eyes, Dirty Projectors and volcano!), it has a more aleatoric feel. It’s not random, but it’s still not composed in the same way as the classical mode. Where someone like, say Sondheim, might laboriously script out a polyphonic part replete with points and counterpoints, the vocal maneuvering of musicians like With feels more extemporaneous, less arranged, but no less proficient.

Played off of a classical backdrop, there’s a calmness, a baroque beauty perhaps, to this mode of singing, but on Paperwork, it’s enmeshed within swiftly moving song structures. There’s no consistent foundation for the vocal melodies to contrast against, and instead the listener has to confront the quick shifts in both the vocal melody and the compositions. While different people will experience it differently, for some this might be felt as anxiety. The positive mode in this strategy is that it makes for interesting song structures and interesting melodies, which god knows there is a severe dearth of.

By Andrew Beckerman

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