Monday, December 11, 2006

Tim Buckley

Tim Buckley is the finest singer of the 1960s. That will raise some eyebrows (including mine, if I think too hard about it), and it's maybe a little exaggerated given the rarefied company of other contemporary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Van Morrison. But the point is that everybody knows Aretha, Otis, Marvin, and Van, and almost no one knows Tim Buckley.

Which is too bad, because his voice was a force of nature, and his music was as restlessly creative and searching as any music released during that incredibly fertile decade. You want to discover the template used by sadsack romantics from Nick Drake to Elliott Smith? Listen to Tim Buckley or Goodbye and Hello. You want to hear jazz magically ported to the folk idiom? Listen to Happy/Sad or Blue Afternoon. You want to hear a guy who was as avant-garde and "outside" as Ornette Coleman or Captain Beefheart? Listen to Lorca or Starsailor. You want to hear one of the great soul albums of the early '70s? Listen to Greetings from L.A. And if you want to hear it all merged and taken to dizzying soulful heights, listen to Dream Letter, maybe my favorite live album ever.

The guy had a four-octave range, he oozed soul, and his early ballads ("Once I Was" just slays me, after all these years) were heartbreakingly lovely. That's a pretty great combination, enough to convince me that there's at least minor heartbreak in the fact that his music is all but forgotten today.

Oh yeah ... Tim's son Jeff was (yes, sadly, was) pretty great, too, and his debut album Grace is frequently listed in the Top 100 Albums of All Time lists that curmudgeonly critics like to compile. But here's the deal: Tim was better. You owe it to yourself to check out his music.

11 comments:

Fred Kohn said...

is there really such a thing as a four octave vocal range?

Start with the famous "high c" which brilliant operatic sopranos can sing. Count 4 octaves below that. You get a note so low that it is 2 half steps below the lowest note Mozart ever wrote for an operatic bass voice.

Johnny Cash does actually sing this note on one of my albums- probably the lowest note I've ever heard sung.

Andy Whitman said...

"is there really such a thing as a four octave vocal range?"

I don't know, Fred. You're probably right. All I know is that the words "Tim Buckley" and "four-octave range" are virtually synonymous

See http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/timbuckley/albums/album/119342/review/5946753/morning_glory_the_tim_buckley_anthology (" ...live versions of "I've Been Out Walking" and "Troubadour" showcase the joyous elasticity of his four-octave range"

and

http://www.followthemusic.com/whobook.html ("A doomed angel with a four-octave voice and a bad habit")

and

http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/may01carter.htm ("At the heart of this search was Buckley’s soaring four octave voice")

if you're interested.

I've never tried to gauge Tim Bukcleys range by sitting at the piano and playing notes when he was singing. I do know that he could sing a whole mess 'o notes, and some of them were really high and some were really low.

John McCollum said...

Falsetto counts?

Fred Kohn said...

Falsetto counts?

In my book, yes, which is what makes things difficult. I can almost believe that a person could have a genuine 4 octave singing range. I would just like to see some real documentation, not vague claims.

I'll tell you what does not count in my book: lowering one's voice by drinking a lot of milk and honey for one session and claiming this as the lower end of your range. Or growling and shrieking into a mic and using a pitch analyzer to determining high and low end of a range.

And certainly not using electronic means to raise or lower the extremes of your voice for a recording.

John McCollum said...

Sitting on the couch I can eke out 3.8ish octaves, so I can imagine Buckley having 4 octaves. I can't, however, imagine it sounding good. (My really low notes sound like Johnny Cash after a four night bender, but they're notes. My high notes sound like mating Chihuahuas, but they're real notes.)

Mariah Carey has a documented (recorded) 4+1 step octave range of real singing notes. She can, apparently, squeak out close to 5. But I'm sure it's as painful to hear as it is to sing.

Jeff Kolb said...

Four octaves doesn't seem completely impossible for men, although I am a little skeptical. I wouldn't be surprised is someone like Bobby Mcferrin could go from middle C+or- two octaves. I've personally heard a few men eek out a high C (which is certainly NOT reserved for brilliant operatic sopranos, although they sound better up there). And there are quite a number of choral pieces that go down to the low C. Tchaikovsky's Vespers go to a B-flat. All that to say: I was pretty skeptical at first, but I wouldn't be too surprised if there were a few great male vocalists out there with four octaves. On the other hand, the stuff about Mariah Carey is bull. She may be able to produce some vibrations that register at whatver Hertz correspond to a 3-high C, but that's not singing. There's no way she goes below C one-below-middle-C, so I don't believe more than 3.5 octaves for her.

Also, one man's falsetto is another man's head voice is another man's full voice. They're not really discrete styles of singing.

I'm interested in checking out Tim...but not for his 4 octaves!

John McCollum said...

Fred,

Interesting link. Listen to the Mariah Carey clip. Not a fan of her music, and I think this sounds pretty awful, but I'd be hard pressed to say it's not technically 'singing.' It's on pitch, and it's part of the melody. Some of the other links are pretty, um, asounding as well.

http://www.dutchdivas.net/frames2/highC.html

John McCollum said...

Oh, whoops. The last comment was mostly directed at Jeff Kolb. Hi, Jeff. I'm John.

All this having been said, I really liked the Tim Buckley stuff. Heard a little of it before, but I'm glad I gave it a second try.

Fred Kohn said...

gentlemen, this stuff is all very interesting, although academic. There is a more serious issue.

about 10 years ago I had a conversation with a woman at work. She told me that her 11 year old daughter had such an incredible voice she had already developed a 5 octave range. I expressed some incredulity (perhaps with a bit less grace than I should have) and asked her what the upper and lower limits of her daughter's voice were. She replied something like, "Are you doubting me? I love music. I listen to it all the time. And I know what a 5 octave range sounds like and my daughter has one."

It made me sad for the daughter who had a mother who told everyone who cared to listen (and everyone who didn't) that her daughter had a 5 octave range. There is even the possibility of harming her voice by constantly trying to stretch her range at that young age.

Singers (or more likely their publicity people) are making more and more ridiculous claims about their vocal ranges. Apparently somebody somewhere made the claim that Mariah Carey had a seven octave vocal range and enough people believed it that snopes had to debunk it. I think that people who are in a position to debunk (or verify) these claims should take every opportunity to do so.

John McCollum said...

Now SEVEN is a number I wouldn't believe. Four or five is demonstrable.

I'll take a great singer with two octaves over a screecher with 9 octabes any day.

Fred Kohn said...

Wow this has been so much fun.

Join us next week when we discuss who the loudest rock band is.

My money is on "Truth Cell" which regularly reaches levels over 200 decibels:

http://www.lawrence.com/news/2001/dec/27/the_mag14/