Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Belle & Sebastian & "Second Singers"

So, I saw Belle & Sebastian the other night for the first time since (get ready for it) 1998.  Their transformation as a live act in that time is a well-known story, so I won't belabor the point, but it would be fun to go back in time and try to convince people who were at the 40 Watt Club that night 12 years ago that someday Stuart Murdoch would be throwing out autographed (American) footballs to kids in the crowd and inviting fans up on stage to clap and dance with him.  In that time travel scenario, I'd also try to convince people that in a few years B&S would have a popular song about a Mets-Giants series and that, a few years after that, we'd have a black president. 

There are many things that could be said about Thursday night's fine, rain-defying performance (and Teenage Fanclub was good too - midtempo jangles, hey-thatsa-nice-distortion-pedal solos and Chiltonesque harmonies beautifully intact after all these years), but I want to focus on a tangential topic that I found myself thinking about after the show: a category of musician that I'll call, for lack of a better term, the "second singer".  Usually a key instrumentalist in the band, the second singer maybe sings a song or two per album and is clearly inferior, vocally, to the lead singer.  Sometimes though, as in the case of Belle & Sebastian's lead guitarist Stevie Jackson, the second singer may be a fan favorite, their songs often highlights of an album or show.  There's something about Jackson's slightly wobbly vocals on songs like "Seymour Stein" and "Jonathan David" (love those "name" songs) that slices right through my defenses, although it may just be a case (and I forget who's written about this phenomenon) of less polished vocals being perceived as more direct, honest, or sincere.  In the case of a pop song, though, I suppose the listener's perception is the only "reality" that matters.  I'm not sure I know what that last sentence means, but I do know that Jody Stephens' vocal on Big Star's "Way Out West" has a similar unaffected, yearning thing going on.

Other good, canonical examples of "second singers" are Dave Davies ("Death of a Clown", "Strangers") and Keith Richards ("You Got The Silver", "Happy").  There must be some other good ones that I'm forgetting about.  Mick Jones of The Clash almost works, but I think he's too strong a singer, maybe not quite "secondary" enough to qualify.  Same goes for Pete Townsend.  Moving away from rock, Bob Wills is an interesting case.  Even though he was the bandleader and the name attraction of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, he only occasionally sang lead, mostly sticking to fiddle and his trademark interjections and band member shout-outs.  He had a great, truly one-of-a-kind singing style, though, that was perfectly of a piece with the band's "clean hat, dirty boots", urbane-yet-downhome approach to the blues.


Eric said...

How about Murray Hammond from Old 97s?

Steve said...

Yes, that's a good one.