I could be alone in this assertion--and i don't think i am--but writing a good vocal has to be the most difficult part of being in a band and writing music. Aside from the simple reality that writing catchy and unique pop melodies is goddamn hard, there's a level of vulnerability that comes with sharing your voice and words with the world that is far more daunting than the simple execution of riffs and rhythms. Getting up in front of an audience and singing words you have crafted yourself while under the judging gaze of the drunken, heckling masses isn't just an act of skill or technique--it's an act of bravery, of emotional nudity. It's even worse when having vocal-only band practices to add the lyrics to the music, knowing you're about to sing words you're unsure of in front of the three guys most likely to tell you how much they suck.
To me, this is a large part of why so many bands--mostly on the less-than-national level, but some big dogs too--seem to treat their vocals, maybe not as an afterthought, but not as important as the music. Vocals get buried, processed in effects, and the hummable bits--the hooks--get lost. And of course, in many genres the idea of actually singing the lyrics is shelved in favor of full-throated screams, yelps, barks, and other non-musical vocalizings. And sure, these choices all have their place and their purpose (I can't really picture the Jesus Lizard with three-part harmonies, and Six Finger Satellite wouldn't be the same without J. Ryan creepily croaking all over everything), but there's just something about having the balls to make sure everyone knows just what the hell you're saying up there (and letting everyone know that you actually thought "my lifestyle determines my deathstyle" was a good lyric, right Jaymz?), and presenting it with a melody that commands memorization, that it begs the question--what's everyone else hiding?
Of course, I could be projecting. And after all, not every earworm is necessarily a good thing.
"And once the creature wraps itself around your cerebral cortex, Chekov, you will hear 'Surfin' Bird' on a loop, leaving you susceptible to...suggestion"
This is why the vocals that encase Hurry Up Shotgun's self-titled late-2011 disc in a gauzy, blissful three-part harmony wrapper should be recognized as the tremendous achievement they are.
They sneak up on ya, it's true: the opening "Reason" isn't necessarily peppered with multiple vocal tracks or backing vocals; it's simply a well-crafted Hot Snakes-ey slice of downstroke guitar, pulsing drums, and good ol'-fashioned full-throated rock-n-roll belting, with plenty of upper-register "YEAHs" to keep you listening. It's not until halfway through "Watermelon Sugar," the jam that rests in the tried and true track 2 "hit single" pocket, that the listener is informed that--guess what?--this serviceable post-punk trio can FUCKING SING, and are about to take what you thought was going to be a pretty above-average collection of driving, if unmemorable tunes and push them waaaaaay into the stratosphere and deeeeeep into your thinkmeats. Relax, Chekov. This won't hurt.
That's not meant as a dig on Hurry Up Shotgun's instrumentation, by the way--their riffs and chord progressions and drumming are great--but let's be honest: there are plenty of indie-rockers banging out the Wipers and Superchunk riffs these days, and "great" doesn't necessarily lead to "memorable." Fortunately, Hurry Up Shotgun as an album is anything but forgettable, thanks to brilliant sequencing. Each song delivers just a little bit more sugar; the heavy petting in "Watermelon Sugar" leads to some "ok, just the tip" in "Paths," and pretty soon the first truly grandiose moment of the album is exploding in your brain (yeah, that's where) as the second half of "Swim" is having its way with you--completely consensually, of course, as these guys are lovers, not fighters. But seriously, "Swim's" final two minutes are a revelation on par with any of the best moments of Menthol's 2002 indie-synth-rock power-pop ode to the Cars, Danger: Rock Science! (a lost new wave power-pop classic of the early millennium, and if you've heard it you understand the huge compliment i have just bestowed).
It doesn't let up from there. "The Birds of Islam" add a degree of Hum-inspired heaviness to the proceedings, while "Little Pieces" lays down keyboard lines lifted from some mid-80s post-apocalyptic d-movie Thunderdome ripoff, all while delivering the check-cashing goods: The Hooks. For all the work that was put into the music--and it's obvious these guys put in the work--they put even more into The Hooks. And boy howdy does that work pay off in "Girl From CA," an album-closer so thoroughly catchy and memorable that it single-handedly makes me mad that i listened to this album too late to put it into my top 5 of 2011. I haven't heard harmonies this honey-thick drizzled over rock this hard since the Galactic Cowboys (another band you could stand to revisit if that name-drop just triggered an "oh SHIT, i forgot about them!" moment).
And i think that's something that loud, driving, occasionally noisy rock and roll has to reclaim from the overly-precious, NPR-approved twee indie "rockers" that dominate the venues these days. Look, y'all know me--i loves it loud, and i loves it noisy, but dammit, i also loves it pretty. And i really loves it when it's all three at once. Why should the beardos get all the pretty melodies?* If more bands followed Hurry Up Shotgun's lead, maybe--just maybe--we could take indie rock band from the wimps, or at least carve out our own little piece of Fantasy Island paradise on Ceti Alpha V. Save us, Hurry Up Shotgun! command us with your mind-control earworms, your purple literary references, your rich Corinthian accent, and your heaving, prosthetic chest! It is very cold...in spaaaaaaaaace...
Yeah, i just metaphored Hurry Up Shotgun into Khan Noonien Singh. What of it? How else was i gonna tie the end of this post in with those Chekov references from early on?
*This is not to say that all wussy, twee beardo folksters have the market cornered on catchy pop hooks--if i ever leave a Bon Iver song able to remember a single goddamn melody line mumbled outta that affected falsetto, i'll eat Justin Vernon's knit hat.