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Various Artists | The Unaccompanied Voice -An A Cappella Compilation (Secretly Canadian)
When a singer lays down their instruments and confronts an audience with the unvarnished power of their voice, the result can be powerful in the extreme. As a counterpoint to the assault and projection that so much music concerns itself with, these moments can hook the listener with an intensity drawn from their very understatement. Secretly Canadian's Unaccompanied Voice collection has cornered some dispirate talents in an attempt to nail this unvarnished power on record. When stripped of any instrumental bedding, it takes a degree of melodic strength to carry a song along, and, as such, many artists have reverted to folk-style song forms. One such being Appendix Out who, with their dictaphone rendition of the Coley Jones classic Four Nights Drunk, sound exactly like those surreptitious midnight ramblings that peppered the first Arab Strap album (you know, the ones that amuse on first listen but are henceforth skipped over.) Om by Jandek is just plain spooky, as is Hag by Jarboe, who, along with Eliott Sharp and The Panoply Academy Die-Cast Cadets, seem to be the only ones interested in the sonic potentials of the solo voice. And we're not talking Bobby McFerrin here. Sharp's skittering murmur and haunting howl is chilling and effective, but there's something emotionally vacant about these exercises in atmosphere. It's the more direct, conventional songs like Suzanne Langille's A Sadness In Me or Damien Jurado's Dance Hall or Mimi Parker & Alan Sparhawk's Kindly Blessed that strike the more emotional chords. With many attempting to emulate the bare bones nature of a capella songs with their production values, the album suffers from so much of it being offhand and flippant. The Grifters do their psycho beat-box-doo-wop thing as if they're on a speed come-down next door. And when I hear Modest Mouse doing Leaflets Gabe, I can only think of a group of pre-teen piss heads when the pubs kick out. Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia cloaks his wonderfully clear voice in so much static as to make listening a chore. Surely he has more than a vintage boombox at his disposal, because there's little gained in this case in sounding like you're singing with an industrial suction pump operating in the background. Overall this feels like an opportunity wasted by flippant contri-butions that don't repay repeated listens. There are some jewels here - Swearing at Motorists, David Grubbs and Mia Doi Todd stand out - but overall the effect is probably more pearl necklace than diamond ring.

Martin Williams
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000