Harmony is an interesting phenomenon.
It’s traditionally recognized as one of the three basic components of Music, along with rhythm and melody.
Personally, I’ve got a strong affinity with rhythm – I’m a decent percussionist, for one thing. And I know a melody when I hear one. Harmony, though, is a bit more subtle. I don’t pretend to understand the theory or the mechanics behind it.
But one of the beautiful things about music is that understanding how it works is not required. A listener can be moved – on an intense, visceral level – without having any grasp whatsoever of rhythmic syncopation, melodic development, or harmonic intervals.
That’s the case with today’s Two Perfect Songs. They both feature brief moments of group harmony vocals that elevate the listening experience to a transcendent event. The effect is not abstract or theoretical. It’s possibly more on the order of what Christians feel when they’re ‘touched by the Holy Spirit’ – the tingle up the spine, the hair standing up – but someone else will have to confirm that. I never experienced the feeling in a church.
It’s especially interesting when it has nothing to do with the lyrics.
If the lyrics strike no particular chord with me but still make gooseflesh rise on my arms, I have to assume there’s something about the sound itself that my physiology is reacting to.
Frankie Beverly and Maze have been a San Francisco Bay Area institution for decades. Their very first single was 1977’s While I’m Alone, which immediately established their breezy, Yacht Soul sound. To call them ‘smooth’ is to slight them several o’s – Maze is smooooooooth.
They have other songs that I consider to be perfect; both Golden Time of Day and Joy and Pain easily qualify. But While I’m Alone stands out for a couple of reasons.
The first is an example of something rarely seen in the wild: a one-note guitar solo. It’s not a dramatic, infinitely-sustained bent note that one could imagine Carlos Santana or David Gilmour playing, it’s just a quick blip in the (almost) exact middle of those eight measures. It’s pure economy, hear it at 03:16.
That guitar has another moment of perfection at the end of the instrumental break that starts at 01:59. Those four measures are a thing of beauty unto themselves, with the accompaniment of the “doot-doot-doot”’s. Note the key change halfway through (02:05), that’s a savvy bit of arrangement. Then, to lead into the next verse, the guitar completely sticks the landing with that high note as Mr. Beverly comes back in the with the vocal. Just delicious, hear it at 02:11.
While I’m Alone also features some of the most buttery harmonies ever captured in a recording studio. As with Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect,” the magic is in the backing vocals.
Check out the first verse, beginning at 01:03. The backup singers are right there, echoing Mr. Beverly’s lines. And they’re doing something very specific with the tonalities, because when the second and third verses come around, the lyrics are different but the notes are the same. Their phrasing puts me in the mind of honey, being slowly poured upon a comfortably-reclining body, especially in the way they hold the last note:
“Have to make your wa-a-a-a-a-ay…”
They echo the second line too, but the harmony is handled differently. There’s a prominent, almost reedy voice in the middle, and something about the (possibly?) Gospel-ish quality of that harmony helps turn While I’m Alone into one of those songs that approach the Divine while at the same time celebrating the carnal:
“Right from the first da-a-a-a-a-ay…”
Then the background vocals switch to long, low “O-o-o-oh”s for a couple of lines. On the whole, the effect is sort of like having your soul wrapped in a warm, soft blanket. I’m pretty sure you could play these harmonies at a patch of barren soil and green shots would soon break the surface. “
While I’m Alone is a perfectly simmering invitation of a song.
In Mazatlan is a much different proposition.
Relative to Maze’s easy-going vibe, War’s 1975 song is like a tone poem crossed with a tropical fever dream. Since most listeners are familiar with Lowrider, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, and little else of their music, War probably seems like a joke band to some people. BUT – they were a group of truly adventurous musicians. Slippin’ Into Darkness is another of their better-known songs, and more representative of their sometimes unsettling, spooky approach.
Not only would War win any contest for Worst-Named Band, but they also occupied a very sweet spot by having several guys who could carry a tune, without any of them being an obvious frontman. Different guys sang lead on different songs, and they frequently combined most or all of the voices to produce some really rich harmonies. Consider that there were over half a dozen band members, and all of them were credited with vocals.
So when (at 01:15) they unexpectedly explode into vibrant harmony for one single word:
“Never seen such a SIIIII-IIIIII-IIIIIGHT…”
…it’s like grabbing an electric fence wire. It’s like having a veil pulled back and suddenly becoming aware of ancestors looking over your shoulder. For me, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. It lasts just a couple of seconds, but that moment has been echoing through my mind ever since I first heard the song twenty years ago.
They repeat the trick a couple of more times immediately following, but here again, the harmony is handled differently. The first time, there’s a high voice way on top, but whoever is singing that high note drops to a lower note the second and third times through. And then the voices disappear entirely as the song transitions to a sort of Sinaloan fantasia for the outro.
This is music on a liminal, untethered level. The ground-shifting harmonies, the folkloric percussion, and the overall oddness of the song combine to give “In Mazatlan” the atmosphere of a half-remembered dream.
And the chills I get from the harmonies in both “While I’m Alone” and “In Mazatlan” are like sparks being thrown, as these songs are welded into my consciousness.
So what about you? Are there moments of harmony that inexplicably make your hair up, or give you a chill?
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