Here’s the scenario. You’re in your car, on the subway, in the supermarket. A song you know comes on. Maybe it’s the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” or the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” or Extreme’s “More Than Words.”
You’re singing along, at full volume, not just the basic melody, but a harmony vocal either explicitly in the song or in your head. Now consider that you’re probably singing a song recorded at least a few decades ago.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I started listening to two new albums flush with the kind of gorgeous harmonies that are all but absent in contemporary pop music. I didn’t even know what I had been missing until I heard “The Ash & Clay,” the sumptuous new release from the indie-folk duo the Milk Carton Kids. On Tuesday, the Chapin Sisters, the sibling act of Abigail and Lily Chapin, will put out “A Date With the Everly Brothers,” a salute to the granddaddies of country-pop harmonies (which they learned, no doubt, partly by listening to the Louvin Brothers).
Harmony has a long and storied history in pop music, going back at least to 1930s vocal groups like the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters. From there we heard the Chordettes wrap their voices around confections such as “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop” in the ’50s, right around the time that doo-wop was hitting its commercial stride.
A decade later harmony took on another role. It wasn’t just there to pretty up a song. Given the turbulence of the ’60s, a time of civil unrest and war, it’s not a stretch to make the corollary that harmonies imparted the sense that we were all in it together. The radio was full of groups whose voices entwined like strands of a rope — essential on their own, but unstoppable together: the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Mamas & the Papas, Sonny & Cher, Chad & Jeremy, the list goes on. The ’70s had Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Fleetwood Mac, the Band, and the Eagles. As recently as the ’90s, vocal groups like Boyz II Men, SWV, and Destiny’s Child made harmonizing their bread and butter.
That’s not the case anymore. We’ve became a society fixated on the power of a single voice. Television singing competitions such as “American Idol” and “The Voice” have bolstered the notion that volume equals expression. As we’ve seen time and again with the national anthem, if you can belt it to the back of the ballpark, we’re impressed.
Recent pop hits are either about the singer’s voice or the song’s rhythm: Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” anything Rihanna sings. Looking at the most recent Billboard 100 chart of top songs, I can’t hum or even think of a harmony for any of them. Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” has a breezy, ’70s soul swing to it, but you’re there for the beat. The same goes for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” and Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason” is a ballad meant to make you feel better about a crummy relationship.
Harmony is not dead, of course; it simply doesn’t reside in the Top 40 anymore. Plenty of indie artists — particularly of the Americana persuasion — have been notable for what they accomplish with cascading voices. Fleet Foxes, whose spectral layers harken to Crosby, Stills & Nash, spring to mind. Two sister acts, Sweden’s First Aid Kit and the Secret Sisters from Alabama, resurrect the old-fashioned art of intimate singing. Mumford & Sons come close, but if you really listen to their songs, they find strength in numbers; you’re supposed to sing along with them in unison, not necessarily harmonize.
“Especially in a group, there’s a real community feeling when you sing with other people like that,” says Kris Adams, a singer and professor in the harmony department at Berklee College of Music. “It’s healing. I think the human voice is something people connect with, more than instrumental music. If there are more people singing, there’s more they can connect with.”
Full disclosure: I turn 35 this week, so I can’t wax nostalgic about the good old days. But I was raised by parents who listened to nothing but oldies on a local radio station. It was a paradise of multi-part dreaminess: “Windy” by the Association would bleed into Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” and, if I was really lucky, I’d hear the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.”
My first concert, around age 14, was the Everly Brothers at a state fair. My cassette collection was mostly the Beach Boys. When I graduated to CDs, the Mamas & the Papas reigned supreme, as did the Supremes. Only as an adult did I realize my parents had laid the foundation for what I love and still seek out in contemporary music: the rush you feel when you hear a harmony line that embeds itself deep into your psyche.
Joey Ryan, who’s half of the Milk Carton Kids, says there’s something beguiling about the way a human voice can wrap itself around another one.
“There’s nothing more exciting for me than listening to a Crosby, Stills & Nash album and trying to sing along with just one of them. It’s impossible,” Ryan says. “You actually can’t tell who’s singing what, and because of that, the narrator of the song becomes not any of the real people who are singing, but rather the space between all of the people contributing to this one voice you’re hearing. So as a listener, you’re engaging with somebody who’s a bit of a ghost. You can’t actually get at them. It’s seductive.”