Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cry To Me

Tonight, I'm gonna write about something that's been pissing me off, because what is summer or the internet without cantankerous postings. See, there's this blue-eyed soul singer, Duffy, who VH1 has been trying to shove down America's craw for a few months now. I don't really have a problem with blue-eyed soul, if done well, and I don't even have a problem with VH1 and other people hyping some sort of massive soul revival. It was pretty much inevitable in the wake of the success and infamy of Amy Winehouse, and there are plenty of talented people out there who will benefit. I even like Amy Winehouse a little bit. But then, in a desperate YouTube search for Betty Harris' remarkable cover of the Solomon Burke hit "Cry To Me", I came across this:

For the benefit of the reader, I will also include the original Solomon Burke version for comparison:

Let's talk about "Cry To Me", just the song, and forget about that shitty Swayze movie for a second. Let's start with what the song is about, which is precisely where Duffy did not start. The song, written by Bert Burns for Burke in 1962, is just a great paean to loneliness. It does the great country songwriting thing, picking out very distinct details, gorgeous, distinct images, to show emotion ("When you're all alone in your lonely room / And there's nothing but the smell of her perfume" "Well nothing could be sadder / Than a glass of wine, all alone"). The singer is put in the position of a sympathetic ear, presumably to the audience, which is the effect of using second person. Near the end, the singer is expected to break out into a hiccupy scatting of the word "cry"; brought to the verge of tears his or herself. The point is, the singer has to be careful with this song.

And Burke is careful. The verses are laid out in a near-sprechstimme: sung very clearly, with trilling and emphasis put only on the crucial words "lonely", "alone" and "cry". Over the course of the song, Burke's voice becomes more and more urgent, especially with the killer line "doncha feel like crying". The point is, the voice is used instrumentally, carefully. He wants to hook you in at first, and then plunge it in. There's thinking going on about how the song should be sung, it's clear from the performance.

Let's compare this to Duffy. There's a trill or some sort of fancy move put on every other line. When you sing like that, the song will have no meaning. Why does the word nobody get a trill? What's the purpose of that? Why are you adding an extra few notes here and there? The worst is the bridge. Instead of taking Burke's relatively straight line, Duffy zigzags with her voice all around the lyrics. Why? Do you think the message is not clear enough? There are a lot of whys to be found here, as Duffy bleats her way through a classic.

The point is that this is not blue-eyed soul. This is dumb blonde soul. There's no thought here, no thought about the music, no thought about what she should be doing with her voice, no thought about the effect she wants to have on the audience. And no, it's not ok not to think about those things, not when you have Al Green spending hours planning out his delivery note by note. This is the worst thing, thoughtless art, stupid art. And I realize I'm being a little too harsh on Duggy. You know, it's not even that bad a cover, really. But it's a tricky situation, being a white artist covering black music. And in that situation, you better be careful. You better think it through.

Every few years (Joss Stone), they send a young white girl (Joss Stone) to try and seize soul. And every few years, it doesn't quite work out. The reason it doesn't work out isn't because these girls don't have "soul", that nebulous, quasi-orientalist quality. It's because they don't think, they don't know, and they don't respect the source: artists who may or may not be "soulful", but who certainly were great artists and brilliant performers.

OK, I've made my point. Here, BTW, is where you can find Betty Harris' amazing cover of "Cry To Me"

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