Wednesday, April 18, 2007

If You Like Jeff Buckley, Then...

Jeff Buckley probably gets more deep swoons from more people than any 90s artist. More than Radiohead, more than Nirvana, more than Pavement (thank God). Guys, girls, teenagers, elder Boomers, passive radio listeners, hard core music fans, whatever, Jeff Buckley is that kind of artist. His was the kind of talent that was not just extravagant, but was also very open about its extravagance, wailing that you be fully aware of its brilliance. In a world in which everyone wants so desperately to be the star of their own movie and spends most of their waking hours constructing virtual personnae for themselves, it is only more awesome when you witness a true talent, a true star. That was Jeff.

But this type of magnificence presents a difficulty for recommendation purposes. If Jeff Buckley was truly so spectacular, who are you going to recommend that can possibly stand within his radiance without being burned to a cinder?

It's a tough trick (isn't it always?). Assume, for now, that we can't match the raw talent. Can we find something in Jeff's essence that is more attainable to the rest of the mortal world? That depends, since he has several essences. On a purely aesthetic/expressive level, his range flows from the worldly romanticism of Edith Piaf, to the poetic mysticism of Van Morrison, to the honey & vinegar soul of Nina Simone, and many others. So far, so good. He has that superhuman falsetto, not merely clear, but soaring and tearing at the same time. Still, so far so good. Other people have falsettos, too. If we count the artists that came in Jeff's wake and add in the artists that piled on after Radiohead's OK Computer, we could easily fill an entire book with emotive, male vocalists that feature aching falsettos. What most do not have that Jeff did have is a counterbalance to the fey fragility that the falsetto conveys. In Jeff's case, that counterbalance came from many hours with Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin. What it amounts to is rock star balls & bombast, melodrama backed by force. This is crucial. Most male vocalists who lay claim to "sounding like Jeff" have the sincerity, the emotion, the falsetto, but are completely devoid of ROCK. And that is the difference between a vulnerable young man and a neutered wuss.

I'm not above recommending some of these types of male singers to Jeff fans because I know that the surface appeal has some common factor, but I also know they fall short. Considering the masculinity issues at stake here, I think certain female vocalists probably get closer to the heart of Jeff's deep, yet narcissistic and virtuosic soulfulness than most males do. I'd say Tori Amos is the closest thing Jeff ever had to a true artistic peer during his lifetime. Although not devoid of her own flightiness, when it comes to laying it down behind the piano and microphone (especially live), she, like Jeff could, really lets it wail with a full force gale. That kind of power is essential to the Jeff Buckley core. That's what still gets the back of the neck hairs standing on end. Sadly, that kind of power is truly rare.

Still, giving it my best shot, here's what I have in Pockit Rockit and why:

Essence: intense, sensitive, narcissistic, emotive, soaring, wailing vocals. Range and dynamics are key: hushed love songs to howling songs of loss. A little melodrama, but a lot of passion.

Means: range and technique, but also depth of musical foundation, from soul to qawwali to chanson to pop to jazz to heavy rock.

Special Sauce: Rock power, to transcend the puppy dog softness and teenage melodrama.

1) Tori Amos: Like I said, she's the closest peer--closest in essence, talent, and power--to Jeff. Truly awesome talent and expressive artistry as a vocalist and instrumentalist. Both soaring and hushed, and extremely intense with her own material while also passionate and sensitive with her many, usually remarkable, cover songs (her one misstep was the cover of Slayer's "Raining Blood"). My favorite is still her first album, Little Earthquakes, with "Mother," "Winter," and "Precious Things" really showing what she's all about.

2) Ours: New Jersey band who had a brief moment of possibility with a Columbia Records contract. Never happened. Too bad, since the vocalist, Jimmy Gnecco, probably came closer to matching Jeff's raw vocals than any other vocalist I've heard. He has all the sensitivity and all the power. There's even a touch of Bono in his tone. And the band also had a suitably big sound to nearly match the vocals. Sadly, the songs weren't always there, especially when they went for more modest-sounding tracks. But they really should have made a bigger impact. Their first album, Distorted Lullabies, is easily well worth getting at Amazon for $0.99.

3) Sunny Day Real Estate: Another rare band with an emotive, falsetto male vocalist that is capable of amazing force, as well as vulnerability. When they first burst onto the scene, they were touted as a possible successor to Nirvana. Didn't happen, though their smaller fanbase may have been more passionately devoted than Nirvana's. It wasn't until after some intra-band turmoil that they produced their controversial swan song, The Rising Tide. Some fans saw it as a heavy rock betrayal; I hear it as their finest, an album of oceanic strength and dew drop delicacy. Not dissimilar qualities to what made Jeff Buckley so affecting.

4) Martin Sexton: Here's where things start getting a little difficult. Sexton is really roots-based, folk-blues-rock dude. Far earthier than Jeff ever was. Connecting him to Jeff is based on two specious, though not necessarily erroneous, elements. First, and it always has to start here, is the voice. Sexton sounds much more like a grown man than Jeff. With that, there is a greater modesty and everyday quality to Sexton's voice, compared to Jeff's supernova light. But out of the jeans and cowboy boots, Sexton lets loose a startling falsetto of his own, letting his usually hidden feathers spread out behind him. This leads to the second, deep similarity between Martin and Jeff: they both make the ladies swoon. Check out his song "Glory Bound" or his cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" to get an idea of what he does.

5) David Sylvian: Speaking of swooning, Sylvian was one of the masters. Girls would swoon, boys would swoon...his voice was so breathily entrancing that it seemed he would likely swoon, as well, if he weren't so elegantly removed. In many ways, his emotionless rapture, European artiness and ethereal (even cold) glory are the antithesis to Jeff's outward, expressionistic, scene-stealing dazzle. Jeff burns red, while David glows a pale blue. But male beauty and its artistic display could resonate through many fans, not necessarily sexually as much as the realization of an idealized state. Dead Bees on a Cake is probably the best place to start, with "I Surrender" "Midnight Sun" and "Thalhiem" being among his best.

6) Rufus Wainwright: So much for my Led Zeppelin, heavy rock claims. Rufus is a proud friend of Dorothy and, in fact, performed a massive Judy Garland program in New York last year. His voice can soar, but it tends to come out of his upper throat and nose, rather than the screaming wail that was often Jeff's stock in trade. Rufus is too refined for screaming. But much of Jeff was not about screaming, either. Much of Jeff was refined and elegant, as well. Elegance and refinement aside, both are/were sophisticated artists capable of generating deep emotional responses in their listeners. Both are deeply passionate and soulful, with brilliant grasp of melody and dynamics. So they're approaches are a bit different, both are dazzling talents with narcissistic streaks and I'm willing to make the leap that many Jeff fans would be, if they're not already, huge fans of Rufus'.

7, 8, 9, 10) Arid, Autumns, Prayer Boat, Starsailor: Four decent, but flawed, bands that have their own appeals without knocking the ball out of the park. These are some of the better of the bands I mentioned above that get that falsetto thing right, but either miss the power or the dynamics that made Jeff special. Arid, nice vocalist of course. But he is by far the best part of the band's fairly bland, mainstream "alternative" sound. Best tracks: "Little Things of Venom." Autumns, probably the most original of this quartet. Their albums have atmosphere and flow due to their big washes of "shoegaze" style guitar. The vocals reach some nice crescendos, but I'm still left wanting more in the way of memorable melody. Their self-titled album, Autumns, is worth checking out. Prayer Boat sound good on their first song: soaring vocals, rising swells and all. But song after song, you hear the band's limits in vocal delivery, compositional variety, and all-around impact. Starsailor got some attention, along with peers such as Keane, in the wake of Coldplay's initial success. Again, pleasant band, some good melodies, but just not remarkable enough to demand space in your CD player or iTunes. They did name themselves after the most experimental album of.......

11) Tim Buckley: Jeff's dad. It's all-too-obvious, but it must be said again that Tim was the most dazzling vocalist of the late 60s, US folk scene. The most spectacular technique, the widest range, coupled with probably the greatest willingness to push his talent into the realms of the unexplored. To say there is likely some familial influence does nothing to diminish the richness of Jeff's personal influences and his successes with synthesizing them into his own vision. Still, if you like Jeff, you must check out Tim's work, not just because he was Jeff's father and similarly died early, but because he was a jaw-dropping vocalist, in his own right (even if you still like Jeff better). Start with Happy Sad or Blue Afternoon or the live Dream Letter.

Artists I left out but maybe shouldn't have:

Here's where I could have put some of Jeff's influences/artists he has covered: Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Leonard Cohen. They are all immortal--among the greatest artists ever recorded. Everyone should at least check them out. However, between the radical stylistic differences between these artists and Jeff Buckley and the fact that I feel each artists represents only a facet or two of Jeff's essence, I opted not to include them in the "If you like Jeff..." list. As with every list, maybe I was wrong. But that's why this blog's here and that's why the website is dynamic. I'm more than happy to hear all arguments!

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28 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Cedric Bixler Zavala from The Mars Volta? I think his vocals sound similar to Jeff's (stylistically, if you know what I mean, not "the voice" per se)

1:33 AM  
Blogger sprout said...

Nico...

7:02 AM  
Blogger Tore Adam said...

"Most male vocalists who lay claim to "sounding like Jeff" have the sincerity, the emotion, the falsetto, but are completely devoid of ROCK"

Thank you, couldn't agree more. There is a lot of sad young men out there, but none of them (as I've heard) has the same expressive soul to it.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Sylvian may be the nicest discovery Ive had this month--thanks.
Matthew Bellamy of Muse -amazing aching, sneering, falsetto.

6:24 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping me remember Ours. I had their song "sometimes" stuck in my head for a few days now but couldn't remember the band or the song title. Cheers.

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Anonymous des said...

Hi, I just wanted to thank you for a great article. You really nailed Jeff Buckley's appeal. I would have to second the recommendation of another reader for Matthew Bellamy of Muse, particularly songs Sing for Absolution and Endlessly (plus a lot more). His voice is not the same, of course, but it has the soulfulness of Buckley's, as well as the haunting quality. I further recommend checking out Maynard James Keenan of Tool and A Perfect Circle (Orestes, 3 Libras, You Lied live), Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour (Zzxzx Road, Bother, Snuff), Elliott Smith (try Twilight--particularly live) and also Chino Moreno of Deftones (Passenger, Digital Bath). No one comes close to Jeff Buckley, but there are a lot of other singers who manage to capture some of the qualities I admire most about his voice. Anyway, thanks again for a great article and all the suggestions.

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