I’m an avid music fan, and I’ll listen to most any genre, as long as it has quality. To me, quality implies musicality and to some extent production, but most importantly it means songwriting skill, especially in the lyrics: if a group can write great lyrics, I’m almost always a fan. That being said, though, my standards for “good” are pretty high. Most of what gets on the major Billboard Top 40s makes my teeth grate. You can’t make good music out of formulaic, unimaginative music, regardless of how loud you record it, how slickly you produce it, or how often you replace it.
All else being equal I tend to listen most to high-end popular music, nerd rock, and classical. Three favorite artists? Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, Mozart. Paul Simon because I don’t know of a better singer-songwriter alive or dead. They Might Be Giants, because, though I haven’t liked any of their later live band albums as much as their earlier accordion/guitar/synth albums, the Fathers of Nerd Rock Shall Not Be Denied. Mozart because, well, he’s Mozart. I’ve never heard any other composer able to make such incredible music sound so effortless.
I usually buy or receive on birthdays/Christmas about 10 new albums a year, and when I’m not listening to them, I listen to NPR. Car Talk is hilarious, All Things Considered/Morning Edition/Weekend Edition is just all-around excellent, and then there are tens more hours a week of stimulating, interesting, and moving programming. When I’m driving around, if I’m listening to the radio, I’m almost assuredly listening to NPR.
And sometimes, of course, A Prairie Home Companion is on. Do I wish that it was 20 years ago, and it didn’t seem like Garrison Keillor was running low on fresh ideas for the monologue? Sure, but how can you blame him? He’s been doing this for decades. And let’s be honest here; it’s still one of the best programs, in any medium, out there. It would take giga-American Idols to equal the quality in one APHC On An Off Night.
Early this year, I was driving around on a Saturday evening, turned on NPR, and APHC was on. It turned out to be a compilation show, combining memorable skits and acts from the past few years. One of which was three voices who very nearly blew me out of my seat: The Wailin’ Jennys.
The first thing I noticed (and I’m not alone) about them (Ruth Moody, soprano; Nicky Mehta, mezzo-soprano; Cara Luft (2002-2004), Annabelle Chvostek (2004-2007), Heather Masse (2007-present), alto) is their vocal harmony, so good it’s almost heartbreaking. They only sang three songs, but that I was all I needed: I was hooked. I scoured the Internet for info, bought the albums (sadly, only two so far, at least here in the US), pored over the lyrics, and listened to the songs. Lots.
And gradually it became clear that the best three-part harmony I’d ever heard was only the start of why this group is so amazing. For starters, they play multiple instruments, from guitar to harmonica to upright bass. Even better, they almost entirely write their own songs, and the songs have meat in them; you can read the lyrics and not feel like you’ve just gotten dumber. Even more importantly, it’s obvious they enjoy making music. Most importantly however, is the fact that all this is in just one group: three extremely talented individuals, doing what they enjoy, and making the rest of us much happier for it.
When I find something that I really like, it’s hard not to proselytize about it to everyone around me, and my brother, admittedly, gets the brunt of this. (He tries to get me to like bands he hears on rock stations, and I try to get him to like bands I hear on NPR. We’re sometimes forced to admit the other has a point.) Overflowing with musical elation, I told him all about the Jennys. He’d listened to them a bit before, and said they sounded good, but I didn’t hear enough zeal from him, so I sat him down to watch what I thought was most likely to convert him: a YouTube video of One Voice, a song which is an excellent introduction to their musicality, harmony, and songwriting. He watched it, and I must say he did an admirable job of not looking bored. When it was finished, I asked what he thought.
“You didn’t tell me they were cute, too.”
Sigh. Yes, Ben, they’re cute as well. :)