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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Adele leaves me cold & Bonnie Raitt doesn't

Bonnie Raitt's version of "I Can't Make You Love Me" is one of my favourite sad records. Raitt's always been brilliant at delivering songs about being overlooked. She makes a nonsense of the idea that you have to write a song to understand it. She understands this song better than the blokes who wrote it.

Adele's done a version too, which isn't surprising. I'm amazed that while the first one moves me the second one doesn't. They're in the same style and by common consent Adele "can sing", whatever that means. There are no egregious lapses of taste and no X Factor flights of melisma. The arrangement is no different. It's done in the same way. It presses the emotional buttons. It just doesn't touch me at all, which I realise puts me in a minority of one.

I'm sure a certain amount of it is prejudice. Bonnie Raitt's been a part of my life since I was 21. There is history between us. I will never be able to look at or listen to Adele in the same way.

But there's something beyond the prejudice, something beyond the inevitable discussion about "kinds of singers". There's something in the notes that come out of the speaker and the way they make me feel. What makes me warm to one and not the other?

12 comments:

  1. Bonnie's one of those few singers that can warm up and steer almost any song without being intrusive. Her take on Dimming of the Day for example

    Adele does nothing for me either, but not many new singers who should - and plainly have the talent and ability - do. Any personal connection is lost during the recording process - locked under a varnish of compression, gloss and polish that leaves little room for the singer, or song to breathe.

    In much the same way that newer (Hollywood) films rarely allow actors to act. I watched The French Connection for the first time in decades recently - and Gene Hackman delivers his best work in the details (the scene as he enters a club for an after work snifter).

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  2. I think you've just done the previously impossible - defined "soul".

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  3. In my opinion the problem is not contemporary relevance or your emotional attachment to a singer, but rather the emotional attachment of a singer to a song (whether wrapped up in modern production or not)...I would agree that Raitt's version is more preferable in my personal opinion, but listen to Bon Iver's version and you hear someone who really cares about, and has a connection with, the song he is singing. To me it's not a question of production but of familiarity. You only feel it if the singer does!

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  4. We've a tendency to attribute certain qualities - sincerity, understanding and taste, for instance - to singers that we like. Very often the reasons we like them have more to do with the way they carry themselves than the sound of the music they make.

    I don't think we can ever know who's sincere. We can only judge whether a performance seems sincere to us. Dusty Springfield used to record one syllable at a time and yet she sounded as "in the moment" as anyone.

    I've listened to a few versions of "I Can't Make You Love Me". Everything I find moving about Bonnie Raitt's version can be found in the way she sings the word "make" in the title. It just vibrates at a frequency that gets through to me.

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  5. It's the single words. There's one line in Mavis Staples' "Since I Fell for You" which is "You made me leave my happy home." In the final word, which she gives a little dip in the middle to make three syllables, you can actually feel her roots being yanked out of the earth and her world turned upside down. Whether she - in a tiny, malodorous vocal booth, with big cans on her head and perhaps doing an umpteenth take because the bass player kept coming in late - really felt it or was faking doesn't matter - it transmits, and that's all that counts.

    Adele doesn't do that for me. Yes, I can get as far as "Ooh, she's got a voice on her" but I'm always left feeling that she's more concerned about impressing me than moving me.

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  6. I always thought Amy Winehouse had a far better, more soulful, more expressive and more weakly human, voice than Adele's which just seems technically good to me and maybe more distinctively husky than the other divas out there at the moment. Surely the human condition is about failure and therefore all good art is about failure, weakness and the humility and growing compassion which comes from keeping on keeping on anyway.

    That definitely comes over to me in singers like Bonnie Raitt and Amy Winehouse. I think Adele has just been the unfortunate benefactor of Amy Winehouse's death. If Amy Winehouse had produced another brilliant album I very much suspect much of the marketing budgets, magazine articles, hype and adoration would have been directed, more justifiably in my view, towards her.

    I also think Adele has to watch out she doesnt start to believe her own publicity and get too cocky. She has a very good voice not a great voice. There isnt enough weakness in it for me.

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  7. I always thought Amy Winehouse had a far better, more soulful, more expressive and more weakly human, voice than Adele's which just seems technically good to me and maybe more distinctively husky than the other divas out there at the moment. Surely the human condition is about failure and therefore all good art is about failure, weakness and the humility and growing compassion which comes from keeping on keeping on anyway.

    That definitely comes over to me in singers like Bonnie Raitt and Amy Winehouse. I think Adele has just been the unfortunate benefactor of Amy Winehouse's death. If Amy Winehouse had produced another brilliant album I very much suspect much of the marketing budgets, magazine articles, hype and adoration would have been directed, more justifiably in my view, towards her.

    I also think Adele has to watch out she doesnt start to believe her own publicity and get too cocky. She has a very good voice not a great voice. There isnt enough weakness in it for me.

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  8. I agree that you have sort of defined what we often mean by 'soul' in a singers voice and delivery of a song. Isn't it also a case of what we know (or think we know) about the singer - Adele at 21 has barely run in her emotional engine... Bonnie Raitt has enough singing and life miles to understand and communicate what a song is saying to her. When you listen to Lucinda Williams sing 'Those Three Days' you know that all those bass players have had an effect on how she views life. But of course it's often just performance - I remember years ago seeing a youngish Ian McKellen perform Macbeth at the Young Vic. Astonishing tour de force portayal of a man decending into the madness of ambition. We were one of the first out after the end and in the pub opposite within minutes of the 'curtain' - to find Mckellen already half-way through his first pint and laughing away at the bar with his mates - we imagined he would be laying on the chaise longe in his dressing room with a cold flannel on his head.

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  9. "Of course it's often just performance".

    See (or hear) the 11-year-old Michael Jackson on "I Want You Back". You could say that what this calls for is youthful exuberance and he had lots of that. But flip the record over to "Who's Loving You?", an old Smokey Robinson number and you find that he can deal with grown-up remorse just as well.

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  10. Its tough to reconcile the 'its all subjective' line with how important music has been in my life, but of course I do. Tried really hard with Adele but for whatever reason it never arrived. Didn't have to try with Bonnie Raitt [her take on the Dumbo tune 'Baby Mine' is a DID for certain] so that tells me something. Always preferred Graham Parker & The Rumour's version of I Want You Back for some reason...

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  11. Really interesting analysis. So much personal prejudice goes in to liking a song. I often think reviewers should have to clearly state their musical predilections so you can place their review in context.

    I find the Bon Iver version striking and beautiful. I love his voice in a way you love Bonnie's. With her version, I can't get past the production on the track. That promiment bass and horrible piano sound make it practically unlistenable to me. Again, not saying I'm right - just the personal taste aspect.

    One other thing - this sometimes comes up when hearing a song live for me. I tend to fall in love not only with songs but with particular versions of songs. So if it's a bit slower, bit faster, doesn't have the cello etc live it falls flat.

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  12. I've just listened to the Adele version for the first time, and what strikes me more than anything is how woefully out of tune she is. Sharp, flat, wobbly, she does it all. I'm more mystified than ever by her globe-conquering success and popularity with critics. I guess being a good egg gets you a very long way.

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