As Marvin and Tammi once said, it takes two, baby. With that in mind, what duets and vocal blends from two singers are the pinnacle to the principle that sometimes, it takes two voices to really bring out the magic in a song? That’s this week’s Deeper Question, gentle readers. How did the Deeper Cuts Trio respond? Take a look!
Almost two years ago, there was a lot of buzz from music aficionados about Good Times the new album produced for the The Monkees’ 50th anniversary featuring the surviving band members, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. Confronted by an astonishingly well-produced album (with songs written by Andy Partridge of XTC, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and Noel bloody Gallagher), a lot of serious music journalists and brokers of music snobbery suddenly said “My goodness, The Monkees are actually quite good.”
To which anyone who has ever been a fan of the Monkees said, “Um… yeah.”
One of the tracks on Good Times that achieved quite a lot of acclaim was “Me and Magdalena”, a song written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and sung by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz. It’s an incredible duet, but to explain why, I need to pause for a brief explanation of Monkees group dynamics.
The thing about the Monkees is this: in the 1960s, if any duetting happened, it was between Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones. Those two were not only the majority vocalsts of the Monkee’s output, their voices interlocked beautifully as you can hear in hits like “I’m a Believer”.
Mike on the other hand, well, as he wrote for Linda Ronstadt, he was born to the beat of a different drum. It’s not that other Monkees didn’t harmonize with him or provide backups, Mike’s interests in music were slightly different so his spotlight songs didn’t require the unique services a Davy provided to Micky and vice versa.
Now flashforward to 2016. Davy Jones is alas no longer with us but Adam Schlesinger and Andrew Sandoval, who produced the album, had the bright idea of pairing Mike and Micky together on “Me and Magdalena”. Now, it’s safe to say that Micky and Davy were chocolate and caramel together. But Mike and Micky… they were chocolate and pomegranate. A little unexpected, a trifle different… and then… Oh, yes, this is really, really good.
The timbre of Nesmith and Dolenz’s voices are a bit closer, and both have gorgeous tenors, only one developed for pop (Dolenz) and one developed for country (Nesmith) and the fusion of these voices on this track creates an etherial, fragile feeling. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. So much so, the original version had more heavy guitars and drums and they decided to go for a sparser arrangement that better highlights the voices.
This past week it was announced that Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith are touring together this spring. Suffice it to say, I immediately bought tickets.
I have SO MANY OPTIONS for this one. I’ve gone back and forth between two dramatically different choices at least four times a day since Wednesday. Here goes.
I’m going for my second theatrical pick of our Deeper Questions series with “The Next Ten Minutes,” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. I’m a massive sucker for sweeping harmonies, and once “The Next Ten Minutes” gets going, it’s full of them. Both vocal parts soar on their separate lines, and when the duet kicks in, the arrangement just takes me out of my body. Out of context, it’s a stunning love song, performed masterfully.
But if you know anything about The Last Five Years, you know it’s a whole lot more than that. The musical is told from two separate timelines, with Cathy’s plot beginning after their marriage has dissolved and working backwards, while Jamie’s story is told chronologically. “The Next Ten Minutes” is the climax of the piece and the only time the two characters portray the same moment at the same time. Knowing that this marriage will end just a few years later adds so much to the song – suddenly it’s full of heartbreak, lost hope, despair. It’s breathtakingly sad AND breathtakingly beautiful.
My pick is a collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent on “Who” which is taken from their 2012 collaborative album Love This Giant. I heard this tune recently on the CBC for a segment that they were featuring on songs with cool horn parts and I kind of fell in love with it.
This song certainly fits the bill when it comes to the horns, with a jaunty and slightly idiosyncratic arrangement which sounds kind of playful and a bit unsettling at the same time. But most of all I love the contrast between Byrne’s and St. Vincent’s (AKA Annie Clark) voices. One is twitchy and kind of nervous (and aural comfort food to me, being a fan of Talking Heads), and the other is smooth and placid with a sort of Indian or Middle-Eastern feel in her lines. To me it’s the contrast between these poles that make this tune what it is. The horns play in and out of that dynamic. But it’s the singing that makes this so interesting, with voices that do not match and yet turn out to be very complementary.
What about you?
What duets and duel vocal combinations really do it for you?
Tell us all about it in the comments!
2 thoughts on “Deeper Questions: Duets That Do it!”
I love a good duet. It’s hard to top George Michael’s and Aretha Franklin’s I Knew You Were Waiting, but I also love Mark Knopfler’s & Emmylou Harris’s This Is Us. From a “HOW DO THEY DO THAT EVERY TIME” standpoint, I feel very lucky that my favorite pop culture brothers, Seth and Scott Avett, choose to be in a band, together. Hearing the words and melodies they’ve co-written come from their mouths is something very, very special.
On the “siblings who sing” front, there’s a distinct argument to be made about how shared genes create magic when those voices blend. There are scores of examples of this, including the Avett Brothers of course. But, one of my favourites is The Finn Brothers (Tim and Neil) on their song “Disembodied Voices”, which is actually a song about being brothers!