Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
The Columbus, Ohio trio Times New Viking released their Over & Over EP this week — six brisk, breathless, messy guitar-pop songs, none of which go over the three-minute mark. They haven’t released any videos for songs on the new record yet, but “It’s a Culture,” from last year’s Dancer Equired!, should give you a good idea of what they sound like these days. In particular, listen for the way drummer Adam Elliott and keyboardist Beth Murphy’s voices play off one another.
That particular dynamic — one woman, one man, mostly singing in unison but sometimes veering off to sing completely different things — has left a little breadcrumb trail through the history of underground rock. The most obvious antecedent for Murphy and Elliott’s voice-mix is the way guitarists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher sang together in My Bloody Valentine more than two decades ago. See, for instance, their give-and-take in “You Made Me Realise.”
By the time of 1991′s “Soon,” and the Loveless album that followed it, Butcher and Shields were singing so much like one another (and recorded to sound so much like one another) that it was very hard to tell where one’s voice ended and the other’s began.
A few years later, Yo La Tengo worked out an American variation on that trick, to which they’ve returned frequently over the past couple of decades. One of the earliest and most thrilling examples is 1993′s “From a Motel 6,” on which Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley‘s voices are mixed together into a single unified tone, and obscured by waves of gorgeous guitar noise.
Bands that include couples (like MBV and YLT) are a reliable source of these kinds of harmonies, whether their voices are as beautiful and controlled as those two examples or as raggedy and bedheaded as the Vaselines. The Scottish duo of Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly sang virtually everything in their repertoire together; you can feel the heat where their voices clash on their 1988 single “Dying For It.”
That combative kind of duetting may have reached its peak with another, slightly later Scottish group. Prolapse‘s two singers, Mick Derrick and Linda Steelyard, weren’t instrumentalists, and they both ran their mouths all the time. They often used their voices like weapons to knock each other off balance, as on 1996′s “TCR.”
Likewise, the Fall aren’t normally a band one thinks of as having multiple singers — frontman Mark E. Smith tends to dominate their recordings — but during singer/guitarist Brix’s two tenures in the group (1983-1989 and 1995-1996), she tended to charge into their songs from a very different direction than Mark did. The second half of 1994′s “Glam Racket/Star” is effectively a wrestling match between the two of them over who the song belongs to.
The way Times New Viking’s Murphy and Elliott sing together, though, is rooted in a more collaborative, less combative kind of friction. The Portland, Ore. band Hazel‘s Pete Krebs and Jody Bleyle fall in and out of synch, and in and out of conventional harmonies, on “Day-Glo,” from 1993′s Toreador of Love. (The “apart, then together” dynamic applies to the band itself, too: Hazel kind of broke up in 1997, but the original lineup has continued to play a handful of shows every few years since then, most recently last month.)
In the mid-’90s, there were a handful of other American bands with a similar kind of male voice + female voice + big guitar noise + fast, terse songs = awesomeness dynamic. The wonderful Heavy Vegetable, based in San Diego, was one of them: almost all of their songs had Rob Crow and Eléa Tenuta’s voices as the chewy center within their crackly exterior. (“Love, American Style,” from 1994, below, is a fine example.) Crow and Tenuta went on to the very similar Thingy, and Crow still plays in an uncountably huge bunch of bands, including Pinback, whose album Information Retrieved also came out this week.
But the earliest example of Times New Viking’s approach to “he sang/she sang” vocals, at least in underground rock, has to be Exene Cervenka and John Doe howling at each other on the earliest X records. In some ways, X’s “The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss” (from 1980′s Los Angeles) anticipates the rest of Times New Viking’s sound, down to its prominent organ part and D.J. Bonebrake‘s singleminded drumming. Elliott and Murphy aren’t desperate-sounding the way Doe and Cervenka are, just as they’re not airy and weightless-sounding like My Bloody Valentine‘s Shields and Butcher. Still, there’s something that ties all of those artists together in the way their voices feint and leap and chase each other — not always harmonizing, in the familiar sense, but working out how to occupy the same slices of time.