It’s a singing style that has the potential to polarize audiences – you either like it; or you don’t. There’s an elegant German word to describe it; and, an inelegant English one. The German word is Sprechgesang, which literally means spoken singing. In English, it’s referred to as speak-singing. Sprechgesang was originally used to describe the recitative style of singing in opera and dates back to at least a couple of centuries, if not more. But four years ago, on one my favourite NPR podcasts – All Songs Considered – there was an episode that the two hosts did on the debate on speak-singing: one of them, Bob Boilen, liked the style, while the other, Robin Hilton, disliked it. On that show, the two played several ‘spoken sung’ songs and debated the style; Boilen biased towards it and Hilton not so much.
The songs that they played were diverse and spanned many eras. There was among many others, Rex Harrison singing Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? from the film, My Fair Lady; Lou Reed with The Velvet Underground doing Sweet Jane; Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro opera; Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner; and Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. They could have added several more that they didn’t – such as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, or Craig Finn.
Craig Finn. This column is really about Craig Finn. He’s 45 and balding; a veteran of at least three bands and a solo artiste too. In the mid-1990s, Finn started out with a Minneapolis band called Lifter Puller (three albums; some acclaim; not much mainstream glory). Then, he formed The Hold Steady (formed in Brooklyn in the mid-00s; six albums; quite a bit of acclaim; still going strong). And then there’s Craig Finn’s solo side career (three albums; lots of acclaim; going from strength to strength). The common factor in all of these ventures is, as you might have guessed, Finn. A bespectacled middle-aged guy whose looks belie his Bourbon-soaked voice, Finn is an exponent of what Sprechgesang means or, inelegantly, what speak-singing would describe.
Those already touched by The Hold Steady’s albums, particularly their second one, Separation Sunday (it came out in 2005 and it is their best), will know that Finn is a storyteller. He’s a storyteller whose tales weave in and around familiar characters in tales that are often based in St Paul, a town in Minnesota. The stories are sometimes sad; sometimes triumphant; or hopeful; but also very riveting. And, almost always, featuring people that appear, reappear and disappear in different circumstances. Some of The Hold Steady oeuvre of albums could seem like a series of novels or, considering their filmic nature, TV series without the visuals.
Finn takes that storytelling to a different level with his new album, We All Want The Same Things, which came out this year. The 10 songs on the album, if one were to continue with the fiction analogy, are more like short stories; not novels. Each of them has different characters, a plot, a theme and a story. Some of them could be independent short films. God in Chicago, the best song on We All Want The Same Things (that title comes from a line in the song, by the way), is about a mother finding her dead son and his sister who discovered a stash of drugs that she and a friend go along to dispose off and, which eventually leads to the re-kindling of an old fling but ends in sadness. These lyrics are as vivid as a film’s script could be. The official video of that song is immaculately produced and could stand in as an individual indie short film.
Finn leads an uncluttered life – in an interview a couple of years ago he said his focus on writing his songs and performing them is sharpened by the fact that he has no car, no house or children. The characters in his stories, sorry, songs, have dark sides. There’s drug use, drunkenness, prostitution, hangovers and scrapes with the law. But all of it is hard, cold and authentic. And yes, it is delivered in speak-singing style. Or, as I prefer to call it, Sprechgesang style.
DC recommends: Six tracks to add to your playlist
Sweet Jane by Velvet Underground
God In Chicago by Craig Finn
Smell the Roses by Roger Waters
Truth by Kamasi Washington
T5 by Swet Shop Boys
Your Little Hoodrat Friend by The Hold Steady
Tailpiece: Roger Waters’ feud with Pink Floyd’s other members is well known. Their subsequent reunion is also public knowledge. Waters, one-time conceptual driver of Floyd, is back with a real rock album after ages. Rather, he’s about to be back with it. Waters, 73, will release Is This The Life We Really Want? only in June this year. But a single from that album is already here for us to listen to. Smell The Roses is what it’s called and you can get great whiffs of vintage Floyd on it. It also could appear to be a commentary on how the ‘American Dream’ is probably over. So there’s a bit of politics too! Enjoy.
From HT Brunch, April 30, 2017
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