Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” Shredded on the Ukulele

Here's James Hill's recipe for playing Jimi Hendrix's 1968 classic, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on the uke. Yes, the uke:

1 Mya-Moe baritone ukulele (Low G - G - B - E)
1 guitar amp (Fender Blues Junior or equivalent)
1 bass amp (15 inch)
1 line splitter (Radial ABY box)
1 Diamond J-Drive pedal (made in Halifax, NS!)
4 busted strings
2 broken fingernails
Season to taste and serve hot!


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How David Bowie Turned His “Adequate” Voice into a Powerful Instrument: Hear Isolated Vocal Tracks from “Life on Mars,” “Starman,” “Modern Love” “Under Pressure” & More

Believe it or not, the odds were against David Bowie becoming an international pop superstar. When it seemed he’d finally arrived, with the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, “we didn’t realize,” says Jarvis Cocker in a 2012 documentary, “that he’d been trying to be successful for 10 years.” Bowie was 24, a ripe old age in pop star years, and already had four albums under his belt as a solo artist, the first a total commercial failure, and the second notable for its one hit, “Space Oddity,” which seemed like it might have been the artist’s big break in 1969, but somehow wasn’t.

He had played in several bands and tried performing under his given name, Davy Jones, which he just happened to share with one of the biggest pop stars of the day. Had he not persisted, changed his name and style, and, crucially, invented his Martian glam persona, he might have remained a one-hit-wonder, his excellent The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory revered as underrated cult favorites among fans in the know.

In addition to the difficulty Bowie had finding his niche, he was not a naturally gifted singer and was a reluctant performer. Drawn early to “movement and music” classes in school, Bowie’s teachers called his idiosyncratic style “vividly artistic,” but only rated his voice as “adequate.” As voice coach Lisa Popeil writes, “though vocally agile as an adult, Bowie was never known for great pitch accuracy.”

Such things matter less these days, what with pitch correction software. In the old days of analog, singers couldn’t lean on digital wizardry to make them sound better than they were. Bowie wasn’t “particularly fond” of his own voice, he revealed in an interview, and unlike most hungry, young would-be stars, he didn’t set out to put himself in the spotlight—not at first.

“I thought that I wrote songs and wrote music and that was sort of what I thought I was best at doing. And because nobody else was ever doing my songs, I felt, you know, I had to go out and do them.”

So the shy, retiring Bowie charged ahead. “With his theatrical bent and fearlessness,” Popeil writes, his “ability to create memorable and emotional vocal stylings was of the highest order.” This, we might say, is almost an understatement. Aspiring singers and musicians can learn much from Bowie’s career, perhaps foremost the lesson that one needn’t be a prodigy or a bubbly extrovert to follow a musical passion. Bowie honed his vocal skills and achieved mastery over his haunting baritone, while also learning to move into a powerful tenor range.

Witness these isolated vocal tracks from throughout this career. At the top, the vocal mix from “Life on Mars” shows, as Classic fM writes, that “while unpolished, his tremulous voice has real quality and range.” Further down, we hear Bowie goofing around a bit in the vocal booth before launching into his first hit, “Space Oddity,” his voice a bit thin in the verse, then hitting its full stride in the chorus. Three years later, on “Starman” from Ziggy Stardust, we hear more confidence and control in the vocal track. Then, ten years after Ziggy, Bowie belts it out on “Modern Love,” above, having already kept pace with arguably the greatest rock singer of all time on “Under Pressure,” further up.

On “Golden Years,” above, Bowie explores his full range, from deepest baritone to falsetto. His voice inevitably waned with age and the sickness of his final years, but he never lost the ability to imbue a song with maximal emotional range, making the ragged vocals on his last album, especially its chilling single “Lazarus,” some of the most gripping in his entire body of work. The video below from The Last Five Years documentary strips away the instrumentation, leaving us with the image of an aged, blinded Bowie in bed, singing “Look up here man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose.” His breathing is audibly labored, giving the recording a poignant immediacy. But the forever-distinctive Bowie vocal style is as deeply moving as ever.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Stradivarius Violins Are Worth Millions

In 2011, a Stradivarius violin in pristine condition sold for $15.9 million. And then, in 2014, another Strad went up for auction with a minimum bid of $45 million. That auction failed, but it underscored a trend: The price and prestige of Stradivarius violins keep climbing, driven by the insatiable demand of investors and professional musicians.

But is a Stradivarius really worth that large sum of money? As this primer from Vox suggests, it depends who you ask. In a highly-publicized blind test, professional violinists couldn't tell the difference between multi-million dollar Strads and more modestly-priced modern violins. On the other hand, some elite violinists swear by the Stradivarius, claiming that the subtle superiority of the instrument only becomes apparent over time, when it's played over years, not days or months.

That debate will continue. And as it does, the Stradivarius will only get older--and, yes, more fetishized as an historical object that's considered priceless.

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Hear a 12-Hour Playlist of Experimental Symphonic Noise Rock by Avant-Garde Guitarist and Composer Glenn Branca (RIP)

Glenn Branca died on Monday at age 69. In tributes from august publications like The Guardian and The New York Times, the guitarist and composer’s name is mentioned by and alongside minimalist luminaries like Steve Reich and John Cage. Branca himself cited composers like Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti as influences. He belongs in the company of these avant-garde pioneers, but many who might recognize their names may not have heard the name Glenn Branca.

Branca worked in a much more anarchic milieu, namely the downtown New York noise rock scene that came to be called No Wave. “My real influence was punk,” he told Pitchfork in 2016. “I must have listened to the first Patti Smith album 300 times.” In turn, the composer influenced the next generation of underground New York artists, nurturing the talents of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, who honed their art-rock chops—the drone notes, odd tunings, etc.—in the early ‘80s while playing in one of Branca’s notoriously noisy guitar ensembles.

Branca released Sonic Youth’s first two albums on his record label, tutored abrasive noise pioneers Swans' guitarist Norman Westberg, and inspired essential downtown figures like Lounge Lizards' John Lurie, who described seeing the composer’s band Theoretical Girls in 1979 as a life-changing event. Minimalist post-rock masterminds like Godspeed You! Black Emperor owe much to Branca’s innovations. Given that he occupied such a seminal place at such a key musical moment, giving birth to such seminal bands, why isn’t Branca’s work better known?

Perhaps this is because, while he drew from classical avant-garde, jazz, and punk rock, he refused to settle comfortably into any particular camp or to clearly define the boundaries of his work. Branca created a template all his own. Reich described him as “an absolute original,” which made him a very inspirational figure, but a difficult one to slot into a genre bin.

His treatment of rock instruments in orchestral settings made for intense, and for some unlistenable, music that thoroughly defied the conventions of rock and orchestral music, with ensembles of up to 100 electric guitars playing at once. (John Cage objected to Branca's overwhelming performances on "political" grounds, saying they "resembled fascism.")

But while Branca’s music has never had mass appeal, the few who love it, love it passionately. Of his classic 1981 album The Ascension (hear the title track at the top), Allmusic’s Brian Olewnick writes, “if one chooses to categorize the music on this recording as ‘rock,’ this is surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made.” One hears in The Ascension and Branca’s work in general the genesis of a muscular, noisy, orchestral post-rock sound now familiar in, say, the soundtrack work of artists like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

Despite his contention, as he told the NYT, that “I don’t change,” his work has evolved over time, developing new depths and complexity. In the Spotify playlist further up, hear Branca’s development as a composer in 66 tracks (or 12 hours) of symphonic experimental noise rock, and in the interview just above with the Louisiana Channel, see Branca describe (and demonstrate) his unusual guitar techniques and his breadth of musical influences.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Brand New Trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, the Long-Awaited Biopic on Freddie Mercury & Queen

"Talk of a movie about [Freddie Mercury], who died in 1991, has gone on for years: Dexter Fletcher came up as a potential director, and for the role of Mercury both Ben Wishaw and Sacha Baron Cohen have at different times been attached. But now the film has entered production, having found a director in Bryan Singer, he of the X-Men franchise, and a star in Rami Malek, best known as the lead in the television series Mr. Robot."

That's how our Colin Marshall introduced a post last fall which, among other things, gave us a first unofficial glimpse of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Now comes the first official glimpse of Malek as Mercury. Above, watch the newly-released trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited biopic that explores 15 years in the history of Queen--from the formation of the band, to their captivating, career-defining 1985 performance at Live Aid, previously featured on our site here.

Enjoy the trailer, and look for Bohemian Rhapsody to hit theaters on November 2.

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Hear the Recently Discovered, Earliest Known Recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (1894)

As keen observers of American culture and history like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison have written, there is no American music without African-American music. The history of the recording industry bears witness to the fact, with jazz, blues, and ragtime dominating the early releases that drove the industry forward. Before these popular forms and the age of “race records,” however, came the spirituals, gospel songs dating back to slavery, whose fame spread across the world in the latter half of the 19th century with groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers. As Du Bois wrote in 1903, “their songs conquered till they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland… they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Given the worldwide fascination with the spiritual and the singing groups who spread them across the world, it’s no wonder this was sought-after material for a nascent industry eager for music that appealed to the masses. And no spiritual has had more mass appeal than “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

The first recording of the song was long thought to have been performed in 1909 by a foursome, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, “carrying on the legacy,” notes Public Domain Review, “of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s.” You can hear that recording below, made by Victor Studios.

Even before the turn of the century, writes Toni Anderson at the Library of Congress, “the musical landscape was peppered with over ten companies fashioned after the original Jubilee Singers, and by the 1890s, many black groups had launched successful foreign tours.” (Du Bois laments the poor quality of many of these imitators.) The 1909 recording, writes Public Domain Review, “popularized the song hugely,” or, we might say, even more hugely, helping to make it a staple in decades to come for artists like Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Johnny Cash, and Eric Clapton (in a 1975 reggae take). However, it turns out that an even earlier recording exists, made by one of those successful traveling groups, the Standard Quartette, in 1894.

Recorded on a wax cylinder by Columbia Records in Washington, DC while the group made a stop on a spring tour, this “’holy grail’ of early recording history,” writes Archeophone Records, “pushes back by fifteen years the first known recording of the classic spiritual,” but it might have been lost forever had not a careful collector preserved it and Archeophone’s Richard Martin not identified its badly-decayed sounds as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The recording has been included on a 102-track compilation, Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900.

First discovered on a “large group of damaged early cylinders—moldy, noisy, and thought to have no retrievable content,” the song has been unearthed from beneath “an ocean of noise.” What Archeophone’s Meagan Hennessey found is that the version “is very different from what people expect. The chorus is familiar, but the verses are different. The Standard Quartette sing lyrics we associate with other jubilee songs.” Also, as Martin points out, the song’s arrangement is unusual: “there are complex things going on here with harmony and rhythm, but you’ve got to listen closely through the noise.” (Learn more about the discovery and restoration in the short video above.)

The song itself may have been written in the mid-1800s by an enslaved man named Wallace Willis, who was taken from Mississippi to Oklahoma by his half-Choctaw owner during forced relocation in the 1830s, then “rented out” to a school for Native boys. The headmaster heard him sing it, and passed it on to the Jubilee singers. In another, more dramatic, account of the song’s composition, it “’burst forth’ from the anguished soul of Sarah Hannah Sheppard, the mother of Ella Sheppard of Fisk Jubilee Singer fame,” when Sarah learned she would be sold and separated forever from her daughter.

In his live performance of the song, above, Johnny Cash gives a picturesque origin story of an anonymous slave, "sitting on his cotton sack one day," and singing about a vision of a chariot. But whatever the song's true origins, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” perhaps more than any other popular spiritual of the 19th century, has come to represent the music, Du Bois wrote, through which “the slave spoke to the world.”

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Power of Eddie Vedder’s Voice: Hear Isolated Vocal Tracks from Three Classic Pearl Jam Songs

A lifetime of rock star excess has taken its toll on Eddie Vedder’s voice but not on his talent. Most recent performances have tilted towards the gentle, the acoustic, the Americana, reflecting his larger embrace of the broad expanse of American music. And yes, he can still rock when needs be.

But these isolated vocal tracks--”Alive” above and “Black” and “Porch” below--show how powerful Vedder’s pipes were back in the day at the height of grunge. Vedder used a lot of vibrato, more than one can hear in the full band versions. He doesn’t use it so much when he holds a note, but on all the little notes in between.

And on “Porch” there’s a powerful pleading to the entire delivery that’s both vulnerable and hypermasculine at the same time. Where Kurt Cobain always seemed to be delivering rage inward, Vedder delivered it outwards, like the sound of mountains as a logging company got to work.

The videos try to match up concert footage with these studio tracks and the fact they sync so well show the consistency in his delivery. (The sped up tempo changes, not so much.)

Of course, isolated vocals also mean remixers attack! Here’s a few that might horrify a few grunge stalwarts.

via Laughing Squid

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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