Monday, January 28, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Say Hallelujah to the Choirs

I admit it. I'm a sucker for certain things when it comes to the songs I like.

Good pop songs become really good (or great songs) when they add certain elements. An unexpected, yet melodic, chord change. Some clever lyrics with linguistic tricks. A kick-a** brass section.

And oh yes. A gospel choir.

This is not a hard and fast rule. For example, Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." I still think it's one of the worst songs of the 80s. And that's really saying something.

No. The song has to be good to start with. Something that's worth the extra surge that a gospel choir adds. For example, one of the most emotional scenes the movie Across The Universe (the subject of yesterday's post) is a gospel rendition of "Let It Be" as two funerals take place.

So what the heck is wrong with me? I mean, I'm not even the right religion to appreciate gospel choirs.

I blame it on the many spring weekends I spent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Those who have been to this amazingly diverse event know that there's one tent that doesn't have the big headline-grabbing pop or jazz stars, yet still manages to remain packed. That's the gospel tent, where you don't have to be religious to appreciate the real sense of spiritual energy that emanates from the performers.

Of course, so much of classic rock and soul directly stems from the gospel tradition. I mean, look at Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Can I get an "amen?"

But you don't have to look at 30-40 years ago to see great gospel-infused songs that really benefit from the full choir treatment. We can look as recently as 2004 for two very different songs that can really send chill down your spine, thanks to full-fledged choirs that close the song.

Play "Higher" by Do or Die featuring Kanye West

Yes, it's a rap song. And yes, one of the members of the Chicago-based trio , Belo Zero, is a true gangster, having just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for second-degree murder. But give it a listen. This song works in ways that few rap songs these days. Some of it has to do with Kanye (who trades verses, as he did in "Slow Jams," with the astonishingly vocally nimble Twista). Most of the props, however, go to how the song effectively samples Teddy Pendergrass' "You're My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration" (1981), right down to the choir which gives the song the final burst it needs. Hey, you can't go wrong by sampling the classics – especially one from Gamble and Huff.

Play "Security" by Joss Stone

For me, this was the strongest track on Stone's second album. She does tend to oversing, but at least she has the chops. And I love the way she is able to step back at the end of the song and let the choir take over. Not many divas would do that.

Call me crazy. But I've got a fever. And the only prescription … is more gospel!

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