by Matt Bynum
Unplugged music gives the human voice the respect that it is due
Ah, stacks of photographs from some of your friend's latest summer vacation. A school group at the Statue of Liberty... a family at the Grand Canyon... a guided tour group standing in front of the Eiffel Tower... a group of hikers in the Rockies. Magnificent views indeed, although somewhat obscured by the people that are posing in the foreground. But even if the human subjects are visible only in the far background, your eyes will still be drawn first to the human forms.
The same thing happens when you listen to music. The listener is constantly on the alert for the sound of the human voice. During a musical performance, the audience may be forgiving if a particular musical instrument can not be heard, but they are not so forgiving if the vocalist can not be discerned.
There was a trend a few years ago for music groups to perform "unplugged". These groups would play their songs using acoustic instruments. Finally, popular music was giving the human voice the respect that it was due. No longer did the human voice have to struggle to be heard through the screams, thumps, whines and crashes that emanated from electronically amplified instruments. But, alas, the "unplugged" trend was short-lived.
When performing "unplugged" music, there is nowhere for the musicians to hide. Every element must be top-notch - the music, the lyrics, and the performers, including the vocalist. And when all of these elements come together, it is heaven on earth. Such music is like a conversation with a close friend - and the vocalist is your confidant, speaking directly to you in exquisite voice and sonorous tone. You are overcome - you feel chills, your throat tightens, your eyes flood. Such is the power of a skilled vocalist, who can take the meaning and emotion from a lyric, and multiply it one hundred fold.
To hear this type of vocalist is a rarity. Not many vocalists have "what it takes" - the mastery of technique, the ability to command the attention of the audience, and the openness and humility to communicate from the heart. How many vocalists can mesmerize an audience singing accapello, or with very little instrumental accompaniment?
The Ink Spots are mostly famous for their novelty song Java Jive ("I love coffee, I love tea..."), but songs that are more representative of their style are If I Didn't Care and I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire. The strength of these recordings rests in the vocal talents of the group's four members, and in song's arrangements. The instrumental accompaniment was minimal - three members provided harmony for the group's expressive tenor. And a touching moment in almost every Ink Spots song is when the bass singer interprets the song's lyrics in his speaking voice, while the rest of the group harmonizes.
Recordings of the Ink Spots can be sampled on a compilation entitled Greatest Hits: The Original Recordings 1939-1946. One reviewer at Amazon.com says "This is the definitive Ink Spots collection for those who want to experience the delicate touch of these early American masters. The precision of each voice and breathy vibrato and the end of a long-held note or word will leave an indelible imprint on you, from the inside of your soul outward. This is some of the very best 'American' music from this country. The more you listen - and you should listen many times over - the more you will understand the beautiful simplicity of the Ink Spots."
A more recent example of the "unplugged" style is Katie McMahon's After the Morning (1998). The name "McMahon" might give you a clue that the singer is Irish, and indeed, the recording is a collection of mostly traditional Irish tunes. How pleasant it is to hear these songs performed as if the musicians were right in your living room! McMahon sings several of the songs accompanied by a single instrument - piano (A Stor Mo Chroi), guitar (Heartland), and her own Irish harp (The Land of Erin, Ecce Puer) - and some songs are sung accapello (After the Morning, Adew, Adew). But even in the livelier tunes, (Til the Sun Comes Up, Down the Moor), the vocals are foremost, clear, and the lyrics easily understood (although a few of the songs require a working knowledge of Gaelic! - translated, of course, in the liner notes). For music samples from After the Morning, see katiemcmahon.com.
Greatest Hits: The Original Recordings 1939-1946 by the Ink Spots
After the Morning by Katie McMahon are available at
Updated by: Matt Bynum