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5.   Discussion

5.3   NATURE’S BEST AND NEW ZEALAND CONTEXTS

5.3.2   An Anti-Virtuosic Idiolect?

Furthermore, the songwriters interviewed took their musical bearings from international artists, looking outside New Zealand for inspiration and trends.

This was stated in explicit terms by Larry Morris, quoted in Chapter 4, and more implicitly by others. Julia Deans, for example, on the possibility of grunge influences, replied, “it was the nineties!” Mitchell, without any supporting evidence, argues that the Pop Mechanix and The Dance Exponents were important bands in 1980s Christchurch55, yet neither Andrew McLennan nor Jordan Luck identified with this scene or any notions of a local style. Finally, Sean Sturm said his early band, The Nixons (pre-EyeTV), avoided New Zealand references or identification. Although influenced by similar artists, such as the Velvet Underground, The Nixons wanted to disassociate themselves with the low fidelity production aesthetic that distinguished Flying Nun records in the 1980s, and aimed to emulate artists, such as Jane’s Addiction, from the American independent scene.

a heavy metal context; keyboardists Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson or Don Airey would also be relevant.

Further to technical aspects of virtuosity, one might add a certain attitude; as Walser explains, guitar solos “create a sense of perfect freedom…they model escape from social constraints, extravagant individuality.”57 Two ideas here are important and widely applicable. The first is the sense of freedom, the second is the notion of individuality and using the song, or sections of the song as a platform for individual performance. In this regard, a virtuosic performance does not necessarily have to be technically brilliant, but may draw attention to itself through flashy playing above the other instruments. This attitude runs through, for example, the hair metal bands of the 1980s.

It is possible to hear the solos on Nature’s Best as generally opposed to this notion of virtuosity. The songs reliant on existing material are naturally less free, being tied to the song’s structures. That said, these instrumentals still give the impression of virtuosity at times, such as Eddie Rayner’s keyboard solo in ‘I See Red’. Rayner takes the verse melody and embellishes it with crushed

semitones and semiquaver arpeggios, all at a fast tempo. Other solos, such as those from ‘Beside You,’ ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat,’ are much closer to the original melodies.

The instrumentals featuring new material seem to eschew “extravagant

individuality.” Notable in this context is ‘Be Mine Tonight.’ The song ends with a lengthy instrumental section, providing an opportunity for Dobbyn’s lead guitar. The basic pitch and rhythm structure of the first eighteen bars is presented in Figure 5.1.

57 Walser, Running With The Devil, 53.

Figure 5.1 Lead Guitar, 'Be Mine Tonight,' Solo, 4'06"-4'41"

The solo begins with short pentatonic phrases, succeeded by held notes with slight bending on the guitar string. This phrase structure is repeated multiple times without launching into more expansive phrases. Further, the lead guitar line begins each phrase on the fourth beat of the bar, ending on the third beat of the subsequent bar. This works in rhythmic counterpoint with the rhythm guitar, which displaces its quaver accents throughout each bar. One can also note how the oscillating crotchet pattern in Bar 16 (of Figure 5.1) concludes the second phrase and is then used as the riff for the third phrase. This development,

combined with the other features, promotes the solo section as a moment of craft rather than rhetoric. Such phrase repetition can also be heard in ‘Lydia’ and the call-and-response phrases of ‘Why Does Love Do This To Me?’ as shown in Figures 5.2 and 5.3.

Figure 5.2 Lead Guitar, 'Lydia,' Solo, 2'07"-2'21"

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Figure 5.3 Lead Guitars, 'Why Does Love Do This To Me?' Solo, 1'05"-1'19"

A sense of anti-virtuosity is also identifiable in the vocalists. According to Ken McLeod, rock audiences have “witnessed an equal fascination [with opera] with high register male vocalists…and female pop divas.”58 This idea is exemplified by, for example, Freddie Mercury, Brad Delp, Robert Plant, Ann Wilson, Janis Joplin, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. Like guitar solos, McLeod argues this fascination arises because the high vocal ranges represent a transgression of social norms. Further, for American divas, the songs often serve as a vehicle for the singer; the pitch apex normally arrives in the final or penultimate chorus, sometimes after a grandiose modulation, bringing the notion of individuality to the fore.

The Nature’s Best singers do not fit this framework. One must acknowledge that the aforementioned singers possess “unnatural” abilities and therefore, it is unreasonable to expect the male singers to reach the heights of Freddie Mercury, for example. This is where the idea of virtuosity as an attitude is useful; for singers, this may involve pushing registers to their limits or reaching the higher notes in a strong chest voice. The Nature’s Best vocalists appear anti-virtuosic because they rarely extend themselves in this way.

This trait is particularly marked in the female vocalists, who instead emphasise their lower registers. For example, Julia Deans in ‘Lydia’ pushes to C#5 in a shaky head voice, reflecting her song’s persona, but descends as low as E3. The

58 Ken McLeod, “Bohemian Rhapsodies: Operatic Influences on Rock Music,” Popular Music 20, no. 2 (2001), pp. 189-190.

179 same contained range is evident in other songs with female vocalists; ‘Part Of Me’ is more remarkable in that Boh Runga extends only to G#4 yet comfortably sinks to C#3. The highest singer, Leza Corban, reaches Ab5 in ‘Sweet Disorder.’

Her melismatic vocal line concludes the bridge section but does not seek attention; rather it is sung in a light head voice that floats above the washed synthesizers below, almost like a soprano saxophone.

The same tendency is evident in the male singers. A brief examination of Dave Dobbyn’s vocal lines is instructive. At the climax of ‘Language,’ in Figure 5.4, he ascends to A4 in his chest voice. In multiple other songs, his highest notes are reached through octave leaps into a falsetto as demonstrated in Figures 5.5, 5.6, 5.7 and 5.8.

Figure 5.4 Vocal, 'Language,' Coda, 3'02"-3'10"

Figure 5.5 Vocal, 'Slice Of Heaven,' Pre-Chorus, 1'18"-1'22"

Figure 5.6 Vocal, 'Beside You,' Chorus, 2'04"-2'11"

Figure 5.7 Vocal, 'Loyal,' Chorus, 1'23"-1'30"

Figure 5.8 Vocal, 'Oughta Be In Love,' Chorus, 1'23"-1'28"

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The contexts of this technique suggest it is intended to add colour to the melody by varying the repeated note in the phrase. Given Dobbyn finds A4 in his chest voice in ‘Language,’ it is notable that notes of a similar register are sung in a falsetto voice. The examples provided stem from Dobbyn’s solo career as a singer-songwriting, but the same technique appears in the chorus of ‘Outlook For Thursday’ (“Otherwise just dan-dy”) and the backing vocal of ‘Whaling,’

both of which were recorded with Dobbyn part of DD Smash. Tim Finn’s vocal for ‘I Hope I Never’ features a dramatic leap at the end of the chorus to B4, but again the falsetto is fragile not extravagant. Other male singers, such as Jordan Luck and James Reid, seem content to remain within a conventional tenor range.

Lest this point be misconstrued, the vocal anti-virtuosity does not reflect poor vocal technical ability. Considerable skill is required to execute octave leaps and to maintain a clean lower register. The same might be said of the

instrumentalists; the crafted instrumental solos require a sense of musicality.

The analysis suggests that individual performers are utilizing their skills for means other than showcasing an individual.

Don McGlashan’s experiences corroborate this point. He said his lead guitarist in The Mutton Birds, David Long, could always find the right guitar tone for a song’s narrative.59 In ‘Dominion Road’ a wobbly whammy bar reflects the drug addict’s struggle for sobriety, and in ‘Anchor Me’ the chorused guitar enhances the ethereal and exotic nature of the narrative. Walser regards virtuosity as pertaining to the notes, as such, of guitarists; audiences arguably share this view too. But perhaps, it is necessary to search elsewhere for notions of technical ability — in production and sound related techniques, in vocal ability other than singing in a high register, or crafting a solo to interact with other musicians.

This is not simply to validate the subjects of this study, but to acknowledge the varied areas in which musical ability can be deployed.

It is arguable whether this feature constitutes a New Zealand idiolect. This intimates that a listener, upon hearing two songs in the same style, one from

59 Interview.

New Zealand and one not, would be able to distinguish the New Zealand song on the basis of a contained guitar solo and vocal range. Such an argument seems tenuous at best. One imagines numerous international popular songs would return similar analyses. This feature is striking, however, because it appears regularly across Nature’s Best, a selection of songs that are supposedly New Zealand’s best. This possibly reflects aspects of New Zealand identity, discussed in the following section.