From Journey to Jack White to James Hunter: What makes a singer “good?”

From Journey to Jack White to James Hunter: What makes a singer “good?”

Today in select cities and On Demand, the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey opens, telling the story of Arnel Pineda, the Filipino rocker whose remarkable imitation of Steve Perry landed him a gig as the frontman for the classic rock band Journey back in 2007. It’s a sweet movie about someone who seems to have earned his success, but it sidesteps some of its more potentially troubling questions, such as how it feels for a longtime musician like Pineda to make his fortune pretending to be somebody else. When Pineda was discovered on YouTube, he was singing covers of lots of different kinds of songs, and was just as credible impersonating Sting, Jon Bon Jovi, Axl Rose, and Geddy Lee as he was doing Perry. He has range and power. But is hitting the right notes with the right inflection all that’s necessary to make a singer “good?”

This question presupposes that Steve Perry is a good singer, which isn’t exactly a settled matter. Personally, I like Perry, and think Journey is one of the best singles acts of the late ’70s and early ’80s, with a dozen or so songs that have held up far better than the similar buffed-up arena rock of that era. Perry’s belting voice fits these big songs about big feelings, though for some who prefer pop music to be subtler—or at least less beefy—nothing about Journey resonates, and least of all Perry. In the 1983 New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh dismisses Perry as “an acetylene-torch vocalist with a penchant for strident Sam Cooke imitations.” Marc Coleman’s Journey entry in the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone guide is more charitable to the band, allowing that it offered “some pleasurable moments from radio’s middle-of-the-road twilight zone,” though Coleman, writing from the heart of the alt-rock era, ultimately consigns Journey to irrelevance, writing, “The memory of Journey quickly faded as the next generation of bands took up its mantle.” (It’s remarkable how the perception of pop history’s “losers” changes decade by decade.)

Perhaps the better questions to ask when it comes to the quality of a lead singer are, “Does the voice suit the task?” and “Is the task worth doing?” Consider Taylor Swift and Frank Ocean’s performances at last month’s Grammy awards. Swift has long been dinged in some quarters for her thin voice, which tends to be extra-shaky in a live setting. But Swift’s bright personality and the intimate detail in her songwriting is usually adequate compensation for her weaknesses—that is, unless she’s dressed up like a circus ringmaster, singing the booming, trashy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in which case the paltriness of her voice is just one more thing to mock. Frank Ocean sang his song “Forrest Gump” at the Grammys in an even flatter voice than Swift’s, and while he didn’t escape criticism, he got more of a pass from critics, because of the inventive staging of his performance (with a video monitor making it look like Ocean was running throughout the entire song), and because of the boldness of him singing a song about desiring another man. To Frank Ocean fans, complaining he isn’t that great a singer is missing the bigger picture. It’s like complaining that the acting is wooden in a Stanley Kubrick film.

Again, though, in Kubrick’s case, there are compensatory qualities to make up for the stiff performances. (Also, the stiffness is intentional.) Not everyone likes Bob Dylan’s voice, or Neil Young’s, but the two men have voices that suit what they’re trying to express, and they have skills as lyricists and musicians to lend greater support to their singing. The problem comes when one major element is too off, and there’s not much else there. Then the weakness of that element matters a great deal. For example, most of the Journey songs I love wouldn’t work as well for me if they were sung by Jon Bon Jovi, whose rougher voice isn’t as appealing. “Only The Young,” for example, needs Perry’s sweetness, his openness, and his sense of yearning. Bon Jovi would make “Only The Young” sound kitschier, or more like a sexual come-on. If you agree that Journey has worth (not a given, granted), then you should agree that Perry is the right man for the job of fronting Journey, because he has a softer edge than most rockers. More importantly—and this may be the most important in being a “good” singer of popular music—he holds the audience’s attention, because he sings the words like he means them.

Here’s another example of how the right voice matters, again from this year’s Grammys: Jack White gave one of the best performances of the night, singing a medley of his spooky ballad “Love Interruption” and his screaming rocker “Love At 21,” in an impressive demonstration of his versatility. But it was also a reminder of how important White’s vocals and his presence as a lead singer have been to his success. There were scores of neo-garage bands around before The White Stripes became the standard-bearer, and many of them had the same kind of gimmicky approach to costuming and staging that Jack White adopted. But White has a great voice, simultaneously classically strong and uniquely bratty. And he uses it so well, expressing his wit and passion, which has always been unlike that of his peers and influences. Jack White is memorable, in a way the lead singer of The Von Bondies never was.

My friend (and occasional A.V. Club contributor) Steve Hyden recently wrapped his terrific Grantland series “Winners’ History Of Rock And Roll” with a piece about the rise of The Black Keys, a band that at one time was compared directly to The White Stripes, given that they were another guitar-drums duo steeped in blues and early rock. The Black Keys were an exciting band at the start, but a little colorless and predictable. As Hyden points out, the band made a conscious decision to broaden its sound and develop a more recognizable, crowd-pleasing brand. The return on that investment has proved phenomenal for The Black Keys, though they’ve alienated some former fans who miss their old “authenticity.” Hyden then compares The Black Keys to Grizzly Bear, a beloved indie-rock band that has publicly grumbled about how much trouble it has making money. And while I like The Black Keys and Grizzly Bear about equally well—which is to say, neither of them are favorites, but I do own every album by both and enjoy them in limited doses—I actually think I admire The Black Keys more, for trying to connect to people. I’m always a little baffled by indie-rock fans who describe Grizzly Bear as “poppy” or “accessible.” In the context of Grizzly Bear’s scene, perhaps that’s so. But I could play a Black Keys song for my mom and she’d understand what it was trying to do; if I played her Grizzly Bear, it would either leave no impression, or actively irritate her. That doesn’t make Grizzly Bear bad, by any means; it just means the group isn’t as universally easy to like as its boosters seem to believe.

The vocalists in Grizzly Bear actually sing pretty well, though they lack the component of charisma that The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has learned to bring. My biggest beef with the current state of indie-rock is that while modern technology has enabled marginally talented musicians to make decent-sounding records, there’s still a lingering distrust of “good” singing that’s carried over from the scene’s roots in punk. Too many bands either have frontmen who sing like crap or, even worse, sing merely competently, and don’t bring any personal oomph or showmanship to the table to balance that. 

Conversely, one of my favorite albums of the year so far is The James Hunter Six’s Minute By Minute, the first collaboration between the veteran British R&B act and American producer Gabriel Roth (honcho of retro-soul label Daptone Records). The songs on Minute By Minute couldn’t be less cutting-edge; they sound doggedly old-fashioned, like early-’60s house-party music. But Hunter has such a terrific voice, similar to his past tourmates Van Morrison and Boz Scaggs, with a touch of Dave Alvin and Keith Relf. He’s taking what’s been done many, many times before and investing it with his own feeling and panache.

Which brings us back to Arnel Pineda and Journey. Don’t Stop Believin’ opens with a version of “Separate Ways” that Pineda recorded with Journey, and while it sounds almost exactly like the original, there’s something a little off about it. Pineda’s vocal is a touch too slow and deliberate, like a kid trying to forge his mother’s signature on a bad report card. In the concert footage of the new Journey, Pineda is similarly constrained. He has a lot of energy, running around the stage, but he’s under orders to sing as close to Perry’s voice as possible, because that’s what the fans want. He’s a cog in a smooth-running, fairly soulless machine.

There are moments, though, when Pineda is in a less demanding setting, singing “Open Arms” and “Faithfully” a cappella while hanging around with friends and family. He still sounds like Perry, but he plays with the phrasing some, and downshifts from “wail” to “croon,” singing each word as though it were all coming to him spontaneously. His tone is amazing. His connection to the material is undeniable. He’s utterly mesmerizing. The man can sing.