EarSay: A Plea for Diction, Plus

CDs by Darlingside, Alistair Olgivy, Joe Johnson

By: - Jul 14, 2013

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Some of you who have read a few of my past columns are sure to have noted my oft lamented dismay regarding the prevalence of poor diction and articulation so common among contemporary vocalists and my constant frustration when even printed lyrics are hard to search out. I would like to expand my thoughts on this topic before I begin my long overdue observations on another group of cds which I think deserving of your attention.

When I write anything, be it an email or an installment in this series, my primary purpose is, as I presume is that of most writers, to clearly as possible express my ideas for you to consider. The same I propose is true of writers of fiction, poetry and other literary forms as well.

I would suppose that a songwriter has the same purpose, expressing clearly their ideas within the reinforcing framework of melody, rhythm and instrumental accompaniment.

It is no accident or coincidence that in eras in which the exchange of ideas dominated, that oratorical skill was given great attention and was accepted de facto as an essential requirement if the proponent was to be taken seriously.

So, if a vocalist slurs, swallows or mumbles the lyrics, I can only presume they are not interested in conveying the idea, and if the vocalist is also the songwriter, that they place little value on their ideas to begin with.

It is not that I cannot find value in the music itself or the performance for in fact sometimes I have noted in reviews that appreciation while decrying the weakness of the pronunciation.  But such weakness does profoundly lessen my understanding and my pleasure.

By that I mean that for me and I suspect for many others if they stop to think of it, when I understand the words and their meanings, I get more involved in the performance and I participate when listening alone or with a chum or two by singing along, adding my passion to the performance. Furthermore songs tend to pop into my mind when they have something to say about my circumstances or my condition at that moment and, again when I am alone, I express myself by rendering the piece. While I have no illusions about my ability to perform, the act itself is often cathartic.

There is little doubt in my mind that some of my problems with hearing result from age, hanging out too often with The Remains and attending some over the top concerts a half century ago, as well as some time spent on the flight line with jet planes without ear protection.

Yet, I find that I will play a cd by any one of a number of artists and every word is distinct and clear, so I decline to take all the responsibility. I will continue to point out the discrepancy, implore you who perform to increase your ability to connect with your audiences by improving your articulation, and wonder what I am missing as a result of your not having done so.

Now for some cds…

Self Produced EP

Pilot Machines
Self Produced CD

When I first heard Darlingside, I was struck and fascinated by the variety of stringed instruments they played and their musical innovations. I was delighted by the EP, Darlingside which was their first issue and shared it with a number of colleagues and recommended it to several venue managers for consideration.

Darlingside is…
Sam Kapala: drums, vocals
Don Mitchell: guitar, vocals
Auyon Mukharji: mandolin, violin, vocals
Harris Paseltiner: cello, guitar, bass, vocals
David Senft: vocals, bass guitar, guitar

At last year’s Green River Festival, I was again taken by their versatility though I felt their performance was modified to accommodate a less sophisticated audience but presumed they knew their audience better than I. I eagerly awaited their then soon to be released cd and it came in the mail last fall.

I took a quick listen, thought at first it was a bit overproduced and, with some disappointment, set it aside for a plethora of others that were piling up on my “to be reviewed” shelf. In the last month or so as I have tried to honor what I have felt was my obligation to pay serious attention to a number of albums that I specifically requested, I have come back to a careful listening of Pilot Machines.

I was dreadfully wrong to put that off for so long.

With both cds in my player and repeat on, I went about with other chores and tasks, letting the music seep in to my psyche before I would attempt to begin assessing it. I soon found it taking my attention away from anything else and track after track drawing me in and fascinating me measure by measure until I began to experience a wonder, a fascination with the scope of their concept.

I began to see the whole album as not so much a collection of songs as 12 symphonic poems, the lyrics providing only a foundation, but the vocalization of those lyrics with their oft gut wrenching 5 part harmonies being one more instrument in the arrangements.

You may conclude as have I that there is little frivolity, joy or playfulness here. It deals with a bleak mindscape of despair, regret and mystery, and yet, for all its existential angst, it does not drag us down. Each musical measure is layered with delicacy, with restraint, with one musical surprise after another and with each listening the complexity deepens and the connections multiply.

Pilot Machine and its effect could never be given a proper review in print media alone. I am grateful that here I get to share performance with you and hope that you too, by using the links above get to experience even any small part of what I find myself experiencing. It is important to note here that what they have done in this studio recording exceeds to some degree what they can manage live, but their bag of tricks is easily diverse enough to compensate and buzz from their live performances has been universally good.

I wish that more track information was provided with the cd to properly credit the vocalists. I also regret that even after hours of googling, I have yet to find a photo with names to identify their faces.

I only hope that Darlingside manages to maintain their physical and creative integrity long enough to find an audience that can support and sustain them.

Failing to do that would constitute, to my mind, a catastrophe.

It is hard to pick just one video, but this is one that is representative. If you like it there are many more includng a great animation of The Ancestor.
"Sweet and Low"


Leaves Sae Green
Alistair Ogilvy
Greentrax Recordings

What keeps me from easily understanding the vocals on this release has not so much to do with diction or production values as the heavy Scots dialect with which young Alistair Ogilvy sings. The brogue is heavy indeed and if authenticity is what we value, we cannot argue with his application of such.

Fortunately for we unfamiliar with the rippling tongue tripping flow of odd sounds, all the songs save one are traditional and lyrics can be easily found on-line. The exception is Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country,” though the way it is performed here, if one knew no better, might be presumed to be centuries old.

Aside from the accent, one other anomaly for US listeners is the use of piano for accompaniment. In this country, the piano is not considered to be as suitable to “folk” as it is along as well with a number of rarer instruments in the British Isles. (Alistair gives us a rare opportunity to hear a shruti box.)

Much praised in the folk-media press in the Isles, Alistair Ogilvy with his truly melodic voice and strong emotional sensibility is considered to be a premier performer of traditional material.

All the songs here are venerable classics, the two standouts for me being “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship,” and an interesting variant of “Sweet William’s Ghost” here titled “Willie’s Fatal Visit.”

Alistair’s performances are supported with competence and enthusiasm by Aly Macrae on piano, fiddle, mandolin, euphonium and pocket trumpet; Steven Polwart on guitar; and by both Aly and Inge Thomas vocally.

This item may be a bit too esoteric for the casual folk listener among our readers, but it is an important release for the scholar, the collector and, of course that mythical creature, the purist.

 A video of "The Kirkwood Light"


A Time To Dance
Joe Johnson
Blank Tape Records

Here is another cd I let languish far too long on the shelf.  My only excuse is that it was sent along in addition to the Haunted Windchimes fantastic “Out With The Crows” and simply got set aside. Its charms are far too subtle to appreciate with only a quick skimming of tracks.

Now, as I grow more intimate with it, I am reminded of some of my ‘50s faves, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow.

Joe Johnson combines the sensibility of all these and maintains an intimacy in his performance that easily lets me imagine him sitting on my porch with him as he shares his songs. His guitar accompaniment is as intimate as his vocals, restrained and delicate, driving and energetic as is required to support his presentation.

I am listening to Anna, as I write this and feel the emotional impact strongly enough to require numerous pauses to allow the feelings passage.

Nowhere is the impact of his voice stronger than on his acapella rendering of “William And Melinda”

I wish there was more track information, but I can tell you that Haunted Windchimes’ honcho, Inaiah Lujan contributes guitar support on some cuts as do Mike Clark on harmonica, Connor Bourgal and Josh Desmidt on harmonium and steel guitar. But these appearances are sparse. This is Joe Johnson’s program and he commands it from start to finish. With each listening, it moves farther up my playlist.

This cd takes us directly to the musical seam between folk and country and is equally the child of both. Use the links to check it out for yourself and be aware that a new release from Joe is due in a few short months.

 Here is one promised on the next release.

"Who's Gonna Go Your Bond"