i think the song “fireflies” is really pretty and really musically interesting, but i don’t really like the synth-pop, overproduced sound of owl city. i heard my college a cappella group sing “fireflies” last semester, and their version was really good. a friend of mine sang it whose voice is just naked and simple and unadorned — her voice has this raw joni mitchell-ness that i’ve always really liked, and it was just perfect for the song. i wish someone would come out with an acoustic cover of “fireflies”, or maybe that owl city would just play it unplugged somewhere, because i think the pitch correction and reverb are so annoying.
one reason it’s frustrating is that i really appreciate the complexity of the arrangement. he wrote a new melodic line for practically every verse and chorus. and i absolutely love really textured music — i adore vampire weekend and the new pornographers and a fine frenzy because they’re so ornate — but i think that when you write ornate music, adding flattened, quantized vocals sort of takes the piss out of it. i do like the postal service, maybe because their songs are more simple, so i don’t feel like an extremely complex background is just glossed over with a patina of overproduction. but i think if you’re going to write a lovely, complex arrangement, the arrangement can stand up to a human voice — the voice doesn’t need to become just another instrument.
and of course, voice as instrument standing alone is incredibly powerful. witness “soon love soon” by vienna teng, “down to the river to pray” by alison krauss, or “hide and seek” by imogen heap. (incidentally, i have heard really gorgeous collegiate a cappella versions of all three of those songs: smith college’s smithereens, groove, and smiffenpoofs. ok, fine, in the interest of full disclosure, i arranged the vienna teng for the reens.) but those songs work so well precisely because the vocal parts aren’t competing for space with instrumentation. in “hide and seek”, those vocal parts are incredibly intricate (and heavily synthesized), but it works, because there’s no synth-laden instrumentation fighting with it.
neko case thinks that the faintest whiff of musical inauthenticity is “like that taste in diet soda, i can taste it– and it makes me sick.” i don’t entirely agree. i think audio engineering has an important place. voice can be a medium, a substance, and engineering can be a method. i saw a guy at an open-mic night at hampshire college a few years ago use a loop pedal to play an incredibly rich guitar piece by himself — i can’t even call it a song, it was too majestic. it was a lovely work of art, and i didn’t care that he couldn’t play the eight parts at once by himself. but when overused, engineering is just too saccharine. owl city is a little too polished for my taste. i would trust the music more if i could hear it as it is.