Friday, July 6, 2012

Band of Siblings: Maddy Wyatt en famille

WYATT is five mostly-related people - three siblings and a couple of intrepid friends - centered on New York-based singer-songwriter Maddy Wyatt. On its recent self-titled EP, the group makes much use of layered vocals over rhythmic guitar strumming and the usual rock instrumentation, along with quirky harmonic structures and equally quirky phrasing. Quirky is good when it’s also catchy, as WYATT’s songs are.

Maddy has a nimble, clear voice. She employs no vibrato except when she injects a jazzy tremolo at the end of lines on held notes. This habit makes a little gap, a detachment, between the singer and the import of the words. This hipsterish “cool,” as it used to be called, is a way of signaling that the horrors and rage and sorrows of the world haven’t conquered the singer or player in question. 

I’m sure there are lots of jazz singers who would disagree, but I think that in jazz this can sometimes be excessive, so that the knowingness, the ironic tone, does a disservice to the song’s emotional intent. Maddy doesn’t go that far, but she does keep a bit of insulation between her and strong feeling. Of course, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction and end up in maudlin insincerity of the kind available on American Idol and other stairways-to-the-stars. Thankfully WYATT is in no danger of going there.

Given that WYATT produces pop music, and is thus relatively cheery, I’m also grateful that their lyrics are not oversweet; but I can’t exactly tell what they’re about. This non-specificity is a tricky position to maintain. On the one hand, I like my lyrics to be solid. Let’s know what the emotional situation is, and what attitude the singer brings to it. And let's hear some beautiful images that concretize the feeling. 

On the other hand, speaking in generalities allows for wide flexibility of interpretation. And I do love lyrics that make unusual word juxtapositions or obscure references, as in most of Steely Dan's oeuvre.This is one of the reasons I'm also fond of the kind of snark Elvis Costello and his descendants dish out.

So a little ironic detachment and a modicum of verbal opacity is just fine with me.

Maddy's snark is nowhere near the pH of Costello or Steely Dan – her version, as here in “Octopus King,” is awfully mild:

You don't always disappoint me 
Sometimes you just let me down

 And I do like these flipped clich├ęs, particularly since the octopus forms the song’s central image:
 There is ink in the water
There is blood on my hands
The catchy “Leonah” brings to mind 1980s pop like the Go-Gos. Other tunes, such as “Up and Up Sketch” and “Palacyum” (not on the EP but posted at Soundcloud) are more experimental in aspect, with stranger chord progressions and odder melodies. I don’t know whether the odder material was excised from consideration for the EP because it wasn’t strong enough, or whether the band experienced pressure from somewhere to sound more conventional. If the latter, the pressure wasn't irresistible -  it's unlikely that the band will ever sound really homogenized.

Maddy will be appearing solo on July 10 at Room 5 in LA.

Note: As I learned while googling the word “Wyatt,” this WYATT is different from another band called WYATT, a four-piece group that hails from Joni Mitchell’s home town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Come to find out, the Canadian WYATT is also quite a good band with a very different sound in the country rock vein – or, as the band apparently prefers to call it, “rock country” – packing a hefty dose of animal magnetism and strong songwriting. These two groups may have to battle it out for the unfortunate problem that arises when bands puncture the local ceiling and begin to have national and international appeal.

In the meantime, enjoy! Numerous WYATTs, all good!

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