This is a good idea. Scratch that, this is a fantastic idea. I think the last time I heard an entire album of a capellaa singing was ten years ago on a Take 6 release. I can't remember the title, so I guess it wasn't that memorable. That's disappointing, because the idea of a capella singing appeals to me.
Hearing a capella songs on record, especially a solo recording, can be like eavesdropping on someone consoling themselves. For The Unaccompanied Voice, Secretly Canadian solicited recordings from what initially seems like a predictable group of singers...though when you think about it, perhaps it isn't. Sure, someone like Richard Buckner would seem a likely candidate to perform a capella -- it's not that far from standard voice-and-guitar performance -- yet I can't recall ever hearing him do it before. That's half the genius of this collection -- the sweet surprise in getting something that seems obvious, but that nobody has tried before.
There's also genius in the songs themselves. Ranging from the hauntingly beautiful to the rather silly (thankfully there are only a few examples of the latter), The Unaccompanied Voice makes an indelible impression on the ears and brain. It opens strongly with three successive wonders, all covers -- I was hooked immediately. Appendix Out make the traditional "Four Nights Drunk" almost laughable in a stereotypical Irish drunk fashion, until the lyrics open up to you. That's when the smile drops from your face. Luckily, Mia Doi Todd follows with a beautiful rendition of Edith Piaf's standard "La Vie En Rose", helping to settle the effects of the previous song, and Mark Kozelek caps the opening with an unsentimental-yet-heartfelt version of John Denver's "Around and Around".
The album continues in this fashion for the next hour. While a few singers seem to be channeling their own personal and overwrought Mike Pattons, most stick to conventions, but without losing any of the lyricism that the form seems to encourage in even the roughest of narratives. Many of the songs are originals, yet many seem written to make the listener think of traditional folk songs. Pedro the Lion create something of utter beauty with "Breadwinner You", and the Kay Starr-like "Kindly Blessed" by Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk is a torch song without a piano to ruin it. If these put you in mind of traditional material, don't worry -- there's no shortage of it here. The standout amongst the standards is "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down" by the aformentioned Buckner and P.W. Long. It has the right blend of drunkenness, sadness and raw power needed to transport you back in time seventy years to a railroad campfire somewhere in the mountains of the western United States. I almost had to run out and get drunk on whiskey after listening to it.
Perhaps that's the ultimate appeal of The Unaccompanied Voice -- without instrumentation and production standing in the way, the great majority of these songs pull you with nothing but a vulnerable voice.