The most famous female voices in underground music have often been imperfect. Though capable of stern beauty, Nico's low moan would never have made many '60s pop charts. The post-punk scene of the late '70s throve on its unusual gender parity, with all of those wobbly voices chiming off each other. Even as alternative culture nosed its way from '80s college radio into the '90s mainstream, with its riot grrrls and tres-cool Kims churning just below the surface, there was no need for classic chops to get big. To wit, Courtney Love picked a good time to strive.
Flaws haven't disappeared from the "cool" voices; subsequent generations still emulate those aforementioned pioneers with alarming frequency. But the past few years have seen complicated, virtuosic singing—previously confined to big-label product—come to define female artists breaking new ground. The women of Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors, for instance, have made it hip to draw on the melismatic styles that dominated the last decade-plus of R&B.
Blatant vocal talent has become a bigger signifier of artistic authenticity in independent music. It's probably not coincidental that this development comes at a time when some of the biggest radio hits have gone dead-eyed and anonymous, with Auto-Tune at the ready to slide any Ke$ha, Katy Perry or Rihanna lookalike at hand into an off-the-rack hitmaker. Those note-fixing filters, now prebaked into even the most basic laptop production setup, provide a newly crucial choice for even the most talented vocalist. To correct or not to correct, and to what end?
Nika Roza Danilova's huge voice and obvious effort run counter to several decades of underground aloofness and interesting if limited tones. Childhood opera training is a plausible explanation for the force with which Danilova sings on Zola Jesus records. In the presence of the industrial influences that remain in her sometimes rough and grubby instrumentals, it's still surprising to hear her sing with such strength. She swoops where the music crawls, runs hot in a genre founded on coldness.
On last year's Conatus, Danilova's not obscured by artistic production choices or lingering noise elements. Rather, she dwarfs them. Though her voice is subtly doubled in spots and brushed with a tasteful echo, her recordings give the impression of a lone Romantic hero raging against a storm. Impassioned singing has been a punk hallmark forever (less so in goth, where she's now considered the torch-carrying diva), but the combination of raw power and talent bounds beyond the norm.
Julia Holter's formal music studies came in college-level theory as opposed to Danilova's child prodigy sessions, which might explain why her music is more quizzical than cut-vein. A Los Angeles-based home recorder who plays in the same soft-pop pool as collaborators like Ariel Pink and Nite Jewel, Holter released her second record, Ekstasis, earlier this year.
The self-produced album feels simultaneously loose and deliberate, owed to a vocal approach that stems from the ease and quirks of laptop production. A typical Holter song might use 25 or 30 vocal tracks, combining them to sculpt relatively few distinct parts. Costing nothing but disc space, this kind of extreme layering has become quite common. In fact, Grimes found a large following doing something similar this year.
This extreme layering produced a slightly disorienting choir made entirely of a single voice, Xeroxed to infinity. The multiplicity of Holter's beautifully controlled singing doesn't create as grand a sound as you might expect; her tone maintains a pastoral lilt and a wide-eyed, indie-pop softness. Doubled, tripled, duodecupled, that modest softness starts to ring on an unearthly frequency. Her exact notes and countermelodies fill the empty spaces as faint echoes.
Where rickety '70s post-punk groups like The Raincoats or Kleenex thrived on the uneasy giddiness of differing female voices in unexpected combination, young women of the current cutting edge seem more interested in the ecstatic possibilities of singing with different versions of themselves. On the lofty, Antigone-inspired "Goddess Eyes II," a robo-vocoder tone mingles with Holter's more representative copies. Notes aren't being fixed, though, just subverted to a curious precision. The stories inhabit new dimensions.
With vocal production that's nearly opposite, Laurel Halo's debut full-length, Quarantine, arrives at experimental pop that's not totally dissimilar from Holter's. The New Yorker's initial EPs were mercurial, switching focus from wide-ranging, complicated musical runs to more anonymous techno beats and ambient swirls. Quarantine combines both modes and highlights a huge shift in the way her voice actually sounds. Bored with push-button reverb and easy echo, Halo consciously recorded herself without smoothing effects.
It's not a matter of bravely presenting a flawed voice; here's still that showy R&B complication that's been nearly ubiquitous in current outré pop. But instead of being surrounded by a lush, DIY haze, the singing sounds unsettlingly dry, like hearing isolated audio tracks as played back in the studio before their inevitable sweetening. There's doubling here and there, but like Zola Jesus, it's more of an illusion of loneliness rather than truly untouched takes.
Holter's vocal platoons seem oddly self-sufficient, like Björk's "Army of Me" given literal life. Danilova's solitude comes across as defiance. Halo, however, makes herself unusually vulnerable, with not even effects to protect her. In the end, she doesn't need the help.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Without a fault."