In almost every genre of western music, from doo-wop to heavy metal, vocal melodies have been incorporated in one form or another. They may drift in and out of fashion but as long as people are singing, someone else is nearly always trying to hit a complimentary note in the background. Many people would look to the late 1960’s as the defining era of the vocal harmony, when groups like The Beach Boys, The Mamas And Papas and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, all tied vocal harmonies to what was then considered genuine pop music, with swoonsome results.
While the rise of punk, grunge and Brit-Pop took harmonies out of fashion, the rise of Americana acts like Midlake, Fleet Foxes and Mountain Man led to a mid-noughties boom period for the folk-tinged harmony; that boom coincided with the return to popularity of Fleetwood Mac, a band who couldn’t have been much less fashionable in the late 1990’s. In more recent times the likes of Warpaint, Let’s Eat Grandma and Field Music have tied harmonies to a variety of genres ensuring the simple harmony remain entirely en vogue.
One of the finest exponents of the vocal harmony we’ve heard are London’s Anglo-Franco-Irish trio, The Wharves. Last week saw The Wharves release their brilliant new album Electa, the follow-up to 2014’s At Bay, and around these parts it is one of the most anticipated records of the year.
Citing influences including, “the reverberated spook of 60’s groups, the mid-fi guitar crunch of Kim Deal’s The Amps, the sisterly vocal harmonies of The Roches and the narrative and structural panache of 70’s progressive folk”, it’s perhaps unsurprising how brilliantly unclassifiable Electa sounds. The guitar work of Dearbhla Minogue, also a member of the superb The Drink, retains all of her inventive and propulsive hallmarks, while the rhythm section seem to remain entirely in sync, creating interesting bedrocks on which the more harmonic instruments can weave their magic.
Electa is a more eclectic and experimental record than its predecessor, without losing any of the underlying charm of their earlier work. The bands new-found ambition and confidence is particularly clear on closing track My Will, which features the band instrument swapping and the immense presence of the twenty strong, Rebel Choir. The Wharves more than ever are a band treading a singular path through the choppy water of alternative music, and it’s a journey we can only recommend you all join them on.
Whilst it can be tempting to suggest vocal harmonies come from some higher deity, that would ignore the craft and practice required to perfect the tricky vocal acrobatics, and The Wharves are clearly students of their trade. Today the band shares their harmony themed mixtape, which takes in everyone from Bob Dylan to En Vogue, and traces the roots of The Wharves dulcet tones.
1. The Roches – Hammond Song
Gemma: I have a really lovely memory of a sleepy morning sitting outside the big house at Supernomal Festival singing this song with Dearbhla on a found acoustic guitar and cracking up when trying to do the really low vocal.
2. Barbara & Ernie – For You
Gemma: I’m not sure who I love more Barbara or Ernie! Their voices have a great blend and the lyric ‘ you can lean on me…..like a tree’ is great.
3. The Carter Family – Wildwood Flower
Dearbhla: This is what families used to do before Netflix, I love Mother Maybelle’s deep voice and stoic matriarchal delivery.
4. Bob Dylan – Oh Sister
Gemma: Dearbhla loves Dylan and I do quite a good impression of him sometimes.
Gemma: Growing up in the 90’s, me and couple of friends used to try singing the hits of the day, back then harmonies were truly mystifying and we never did ‘get’ the breakdown in this song.
6. Queen – Seven Seas Of Rhye
Gemma: Imagine sticking shit loads of harmonies on everything, on the guitars on the vocals and just keep going and going building up and up. I think growing up on Queen has definitely had an effect on me recording wise, if it was up to me I’d keep going an going adding tracks but luckily but the others reign me in.
Gemma: Just a little harmony here that just really makes the song
8. The Free Design – Butterflies Are Free
Gemma: Mad perfect harmonies, like a bat shit mama’s and papa’s, their cover of ‘Light my Fire’ is half cringey half amazing.
9. The Stratfords – Never Leave Me
Marion: Great male-female harmonies here .
10. The Band – The Weight
Gemma: This song is so chilled out , it reminds me of relaxing at Marion’s house , plus it taught me how to do three part harmonies as perfectly demonstrates this.
Electa is out November 4th via Gringo Records. Click HERE for all upcoming The Wharves live dates.