I haven’t got an album, I haven’t even got a definite year, but I’ve got a staggering act to talk about today. The Ink Spots were a vocal group active between the late thirties and early fifties, regaining popularity recently due to some of their songs being used in the soundtrack for the infamous game Fallout 3 (a game set in the aftermath of a nuclear war as imagined in the fifties). Honestly, that’s the way I found out about them too, and I think that’s a wonderful thing – the way this music works superimposed on the images of a nuclear wasteland is great, so kudos to the people who came up with the soundtrack to Fallout 3. But beyond that, I find it hard to believe that these singers were forgotten in the first place. The elegance, the proficiency, the honesty they sing with are things which have sort-of faded into the background nowadays, and no matter how many rare steaks entertainers choose to wear as garments now, the shivers down one’s spine this music can provoke are unmatched.
The barbershop quartet is a very old style of singing, characterized by some pretty strict and thorough rules. The idea is for the four singers to harmonize their voices in such a way as to create chords, just like a musical instrument. To this end, the quartets usually have a “lead” voice – the carrier of the melody, a bass, a tenor and a baritone. The lead’s voice is usually ranged somewhere between the tenor and the baritone, with the bass providing the lowest range of notes in the chords. However, as you’ll undoubtedly notice, The Ink Spots (although not a traditional, a cappella group) use a counter-tenor as a lead. The singer in this group has an amazing vocal range, able to soar to unbelievable height, and he uses it with such lack of pretension and natural finesse that, at least to my ears, it never sounds grating or out of place. Of course, The Ink Spots aren’t a typical barbershop quartet. They had instrumental harmony in every song I’ve ever heard, and so the need for such strict crafting rules for chords was greatly diminished. However, it’s clear to me that the roots of their style definitely lead back to that original method of creating harmony. Even in more instrumentally heavy songs one can easily imagine the piano and guitar’s roles being taken by human voices.
Another thing which The Ink Spots (or Four Ink Spots, depending on the line-up) did to distinguish themselves was using the same basic intro for every one of their songs. There was no way to confuse the group once you heard that two-bar intro pattern, adapted for each of their performances and it’s amazing the way this simple gimmick still manages to thrill people to this day and work as a clear, elegant calling card for the group, about half a century after they stopped performing.
But I get the feeling I’m getting lost in technicalities and beating around the bush when it comes to the music itself. I’m sure this music won’t please everyone – it’s quaint, “cute” even, as I’ve heard it described, and that’s not necessarily something that can make people appreciate it. For me, it’s definitely a question of taste, and I guess I’m enough of an old soul to really love this style without needing or being able to explain why. It reminds me of Ghost World, a Steve Buscemi movie that I love. It has an immediate resonance in me, as if there’s something instantly recognizable and familiar about it. It reminds me of my grandmother. Need I say more?
What I find truly fascinating about it, however, has less to do with the music and more with the entertainment! The show these people could put on, the presence they could project, these are things I realize I’m missing nowadays. The ’00s have been about alienation as far as I’m concerned, about the distance between performer and public, between oneself and the music. Watching The Ink Spots in this context creates such contrast, it’s such a clash of mentalities I can’t help but feel amazed. These four people could communicate so much more, with so fewer means at their disposal it makes me feel a sort of longing, a weird, ghostly feeling, like I’ve missed something very important.
In any case, I leave you with The Ink Spots, quaint as they might seem. I hope they’ll prove enjoyable. See you tomorrow!
P.S.: I added a third song, for the tap dancing.