There’s a telltale distinction between a music fan and a music fanatic, and it’s in the way each listens to a song. What makes the fanatic different than the fan—next level, if you will—is that while a fan’s love is no less real, it’s usually expressed through some variation of “I love this song—turn it up!” But a fanatic doesn’t stop there—she is compelled to dissect and study the music she loves, listening to details in the recording technique, the effects on the vocal track, the reverb on the guitars. The fanatic is obsessed with the music’s anatomy, while the fan (e.g.: me!) is just bopping along, oblivious to the details, but digging it all the same.
I’m usually happy with my place in fan land. I care more about the emotional part of loving music, not the exact compositional details of any given song. But I’ve been on a kick lately that’s been pushing me towards the fanatic side of things, opening me up to a new way of listening to songs I’ve heard six thousand times. Out of curiosity (or—more often—procrastination), I started searching for the isolated vocal tracks of some of my most-loved songs.
My fanaticism started after I heard the totally unbelievable cover Merry Clayton did of “Gimme Shelter” on our Rookie staff cover songs playlist. I wondered, And how do I find more of the magic she’s made with her otherworldly vocal chords? I learned that she was the backup vocalist for the original “Gimme Shelter” recording; Mick and Merry’s isolated vocal track was posted online, so I hit play, and entered a completely transformed experience of this song I’ve been hearing on radio stations, commercials, and my parent’s stereos since before I can remember. It became a new song to me, and one that totally broke me in half at 2:45, where Merry Clayton solos the chorus, her voice cracking in her performance of astonishing power.
For the first time, I seriously listened to the vocals of this song I had heard hundreds of times before, and I was totally floored. I wanted more.
The most gratifying part of this has been finding the isolated tracks to songs we’re culturally fluent in—the ones that even grandma could probably hum because they’re everywhere, like hearing the isolated duet of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie doing “Under Pressure.” It’s an interesting one to start out with, because the vocal percussion makes this one especially compelling. I had sort of reflexively noticed those noises before, but listening to the vocal track, I can attribute specific sounds to their mouths, which is kind of incredible.
These tracks can get really spooky, too. It gives me shivers to hear Ian Curtis sing “Love Will Tear Us Apart” solo—there’s something equally ominous about both the silent breaks and the dark, haunting tone of his voice. Listening to Nirvana feels the same way—the isolated track of Kurt belting “Drain” is something else entirely when you’re used to listening to the full noise of the song. Then there’s tracks like “In Bloom,” which let me hear the effects on the vocals for the first time.
Noticing these details may seem like a banal realization to the fanatics who have sonically inclined superpowers to notice details like this, but the magic of the isolated track for me is to make these layers apparent for the first time.
And let’s not forget this special snowflake.
Then there are the gut-wrenchers, the heart-rippers, the songs I have loved before but truly taken for granted. John Lennon’s rusty cry in “Don’t Let Me Down” is something enchanting, and incredibly intimate. It feels like I’m overhearing a young couple’s impassioned fight, like they’re on the brink of a defining moment, yelling and scared about losing each other. I adore the rest of the song, and it’s powerful in its full form, but the isolated vocal track has a haunting magic, maybe even more than the final product.
What gets me about these vocal tracks aren’t really the recording details or effects or whatever else a fanatic might be perceptive enough to notice and nerd out over—it’s that I can feel like I’m hearing a song for the first time again, or even hearing a more personal version of it. It’s magical to hear Stevie Nicks really belt out “Wild Heart,” like we’re in on a privileged performance of something legendary, and it’s a gift to hear it with the clarity of isolation.
Listening to these vocal tracks make me feel like I’m overhearing a rehearsal, or even someone belting it out in the shower when they think no one’s listening. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on something private and personal. It’s like stumbling upon someone’s open diary and accidentally scanning the pages, but that someone is the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and instead of embarrassing, its beautiful and revealing and relatable and legendary. ♦