The Holy Ghost of Michael McDonald

You might know of my straight-faced love of Steely Dan, a jazzy duo who at their peak relied on the very best session singers and musicians. One such singer was Michael McDonald, whose husky and resonant tones are not that dissimilar from the digitally smeared vocals Karin Dreijer Andersson trickles over her songs as Fever Ray.

McDonald went on to found the Doobie Brothers, but not before he did backup vocals on classics like “Peg” and “I Got The News“. And McDonald’s trademark pipes get around even today, cropping up now and again on other people’s songs. In 2009 he appeared on a B-side version of Grizzly Bear‘s “While You Wait For The Others“, which showcases his distinctive voice in a lead setting. The original version was led by Daniel Rossen, who has a pretty honeyed voice, but McDonald has a beefier go at it, and then tackles the complex vocal arrangement in the song’s final minute, augmenting it with soaring accents.

More recently still, DFA quasi-heirs Holy Ghost! brought in McDonald for the closing song on their eponymous debut, “Some Children“. Like many of the songs on Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest album, “Some Children” has a natty choral arrangement, but Holy Ghost! are totally different in every other way. No intricate baroque pop in sight, they make sleek electro-by-numbers which can come across rather characterless. They know their way round a disco bassline, and the DFA production team gives it the requisite layers of vintage Clavinet and close-miked live drums, but it can veer off into anonymity.

Not so “Some Children”, which is reined in by McDonald’s lead vocals. On this occasion, he makes a sweet song more sultry—his curious phrasing has the effect of virtually slowing the verses down, before unleashing a richly textured extended outro, with his harmonies piercing through the stacked choir. It’s a really lovely, fitting finale which restores my confidence in the band—and pays Michael McDonald’s heating bills.

Why do McDonald’s vocal talents still appeal? He doesn’t have an equivalent in contemporary popular music, which has increasingly become the territory of more polarised singers (dramatic falsetto on the one hand, pained baritone on the other). Moreover, the kind of complex arrangements he specialised in has become the preserve of composers, and not multi-taskers (think of Nico Muhly, for example). So, perhaps when a band goes hunting for a man who can do it all, and add an inimitable personality to a song, it’s unsurprising they alight upon him. If that’s the case, go forth and multiply.

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