Whether it is Nick Cave threatening Kylie Minogue with a rock or Mark Lanegan grizzling beside Isobel Campbell’s dulcet tones, duets have become all about beauty meets the beast. Now, though, a fresh collaboration reminds us of a different style – combination rather than contrast.
In one of the most unlikely pairings in pop , Billie Joe Armstrong from fluorescent pop punks Green Day has teamed up with Norah Jones, the winsome daughter of Ravi Shankar known for her honeyed voice and taste for country and supper-club jazz. Even more surprising, perhaps, is how their voices mesh together.
Rather than having male growl contrast with a lighter female reply, Armstrong and Jones create uncannily compatible harmonies, a fine tribute to the Everly Brothers that inspired their album of traditional songs with the wince-inducing title Foreverly. In doing so, they reinvigorate a style of vocal pairing seemingly forgotten in favour of more abrasive juxtapositions. Such call-and-response duos themselves have a long history, sounding all the more dramatic when a gruff bass comes up against an airy alto, though often it is the cutting jibes that are more important, as when Carla Thomas bests Otis Redding on “Tramp’”
Likewise, in country, the rough-voiced cowboy regularly gets to flirt, argue, or both, with his other half, nowhere more effectively than Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1967 on “Jackson’” a year before he proposed to her. Such a style has had a huge impact on vocalists down the years, as with The Pogues teaming up with Kirsty MacColl on the deathless “Fairytale of New York”, though these couplings tended to be one-offs until the Americana and folk revivals encouraged artists to celebrate the form across whole albums. Indeed, one of prolific grunge survivor Lanegan’s most productive partnerships has been with Campbell, a former member of Belle & Sebastian. They first came together on an EP in 2004 and have since put out three albums, beginning two years later with the Mercury-shortlisted Ballad of the Broken Seas. Another long-running partnership has developed between film actor and now TV star Zooey Deschanel with Portland, Oregon-based singer/songwriter M Ward. Since they first came together as She & Him in 2008, her cuteness and his drier contributions have been heard on a trio of albums up to this year’s Volume 3 plus a Christmas collection. Other artists have entered the fray more sparingly, as when The Horrors’ Faris Badwan joined up with Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira on the pop-noir of their Cat’s Eyes outing on the 2011 album of the same name.
Such works are a world apart from the smug, self-serving projects where bankable stars, usually past their prime, call in favours from across the music world, leading to erstwhile friends dialling in performances – literally, as technology enabled remote interaction in virtual studios. Think Bono’s attempted croon on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with Frank Sinatra from the latter’s 1993 Duets album, preceding the U2 frontman’s later appearance on Tony Bennett’s less hokey 2006 effort, Duets: An American Classic. Not that all such albums lack artistic merit. One of the most enjoyable collaborative works of recent years has been Kate Rusby’s 20.
That double album featured a range of duets, with contrasting contributions from the likes of Paul Weller and Nic Jones beside more complementary cameos provided by Eddi Reader and Jim Causley. These were a reminder of the importance of close harmonies to folk, a tradition continued in recent years by various permutations of the Waterson/Carthy families, most recently when Eliza Carthy got together with her mum Norma Waterson and Northumberland’s Unthanks. Similar sisterly combinations can be heard stateside from the Watson Twins and Secret Sisters.
For a male equivalent, you really have to go back to the American brothers whose peak years spanned the late Fifties and early Sixties. The Everlys’ baritone/tenor combination helped make them two of rock’n’roll’s longest-lasting stars. Their sound continued to resonate as an influence on Simon & Garfunkel’s stylings, and earlier this year Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy came out with What the Brothers Sang, a tribute to the pair that spanned hits such as “So Sad” and numbers from their later country period.
Now Armstrong and Jones have got in on the act with their own version of the Everlys’ 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a selection of traditional tunes the siblings knew from childhood that had been popularised by the likes of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Anyone familiar with Green Day’s skate-punk output will be impressed by how well Armstrong gels with his partner on the currently streaming “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” or “Long Time Gone”.
It was a call that came out of the blue for Jones as the pair had met at the 2005 Grammy Awards when they contributed to a car-crash rendition of The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” with Stevie Wonder and (him again) Bono, among others, though it was Armstrong’s wife who suggested Jones when he discovered the original album and first mooted the idea of introducing it to a wider audience. He told Stereogum that working with a female vocalist would give a different flavour. “I really wanted to do it with a woman singing because I thought it would take on a different meaning,” he said. “Maybe broaden the meaning a little bit – as compared to hearing the songs being sung by the two brothers.”
Contemporary R’n’B, though, appears to have lost the duet habit, whether the harmonious Sam & Dave style or the sassy verse/response sub-genre that Stax Records owned for much of the Sixties. Now singers are happy to guest on tunes by rappers or vice versa with cameos that have little if any connection to the actual track they appear on. If it takes a Californian punk and a fellow Everly Brothers fan to show what they are missing, things have gone very wrong.
Billie Joe and Norah’s ‘Foreverly’ is out now