Out of tune is out of tune…whoever is singing.

”That’s DREADFUL!” my wife yelled at the television this weekend, as I was watching bits of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. ”It’s SO out of tune!”

album coverTo be fair, she was right: and she’s a professional singer, so she should know. I was disappointed as well; we were watching Elbow’s slot, which was shockingly out of tune. I’ve written elsewhere about my enthusiasm for Elbow, with their intelligent lyrics and songs that reward multiple hearings, and their album, Build A Rocket, Boys!, released earlier this year, has kept on growing in my affections. But this live session was pretty frightful: so I turned it off.

So I was outraged when, later on, we changed channels to – Popstar to Operastar, which my wife watches religiously. For anyone who hasn’t suffered this travesty passing as popular entertainment, stars are plucked from the world of pop, and each week have to sing an aria from classical opera or other well-known piece; previously, these have ranged from Nessun Dorma to Volare and the ‘Love Theme’ from The Godfather. Some of them are popstars long confined to Pop Jail, who are looking for a platform to revive a career long since passed into the doldrums. I have little time to listen to music as it is, and I certainly don’t want to hear people singing pieces badly when I am able to.

In their defence, it is something of a challenge for pop singers to master major arias in a week, particularly if the songs are in a foreign language, but it’s a pretty terrible panoply of pop singers willing to sacrifice their dignity on a Sunday night. One risks hearing music being sung badly whenever you turn on the radio – and Radio 3 can be just as guilty as ClassicFM of broadcasting performances by singers which are astonishingly mediocre – or going to hear live performances; it’s part of the joys (and perils) of being a music consumer. But turning on a programme where you’re guaranteed to hear performances ranging from the cringingly mediocre to the breathtakingly awful – senseless, surely. (And don’t start muttering about ‘The Journey’ and ‘How Far They Come,’ it won’t wash).

Here’s a small example: try to stick with it for as long as you can…

So I can’t fathom why my wife watches it, or indeed why anyone would. Especially when she wants out-of-tune live stage sessions by Elbow turned off. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing, or to whom: out of tune is out of tune. Elbow were somewhat disappointing: but Popstar to Operastar is simply hideous.


A quiet beauty: Mirrorball by Elbow

Inspired by hearing Peter Gabriel’s cover of ‘Mirrorball’ on Scratch My Back, I went in search of the original.

There’s a hypnotic beauty to this, a stark simplicity to the ostinato running through it that imparts a quiet majesty.

The subtle shift to the mediant minor – G minor – works because the piece is in E major; the move to G minor negates the tonic’s major third, a brief extinguishing of the major key and imparts a bitter-sweet sense to the harmonic flavour. It’s only fleeting, though – there follows an F sharp major chord, and we’ve undergone a iii-ii-I cadential progression, enhanced by the aching G natural – A – G sharp figure in the accompanying strings.

Actually, the piece is in E, but the theme yearns upwards to a minor seventh – listen to the first line ‘I plant the kind of kiss / That wouldn’t wake a baby,’ where the D natural on ‘wake’ introduces a dominant seventh. Strictly speaking, the piece should modulate at some point to A major, if the dominant seventh on E were to function properly. But it doesn’t; the dwelling on the dominant seventh creates a sense of yearning, of unrequited sentiment and a lack of fulfillment.

There’s a quasi-minimalist quality to both the texture and the harmonic fabric of the piece, giving it that bewitching appeal.

It’s a mesmerising track; give it room. Elbow room.

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