by Dan Bolles
Like most self-respecting music snobs, I have long despised AutoTune, viewing it as a music industry scourge and a crutch for talentless hacks who can't match pitch. And as the phenomenon increased in popularity over the years, becoming virtually ubiquitous on commercial airwaves, I had little reason to change my, um, tune. But 2009 delivered an unexpected change in attitude towards this particular studio device, brought on by exposure to several projects, nationally and locally that employed AT to chilling effect. Ultimately, they revealed that, much like reverb or multi-voicing, in the right hands AutoTune can be as effective a tool as any other in a producer's belt.
My awakening came slowly. While reviewing Gregory Douglass' latest album Battler last winter, I thought I noticed faint traces of AutoTune scattered throughout the disc. Even given the local tunesmith's well-documented proclivities for skewering conventional pop constructs, the mere notion of Douglass — who certainly doesn't lack for vocal chops — resorting to using AutoTune was shocking. So I asked him about it.
In an email response, he wrote that he had in fact used AutoTune. What's more, he admitted "surrendering" to it to augment a particularly challenging vocal part which he had recorded out of his "comfort zone." Frankly, I was a little dismayed. Until I paid closer attention. The more I listened to it, the more I found myself enjoying it, and the more I realized that it subtly added a certain provocative quality to the performance that, oddly enough, felt completely organic given his general approach to song craft. Color me baffled.
Around the same time, I got my hands on Bon Iver's Blood Bank EP, the followup to his/their much ballyhooed 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago. I've made no secret of my unbridled man crush on Bon Iver/Justin Vernon and For Emma. Honestly, it ranks among my top five albums of the decade — alongside the likes of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha and M. Ward's Transfiguration of St. Vincent, in some order. In fact, I think Emma inadvertently planted the seed that would develop into my ability to appreciate AutoTune.
Where AT makes almost imperceptible appearances throughout Emma, on the a cappella "Woods," Vernon shatters any pretense of subtlety, overdoing the effect like a reverb-happy Jim James in an echo chamber. Check it out below. (And my apologies for the cheesy vid. There isn't an official one for the song.)
Of course, no discussion of the merits — or lack thereof — of AutoTune would be complete without mentioning its humor potential. If you haven't, I highly recommend revisiting AutoTune the News. But since this is a music blog, I will leave you with this vid of Lonely Island's "I'm On A Boat" (featuring the Mozart of AutoTune himself, T-Pain). I don't even want to admit how many times this track popped up on my iPod this summer.