A lot of singers attempt to get a sound that evokes Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin. The effort usually dominates the attempt. All you can hear is a singer trying to sound like a legendary singer. I hear hints of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin in Carol van Dyk’s voice in Painted Word. It comes off so well that her voice carries the whole song. There’s very little instrumentation in the song. It’s all Carol van Dyk. I don’t know how to describe what it is that is so rich and genuine about her voice. The whole song is just really all her hanging it out there. No vocal acrobatics. Just her singing a song.
I have been trying to write all week about this song. I have several woeful attempts at interpreting the lyrics where I get my filters all tangled up in her narrative. I ended up like the kid with his fingers in the dike trying to plug up all of the holes in my spin. I don’t know what keeps me going down this particular path. I don’t know why it is so hard to write about. I don’t know why I keep tying it all up in an interpretation of the lyrics. There is so much there without getting hung up in her words.
The song starts with this bass drum and these pizzicato strings come in with her voice. She sounds so relaxed and sultry. Then there’s this clarinet or something that keeps playing with the perimeters of the sound. There’s very little structure. Just keeping time and moving through the chord progression. Then this new world opens up with a new vocal that comes in over the tag line “the painted word”. It’s just her voice and it’s not like she changed registers or her approach to the singing, but there is a shift in the energy of the entire song. Nothing feels the same as it did in the beginning. “Woke you up, 4am. Said I wanted more here we go again.” Where are we now. Really I want to hear that moment in the song over and over again. Then the end of the song has this strange playful thing happening between the pizzicato strings and the bass.
It’s all very dark and mysterious. Maybe some lipstick, rumpled clothes, messed up hair, skirts, unmade beds. It’s all very sexy. There’s some kind of subtle narrative happening throughout the song but the plot is never handed over. You have to fill in the blanks. The blanks are enticing. I want to be involved in that sound. But my tendency is to take the sensual and make it barbaric. I want to make the song darker than it is, because it makes me uncomfortable. But the truth is, I want her to be singing about me.
It would have been so easy to overproduce this song. To keep adding things to a good idea until it became very mediocre. There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this, but Carol van Dyk comes off owning this sound like she invented it.