Stuck on Stucky: Yodeling Up Some Swiss Blues
Erika Stucky is that rare singer who can sound at home in almost any situation, any genre â€“ her vocal cords serving as a kind of visceral, sinewy link between styles, sympathies and prejudices. Her modus operandi lies somewhere between stand-up liberation musicology and melodic Groucho Marxism. This is in part due to her gift for â€œserious fun,â€ which includes skewing pop standards, double entendres, flirtatious cavorting, and a boundless energy for discovering the â€œlightâ€ inside â€œenlightenment.â€ And then thereâ€™s her tradition-warping yodeling.
She was born in San Francisco to Swiss parents at the dawn of the hippie movement. She was influenced by the pop music that saw bubblegum go day-glo almost overnight so that everyone â€“ Kenny Rogers, Tommy James, Donovan, Sly Stone, et al. â€“ was singing about their adventures in the mind-bending world of recreational drugs. Her instincts (genetic predestination?) were fed by pop, psychedelic and â€“ yes â€“ even traditional Swiss roots music including yodeling, all of which channeled the peregrinations of an unfettered soul, allowing her to fuse, melt, cross pollinate and cross boundaries both geographical and musicological.
In the 1970s, her family returned to Switzerland, to a tiny village in Oberwallis where Stucky experienced culture shock â€“ like a Cognitive Dissonance, a bad mixed drink comprised of delight and horror with a twist of bewilderment. But on this, her most accomplished recording to date â€“ not bad for an intermezzo project! â€“ she has managed to explore material that has been churning inside her since perhaps childhood [itâ€™s in â€˜er and itâ€™s gotta come out], transforming the schizo-coastal uneasiness into something dynamically multi-coastal, at once personal, local and international; acoustic, electric and ambient. The songs feature a dynamic, evocative pastiche of forms, personas and moods, here further amplified by the inspired finesse of her sidemen.
Each track offers another facet of this robust audio triangle: the personal presents Stuckyâ€™s oft haunting but also mischievous vocals that shatter, splinter, swell and sway â€“ and yodel â€“ to evoke a broad palette of emotions. The local is Stucky and co. jamming with their environment; while the ambient aspect casts the vocals, instrumentation, and local sounds into an almost exotic realm. Simply put: lush but intimate. You can easily picture Alan Lomax, Phil Spector, and Hector Zazou sitting there enthralled but slightly perplexed.
Stucky is particularly good at exploding expectation, converting iconoclasm into a source of inventive homage. Her cover versions â€“ of Prince, Procol Harum, Nirvana, Hendrix, Michael Jackson on previous recordings â€“ are always refreshingly unusual renditions. Her takes on young Dylan and Fats Domino are no less effective here.
This is all enhanced by the field recording strategy, which accepts serendipitous intrusion as an element in the music making, the very element studio producers try to gloss over, edit out. The suicidal yodels are cast out of the clinical confines of the studio and forced to fend for themselves in the real world, creating an earnest street busker sound, a genuine â€œBasement Tapesâ€ feel.
Something about the yodels: A bold and welcome move â€“ a record of yodel songs. Few dare and even fewer succeed. I profiled Stucky in my book Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, because she, among others, represents the dynamic reinvention of yodeling.
Stucky is able to balance the acoustic incantatory yodel with the raucous barroom style of yodeling and the extended freeform style of abstract/scat yodeling so that her voice evokes not only emotion but also space, geography and oneâ€™s psychological relationship to it. She liberates the Swiss yodel from the dogmatic confines of the official watchdogs of folk music who, in their efforts to preserve their national musical heritage suffocate it to a slow, unseemly demise.
Her charm is her ability to convert her yodeling limitations into evocative soul music â€“ like Jimmie Rodgers. The yodels here serve not as calls to the herds or as ornamental refrains. No, her natuurjodels, her scat yodels, her pop-inflected yodels and yodel samples serve to lure us ever deeper into her lyrical world. This is what Hank Williams did as well. The yodelâ€™s primary function as outward call has been transformed into something inner-directed like a mantra or tolling bell. They penetrate effectively enough to provide incontrovertible evidence that the yodel is appropriate, versatile â€“ and hip.
The Suicidal Yodels are suicidal for a number of reasons. Unlike most yodels that come to mind, which go uplifting and joyous at the end, Swiss yodels are often â€“ especially the natuurjodels â€“ go down an octave into a melancholy reflective register until you can feel your ribcage reverberate in a way you thought only Tibetan or Gregorian monks could. It is rightly considered the Swiss blues, which often evoke images of Alpine herders enduring long, lonesome winters, which has its effect on the Swiss soul that no amount of schnapps or breathtaking vistas can surmount. The yodel dips down. And as Erika notes, the Swiss have one of the worldâ€™s highest suicide rates. Yes, Swiss yodeling is definitely a high altitude version of the blue yodel.
Bart Plantenga â€¢
â€¢ Bart Plantenga has been producing his radio show â€˜Wreck This Messâ€™ in New York (WFMU), Paris (Radio Libertaire), and currently in Amsterdam (Radio Patapoe) for 20 years now. He is also the fiction author of Beer Mystic. His YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World is the first-ever global history of this mysterious vocalisation. ROUGH GUIDE TO YODEL is the shorthand audio version of the book. He is currently working on book 2, Yodel in Hi-Fi, and a yodel documentary. He lives in Amsterdam.