WTF?! Wednesdays: John Oswald with Dolly Parton, “Pretender” (1988)

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A long time ago, I was with my cousin at some guy’s apartment and this guy pulls out an old Sarah Vaughan record, puts it on the turntable and the song he played just blew me away. You see, Vaughan was singing alto in the first verse and on the second, went way down deep to the baritone range in the next verse. It was like going from Blossom Dearie to Lou Rawls, but this female/male duet all came from the same voice. I never did remember the name of this particular record or locate it anywhere, by the way.

Dolly Parton had pulled off the same feat with her 1984 take on the old Platters hit song “The Great Pretender,” although she didn’t know it at the time. The notorious Canadian tape splicing sound collage extraordinaire John Oswald assisted her in that feat a few years after she made that record for a set of covers. Oswald is the progenitor of a style of tape manipulation he calls “plunderphonics,” which is essentially making an art form out of the blatant stealing of other artists’ recordings with clever manipulation. It’s not quite sampling, but it does owe some debt to the early experiments of one Terry Riley.

Oswald, though, goes further. He’s screwing madly with the pitch of the recording, and rarely is it heard in its natural state. Starting off chipmunk high, it makes a slow but uneven descent to the male range, with the manly Parton sounding a bit like Elvis. And then toward the end, he brings the female Parton and male Parton together to sing the last line, in the same pitch, no less.

The high-tech results of Oswald was actually achieved using low tech means, much as Riley did, but that in no way puts any limits on Oswald’s imagination, and this song is really just a small taste of his artful thievery. But perhaps getting Dolly Parton to appear to do what few other female vocalists aside from Sarah Vaughan could do, he might have actually done Parton a favor.

Though I doubt she sees it that way.

Here’s the recording in its unaltered form:

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