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Great Northern and the 'Height' of Portent

Great Northern's members know how to use vocal effects for maximum emotional impact.
Great Northern's members know how to use vocal effects for maximum emotional impact.

It's easy to dismiss pop bands that slather on vocal effects, but relying on tricksy production doesn't have to lessen music's impact or qualify as "cheating." A great-sounding pop song is a great-sounding pop song, and Great Northern's "Low Is a Height" feels that much dreamier and sweeter for its layered vocals, skittering beats and hazy electronic washes.

Fans of Imogen Heap know how much power can be derived from artificially processed vocals, and "Low Is a Height" carries on in her tradition, as singer Rachel Stolte lets her voice swoop and swoon over arrangements that conjure memories of the 4AD label's greatest hits.

Even at five and a half minutes, "Low Is a Height" doesn't break a ton of lyrical ground: Instead, it's content to use vaguely portentous phrases — "Drink to the sun / We write to millions / You kill everyone around you" — to help pile on the atmosphere. It's an awfully effective strategy, as "Low Is a Height" functions as both a dreamy pop epic and the musical embodiment of a mood that's somehow both sunny and oppressive.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)