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Monday, November 12, 2007

Gotcha Covered

Hey there, Solid State. How's things?

I just finished up an interview with Kevin Russell, from Austin, Texas progenitors of absurdist intellectual hillbillyism, The Gourds. Anyone who reads the paper regularly knows that the "rock interview" is not my particular forte. As such, I've decided to tackle the issue head-on and try as many different interview tacks as possible. Throw enough shit against the wall . . .

Last week, my interview with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew went from amiable to near-suicidal as I pressed a wee bit too much on the stresses of BSS A.F. (After Feist). You should see some of the shit I chose not to print. Isn't there some axiom about salt on open wounds? Whoops!

I'm currently gearing up for an interview with Tinariwen, an African group touring as part of the Cumbancha World Music Series. Should be interesting, but for one minor detail: no one in the band speaks English. So not only are my interviewing skillz a big-time work in progress, the Q&A will be conducted either through a translator — if we can find one — or via e-mail, which is pretty sterile. Sigh.

I was actually fairly pleased with The Gourds interview. Kevin seemed like a pretty laid back guy and lacked the pretentiousness of a number of the musicians I've spoken with thus far — nationally and locally. Plus, I've been a fan for years and have always wanted to ask him how he feels about their "biggest" song being attributed to everyone and their mother but The Gourds. (For the uninitiated, The Gourds recorded a hillbilly version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" that achieved fairly widespread popularity on the interwebs . . . as a Phish song. The Napster version of the tune was also attributed to Ween and a number of other acts that don't even remotely sound like The Gourds. Damn hippies.)

I can't spoil it, since the interview is running in  this week's edition. But he had an interesting perspective on the phenomenon and some good stories about the song.

Anyway, the conversation got me to thinking about great cover songs. Generally, I hate covers. In how many other mediums is that notion even an option? Would an author "cover" Hemingway or Faulkner? Would a painter "cover" Monet or Picasso? Granted, the phenomenon exists in film under the guise of "remake."  But frankly, I usually hate remakes too — though "3:10 to Yuma" was pretty bad-ass. The cover is an enigma, only truly relevant in the world of music.

It's not that I dismiss the creative validity of reinterpreting another artist's work. Rather, it's that most bands do just that and choose to play straight of versions of their favorite tunes rather than invest any energy or thought into how they could put their own spin on an old song. It's too bad, because in the right hands, a cover song can offer brilliant new insight or completely re-invent the way a song is perceived, sometimes transcending the original altogether.

Take, for example, the queen mother of all cover songs, Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." Not only is Buckley's version about a bazillion times more emotionally engaging than Leonard Cohen's original, it's become the standard version of the song. Listen to the version Rufus Wainright recorded. He's not covering Cohen. He's covering Buckley, covering Cohen. And he's not the only one. Scores of artists in hipster coffeehouses and rock clubs the world over cover Buckley's cover. Not only is it a testament to Buckley's otherworldly ability, but to Cohen's remarkable poetic lyricism.

In a similar, if less iconic, way, M. Ward's version of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" turns a high-energy romp into a mournful, slow-burning elegy. Maybe Bowie's song wasn't meant as a party tune after all.

The cover song can be a powerful weapon in an artist's repertoire. But only if they take the time to flesh out the deeper subtleties of the original or turn the song completely on its head and arrive at remarkably different destination. The Gourds did and it — almost — made them famous. Damn hippies.



Comments

tyler

I don't know, JB's Halleluja is pretty dramatic and crap, but Cohen's is emotional in a totally different way. Maybe it's his restraint and matter-of-factness in his delivery of these amazing poetic paintings...it's like he's giving you directions or something. Or making small talk. He's just this ugly dude with a funny, deep voice singing some of the most beautiful songs you'll ever hear.
And as for inteviewing pretentious local musicians, look, I told you if you submitted your questions to my handler for pre-approval, maybe you could have an interview.

Thirtyseven

Man, Tinariwen is hands down one of the best bands anywhere on the planet Earth. Their albums have been keeping me sane, happy and supercharged for about 2 years now. And, it's way, way too funny none of them will understand a fuckin' word you say. They're poets, dig this:

"For us the desert is about our family, our friends, our people, our customs and our way of life. But it's also about freedom. There's so much space, so much sky. No one bothers you. You can drive where you want, and just sit under the sky, drinking tea, playing music, cooking food. It's a calm existence and we can't do without it."

Sounds like the NEK, minus the trees and hippie goddesses.

bridgetb

God I love M. Ward. And definitely prefer his version of 'let's dance'.

The only time I ever saw him play was in Burlington, but long before I lived here.

Neil C

Chrissakes, don't get me started on "covers" as a pejorative term. I much prefer to take it from the opposite perspective: when did it become absolutely fucking essential for everyone to write their own music? Throughout the history of the world, the distinct roles of singer, instrumentalist, and writer have each been respected on their own merits: writers write, singers sing, and instrumentalists play. Everyone was allowed to excel in their own talent in their own time: songs had craft in lyric and melody, voices were beautiful, and instruments were played adeptly. No one ever sniffily accused an orchestra or a folk singer, jazz saxophonist, or fucking Frank Sinatra of doing a "cover". Then, suddenly -- I think largely thanks to the phenomenon of The Beatles -- everyone's supposed to be a fucking svengali at all three. And suddenly, anyone who isn't attempting to be all three is some kind of artistic traitor, beyond the pale, and are largely condemned (ironically) by mere music fans, self-proclaimed arbiters of taste, who can do none of the above. What does this new trend of mandatory-genius bring us? A seemingly never-ending worldwide tyranny of shitty songs, sung by hacks with no voice who can't play their way out of a paper bag. Well, at least they're not a "cover band". Never mind the Beatles were a Chuck Berry/Carl Perkins cover band for years before recording any of their own music... the Rolling Stones too. And, I think you'd find, most of the classic bands in rock. All had to cut their teeth playing numerous sets of familiar music to dancing people, which not only honed their skills, but gave them a rooting in a musical tradition and appreciation for song.

Yikes! Sorry. Just gets my goat something awful.

dan

All good points, Neil. It's been a while since I got anyone all riled up on this here patch of cyberspace. Neat-o!

Most bands and solo artists cut their teeth/build their chops playing other people's songs. I certainly did. It's how you learn. And as you pointed out, lots of them built careers out of performing other people's work.

However, the reason no one ever sniffed at Sinatra, an orchestra or sax player for doing a "cover," is precisely because "songs had craft in lyric and melody, voices were beautiful, and instruments were played adeptly."

Sinatra's versions of standards are iconic because his voice and unique phrasing make them stand out from your average crooner. The same could be said of any number of singers from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Dean Martin and Mel Torme, all of whom gained fame performing similar catalogs but were able to make their own imprint on classic numbers through their individual artistic traits. Hell, Marvin Gaye even did a disc of Nat King Cole tunes. But it sure as shit didn't sound like Nat King Cole, even though Gaye was crooning.

While it's true that the pantheon of classic rock bands is overflowing with bands that played other people's songs, at least they made the effort to make those songs their own in some fashion. And would either The Beatles or The Stones have become icons if all they did was cover other people's tunes? Elvis Presley notwithstanding, I doubt it.

I never said that everyone has to be a great player, singer and writer to have artistic validity. But whatever facet you happen to excel at — whether one or all three — you should be able to bring your own style to the table, even if you're "just" a cover band.

DAN

I don't know much about visual art but I think you are incorrect when you claim the cover song has no analog in the painting world. Isn't there a long tradition of painters doing paintings in the style of other painters? Also, I take issue with your assertion that Sinatra or The Beatles somehow made songs "their own." How can you make that claim when both artists are so central to the pop music canon? Are The Beatles' versions of all those rockabilly songs really so unique? Although they are my favorite band, I think not. Style is overrated, anyhow.

dan

A painter mimicking the style of another painter is vastly different from a band playing a cover song. If said painter were to, say, paint a version of "The Mona Lisa," you might be on to something. I'm not an art history major, so for all I know, that very well may have happened. But I'm guessing it's rare.

As for Sinatra taking standards and making them "his own," he abso-fuckin'-lutely did. That's exactly WHY he's central to the pop music canon. That, and sweet, sweet Ava Gardner. And Lauren Bacall. And Mia Farrow.

I'm not sure I understand your argument, Dan. How does an artist being "central to the pop music canon" preclude them from being able to put their own slant on someone else's tunes?

I'm not saying that The Beatles rockabilly songs were groundbreaking, or even terribly different from the originals. But there was certainly something about the way they played those songs that made them stand out from all the other bands that were probably playing the same tunes in Liverpool at the time. Even if was just the fact that they played them better than everyone else, or with a different energy or — gasp! — style, that's enough for me to say those versions belong to them.

My disdain for most cover songs actually goes back to Neil's earlier point in a weird sort of way. It's absolutely OK to be good at one musical discipline, whether it's singing, playing, writing, arranging, whistling or whatever. If you can take someone else's work and do it better or differently than the original — however you choose or are able to — then great. However, if a band is just going through the motions, playing a cover to kill some time in their set list — which I've certainly been guilty of — color me disinterested.

Dan, do you remember that 4th of July show we played on the State House lawn? We didn't have enough material to fill out the set, so we did an extended noodle-ska jam for like 15 minutes. I think more than once, actually. We didn't really bring anything new or remotely original to the jam template and turned off a healthy percentage of our crowd. I feel like a lot of bands use covers in the same way. Filler. Maybe it's just me.

tyler m

sorry to deviate from the topic a bit here, but were you at the Kevin Drew show? What did you think? I found it odd as the Spirit If songs all seemed to be a little more dense and interesting than they are on record, whereas the Broken Social Scene songs were all missing something (well, 6 other members mostly) and they suffered because of it. fun show though, even though the acoustics were horrendous.

casey

Umm, I can only say: Tinariwen RULE.

I interviewed a dude from the Refugee Allstars of Sierra Leone (isn't tha twhat they're called?) and he was amazing, language barrier and all.

Good luck. And Kevin Drew ain't all that.

ben

what about classical music? Most of those musicians will never play an original note in their lives.
some orchestras make claims of adaptation but, for the most part, the changes are pretty microscopic.
The worst acoustic fake book cover musician is still a lot more "original" than most of the insanely skilled classical musicians of today. Putting on a capo and changing the key of a song is more than most conductors would dream of.

DAN

I guess my point is that one man's "unique phrasing" is another man's tacky. It's easy to say that Sinatra or The Beatles were great because, in 20/20 hindsight we know that they were--i.e. they have stood the test of time. But because of this, it's kinda bullshit to hold them up as examples of the proper way to do covers. And if you tell someone to bring more of their personal style to a cover song (the way Frank Sinatra did it back in the day) well, s/he's probably gonna come back with some unlistenably tacky crap. Anyhow, just my thoughts--it's hard to talk about music and what makes it good.

Tyler

Ben, I think if you put that argument to skilled classical musicians, or even classical music enthusiasts, you would draw a world of empassioned, heated, and valid arguments. I also think if you listen to some great interpreters of certain types of "classical" music, you might change your tune. There are many ways to play the same piece of music, and the individual musician brings his or her own set of skills, idiosyncrasies, and spirit and understanding to their performance.
A friend was just showing me Andrew Manze's recording of Biber violin sonatas. I think these Baroque pieces were written around the mid-1600's, but Manze spirited interpretations make them unlike any Baroque music I've heard. I always thought of Baroque music as boring, plodding strings and harpsicord, fit for the soundtrack of a BBC series. My friend pointed out that Manze almost sounds like he's fiddling. I don't think that the worst acoustic fake book cover musician would come close to this level of originality in interpreting a "cover". Just an example.
Also, if you've ever seen the same orchestral piece performed by more that one orchestra, under different, masterful conductors, it becomes clear that there are original ways to interpret even standart orchestral works.
Capo-ing a guitar to change the key of a song in order to fit a limited vocal range doesn't seem like an apt comparison to anything an orchestral conductor does.

ben

I know little of classical music other than "performance today" (which I totally dig)
I'm not knocking it any way. I'm just making an argument. For the most part, it seems like in classical music the "many ways to play one piece" can NOT (lest you raise the ire of purists) include a key change, dropping or adding sections, embellishment notes etc. is that right? All of these are simple choices every fake book dude makes from the start. It's not really like the orchestra is going to unexpectedly bust out a time honored piece and translate into a pop country song.

DAN

Well, it is not unheard of for a conductor to decide not to repeat certain sections or for a singer to perform a piece in the key that best suits his/her voice. Accompanists change keys all the time and instead of using a capo they have to do it WITH THEY MINDS!! It's called transposing. Also, embellishment and improvisation have long been a part of classical music, a prime example being the most famous classical composer of all time, J.S. Bach. In spite of all this, I think it is true that classical musicians are generally more constrained than pop musicians in terms of how they can interpret a piece. But the counter-argument is that given these constraints (i.e. you have to play the notes on the page), classical musicians have to work even harder to exhibit their personal style and are therefore the more "original."

dan

Hey Tyler M,

I was at the Kevin Drew show and to be perfectly honest, thought it was one of the worst live music experiences I've ever had in Burlington. It's too bad, because I really like Spirit If.

The sound was reprehensible. The band might have been playing their best show ever but I wouldn't have known because I couldn't hear anything through the sonic swamp of bass and drums. Ira Allen Chapel is a great place to hear acoustic or vocal music, even unamplified. But it's just not designed for rock bands. I'm not sure even the most talented sound engineers would be able to properly tackle that room.

Kudos to SA Concerts for bringing the band to Burlington though. It's a nice change from the annual George Clinton show.

dan

Dan, you're absolutely right when you say that it's hard to say what makes music good — or bad, for that matter. But isn't that why we're here? I'm pretty sure that's a healthy chunk of my job description. I'll double check that though;-)

Sadly, I lack the predictive powers of a seer and my crystal ball is in the shop. As such, my only recourse to examine what makes for a good cover is to rely on historic examples, BECAUSE they've stood the test of time. But, I actually didn't bring up Sinatra or The Beatles.

I was originally talking about The Gourds, Jeff Buckley and M. Ward as examples of artists who, in very different ways, elevated the concept of playing a cover by re-imagining the material altogether.

To that end, look at the old "Burlington Does Burlington" comps. They're chock full of examples of bands who took (locally) well-known tunes that weren't theirs and twisted them into something else altogether. Barbacoa's version of Envy"s "Bloodboy" is still one of my all-time favorite covers. Bill Mullins is God.

As you rightly pointed out, Dan — is this getting confusing for anyone else? — it really is all a matter of taste. You know that I have a soft spot for Sinatra and 1950's kitsch — Wanna see my Marilyn Monroe poster?

That said, I still stand by the argument that I'm completely right all the time. Always. Period.

DAN

I know--that's totally your job now! You're a bonafide tastemaker. In some ways I envy you--in other ways, not so much. Time has been unkind to many a critic;-)

Thirtyseven

Can we just focus on how profoundly badass Tinariwen are?

Tyler

OH!!!!!!! You're Marilyn Monroe poster! I get it....

Tyler

Oops, I meant "your", Neil.

paddy

wish I'd read this blog when it started. good work all.

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