The Musical Treasure Trove

So, I have been thinking a bit about re-reruns (prompted, I must admit by a This American Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a tortured attempt to try to justify what I am about to do today: repeat one of our posts. What happens when you repeat a repetition?

Like my brother, I have found that the busyness of normal life (whatever that means) has gotten to be a bit overwhelming. The end of the semester has brought me a pile of grading, a CV-length of promised articles, and two children who are growing faster than I can imagine. This has kept me (guiltily) from having the time to write a quality post while also making me wonder whether or not this blog is doing what it should.

See, it has been suggested that the posts are too long and too discursive–and, as readership has ebbed and flowed, I have wondered what the worth is. This contemplation lasts a few minutes because, when it comes down to it, I enjoy writing this blog even if the act is entirely masturbatory.

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Growing Up and Growing Old With Tom Brady, Part 1

Note: In honor of the return of NFL football and in hopes of continued health for Tom Brady’s knee, I am re-posting the following hymn of praise…

Even they might be giants love Bobby Orr

People who aren’t from New England often don’t understand the peculiar madness and fierce loyalty that infects us—even those of us in exile—when it comes not just to our sports teams but to our sports figures. We live and breathe the Celtics, Bruins, Sox and Patriots (and hey, some people even pay attention to the Revolution); and we fall desperately in love with their leading figures and the unlikely heroes that sports seasons create. (Mark Bellhorn, anyone?)

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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

Growing Up and Growing Old With Tom Brady, Part 1

Note: We take a break this weekend from political posts, apocalyptic visions, earthquakes, and Marriage Equality, to consider another personal passion (sports). Part 2 will be posted on Sunday.

Even they might be giants love Bobby Orr

People who aren’t from New England often don’t understand the peculiar madness and fierce loyalty that infects us—even those of us in exile—when it comes not just to our sports teams but to our sports figures. We live and breathe the Celtics, Bruins, Sox and Patriots (and hey, some people even pay attention to the Revolution); and we fall desperately in love with their leading figures and the unlikely heroes that sports seasons create. (Mark Bellhorn, anyone?)

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Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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Procrastination Station

Recently my brother posted about his battle with procrastination. Although I like to hassle him about it (as he makes clear in his post!), I must protest that this is not something I particularly find fault with in him. See, there are good reasons to put things off. The modern world, moreover, makes distraction and procrastination into preexisting conditions for all of us.

This has more import for this blog than I think my brother knows. This blog is both a product and cause of procrastination. And, there is also some important connection between music and time. I want to explore both of these things and, along the way, give you some songs about time.

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Pop Imperfection: Every Rose has its Thorn?

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” – Jack Gilbert

In the three minutes or so of the average pop song, there is ample opportunity for mistakes. Large mistakes in lyrics or instrumentation make some songs seem like bad ideas from the start. Single strange points can be repeated ad nauseam to undermine otherwise effective pieces.

At times, choices that seem terrible and jarring can be repeated enough to wear the listener down, to bully into submission. (Rihanna’s repeated “ella” in “Umbrella” was initially so offensive to me that I tried to turn the radio off every time it came on. My wife made me leave the song on. I can now listen and appreciate the song—even if I still don’t like it.)

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The Musical Treasure Trove

It’s just as simple as that.
Well, it’s just a simple fact.
When I want something,
I don’t want to pay for it.  
“Been Caught Stealing”, Jane’s Addiction

Earlier I wrote about the iPod—mainly its deadly allure and seductive nature. While failing to come down fully on one side or another, I also neglected to identify another unique and salient feature: the iPod’s portability. Now, it may seem too obvious to mention, but it is this one feature that essentially defines the iPod. For, if it were much larger, what would be the advantage of owning one?

Yet, portability—let’s think of it in terms of movable wealth—as easily a liability as an asset. That which may be moved may be stolen. And here’s where the iPod’s convenience (which also enslaves) most endangers. While successive versions of iTunes have warned us to back up our music regularly, many of us do not. Before we bought our music digitally, we had CDs, cassettes, and records (hard copies!) to carry around; the iPod liberated us from literal baggage.

(When will there be a device to lighten the load of our figurative burdens?)

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