Bluegrass Covers of Non-Bluegrass Songs

I actually disliked this song at first because I thought it was Phish and I actively hated anything Phish-related when I first heard this over a decade ago.  I’ve softened my stance somewhat since, but I digress. This was my first exposure to the bluegrass cover of a non- bluegrass song and to this day, I pay the extra quarter at my dive bar to play this song on the juke box. Snoop ain’t no Biggy, but he can compose some feel good rhymes.

As a result of our biggest show of the year last week with the amazing Something With Strings, I’ve been on a bluegrass kick of epic proportions. I’ve alienated co-workers, scared my dog, and thoroughly driven my roommate crazy and it feels great. At one point in my life, probably right after my Dead kick in college, I listened to the music hard as Old Crow Medicine Show and other bands of their ilk became more prevalent. This is long before Mumford, the Lumineers, and what I generally think of as the “Bluegrass Lite” era we now are at the tail-end of living. My first favorite bluegrass group was obviously Old and in the Way which featured Jerry “Dawg” Garcia on banjo and specifically, their cover of “Wild Horses” which brings it all back together for the topic of this post.

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Radio on the Internet: Pandora’s ‘Newstalgia’

So, I was listening to Pandora again at the gym and enjoying a station a created based off of the Pixies when I heard an

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

advertisement for the genre channel called “Cover Songs Radio. There were two things that made me continue to think about this channel over the next day.

First, as some might remember, I have sort of an embarrassing obsession with cover songs. I have theorized about them (twice), I have gone through an intense period of watching amateurs perform them on youtube, I have fantasized about impossible cover songs and I have objected to particularly bad ones.

But what really go me going was the advertisement selling “Newstalgia”, claiming that this is the feeling that a cover song inspires you with because it is both something new and something old. This neologism freaks me the hell out because (1) the Greek compound nost-algia is one of my favorite words and this new word reveals absolute ignorance about the root words “homecoming-grief”) and, more pedantically, new is not a Greek root. The Greek word for ‘new’ would create a perfectly acceptable word “Nealgia”.

(I know. I know. A silly thing to get angry about. And just do a google search for “newstalgia” and see how many others have committed the same unforgivable barbarism.)

So, the idea of a station dedicated to pop songs stayed in my head for a day and a night. The next day I returned to my office and committed myself to listening to the first five songs on the station and writing them down. Here’s what happened: I got excited, I got sad and then I got angry.

Here we go:

1. Van Halen, “You really Got me” (Cover of The Kink’s 1964 hit)

In classic and typical Van Halen stlye, the vocals are sufficient but forgettable and there is way too much guitar soloing. The simplicity and the masculine directness that make the original so powerful are lost on this one. I am sure that the different style was really fascinating in the hoary year of 1978, but years later, it just seems obnoxious

2. Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (Cover of David Bowie’s 1972 release)

I was surprised when this song came on because I still think of it as a such a revelatory moment for Nirvana. For one, I actually heard this song for the first time when Nirvana covered it in the unplugged show. In this version, the bass is so beautifully and simply played, the guitar-line is like some type of call-to-arms, and Cobain’s voice works well with its under-played presentation of the song. By contrast, when I listen to Bowie’s version, it seems almost cheesy. This cover, then, shows the power of a song translated from one style and time to another with the potential to characterize artist and song alike.

3. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Over the Rainbow” (do you need to ask?)

I wasn’t at all upset to have this song show up. For one, I have heard it about a thousand times but I didn’t know who sang it or really helped to redefine (for me and for a generation at least) what can happen when you transform a song from one genre to another. The ukulele is simple and his voice is a little thread-bare, but every time I have ever heard this song I have gotten a little sad.

Maybe it is the memory of this song and my youth. When I was a small child CBS or one of the networks used to play the Wizard of Oz one night a year. My mom and dad made popcorn, opened the sleeper sofa, and let me stay up late to watch it. I don’t know what inspired that, but I can’t think of or hear of Wizard of Oz without that thought. Even as I type this out, I am blinking away tears–the song is just too sad, to filled with that sense of the ephemeral nature of life.

And this is even more messed up. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole died at the young age of 38 in 1997 after fighting obesity his entire life. Is there a foreboding tone in this song? What is the song about but the desire for transformative change, for the release from this life to a better one.

Shit, I am getting weepy again.

4. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (cover of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 release)

When this song came on after the first one, I decided that I should just stop doing anything for the rest of the day. “Hurt” is a powerfully harrowing song in its original high goth form. When Cash sings this song at the end of his life and after the passing of his wife, it is just way too much to process emotionally. Poignant doesn’t even begin to describe this shit.

I didn’t skip the song, though. I don’t pay for Pandora!

5. Aerosmith, “Come Together” (Cover of The Beatles’ 1969 release)

I did not know that Aerosmith covered this song. I can be quite honest about this. It is terrible. Tyler has such a unique voice that it does not meld well into other peoples’ songs–and this range is quite wrong for it. The over all tone of the song is really ill-fit for Aerosmith and the time period. I really don’t care that much for The Beatles, but after hearing this abomination I listened to the original as a type of soul cleansing. This is the worst type of a cover song: it reveals the weaknesses of the the band performing and makes you want to hear something else.

So that ended my day with Pandora’s cover songs. Anything new to you hear my brother?

On the Radio: Inexplicable Cover Songs, 311 “Love Song”

Because I go on and off the radio–sometimes breaking for years at a time before returning to the radio–and because casual music listening itself has been transformed by the internet, I often miss out on music for years before noticing it. Recently, however, I had to change from the local jazz station to  a pop station because I couldn’t handle a full hour of Samba music. (No offense meant to Samba, but after 45 minutes or so it gets a bit repetitive.)

I started out with the volume rather low, just as some kind of vehicular white noise. But my children, eager for some change or excitement to the day, begged for “more, more” music. So, I turned it up and the following horror assaulted me:

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Sunshine On the Radio: Variations on a Theme with Ron Carter

I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.

Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.

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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:

Impossible Covers: Kurt Cobain and Cole Porter

coleMy brother’s recent post about a fantasy cover describes a conversation we had when I first mentioned our new game–picking an artist and a song for an unsolicited arranged marriage. His version of the conversation is fairly accurate except in the outcome: I think he did a much better job describing the game than I would have and his first proposed cover/artists match-up is better than what I was thinking of.

Let me explain this thing a little bit. As I have made clear before, I am a little obsessed not just with the artistic and philosophical status of a cover but also with the typology of the phenomenon and the criteria that go into song choices. I also suffered a brief obsession with amateurs performing covers on youtube. (Ok, not so brief, I posted three entries about it. Perverse.)

Love this song. It makes me want to sway.

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Even More Youtube covers

So I have been trying to understand my obsession with youtube covers—specifically the ones that draw my attention. I don’t care about the covers performed by ‘real’ bands in ‘real’ venues. Instead, I have a strange penchant for people singing songs they love in their bedrooms, for non-professionals who are not well trained in self-presentation.

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Radio on TV: Warehouse 13

In honor of the fourth season of Warehouse 13  (starting July 23) on the SyFy network, I present the following…

On the Syfy channel original series Warehouse 13, episode 6  of Season 13 (“Don’t Hate the Player”) ends with the misfit genius girl, Claudia Donovan, coming out of her shell (at the advice of  the charming man-child Pete), when she arrives at a local coffee house (full of attentive audience members and well-decorated even though they are supposed to be in nowhere North Dakota) for open mic and takes out her own guitar.

This is to be a moment of revelation, when Claudia unveils herself to the world, when we find out if she’s more than ‘just’ a genius prodigy who can hack into any computer system, recover from years in a mental ward, and catch on as an agent for a government wing so secret its overseers come from outside the government.

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Youtube Covers 2

I have already talked more than most want to hear about cover songs, about my theories about different kinds of cover songs. I am a bit obsessed, I admit, in an amateurish kind of way, with what I might call the ‘ontological’ status of the cover song. What about a song remains sufficiently the same when it is translated from one performance to another that we can call it the same song? What is of the essence in a song’s repeatability?

Ok, that’s only part of the obsession. The rest, or perhaps the bulk, is about what we can understand from comparing different versions of the same song and what we learn about artists and ourselves when other people’s songs must be played.

(I learned that I was, at best, a mediocre musician.)

Everyone who learns to play the guitar experiments with playing other people’s songs. Some of us do only this; others of us spend as little time possible doing this before going on to try to write our own. But the end of the story is that pretty much everyone who plays the guitar plays cover songs.

Whether you play for 30,000 people in a sold-out arena or in your bathroom for the mirror and a cat, you perfect at least one of your favorite songs. You give it your own special twist just dreaming of the day that you can impress, move or at least wake up someone with your cover.

As I recently mentioned, for most wannabe and cub musicians, cover songs were something share with friends, something inflicted on strangers who wander into your proximity. Witnessing cover songs was something that happened by accident. But now, thanks to the interweb, cover songs can be packaged into short videos and shared with the world. We learn little of the context or personality of the performer, all we get is the performance of someone else’s songs.

I have been slightly obsessed with youtube covers, in part for the trainwreck effect—but I have also been amazed by the beauty and depth of some covers. I am not always impressed with the performance, but I am unmanned by the naked humanity on show for free online.

In my earlier post I mentioned a younger woman whose rendition of Mates of State’s “My Only Offer” was heart breaking in its simplicity and rawness. Another strange moment from the same girl: a cover of Bright Eye’s “First Day of My Life” starts with her asking her “best friend”, Janet the Cat, what song to sing:

Her vocals on this one are really nice (she hits a falsetto note that makes it seem like this song was written for a woman). The cover is still a bit fast, but I would buy it.

For the same song, this girl has a much jazzier voice (less heady, a little raspy) and many more fans (probably the eyes; she uses the camera better).

While she’s certainly good, I prefer the edgier, crazier cover, it seems less calculated. I don’t know if I want to know why she’s posting these videos.

From this same cover artist, however,  the cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” seems more raw and honest.

In the video she makes fewer doe eyes at the camera and seems to be really inhabiting the song. When she gets to the payoff “I told you to be patient” she gets more country than jazz and doesn’t hit the tortured hurt of the original, but it is still a worthwhile version

Back to Feist: this duoprovides a really nice and faithful cover of “I feel it All”.

They change up the vocals just enough to reveal their greater talent in that category—the effect is musically enjoyable (almost a young Indigo Girls in the 21st century) but their performance can remind us all of the joy of playing a song with someone else.

I was struck enough by their Feist cover to stick around for their version of Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running”:

The vocals, at least initially, are less strong (there’s not as much to work with in the material…Arcade Fire is more about style of singing than tone and variation) but it gets stronger by the chorus when it gets quite pretty.

My favorite recent, can’t disappoint, discovery: Pete the beat box does “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies:

I don’t care why Pete is posting this. I don’t care what he wants from the world. I just want to thank him. Thank you, Pete. You made me (and my daughter) smile.

What do you think brother, why do people post these videos? Will you be posting one soon?