Rock bands and pop covers: man, this is just getting cliche

When Travis covered …Baby One More Time as tender British comfort rock, it was cute.

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When Jonathan Coultan did Baby Got Back as a singer/songwriter folk troubadour, it was funny.When The Gourds played Gin n’ Juice in up-the-mountain bluegrass style, it was just bizarre.

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When Mat Weddle of Obadiah Parker re-invented Hey Ya! as a somber, heartfelt ballad, it was endearing.

Hey Ya Cover

Then there was Alanis, whose performance of My Humps showed sublime brilliance.

Alanis Morissette "My Humps" video

But this, this is just getting out of hand: Jenny Owen Youngs playing Nelly’s Hot in Herre:

I don’t mean to call out Ms. Youngs in particular, but hearing her play Nelly has got me thinking: seriously, what is going on here? What is up with this string of rock-mode artists covering hip hop/pop songs?

And conversely, why don’t we see the same thing in reverse: Contemporary hip hop artists covering rock songs? That might just be cultural differences; rockers cover, rappers sample.

One could argue that a great song is a great song and that successful reinterpretations reflect well on the source material. But I won’t be the one making that argument because, looking over that list of songs, I can’t help but notice that most of those inspiration points are of dubious artistic merit.

While Outkast gets props for artistry, Britney Spears is generally not regarded for the quality of her music. And I like Gin n’ Juice as much as the next guy (5 stars in my iTunes library), but it’s not what I would call “great music.” So, what is it about that song, or …Baby One More Time, or Hot in Herre that makes them attractive targets for rock-based musicians to cover?

Generally, to cover a song is a choice to pay tribute to it or its originator, a way to honor them for their influence and their impact on the development of the person performing the cover. Witness Beatles tribute bands, KISS tribute bands and Elvis impersonators. Shoot, Radiohead has created a cottage industry of cover artists and performers.

But, one does not create a bluegrass version of to pay homage to Snoop Dogg’s profound influence on the evolution of hip hop. It just doesn’t follow. So what’s behind these attempts to radically re-invent songs that are, by and large, not very good to begin with?

One possible explanation is that it’s been nearly a decade since vapid pop and profligate ego-rap began to dominate corporate music culture. Bad music is what the young folks are used to hearing en masse, so it makes some sense that the current generation’s crop of young musicians would play what they are familiar with. I know that when I was younger and in a band, a good part of our repertoire consisted of the contemporary hits of the time.

But we were a rock band playing rock songs. And it was heyday of grunge and its aftermath, where the ethos explicitly called for the rejection of corporate music. The irony of course, is that by the time grunge had become big enough to be called a movement, most of its artists had moved to corporate labels.

Still, those artists didn’t make names for themselves by playing the hits of their predecessors. Nirvana didn’t become famous by playing Rock You Like A Hurricane and Every Rose Has Its Thorn in the clubs of Olympia. Even at the apex of the irony-soaked 90s, one was more likely to see bands covering influential songs from the 60s and 70s rather than perform joking versions of songs by discredited 80s acts. The audience would not have stood for it.

And that’s the other part of this equation: the listeners. Modern audiences seem to LOVE these homages to the silly and ridiculous. Alanis’ My Humps made a huge splash on the net (7.9 million views on YouTube as of this writing). Jonathan Coulton owes a good portion of his stature to his remake of Baby Got Back.

But therein lies a double-edged sword. For established artists, the choice to release an unconventional cover can be a fun diversion for the fan base. But for new and emerging artists, taking a shortcut by means of using someone else’s song to attract attention threatens to forever pigeonhole that artist into the novelty camp.

Mr. Coulton, no matter his other merits, may forever be the folksy-Baby-Got-Back guy. The Gourds, despite their long history, might never outgrow their notoriety as hillbilly gangsters smokin’ indo.

And that’s when it works! There’s always the possibility that the new version might somehow be catastrophically wrong. The above Ms. Youngs cover is my first exposure to her work and from this point forward, she will probably be known to me as the purveyor of a completely unnecessary endeavor.

Why would a new musician take the risk for what is surely an unpredictable response? For the joke of it? Irony? Camp value? Plain harmless mirth? Sure, absurd cover versions might be fun for a while, but like candy, too much will make you sick.

I suspect a large part of the explanation for the phenomenon lies with ever-expanding democratization of the means of production. Until fairly recently, the barrier to entry was significantly high for the recording and distribution of music. In addition to musicianship, one needed to own relatively expensive equipment (mics, amps, multi-track recorders, etc.) and have the knowledge to use them, or one needed to have access to expensive professional studio time. Of course, there was the time and patience needed to get it all put together. And that was just to get the recording made. As recently as ten years ago, getting that recording into the ears of others meant a hefty investment in cassettes and authored CDs from a duplication house.

With so much time and energy involved, musicians, particularly low-resource ones, would surely try to avoid being frivolous with their efforts. Care and consideration of the material were required to make maximum use of scarce commodities.

However, with the aid of technology (inexpensive computers, video cameras, audio recorders and programs like Apple’s Garageband, etc), the process of proficiently recording music is much more manageable and far less time consuming. High-speed Internet makes that music instantly available to a billion people. It can easily seem like a lark to throw together any ol’ ditty based on a whim, including songs that have only recently been released.

In fact, I would not be surprised if that were to become a new trend, the near-immediate release of covers of new songs. Indeed, such an occurrence has already happened. Franz Ferdinand’s version LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends was released as an official b-side on the All My Friends single. It’s not so far fetched to imagine that Britney’s next single will get a folk treatment on YouTube within days of its release.

Why anyone would do that is beyond me, but it is a distinct possibility.

OK Computer: 10 Years Young

A number of people pointed out to me recently that Radiohead’s seminal masterpiece, OK Computer, turned ten years old a couple weeks ago. That’s right, it’s been a full decade since the band began to cement its reputation as “world’s greatest rock band.”

Where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday, my friend Dan was imploring me to give Radiohead a shot. At this point in the band’s career, I had been less than impressed with their offerings. Don’t worry though, I came around.

Anyway, if I recall my history correctly, the record label received it coolly and feared that its immense sound and intellectual themes would scare away buyers. Fortunately for the band, people are smarter than record labels give them credit for. The rest, they say, “is history.”

To celebrate OK Computer’s decennial, Hypeful has compiled every song on the album, each covered by a different artist, as downloadable mp3s. I’m not sure which is the most intriguing, Shawn Lee’s quasi-soul adult contemporary rendition of No Surprises or the String Quartet version of Electioneering or The Illuminati’s glitched and distorted interpretation of Subterranean Homesick Alien. For my money, I think it’s Silent Gray’s inexplicable rock recording of Fitter Happier.

Of course, none of them improve on the original, but after ten years, the new perspectives are refreshing. But if imitation and inspiration are the sincerest forms of flattery, then the existence of these covers goes to show the extent of OK Computer’s legacy.

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Update July 10: Not to be outdone, stereogum has compiled its own unique list of track-by-track OK Computer covers. This further demonstrated the impact of the record. It’s astonishing that it would be that easy to pull together, from existing sources, TWO complete cover records featuring 24 different artists, with no overlap.

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Radiohead, Paranoid Android live on Later with Jools Holland, May 31, 1997 (two weeks before the record’s release). The band rocks oh so much:

Radiohead – Paranoid Android (on Jools Holland, 1997)

Nine Inch Nails: Metal

From the remix album Things Falling Apart (2000)

Trent Reznor is no stranger to cover tunes, having turned in notable studio versions of songs by Soft Cell, Pigface, Queen and Joy Division, as well as performing a number of live covers at concerts. On the remix album that accompanied The Fragile, Nine Inch Nails added Gary Numan to that list, with a surprising faithful rendition of Metal.

To be sure, Trent layers on his trademark Fragile-era soundscapes, giving the song a gloomy NIN atmosphere. He even tacks on a superfluous 3 minute extended outro, but the soul of the song remains close to the original.

Rumors of this song’s existence circulated the late-90s Internet for a number of years before it was officially released. It was a point of contention among Fan sites whether the song was real or not. When a thirty second mp3 excerpt surfaced in 1999, many supposed that the song’s production was abandoned during the years in the wilderness between The Downward Spiral and The Fragile.

Fortunately for us, the song was completed for our enjoyment.

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What I Love: The subdued menace and relaxed feel.

Presidents of the USA rarity: Ça Plane Pour Moi

ça plane pour moi cover

A long time ago, while expanding my cultural horizons and getting to know a distant branch of my family, I spent a good portion of the summer in the nation of France. It had the works: sight-seeing, landmarks, historical places, family gatherings, camping, Eurorail, and of course shopping and souvenirs. An excellent summer well spent. And it was made more excellent by a handful of hard-to-find musical acquisitions I made while perusing various stores and malls.

One such find, I believe I picked up at the Virgin megastore on the Champs-Élysée or maybe FNAC, was a CD single by The Presidents of the United States of America, that quirky alt-rock-punk-pop band who emerged from the collapse of Seattle’s grunge scene. PUSA was near the peak of its success that summer and the band was a favorite of mine for a time.

Thus I was quite intrigued when I discovered this cardboard sleeve CD single while browsing the stacks. In French, the title read Ça Plane Pour Moi and the artist, to my surprise, was The Presidents. The song was certainly not a single release from the band’s debut album, with which I was already familiar. It was a baffling mystery, but as a third year student of the French language, I was quite attracted to this French language song.

Plus, I’ve always had a fascination with CD singles. There’s something about the combination of low price and rare songs that I, as a collector, can’t resist.

So, putting it all together:

  1. Francophilia
  2. Rare music
  3. CD single
  4. A then-favorite band
  5. Being able to forever say “I bought this in France”

You bet it was a no brainer. I snapped it up faster than you can say Tout de Suite.

Ça Plane Pour Moi roughly means “This life for me.” There’s no direct translation of the phrase but it is an expression of detached contentment with one’s existence, possibly with ironic undertones. The particular recording is a cover of the 1977 hit by Plastic Bertrand, though The Presidents perform it in more of a happy-go-lucky surf punk style. The lyrics are chock-full of French slang that don’t make any literal sense, but if you have to delve into it, try this analysis.

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For a long time, this song was a rarity, so rare that the disc doesn’t appear on either AllMusic’s PUSA discography or Discogs.com’s listing. Amazon has it for $20+, but fortunately for you guys, iTunes offers it for just 99¢.

Bjork & PJ Harvey playing Satisfaction [Stones]

I spent a portion of this Saturday going through my extended archive of music, the stuff that’s not in my central, everyday iTunes library. Most of those files are a bit old and for either quality or tagging reason, they’ve been left unincorporated. Some of these songs have been sitting untouched and unlistened to on cds and hard drives for years.

So I’ve decided to start sorting and evaluating them for re-inclusion into the main library, checking the ID3 tags, bitrates and such to make them conform to my standards.

And of course, I’m making sure I still actually like the song. In the case of this one particular song, Bjork and PJ Harvey covering the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) at the 1995 Brit Awards, I was sure it would be gangbusters.

Turns out it was lacklusters. I didn’t much care for it. Somehow, they mangage to go over-the-top without doing anything at all.

So I’m deleting it from my collection. But not before I give it away. If eight-year-old mp3s are your thing, and the prospect of a Bjork/PJ Harvey duet makes you salivate in anticipation, download away.

Just so you know what you’re getting yourself into, there just happens to be a YouTube video of the performance:

The Downward Spiral of Kermit the Frog

Poor Kermit. Times have been rough for the ol’ muppet in recent years. Things just haven’t been the same since Jim died. The last major film was considered a dud and the Muppets have largely stayed out of the public eye of late. To add insult to injury, the franchise is controlled by Disney, Disney! of all companies.

Oh, for the heady days of the late 1970s, when Muppets were on top of world, making the rules and taking names. What’s an anthropomorphized piece of green fabric to do?

Apparently, the answer to that question is: find solace in drugs, booze and gloomy music.

Yes, Kermit has found solace on the darker side of life, indulging in the cathartic music of society’s more notable misfits. Nine Inch Nails, for example:

Find the full story, including a couple downloads at sadkermit.com.

A Specialized Nutcracker Suite

specialized nutcracker

Specialized bike parts has released an intriguing holiday card for the 2006 season. It’s an excerpt of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite, a perennial Christmas time favorite.

The catch is that the piece is played entirely on bicycle parts. From createdigitalmusic.com:

Glockenspiel & Clarinet melody = spokes.
Cello & Violin pizzicatos = plucked derailleur cables.
Triangle = disc brake hit.
Percussion = shifting, coasting, finger over turning spokes, chain pulls, braking, clipping into pedals, back-spinning, air out of tires.

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Wouldn’t a solid gold fiddle weigh hundreds of pounds and sound crummy?

A superb cover of Charlie Daniels’ and his band Devil Went Down to Georgia. I’m not sure if the song itself was ever released, but a claymation Quicktime movie of it can be found on the data portion of Primus’ 1999 Rhinoplasty, a collection of cover tunes in the band’s trademark style.

Fortunately for you, the fine denizens of YouTube have thoughtfully provided this video. Enjoy.

Trotter Trio – Sketchin on Star Wars Jazz

star wars jazz at amazon

Interpretations of John Williams’ Star Wars music is a veritable cottage industry. A portion of it is sure to turn up at any concert performance featuring “movie music” as well as concert recordings featuring the same. Then, there’s Meco’s disco versions, The Evil Genius Orchestra’s excellent cocktail versions as well as countless techno/dance/club versions.

So it should come as no surprise that there is at least one jazz variation. The Trotter Trio lays out nine tracks from the original trilogy plus one “inspired by” song that incorporates quotes of the “Force Theme.” The styles range from uptempo swing jazz to mellow cool jazz. There’s even a hint of “smooth” jazz mixed in too but I won’t hold that against it.

Listening to this record, I can’t help but imagine Star Wars set, not as an epic space opera, but as a mirky black-and-white film noir, particularly when hearing Han Solo and the Princess:

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