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.

Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space

Part of the Musical Star Trek Actors Series

  1. Shatner Rapping: No Tears for Caesar
  2. Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space

From the archives: I wrote the original version of this article for a newspaper column about 5 years ago. So it reads more like a newspaper column and not so much like a the informal blogginess that’s usually found around here. It’s from the Records that time forgot series that I hope to revive in 2007. This version corrects a couple awkward sentences and updates the formatting, but remains largely unchanged.

nimoy strums guitar

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Actors want to be rock stars and rock stars are increasingly actors. It’s all theatrics. But it is by no means a recent phenomenon. Stars from Marlene Dietrich to Frank Sinatra to Snoop Dogg have crossed the line between audio and video for decades. That’s okay; they all had the talent to do it successfully yes, even snoop dogg.

Then there is another class of star who, no matter how talented in one field, fail in the other. You’ve got your Jennifer Love Hewitts, your Keanu Reeves I know, I use “talented” loosely and your Leonard Nimoys.

Nimoy was part of an explosion of such entertainers that occurred in the 60s. They were known as “Golden Throats,” popular screen actors who were way out of their element in front of a microphone. That description is not entirely fair to Nimoy though. He has a distinct and decent enough voice, which he uses to greater effect on his later albums. But this, his first, pretty much defines the word “doozy.”

Judged solely on its musical value, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space would show few bright spots. Most people might even argue that it is a record best left forgotten. But 30 years and the age of ironic reinterpretation have added an entirely new dimension to Nimoy’s recording career, firmly entrenching this album in the novelty camp. This is a record for hardcore Star Trek fans and fans of junk culture kitsch alike.

Time has made this album into pure comedy gold.

Opening with a swingin’, go-go, Austin Powers-esque version of the original Star Trek theme, MSMFOS goes where no Star Trek actor had gone before, the recording booth. Released in 1967 to cash in on Star Trek’s, and Spock’s, growing popularity, MSMFOS edges out William Shatner’s own recording debut, The Transformed Man, by a year and is the first of Leonard Nimoy’s dozen-plus records.

MSMFOS is at once hilarious and completely non-cohesive. Like the variety shows of the era, the album veers erratically round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom in a torrent of lounge, spoken word, and crooning before finally giving up.

Parts of the album even seem to have been put together without any input from the actor at all. Music to Watch Space Girls By is a nifty lounge-pop instrumental as is the included version of Lalo Schiffrin’s Mission: Impossible theme. In a strange turn, Nimoy would join the cast of that show three years later. Still, these pieces are obviously filler.

Of the vocal tracks on the record, most are presented from Spock’s point of view, casting his alien observations on humanity in spoken word and swing vocal form. Imagine that, Vulcan poetry.

But pop culture re-visioning can’t make up for everything on the disc. Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth is a horrendous essay on the use of the word “star” full of Gordon-level puns while Visit to a Sad Planet attempts to preach against nuclear violence in a narration with an eminently predictable twist that’s all too expected in a post-Planet of the Apes (1968) world.

For the most part, if you’re into novelty, the record is a treat if not overly rewarding. Like Halloween candy, it’s enjoyable is small doses, but don’t overdo it.

“Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space” remains out of print in both vinyl and CD formats. But if you can manage to find it, set your phasers to fun and prepare to be stunned by the vocal stylings of Leonard Nimoy.

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Addendum: No, this is not the record that features The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, but if you’re desperate enough to experience that hilarity, watch this disturbing video. You’ll have nightmares for sure.

John Williams – Jurassic Park: Hold on to your butts

jurassic park

jurassic park compact disc jurassic park at itunes

Since the mid-1970s, John Williams has never been lacking in notoriety.

Jaws, Towering Inferno, Close Encounters, Superman, Star Wars… these film scores made him a household name, gaining fame and respect for work that is generally restricted to devotees and cultists only. The Star Wars album even managed to break into the public’s consciousness, becoming best-seller on the Billboard charts for 1977 and inspiring an awful disco/dance version of the main titles that went to number one on that same chart.

My dad even had the vinyl double-disc mixed in with his Beatles and Grand Funk.

Williams became as close to being a rock star as a composer of "serious music" could get. And he kept it up into the early 80s with popular themes to the Star Wars sequels and the Indiana Jones franchise.

Then something peculiar seems to have happened. Looking over his list of credits, starting in 1983, we see a sharp decrease in his film output. I’m not overly familiar with his biography, so I don’t know what all he did during that time, but he does appear to keep a rather low profile for the next 10 years (maybe he spent most of his time chilling with the Boston Pops?). And while many of the scores he did produce during that time have artistic merit, none of them can claim to have captured the same public zest as those earlier hits.

Even the scores to the hit films Home Alone and Hook failed to garner much attention outside of film score buff circles, despite the films’ mass audience popularity.

Williams never really disappeared, but in 1993, he becomes a rock star again. And the film that does it is Jurassic Park. Like Star Wars before it, this picture hit a critical mass in cultural awareness and became a landmark event in the history of movie making.

And as with Star Wars, Williams’ music for the film became a crossover hit. Among my peers, it was not uncommon to see Jurassic Park mixed in with Nirvana or Snoop Dogg.

And the reasons are obvious. With its sweeping themes and dinosaur-sized sound, this thing is a masterpiece. The majesty of the Journey to the Island suite is easily the high point of the score. But throughout the score’s entire length, it fails to disappoint. There is not a single bad note in its entire 70 minute length.

If you haven’t heard it in a while, I heartily recommend that you check it out.