Was doing some web-sleuthing this afternoon and ran across this video excerpt from the Classic Albums documentary series episode about Nirvana’s Nevermind. The short clip features producer Butch Vig demonstrating the individual mixing tracks from In Bloom, commenting on its various parts and pieces, from the awesome groove of the isolated drums and bass (which they got on the first take), to Dave’s harmonizing on the chorus.
I was actually quite surprised to learn about Dave’s singing contributions. I’ve been listening to In Bloom for 17 years now and I had no idea that Dave Grohl had performed any vocals for the song. I can clearly hear it now that its been pointed out, but for nearly two decades I thought it was just studio effects. Amazingly, after all this time, I’m still learning Nevermind’s tricks.
In Bloom has always been a favorite of mine, so I particularly enjoyed this fascinating look at its skeleton.
In Bloom deconstructed:
Here’s a Google Video of what appears to be the entire documentary. It starts with a similar deconstruction of Drain You, perhaps the most complex song on Nevermind (squeaky toys and five overlayed guitar tracks!), then continues with anecdotes by Dave, Krist and Butch recounting how the record was made.
In Bloom was the fourth and final single released from Nirvana’s Nevermind. The familiar and famous video debuted in 1992 featured the band parodying 1960’s style television musical performances (think the Ed Sullivan show). It’s a tounge-in-cheek humorous production showing a somewhat more playful side of a band whose image (and the social movement it tipified) was generally sullen and full of, you guessed it, angst.
But behold! the original video for the song. Shot in 1991, the so-called “Subpop” version is dripping with aspects of early 90s grunge zeitgeist, including the city of Seattle, flannel shirts, rockers with unkemped long hair, titled-camera angles and cheesey video effects.
Check it out, marvel at the cultural time capsule, and be glad it was scrapped in favor of a better concept.
When Travis covered …Baby One More Time as tender British comfort rock, it was cute.
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.
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’sHot 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’sAll 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.
Kurt Cobain: the man, not the myth
Very nice write up of Kurt Cobain: About a Son, a new documentary about Cobain the person. “He was a caring person, he was a punk, he was a rock star, he was a charismatic asshole, he was a friend, a son, a husband and a father. Sadly, Cobain’s human traits got lost in the limelight.”
The New Music Industry
A prescription for music industry survival in this digital era? Four concepts every band should understand: People will share your music with one another; Music is not a product anymore, it is Content; Be the provider of your own content; Content is no longer limited by the product itself.
When it comes to my iTunes library, I’m a regular statistics nut. Sure, my library exists primarily for my own enjoyment, but it contains so much organically-compiled data about my habits and tastes that I can’t help but want to take a look at it and find out what the data says about my interests.
But for a while now, I’ve struggled to quantify, tabulate and analyze the overall sense of my library. Which of my albums albums are truly the greatest? Which artists, when the sum of their parts are combined, are really my favorites? And by how much? I want numbers.
Most iTunes stats tools simply provide averages or totals of play counts and/or star ratings. Averages, while somewhat useful, can be misleading. An album could have a handful of awesome songs and a bunch of filler and still rank as well as and album that’s consistently good, but without much breakout material.
And that can be frustrating to me, because, in terms of album or artist worth, I tend to value the ones with consistent performance.
Take, for example, my recent run-down of Air’s discography, specifically the albums 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides. After many years of listening, my artistic impression is that Virgin Suicides is ever so slightly the better of the two. The songs on Legend vary from excellent to clunkers. Suicides is overall pretty good, with only one exceptional track. However, averaging my ratings shows that Suicides is a 3.85 while Legend rates as an even 4.
So, to reward albums that don’t veer wildly around the quality wheel, I’ve developed my own album rating formula that takes into account the consistency of all the star ratings on a given album.
album rating = (mean of all songs + median of all songs) - standard deviation of the set
The mean sums up the whole of the album. The median shows the state of the album at its core. The standard deviation indicates the variety of the individual ratings. The result is a number on a scale of 1 to 10. (Alternately, divide that number by 2 to return the result to a 5-star scale).
Let’s take a look at the formula in action. Suppose we have two albums with twelve songs each. The first is generally excellent, but varies in quality. The second is good stuff throughout.
This table shows the individual star ratings for the two theoretical albums, as well as all the statistical data, as calculated by Excel. As you can see, both albums average score is the same (4) and Ex 1 even has a higher median than Ex 2. But, because the quality of Ex 1’s songs vary a great deal, its standard deviation is substantial, so much so that its album rating becomes 7.29 (or 3.645 on a 5-star scale) when my formula is applied. Ex 2’s score suffers no penalty and its score remains 8 (4). In this case, the standard deviation awarded Ex 2 a bonus for being of uniform quality.
Let’s take a real world example, the two Air albums I mentioned above.
10 kHz Legend
When the formula is applied to my ratings for each, the scores for 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides become 7.23 (3.62) and 7.29 (3.65), respectively. So factoring in the standard deviation results in a score that more closely reflect my thoughts of those two albums.
So what does this mean? I’m not sure exactly. In practice, I could whip up some listy goodness and see which albums are truly my favorites. A comprehensive analysis would be cool. I’d love to see the distribution of my album ratings. However, that would require more programming skills than I have. Though that could be a good project to help me learn.
Out of curiosity though, I have picked 10 albums, just to see how they rate. One provision, of course, is that every song on an album must have a rating before the album score can be calculated. These ratings are on a 5-star scale.
Radiohead – OK Computer
Air [french band] – Moon Safari
Nirvana – Nevermind
Mouse on Mars – Radical Connector
Ratatat – Ratatat
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth
The Strokes – Is this it?
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Basement Jaxx – Remedy
Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher
Weezer – Make Believe
This is by no means a top 10 list, but it is interesting to see where things ended up. It’s also interesting to see how minor fluctuations in star ratings can change the final score. For instance, if that Ratatat album had one more 5 star song in place of a 4 star song, its median number would become 5 and its album score would jump to 4.51. Lower a 5 star to a 4 star and the score only drops slightly to 3.93. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the formula or a reward for albums that have a lot of good songs.
Problems and issues
Small data sets. These are troublesome in all statistical circumstances and this formula is no different. Albums with only one song will, by definition, not have a mean, median or standard deviation, and that kills the formula with a divide-by-zero error. Also, because the formula uses the average rating as a component, albums with a low number of songs will tend to skew one way or the other.
In my library, Boards of Canada’s EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country has four fantastic songs and ranks at 4.63, higher than anything on that list above. As a release, I’d say that’s accurate, but I’m sure it doesn’t surpass OK Computer. I would be interested to see a chart of how the album score changes as the number of tracks on an album increases.
Additionally, I haven’t figured out a way to rank partial albums, i.e. albums where I either don’t own all the songs or albums where I’ve deleted songs I didn’t like. For now, I’m just excluding them altogether.
Still, I’m fairly pleased with the results I’ve been getting as I run various albums through the formula. It’s working for me and my own song rating system, but I’m curious to see how it works with someone else’s.
Fortunately, Webomatica has posted his song-by-song ratings for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Using his numbers, the average for the album is 4.38, while my formula renders a 4.28. I’d say that’s a consistently good album.
Here’s a Microsoft Excel file you can download. Plug in your star ratings to find the album score. AlbumScore.zip
Update: The revised sorting feature/problem in iTunes 7.3 and later renders portions of this advice useless. Some of it still applies for Smart Playlist building, but the segregated sorting no longer works. If you’re using a version prior to 7.3, go nuts. If you’re using 7.3 or later, be warned.
In striving for zen-like simplicity while maintaining and extending the usability of iTunes, please follow me as I introduce you to the technique I use to keep my Composer tags orderly and navigable particularly when using an iPod. The idea is to streamline the presentation of the tags while adding meaning to them.
In my library there are three types of songs that require use of the composer tag:
Classical and other so-called “serious music” Principally includes all works by traditionally-recognized composers and performed by orchestras, quartets, etc. Also includes film and television recordings that are not the originals, such as when the Royal Philharmonic plays Star Trek or Trotter Trio’s jazz CD Sketches on Star Wars.
Cover songs Whether live or in studio, remakes or performances of songs that were originally recorded and released by another artist or group.
Remix Albums Collections of remixes of other artists’ songs released under the marquee of the remixer. For example: Fila Brazillia’s Brazilification.
If a song in my library doesn’t belong to one of those categories, the composer tag is left empty, completely blank. There’s no need to use the tag in the pop/rock idiom; all the relevant info is contained in the song-artist-album structure.
The same goes for movie scores and other “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.” It’s redundant to put “John Williams” in both the artist and composer when it’s his recording of the original release of the album that you’re tagging.
Some people are tempted to put the songwriter in the Composer space and CDDB/Gracenote often includes it when retrieving a CD.
Well, don’t. And if you already have, delete it.
How likely are you to go to the Composer field and select “Cobain, Kurt” when you want to hear Heart-shaped Box? Not very, I’m sure. You are much more likely to select “Nirvana” from the Artist field. If you must obsessively keep that info, put it in the Comments field. That way you can still find it in your Encyclopedia iTunica if you need it, but it won’t get in the way of using your iPod.
So how do we keep these styles from intermingling, so that you don’t end up with Guns n’ Roses next to Gustav Mahler?
It’s rather easy; just add leading character to the beginning of your composer text based on the type of file it is, particularly if a song does not fall into the Classical category.
In my scheme, classical music takes priority, as it is the format that best benefits from using the field. In these cases, the composer is, well, the composer. Syntax is up to you: Mahler; Gustav Mahler; Mahler, Gustav; however you see fit to do it.
Likewise for film and tv music that’s not from the original release. I treat those recordings the same as classical. The Artist tag goes to the ensemble performing the work while the original composer gets credit in the Composer tag.
With cover tunes, the original performer’s name is surrounded by brackets [ ]. So when The Cardigans play a Black Sabbath song Iron Man, the Composer tag looks like this [Black Sabbath]. Now all the cover songs are sorted alphabetically together on the iPod. Plus, I can create a Smart Playlist with condition Composer starts with [ and have all of them gathered in a single spot. If new cover tunes get added in the future, they’re automatically included in the Smart Playlist.
Cover tunes smart playlist. Click to see larger version.
Finally, there’s remix albums. There’s a long discussion to be had about how to treat those with iTunes.
Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful and will assist in taking full advantage of iTunes’/iPod’s power.
So the news recently hit that Weird Al finally has a Top 10 record after all these years. According to Billboard, that’s 73,000 copies of Straight Outta Lynwood sold. Congrats to Al; he deserves it.
It’s worth noting, though, that album sales are down overall and that nearly equal sales of 72,310 only ranked a 16 on the Billboard 200 for 1999’s Running with Scissors.
But really, that news has got me thinking. 1) about Weird Al’s sustainability, and 2) About what his sustainability says about the state of the music industry.
Weird Al’s longevity over the years is based on the simple premise that he continues to draw his inspiration from current music trends and hits. Sandwiched between his original songs about food, dysfunctional relationships and extreme bodily injuries (as well as the ever-awesome polka medleys), one is always sure to find several tracks based on the trends and ideas that define the moments his records are released.
It’s his thing; that’s what he does.
The effect of this approach is that Weird Al tends to remain relevant in the here and now, ages after his older parodies (and the songs that inspired them) have become well-worn. Frankly, it’s quite amazing that he’s been able to adapt so successfully as musical culture has changed. White and Nerdy is a far cry from My Bologna.
Underlying that ability to remain relevant, however, is ubiquity. A large portion of Weird Al’s success is wholly dependent on his audience’s familiarity with the songs and artists he parodies. In other words, Weird Al’s appeal is strongly rooted in the appeal of his sources of inspiration .
I say this as a person who has paid little attention to radio hits and the comings and goings of would-be superstars in recent years. As a result, I’ve largely not been “hip” to the so-called mainstream. But don’t construe that as being out-of-touch; there’s plenty of culture going around that doesn’t make a blip on the big corporate media radar. It’s just that Eminem and Chamillionaire mean so little to me as a connoisseur of music that Al’s recent works have fallen a little flat.*
It illustrates the nature of the music market specifically and American consumerism in general. The truth is that the market for music is fractured, and increasingly so. More and more often, people aren’t relying on a single source for their purchasing recommendations.
Audiences for different styles of music are becoming progressively more mutually exclusive. The top of the music charts has become a battle to see which fan base niche market will turn out and buy the most records in a given week. But that fan base is only a relatively small portion of all music sales (think the long tail). That’s markedly different from twenty years ago when Michael Jackson could generate massive audience appeal in a more solidified market.
That’s the line Weird Al is going to have to walk in the future. In that regard, his latest album already has one casualty from my perspective: Before researching this, I had absolutely no idea who Taylor Hicks was, and still don’t understand why he’s inspired a Weird Al parody.
I imagine many people would have a similar reaction if Al released a parody of LCD Soundsystem’sDaft Punk is Playing at My House, a song that took the indie scene by storm last year (Though that song has 41,090 listeners on Last.fm vs Hicks’ 1492).
He’s still a clever and funny guy, but to me, there’s a connection that’s missing from his lastest offerings and it’s likely to remain that way in the future. That’s ok I suppose; I’ve still got Smells Like Nirvana.
*That said, his parody of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet (Trapped in the Drive-Thru) is freakin’ spot-on.