J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Notes From Underground - #15
Taking Cover


Back in the late spring, I was at a show in a warehouse. Not just any warehouse, but one that is used as an art space for a collection of people. But a warehouse it was, still, located on the 'other' side of some railroad tracks (literally) and involving a short scatter down a ravine to cross the tracks to get to the space. Finally, music that demanded something of its audience.

The particular part of this show I want to talk about is a band from Greensboro called Invisible. Invisible has a mechanical genius among it somewhere who has created an instrument wherein the player sits at a typewriter and, connected to a piano, they play the keys by typing. The result is a melody of text. There is also a digital video camera mounted facing the barrel of the typewriter and broadcasts to a projector (and onto a screen) footage of what is being typed. They used this in creative ways (retyping lyrics that were spoken; playing a game of twenty questions with the vocalist). But the surprise came at their third and final song.

A somewhat familiar bass line began creeping across the room, and as the guitarist began to shout out the words to the song as they were typed on the typewriter, I recognized it: "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads. The singer would only say the words once they were typed on the screen and when the chorus was reached, no one sang anything. Rather, the typewriter player would type the chorus lyrics, creating a fractured, wandering melody as she did. The cover was original, different, and my immediate thought was: David Byrne would love this.

I bring this up to illustrate a point I've been pondering lately. I've really grown tired of hearing straight-up covers of songs. They're boring and don't accomplish much. They don't shed any new interpretive light on the music or lyrics, they don't show any creativity or thought on the part of the performer. Invisible's cover of "Once in a Lifetime" involved fracturing the original structure, varying the way in which the lyrics were delivered and even tying them up in the very structure of the song. It was as thoughtful as the original - and being that the original was performed by one of the more challenging mainstream artists of the past 30 years, that's high praise.

Is the reverential cover done? Are spot-on covers really necessary? I think of the best covers that I know and so rarely do they stick to the original's sound, style or delivery. They sometimes even change the entire mood or interpretation of the lyrics. Jim White once joked that Roger Miller would roll over in his grave if he heard his take on "King of the Road," but White's fractured, ghostly narrative-take on a dusty country classic (from his No Such Place album) is breathtakingly fun and gives an old-traveler's narrative a makeover as a David Lynch/Cormac McCarthy style drifter story, all by the changing of instruments and structure of the song. The heart of it is still there. But the facade has shifted.

I could entertain arguments for reverential covers of songs that people might never have heard. Elliot Smith's take on Big Star's classic "Thirteen" from the recent New Moon collection is pretty straightforward - but "Thirteen" isn't on everyone's lips the way, oh, "Satisfaction" or "I Love Rock and Roll" would be. Giving people a fair shake at a hidden gem isn't such a bad thing. Mary Lou Lord's Live City Sounds mostly-covers album, with its live recordings of just Lord and her guitar in the Boston subway, is pretty reverential, but the simplicity of her approach makes the songs sound new and different.

For the meantime, I'm done with the straight ahead covers. I'll give any cover a listen, but as I said, it's the ones that manage to bring something new to the table that often win repeated listens on my ears. Which, in the end, doesn't sound that different from what I think about original music as well.

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