Haven’t updated this blog in about nine months, but that’s probably for the best; no one should have to read my drunk, incredibly depressed take on “100 000 Fireflies.” Anyway, I’m going to do a few short, Perfect Pop Sidebars on some of my favourite songs that have inspired equally great covers.
The cover is a tricky thing to master. The masturbatory fantasy of most every rock critic is to form a huge band and then push his favourite obscure artists on the unsuspecting masses, thus creating the stickiest of double whammies: publicly playing the best songs while having the best taste (or being Yo La Tengo, basically).
Course, as many artists over the years have demonstrated, doing a proper cover is a challenging art. How to make it different enough to not be redundant, while retaining what made the original worth covering? Here’s one take:
Psychic TV – “The Orchids” (1983, Some Bizzare/CBS)
Psychic TV’s plinky, delicate original is to psychedelia as microhouse is to house music; tiny-sounding and almost anodyne, but too self-assured to be dismissed as sleepy “quirk” or gimmick. Psychic TV were an offspring of the legendary Throbbing Gristle and continued that band’s uber-arty conceptual bent, albeit in a more digestible format, even venturing into pop territory from time to time. “The Orchids” was recorded using the quack-ish “holophonic” technology best known from a few of Roger Waters’ loopier ’80s ventures; whether or not the holophonic production can be credited (it purported to create an “acoustic hologram” in the listener’s brain), the total effect of the music is immaculate and serene. I remember attending a workshop with the poet John Steffler where he spoke eloquently on what he called deep observation; studying something nonhuman in an attempt to understand it on its own terms, fantasy not as escapism but as an honest attempt to empathize by projecting one’s own mind into another organism and then writing the experience. I feel like Psychic TV’s lyrics achieve something like deep observation in their strange imagery:
“when all the numbers swim together
and all the shadows settle
when doors forced open shut again
a flytrap and a petal
my eyes burn and claws rush in to fill them;
and in the morning after the night
I fall in love with the light
it is so clear I realize
that here at last I have my eyes”
As a flower opening to the sun is consumed entirely by the act, so does “The Orchids” reach a quiet, sweet understanding; it’s an ideal soundtrack to one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing into bloom (like this, only with better sounds). And I’m a sucker for that breathy, wordless singing at the end.
Califone – “The Orchids” (2006, Thrill Jockey)
If Psychic TV’s greatest trick was to create such a perfectly green space with largely synthesized instruments, Califone’s was to translate it back into a vocabulary of traditional, “rootsy” acoustic instruments while maintaining its distinctive, almost alien atmosphere. Cited by the band as the inspiration for their excellent 2006 LP Roots and Crowns, Califone’s take on “The Orchids” is dimly reminiscent of The Books‘ folktronica sound, or the most abstract moments on Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; gorgeous, spare banjo, guitar and percussion swaddled in a haze of reverb, backwards loops and clipped harmonica. Its form perfectly reflects the lyrics’ repeated references to “the orchid and the metal”, the analog musicians augmented by the buzzing machinery of the studio.