The Art of the Cover, Vol. 1: Psychic TV and Califone

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.

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Filed under 1980s, 2000s, alternative, contemporary folk, covers, indie, psychedelic, synth pop

Vol.34: The Drunk in the Shiny Suit (Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass”)

Webb Pierce's Decca single, "There Stands the Glass"

The exact opposite of one of Pierce’s “silver dollar” Cadillacs.

Webb Pierce – There Stands the Glass (1953, Decca)

Why It’s Perfect: How would you describe Webb Pierce’s voice? Even in a genre known for yodelers, warblers and other pitch eccentrics, Pierce had a unique instrument. He didn’t so much sing as play his sinuses like a pedal steel. Compared to other genres, country music has always had a high tolerance for strange looks, strange behaviours and strange voices so long as they were convincingly Southern looks, Southern behaviours and Southern voices singing good, Southern songs. Thus, Webb Pierce and his enormous ears, mesmerizingly tacky Nudie suits and Theremin-like throat, became arguably the biggest country star of the 1950s. 1953’s There Stands the Glass was released in the first year of Pierce’s star run at the Grand Ole Opry when everything Pierce touched turned to gold but, like most great country songs, seems to be about a man whose life has totally gone to shit. Continue reading

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Vol.33: Twee Singers in a Guitar Cathedral (Fantastic Something’s “If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)”)

Cover of Fantastic Something If She Doesn't Smile (It'll Rain) single

You mope your way, and I’ll mope mine.

Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain) (1984, Cherry Red)

Download the single, courtesy of the Sweeter Moments blog

Why It’s Perfect: Consider the title: If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain). Within the tiny emotional universe the song creates, it reads as a simple statement of fact. It’s a sunny day, and a boy is looking for a girl. It can’t be just any girl; there is only one girl, the girl who makes him happy. He cannot be more specific on this point, because the only thing he knows about her is that when she is not around, he is not happy. Sometimes he is lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her. If she does not smile when they meet, it will rain (precipitation presumably localized to the airspace immediately below his tear ducts). That’s just what happens next.

There is a fine line between coming off as childlike and appearing to be, well, retarded, but Fantastic Something manage it well Continue reading

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Filed under 1980s, alternative, indie, jangle pop

Sidebar: Perfect Pop “Nostradamus” on Carly Rae Jepsen

There’s dressing “young,” and then there’s dressing “reeeeeally young.”

Carly Rae Jepsen: Career stalled, clinging by her fingernails to her shot at fame, writes ungodly catchy pop tune (in a good way!) that hits just right, gets heard by the right celebrities (Bieber’s people) and becomes a massive success. Jepsen signs to a major label, and for a while people are at least somewhat interested in hearing more from her. Nothing from her subsequent album is a sizeable hit, and she slowly disappears from the airwaves (except in Canada, because of CanCon regulations that keep her marginally popular). Makes a decent living off of her one song, and still tours small venues and county fairs, has few regrets. This is how this happens right?

(By “Nostradamus”, I of course mean bitter geek who thinks too hard about songs for seventeen-year old girls. Clickthrough to unironically enjoy Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, the Bieber and Co. rendition that made the song blow up, and, hell, some song from her first record.) Continue reading

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Spin’s Guitar List

So Spin magazine put out a guitar list recently, focusing on the more alternative side of the spectrum. Pretty much ripped mine off, no biggie tho, y’all are my homies.

http://www.spin.com/articles/spins-100-greatest-guitarists-all-time

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Vol.32: Joey Ramone Wanted to be in a ’50s Girl Group (Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?”)

ramones do you remember rock 'n' roll radio sire single cover punk phil spector

The Ramones holding the actual instruments they played on the track.

Ramones – Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? (1980, Sire)

Why It’s Perfect: Recalling the recording of the Ramones’ legendary Sheena is a Punk Rocker single in Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever, popular ‘70s record producer Tony Bongiovi was adamant that the faint timpani he insisted be included in the chorus was some sort of watershed for the band. Now, it’s easy enough to dismiss the word of Jon Bon fucking Jovi’s cousin, even if you’re among the infinitesimal fraction of listeners whose first takeaway from Sheena was “Hey, nice timpani,” but maybe he had a point. We’re used to reckoning the Ramones’ musical evolution in geologic time, but by the end of the seventies/century, band leader Joey Ramone had become much more interested in the recording studio, even hooking up with mad Wall of Sound genius Phil Spector for 1980’s divisive End of the Century.

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Filed under 1980s, punk, rock n' roll, Wall of Sound

Vol.31: Does “Good” Music Matter? (Better Than Ezra – “Good”)

better than ezra grunge alternative rock '90s good

Wait, Better Than Ezra had a black guy?

Better Than Ezra were a stunningly bad band. When you think of the most witless, gormless, reheated alternative rock of the mid-‘90s, Better Than Ezra elbow their way to the head of the queue with aplomb. Their playing is edgeless, featureless. Their lyrics are fresh from a high school creative writing workshop. The way they namedrop R.E.M. in the chorus of this dreadful song makes me understand why so many people started to hate that band. But I’ve reached a point in my thinking about music where I wonder if I don’t have to burn away the last of my taste prejudices. For people who think thinking seriously about music is a relatively serious matter, the current critical milieu is one in which we begin to deny the fantasy of objective judgement of popular art. It gets somewhat less pretentious from here!

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Filed under 1990s, alternative, grunge, hard rock