Category Archives: 2000s

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.26: Wolf Like Me

howlin' forever

There are no wolves on this sleeve.

TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006, 4AD)

Why It’s Perfect: Blast this song on a good sound system and I doubt anyone could make it through even the opening fourteen seconds without wide eyes and a pounding pulse. It’s a mammoth beat this song rides, and Kyp Malone’s bass buzzes and thrums like Interpol on amphetamines; alone, these elements would be enough for a runner to disappear in, a dancer to sweat through. It’s a foundation for any number of things; gleaming, Bloc Party-ish buzzsaw guitars, or maybe a sort of rockist club banger. Yet as much as the song is a galvanizing, nostril-flaring experience, it also a weirdly thick, work-as-assemblage bit of genrefuck.

What do you call this noise? It starts simply enough, with that drum and bass barrelling forward, gradually layering on new elements until it’s built enough momentum that the weight of those additional sounds becomes not a burden, but a battering ram. It’s this genius build-up that makes Wolf Like Me not merely exciting but overwhelming, intoxicating, consuming. It starts with producer Dave Sitek’s guitar. Realizing that simply doubling up Malone’s bass would be redundant (it’s just such a fat fucking sound he’s got), he instead begins squalling out textures and these piercing tremolo riffs, filling out the high end of the production and providing a useful contrast to all of the rumble and lurch below. To this, you can add the thick, unsourced electrical hum that Sitek loves to coat his productions with.

But it’s Tunde Adebimpe’s unmistakable, ever-so-slightly whiny wail that makes Wolf Like Me one of the greatest singles of its era. He seems to lope over the beat, agile, graceful, precise in his phrasing and pitch, yet toothy and slavering, right at your heels and gaining. It’s a hell of a lyric too; Baby doll I recognize that you’re a hideous thing inside / If ever there was a lucky kind it’s you you you you. The whole thing is this churned up mix of sex and violence, blood and milk, something a lot more like passion than, say, Love the Way You Lie (one of the most bullshit songs ever, by the way).

And then, right as it seems like the whole song is going to explode, it turns in on itself. The bridge is a cloud passing over the moon, all of the weird soul and ambient and sound collage stuff that’d been buried under the punk bombast coming out to say hi; shimmering, clinking metal noises and undulating waves of oooohing vocals and undulating synths and then it’s allllll moving quickly again and Tunde’s going nuts and Kyp Malone is chiming in with crazy howling harmonies and there are horns and teeth and you’re writhing in your riding hood and Wolf Like Me has run its course right through your ears and veins, and you’ve no choice but to let your sweat cool on your skin, or hit play again, when ready, and do it one more time.

Defining Moment: Here comes the moon so let it show you, shooooww youuuuu noooowww… BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM

Other Great Songs by TV on the Radio: Sometime after dropping Dear Science (didn’t that record useta have a comma?) to near universal acclaim, TV on the Radio went from one of indiedom’s most dick-rode (dick-ridden?) bands to one of its most commonly dissed and dismissed, and I’ve never been quite sure why. I mean, and I don’t think I’m overstating this, they’re like the only indie rock band with black guys that sounds like it has black guys in it. I’m not advocating some kind of bullshit rockist affirmative action here; if there were a black band of deadringers for mid-period Belle & Sebastian or Death Cab, I wouldn’t give a damn about their skin and neither would you. But TV on the Radio have got singers in Tunde and Kyp who can draw from the rich histories of black popular music without sounding like daytripping crackers ransacking Otis Redding’s plane. And you can feel that history being referenced, reintroduced and productively fucked with in TVotR’s best songs, a short list of which would include the entire Young Liars EP, King Eternal, The Wrong Way, Dreams, Ambulance, Province, Blues from Down Here, I Was a Lover, Crying, DLZ and Will Do.


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Filed under 2000s, alternative, indie, post-punk, soul

Vol.15: Hollaback Girl

How did this merit a parental advisory sticker?

Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl (2005, Interscope)

Why It’s Perfect: Hate to kick off with an anecdote, but to hell with it. My senior prom was the year this song was on its way to becoming huge. I’ll never forget the way practically every girl in the place hit the floor at the beck of Gwen’s first catcall, the way they no-bullshit stomped out that huge Neptunes beat, stilt-like high heels be damned. Beyond the initial, reptile-brained “Damn” factor of seeing so many dolled up girls getting down, I feel in retrospect like that moment drove a stiletto right through my previous understanding of pop music. Whether you like it or not, Hollaback Girl is the sort of song that forcibly resets your biorhythms to a common time, and there’s a very good chance that no matter what you are doing while Hollaback Girl is on, you will do it either along with or in deliberate opposition to the song.

The track’s construction, of course, is perfect. There’s a tendency to refer to the Neptunes’ signature production style as “skeletal,” given its minimalist aesthetic and the prominence of the beat (the foundation of all hip-hop/contemporary R&B). If the production is indeed skeletal then Hollaback Girl is made of elephant bones, because this beat is as thick as any Williams and Hugo ever devised. Prince has often rightly been cited as the originator of this kind of cyber funk cool, and Hollaback Girl is notable for flipping one of The Artist’s most notable artistic breakthroughs: where Prince replaced the traditional funk horn section with synths and keyboards to create a hypermodern take on the classic sound, the Neptunes have exchanged their traditional synth stabs for the blare of brass. And not just a horn section, but an entire goddamn marching band! Stefani is aiming for Queen-level bombast, as the brief We Will Rock You-quote attests, and the sheer weight and size of the band ensures she strikes true. Of course the “marching band” sound is entirely constructed in the studio, but the way the artists manage to mimic the aesthetic effect (i.e. size, enthusiasm) of a school band is nonetheless impressive. Combined with the mesmerizingly circular guitar figure and those evaporating bass plunges during the verses and you’ve got a track fit for club and grandstand alike.

Stefani’s lyrics are, of course, nonsense, but as far as this song goes that’s completely appropriate; anything of substance over such a purposefully dumb, blunt beat would be absurd and incongruous. She offers a focal point for your voice just as the music offers a blueprint for your feet and hips: hard, (playfully) aggressive and, above all, energetic. Not that any of that had anything whatsoever to do with the way this song slowly converted me, back in those last dwindling days of adolescence.

Defining Moment: One of those tracks where it’s all in the intro. The drum sample is so ridiculously crunchy and compressed that they might’ve gotten it by chucking a snare into a garbage compacter.

Other Great Songs by Gwen Stefani: Gwen of the Immortal Abs has a really spotty solo discog, obviously, but there are a few gems here and there. The Sweet Escape gives Hollaback Girl a fairly serious run for her best, and What You Waiting For? is an awesome dance-rock fusion that shames most of No Doubt’s attempts in the same direction. Oh, and Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind (which Stefani features on) is still a fantastic tune, if anyone was wondering.


Filed under 2000s, neptunes, synth pop

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.7: Bad Romance

Translucent fabrics have been scientifically proven to increase eyestrain in nipple-seeking men by as much as 97%.

Lady GaGa – Bad Romance (2009, Interscope Records)

Why It’s Perfect: It’s the sound of a very personal sort of artistic (or at least, aesthetic) vision crushing everything else on the airwaves under its diamond-encrusted stiletto heels. Given the recent ascendance of low quality mp3s and cellphone ringtones as revenue streams for the struggling record companies, contemporary pop production often skews towards a more streamlined, one-dimensional sound that better survives a loss in audio fidelity. It’s the musical equivalent of a McDonald’s McFlurry. Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance is by comparison this towering, sumptuous layer cake, so rich that “baby it’s sick.” It’s easy to be weird on an indie label, but when you get an artist as idiosyncratic as Lady GaGa on a major, you know you’re dealing with someone who aims to icon status; after hearing Bad Romance’s gonzo, stadium-thumping “GaGa, oh-la-la” intro, can you doubt her hubris?

But hey, if pride comes before a fall, it’s also the means by which you get high enough for said fall to matter. Bad Romance stands above its peers in just about every fashion. On one hand, it’s bold and forceful enough that it virtually pushes lesser songs off the airwaves to make space for its sprawling ambition. But on the other, it’s neither blunt nor crude; it skips from idea to idea with madcap abandon, with production leagues deep, chalk full of strange scuttling percussion and weird synth vamps that sound like they’re being run in reverse. You can enjoy this as a ringtone, sure, but it’s only when you hear it bumping through pricy club-quality speakers that you get a feel for everything producer RedOne has woven into it.

The lyrics have a pupil-dilating oddness about them, answering to some muse far beyond, say, Cascada’s ken. (As an aside, what is a listener meant to draw from Evacuate the Dancefloor anyway? “There’s a potentially fatal infection in the club? Is it H1N1? Bitch, slam that drink, we’re getting the fuck out of here!”) Like Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack, Bad Romance’s words have just the right suggestion of deviance and depravity that the bizarre Ultravox-on-crack soundscapes require; “want your leatherstudded kiss in the sand” and “want you in my rear window” are two of the better queasy-sexy come-ons since Prince became irrelevant. As a whole, it simply pleases me that millions of teenagers in Middle America have been drawn to something so baroque, so inflected with GaGa’s performance art sensibilities, so unconcerned with taste and politics. This is like the Bohemian Rhapsody of pop smut, and seldom has an artist managed to so guilty pleasure the charts. If she can keep pushing the envelope with innovative efforts like Bad Romance, she’ll have her manicured fingers diddling the world’s unmentionables for some years.

GaGa, oh la la indeed.

Defining Moment: Having moved effortlessly from the glory notes on the chorus through the chanting reprise of the intro, GaGa is at her throaty best on lines like “I want your horror, I want your design / ‘Cos you’re a criminal as long as you’re mine.” Then it hits, that groaning and dragged out “I want your love / Love, love, love / I want your looooove-UNNN.” It’s like being sung a lapdance. Whether or not the line attracts you, it’s got such a guttural, musky delivery that the synth lick which follows comes like a shudder.

Other Great Songs by Lady GaGa: I think Bad Romance is her stone cold classic, but the similarly propulsive Poker Face is a less creepy, if equally strange trip through similar territory and Just Dance is as sure a floor-filler as anything released in and around 2008.

On that note, a premature happy birthday to Ms. GaGa, who turns 24 tomorrow. Makes me feel bad to be just scribbling reviews at 23…


Filed under 2000s, electropop, synth pop

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.2: Stillness is the Move


Dirty Projectors – Stillness is the Move (2009, Domino Records)

Why It’s Perfect: As with most everything Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors set their hands to, Stillness is the Move is by any reckoning a strange, strange song. The difference between it and most of their other material is how devilishly catchy it is, how much you get the sensation that this could be a serious left-of-the-dial club hit. The instrumentation is quirky to say the least. Its main melodic element is a strangely sprained-sounding guitar riff that plinks along like an unwinding Eastern music box, while the elaborate “I studied music at Yale, bitch” string quartet denouement both ably complements the melodic arc of the song and virtually smacks you across the face with the “experimental” label. The reason so many people have discussed its pop crossover potential in relation to the likes of Beyonce (or at least Solange) is mostly in the wheelhouse; the spare R&B-inflected beat, which combines Brian Mcomber’s acoustic drums with cute rippling synths, is built to get heads nodding and at least a few scrawny indie chick asses shaking. It’s a formula Dirty Projectors lifted from Timbaland; no matter how weird the samples are, they sound alright if the beat is tight. Credit is due also to the vocals of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, who successfully combine the po’ faced passivity of the standard female indie vocalist with some “I listened to Mary J. Blige as a teenager” diva-esque histrionics. It’s a bit like Cat Power by way of Mariah Carey, and who amongst us hasn’t always wanted to hear that?

Defining Moment: The intro. Standard fare – enter drums, enter guitar, enter vocals – but when every element is as cool as it is in this song, it gets the blood flowing. The instant those off-kilter yet strangely precise chords hit, you know you’re in for something sexy and circular and intriguing.

Other Great Songs by Dirty Projectors: While Stillness is the Move is likely the single catchiest moment in Dirty Projectors’ discography, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in their discography to have fun with, like their bizarro-world soul-inflected cover of Black Flag’s Rise Above, or the gorgeous freak folk of Room 13. I’d recommend new listeners start with the record that accompanied this single, 2009’s Bitte Orca.

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Filed under 2000s, alternative