Category Archives: alternative

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.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

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

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.

OH GOD THEY’RE JUST SO GREAT he says

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

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.3: Cattle & Cane

You're benched Forster!

The Go-Betweens – Cattle and Cane (1983, Rough Trade)
Music Video

Why It’s Perfect: Because I wouldn’t feel ashamed if this tune made me well up a little. Simply put, Cattle and Cane may be the single warmest song slice of pop ever written; it’s a song to smile to sadly. A song about personal memory and nostalgia, it also feels somehow generously open, as if your attention is not being demanded so much as allowed and welcomed. Much of its resonance is due to its hypnotic bassline, which manages to conjure a similar mix of bittersweet emotions as Peter Hook’s bass licks on New Order’s Ceremony, while also being appropriate to the rich setting conjured by lyricist Grant McLennan. The song doesn’t stray far from its basic melody, but its subtle evolution is beautiful to behold, from the interplay of McLennan and Forster’s chiming guitars to those pristine moments when bassist Robert Vickers is allowed to wander up and down his frets. And over this quietly dense arrangement, what beautifully simple words:

“I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber,
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders.”

Like the better imagist poets, McLennan presents these fragments of memory without unnecessary affectation (both lyrically and vocally), and leaves the listener to decide what is meant as they trail off into the daisy-chain of wordless harmonies which serves as a chorus. Likewise, the mix is clear yet somehow muted, as if you’re hearing it through still water; in fact, the experience of the song is rather like drowsing in a relaxing bath, except without the risk of your naked, bloated corpse being discovered by your apartment super two weeks after you succumbed to a watery death. Although, if I had to go out like that, I would probably want to do it listening to this song.

Defining Moment: Vickers’ drowsy, lingering, aching licks during the bridge. Melancholy, thy name is bass.

Other Great Songs by The Go-Betweens: Australia’s Go-Betweens were arguably the most subtle and textured of jangle pop acts. Eschewing the self-conscious cleverness of The Smiths while skirting the overt artiness of R.E.M., they still managed at their best to be as seductively wistful as the former and as evocative as the latter. Even a short list of this band’s great songs would take ages, but checking out Clouds, Bachelor Kisses, The Ghost and the Black Hat and Streets of Your Town makes a start. And for those willing to try an album, I haven’t the words to explain my love for 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane.

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Filed under 1980s, alternative, jangle pop, post-punk

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.2: Stillness is the Move

BUBBLEGUM CATASTROPHE IMMINENT.

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