Tag Archives: music

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.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

PPS Presents… Fuck Eric Clapton! The 50 Best Guitarists Since ’76

He made this face every time he fucked George Harrison’s wife.

When I pick up a “[Some #] Greatest Guitar Players” list, I dread having to wade through the usual soup of Clapton, Hendrix, B.B. King, etc. to get to those names lurking at the fringes who have really expanded the possibilities of the instrument in the years since the blues and “classic” rock ruled the roost, the ones I haven’t heard absolutely beaten to death by greyhairs who insist rock hasn’t been great since [insert year they turned twenty-five]. So here is my semi-scientific list of what I consider to be the top 50 rock-related guitarists (or guitar tandems) since the advent of punk in 1976, which is a nice arbitrary dividing point. Continue reading

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Vol.28: Vienna

ultravox, synth pop, vienna, 1981

Ultravox cordially invite you to misery.

Ultravox – Vienna (1981, Chrysalis)

Why It’s Perfect: When I was younger, I somehow got it into my head that Vienna was actually Austria’s national anthem. Can you imagine if there were a country whose anthem sounded like this? What a strange place it would have to be. The thoroughly processed majesty of its chorus sounds like a kitsch Also Sprach Zarathustra, the climax of an old commercial for high-end consumer electronics: BEHOLD the new Phillips Magnavox CD player! The most pristine digital audio device on Earth, now no larger than a toaster oven!

“THIS MEANS NOTHING TO MEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!”

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Filed under 1980s, new wave, synth pop

Vol.27: How High the Moon


Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High the Moon (1951, Capitol)

(This video is actually Paul and Ford playing live over the original recording. I include it because it includes a bit of Paul explaining how the song was recorded.)

Why It’s Perfect: How High the Moon is a single from 1951, but it doesn’t sound like it’s only sixty years old. It’s like a radio transmission that’s travelled far beyond our solar system, the signal decaying imperceptibly over the lightyears until only the highest, whitest musical frequencies remain. A sort of ghost image of a pop song.

How High the Moon’s trebly lunar sound is a result of guitarist and recording genius Les Paul’s meticulous, labour-intensive way of making records. At a time when most performances were usually recorded to a single track and overdubbing was almost unheard of, a man of Paul’s talents could easily have made his way in the business purely on the strength of his musical ability. But Paul was a recording nut, and he loved to work with the newest audio technology in order push it beyond its makers’ intentions. Continue reading

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Filed under 1950s, american songbook, pop standards