Improving Wilco

The other day, I arrived at the coffeeshop that I work at and found Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” playing over the speakers (typical, I know).  As I prepared for work, the album progressed to the 4th track, “War on War,” and I immediately recognized my personal emotional connection with the track. Certainly, every person aware of this album has their own connection to the music, though I would identify the emotional heft of this album as particularly individualistic for those of my generation.  Personally, I came to the album only in the past few years (from the coffeeshop, in fact) and my thoughts are often connected to the friendships that I fostered at that time, as my connection to the album progressed from introduction, to familiarity and, ultimately, to respect and adoration. But in addition to these memories are the emotional bonds that I created with covers of some of the tracks on the album, which in turn heightened my connection with the original songs.

Now,when I hear “War on War,” my thoughts are directly drawn to memories of my friend’s band covering the tune. They performed a rather accurate replication, showing respect of the songwriting while adjusting the performance of the song with their individual sound. Notably, when I first heard their cover, I recognized the joy that I felt in hearing them cover a song that I knew and loved, but, interestingly, I can now better enjoy the original with respect to their cover.

Additionally, I had/have the same experience concerning two other tracks on the album. I witnessed the Brooklyn band Boy Without God (now called Wilder Maker), cover “Jesus, etc,” though as an all-male a capella version. Seeing it performed in a small venue, with everyone, including those at the bar, silently appreciating the band’s take on a classic on the audience’s generation, was profound enough to also affect my listening to the original. Finally, my appreciation for The Bad Plus’s (plus Wendy Lewis) cover of “Radio Cure” has almost reached the level of enjoying the cover more than the original, mainly because of how they move from adhering to the bright, harmonically-open return to the verse halfway through, to the dissonant and rhythmically free sections that follow it.

Sometimes covers can detrimentally alter one’s respect for a song, either by highlighting its flaws or cheapening it’s effectiveness. I have heard some people feel that way about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” of which they argue that because the song has undergone so many transformations, it has eroded the emotional weight of the song (I’m still unpacking this theory). In my case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the covers had an opposite effect, surprisingly, whether or not they strongly adhered to the original track. Perhaps that’s a testament to excellent the songwriting of Wilco or to my appreciation for the groups that covered those songs. Either way, they imbued the original with greater personal emotional heft and that’s what music is all about.

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Prince(ss)

Recently, former Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph and her fellow comedian Gretchen Lieberum performed on Late Night as “Princess,” a Prince cover duo that took on “Darling Nikki.” Their approach is certainly unconventional, particularly their decision to both sing Prince’s lyrics, either in unison or harmony, and with similar mimicry of the flamboyant singer/guitarist. The backup band was The Roots, who are not only an unbelievably tight band, but often get the opportunity to cover songs and supplement artists that appear on Jimmy Fallon’s program. It is certainly an enjoyable clip to watch, but what I was most taken by is their strict reproduction of the original Purple Rain track. Every characteristically “Prince” vocal inflection and squeal (like the one after the 2nd verse) was included. Even more remarkable was their duplication of the reversed speech section in the last minute of the song (though their execution on live TV was not flawless, their attempt is laudable). This is the definition of a thorough reproduction. A complete cover.

What I find most interesting is that, despite their status as comedians, the concept behind “Princess” does not seem to be mockery or even kitsch. In fact, their careers in comedy enabled them to take on such a bold feat and successfully present the impression. Furthermore, their work ethic and attention to detail likely exceeds that of most bands, particularly Rudolph, who worked many intense weeks at SNL. Anything less than these standards would have produced something that better resembles mockery, a bad impression that is fleetingly humorous, just another clip that passes through Reddit. No, I think it rightfully garnered a little more attention and applause.

PS. Among other respectable covers of “Darling Nikki” is this (somewhat rambling) jazz version led by trumpeter Steven Bernstein.

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History reading assignment

To anyone who is at all interested in what I’m saying with this blog, read this book:

http://us.macmillan.com/retromania/SimonReynolds

I don’t agree with everything he says, or especially how he says it (like a music critic), but his observations are acute, well thought out, and hard to ignore. Among the topics he discussed, I particularly enjoyed his insights into our ability to recall and store information in the 21st century (and how we save too much crap), his tracking of the trend of musicians obsessing over their influences, and his interest in sampling as a way of “resurrecting the dead,” which he refers to as “hauntology.” Many of these and other concepts in the book will likely influence what I will discuss in future posts and, of course, I will properly cite these ideas as stemming from him (as a good musicologist and devotee of referential music would do).

But seriously, check it out

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Rising above

Is this, really a cover of this? It depends on how you define a cover. The lyrics are the same. One song inspired the other. But other musical connections – melody, guitar riffs, recording quality, etc. – cannot be drawn. So what’s the point of covering another song, or an entire album in this case, without adhering to the musical aspects that mostly define the essence of the album?

A cover is often intended to display one artist’s admiration for another artist, to directly show how a song or an album was an influence and an inspiration on their own work. In most situations, the musical aspects are sustained, though the degree in which they’re copied vary from near-exact replication to subtle hints at melodic or harmonic ideas. This is not the case with the Dirty Projectors’ cover of the Black Flag album Damaged, where a vastly different musical experience is created and only the lyrics are carried over. For me, it begs the question, “Is it a cover?”

The concept for Rise Above comes from Projectors’ frontman Dave Longstreth, who sought to “rewrite” or reimagine the Black Flag record from memory, though after not listening to it for 15 years. He and the rest of the band intentionally avoided listening to Damaged during the recording process, with an aim to let only the lyrics and the  notions of hardcore punk shape their music. In Longstreth’s words, the final outcome was to stand as “not an homage per se, but as an original creative art.” The musical material certainly does change, from the raw, fast, and heavy hardcore style to the Projectors’ experimental yet clean and deliberately composed music. In addition, the lyrics are often rearranged or even omitted, though it’s hard to say whether that is because Longstreth left them out intentionally or could not recall them.

Admittedly, subtle musical connections can be drawn between the two albums, such as the occasional hint of a blast beat or double time feel in the drums (as in Gimme Gimme Gimme and Spray Paint, respectively) and the Projectors’ use of abruptly changing meter and tempo, a common characteristic in hardcore punk. But the unavoidable appeal of the album comes from the defiant and anarchic lyrics set against quirky New York indie rock. As an example, the reinterpretation of Police Story is sweetly introduced by a flute duo, giving way to assertive major key acoustic guitar chords and the lyrics, “This fucking city is run by pigs / they take away the rights from all the kids.” But this exemplifies the question of how and why Longstreth chose to write an album in this manner.

Whether or not these songs can be considered covers, the question remains: Is Longstreth honoring Black Flag with his reinterpretation or merely pillaging their lyrics to spur his own inspiration. By only utilizing the lyrics, one would believe that they would inform the musical ideas. Yet the Projectors chose to deliberately ignore the original meaning behind the lyrics, at times creating a sharp disconnect between the music and the lyrics. One could construe their methods as akin to the “irony” prevalent in other indie bands, perceiving them as cockily overlaying their own musical ideas over lyrics that affected a significant youth culture in the eighties. I don’t see this as the case. Longstreth was among those youth that listened to Black Flag’s music heavily, enough to recall most of the lyrics unaided 15 years later (I doubt I could recall much of the music of my high school years with such accuracy). Rise Above is an example of letting the music (even just the lyrics) of those impressionable years influence ones musical ideas and develop a new creative work. Hearing Black Flag’s Rise Above speaks to the angry, defiant youth of my (and most other people’s) past; hearing the Dirty Projector’s version sustains those feelings of wanting to challenge a repressive society, but with a bit of optimism towards the future, exemplified by the harmonious female vocal duet that closes out the song.

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Interlude

It’s time for a quick interlude, off the topic of musical borrowing, though still concerned with music’s undefinable emotional connection. I am in the process of working up graduate school applications (for library science) and came to the realization that I have to write both a 1000-word personal statement and a 500-word, of which only one of those two is already complete. For anyone paying attention to the frequency of my posts, they may correctly assume that I am a slow writer, though it’s because of my obsessiveness over how I write and the accuracy of the information. Needless to say, the prospect of churning out another damn college essay was a bit deflating. But then Neko Case came on my shuffling iPod.

I have long loved the album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood for its magnificent songwriting and Case’s ability to sing as if she is removing the heaviest load from her shoulders at each phrase. This is no more perfectly the case (pun unintended but intentionally left) for the song “Star Witness,” the very song that presented itself when my spirits were low. I stopped thinking immediately and took it in; I let her voice carry off the newfound burden from my shoulders and let myself be transported from my cold bed in Boston to a sunny street in Austin, TX (I’ve always narrowly equated the alt-country sound to Austin). It was what I needed, at that exact moment, and now I’m ready to start working on writing and polishing those essays. Right after I finish writing this one.

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Radiohead (Allemande)

Confession: I came to Radiohead somewhat late in the game.  I started with “OK Computer,” but bought it after watching the industry give praise to “Kid A” in the 2001 Grammy Awards.  I was aware of the band before that, I mean, at the time I was attending Berklee College Music- the self-proclaiming center of contemporary music education. But at the time, I wasn’t avid about modern music, unless it was jazz, and, more specifically, I didn’t know how to ferret out what was great.  After listening to “OK Computer,” I established a respect for the band, particularly based on their songwriting skills and Thom Yorke’s handling of melodies. I enjoyed the major tracks, like “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police,” but I drew more emotionally connected to the slower songs like “Lucky,” “No Surprises,” and “The Tourist.” In the years that followed, I worked my way outwards through their albums, surprised by how much they sounded like a banal, generic rock band in “Pablo Honey” and understanding why the electronic explorations found in “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” shook up their fans and critics.

Recently, I was reading into the bluegrass singer and banjo player Sarah Jarosz and noticed that she received some notoriety with a cover of “The Tourist“. Recorded along with the Punch Brothers (a group well-versed in the Radiohead repertoire), the original track is beautifully and faithfully represented, with some well-deserved soloistic excursions. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoy the track and have listened to it many times since I uncovered it (no pun intended, for once). But I quickly realized that my attraction to the cover was not solely based on the quality of the music, but the emotional connection I carry with the original.

Anytime one hears a cover, their judgements are based not only on the music itself, but on how it stacks up against the original. Oftentimes, listeners judge the musicality of a song without bias because they are unaware that a particular song is a cover (which they will eventually be made scornfully informed of by their snarky friend). For those who know the original, or the multiple covers between the original and latest version, a heightened emotional weight may affect their assessment. For listeners who hold strong emotional ties to a particular song, a bad reinterpretation will be a travesty; a slap in the face to the song’s creator. A good recreation- one that develops or redesigns the song while sustaining the emotional weight of the original- can cause the listener to imbue the new track with the same emotional content as its predecessor, at times, causing them to grow more in love with the original.  It’s a strange and subjective process, and for the covering artist, who is acting on their personal appreciation for the song, it is a gamble as to whether a listener, with an established connection to the original, will approve. Well done, Sarah.

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Variation

The musical form of theme and variations is about as old as organized music itself (earliest notated examples date from 16th century dances). It’s a simple idea- write a solid theme and mess with it as much as you want.  Take it faster or slower, change your tonality, modify the meter, the sky’s the limit. Akin to one artist retooling another’s song, the composer can let their creativity take over and develop the theme in surprising ways.

In music school, professors often teach the theme and variations form by using J. S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations as the prime example of long form variation.  Instead of the melody of the work’s initial “Aria,” Bach chose to expand on the bass line and chord progression into 30 variations.  Back when I learned of the piece in college, I was somewhat confused by the Aria, with its slow, heavily ornamented melody.  My naive, undergraduate mind couldn’t see past the trills and mordents and into the beauty of the melody and its harmonic structure, and it wasn’t until years later, while listened to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording on vinyl, that I began to understand the brilliance in the work.

Recently, another step has been taken in the history of the piece. Jazz pianist Dan Tepfer has released a recording, aptly titled “Goldberg Variations / Variations,” which pairs each of the 30 variation with its own variation, or in jazz terms an improvisation. With its 62 tracks, the project is certainly an ambitious undertaking, especially considering that even classical pianists shy away from recording the work because of the precedence of perfection laid by Gould and others.  Tepfer does not sound burdened by the work’s performance history or its difficulty; the aria is expressive and the variations exhibit a technical proficiency at the level of notable classical pianists.  In many of the “classical” movements, there are small tempo imperfections and what I perceive as a jazz pianist’s approach to attacking the harmony, but a flawless recording of the Goldberg is not the purpose of the work. One must focus on his reinterpretation of Bach’s original ideas.  The first three improvisations, as with many others, hold close to the motivic and textural elements of their preceding movements. But on the fourth improvisation, a clear departure into a jazz style comes out.  The 4th variation is in the style of a Baroque dance, the passepied, and Tepfer’s improvisation exaggerates the dance’s lilting rhythm and liberally adds disonnant harmonies in a somewhat Monkish swing.  I could expound on every track but there are a lot (which will, by the way, muck things up when playing my music on random).

The only track I should further mention is the last variation. Bach, that old clever devil, did some musical quoting of his own and inserted two popular songs onto his now well-established harmonic progression.  This classical mash-up, known as a qoulibet at the time, used two German folk songs about farewells: Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”).  Tepfer, like the former master, composes his own quodlibet, by adding two jazz standards with farewell themes “Never Let Me Go,” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Interestingly, in terms of this blog, Bach outdoes Tepfer in a comparison of their individual mash-ups, because of his use of popular songs of his time. But Bach’s intention were most likely comical, while Tepfer successfully interweaves the classical monument in with the canon of jazz standards. In any case, both composers conclude the work with wit and levity, and set up for one final, meditative return to the aria.

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