Propellerheads Tag

Cover Me: Addendum

Propellerheads Star-Crossed Lovers
Propellerheads & Martha Wainwright, “Star-Crossed Lovers”

I knew this would happen. I wrote up my random list of covers and then told myself I was going to move on. But my brain just would not stop gnawing on that bone. So it guided me back to the Propellerheads “History Repeating” video. But, as I was watching it, I realized that wasn’t supposed to be my goal. This was:

 

I don’t want to be indulgent, continuing to pile tracks onto my list as they pop into my head. But it would be beyond remiss of me not to mention and praise this one. And the irony is that it’s off a tribute album.

Whatever works in this cover off the Duke Ellington tribute Red Hot + Indigo is irreducible—which means it can’t be bottled, which means it both expresses and reaches beyond its moment, which means whatever it is it does right only exists on this track and nowhere else. And pop music hates that, because it runs completely against the grain of its assembly-line, Thou Must Conform nature.

 

Good.

 

“Star-Crossed Lovers” is both hardcore and gorgeous, and you really can’t do any better than that.

Michael Gaughn

 

Red Hot + Indigo is available for streaming on YouTube, Google Play Music, and Deezer.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Cover Me

My turn.

 

There are so many songs I could have listed here—and so many I could have called out for trying to be covers and falling so far short. (Something Dennis and I pondered a couple days ago: The world is awash in tribute albums—so why don’t they ever produce good covers?)

 

If I really took the time to suss out all the best cover songs, I could probably come up with a scary long list. But since I’m without access to most of my music collection at the moment (Die Apple! Die!), I’m just going to pluck a few favorites almost at random out of the memory stream.

 

 

Cake, “I Will Survive”

Maybe the ballsiest cover ever, and the kind of radical reinterpretation that’s been missing from pop music for a long, long time. There’s no way Cake’s loud and proud middle finger could ever make its way into the mainstream in this far less tolerant time—which is one of the most damning things you can say about the way-too-easy-to-damn present.

Ben Folds, “Songs of Love”

Only two things are guaranteed to put me in a bulletproof good mood—’20s small-group jazz and Folds’ take on this song.

 

(But I’ve gotta give an Honorable Mention to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” off the same album.)

Tom Waits, “Somewhere”

The moment Waits’ voice tumbles in after the languid, soaring, wistful string intro couldn’t be more wrong, and couldn’t be more right—which I’m pretty sure is the working definition of sublime.

 

 

Propellerheads, “Goldfinger”

Can a remix be a cover? Does it matter?

 

As long as somebody reinterprets a song in a way that simultaneously takes you someplace totally new while keeping you firmly grounded in the original, it’s a cover, no matter how they get you there. To love this track, you sort of have to shove the steep, steep downside of Bond culture off to your peripheral vision and ride the wave of the track’s giddy emotion for all it’s worth.

The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”

This one really stretches the definition of a cover—but isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that the adventure? At what point do the samples stop being independent tracks? When are they subsumed by the larger whole and become indistinguishable elements of the new song created out of their disparate parts? And, no matter how heavily manipulated, can you ever completely extinguish the spirit of the original? But those are all questions for Walter Benjamin, I guess.

Sid Vicious, “My Way”

I realize Vicious’ punk gutting of Sinatra’s creaky anthem is an obvious choice, but it’s a lot more than the one-note joke most people think it is. Just compare it to Gary Oldman’s tepid stab in Sid & Nancy and you’ll get the point. Everybody’s drooling over Oldman right now, but he didn’t even come close to capturing Vicious, the good or the bad. (That Hollywood had to give Oldman a bigger gun tells you everything you need to know about Sid & Nancy—and Hollywood.)

 

(Kubrick contemplated ending Full Metal Jacket with Vicious’ “My Way”—and he should have. It would have taken the film to a hell of a lot better place than the way too obvious “Paint It Black.”)

Zooey Deschanel, “Tonight You Belong to Me”

I’ve never been able to stomach Zooey Deschanel as an actor. Her tomboy to It Girl transformation always seemed a little too forced, and New Girl was one of the worst examples of shameless pandering I’ve ever been unlucky enough to encounter. But Zooey the media spectre and Zooey the would-be performer are two other animals completely. With She & Him, she’s somehow been able to rise above her obvious limitations as a singer/musician—and her both controlled and erratic cover of this guileless song drives that point home in spades. (And if you’ve never seen it before, check this one out too.)

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Avalanches on Vinyl–Why?!

Mention The Avalanches and you’ll usually get a blank stare in returnwhich always surprises the hell out of me because they had big hits in 2001 with “Since I Left You” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and their videos have millions of views. But more importantly, they reinvented pop.

 

I’m not saying they were the first to explore this territoryfar from it. Appropriation has been rampant in the avant-garde ever since reel-to-reel recorders, it entered the mainstream in the ‘80s, and bands like the Beastie Boysa key influence on The Avalanchesand Propellerheads made it part of the lingua franca.

 

But The Avalanches changed everything by not just sampling in a certain way at a certain timethey did it by sampling everything, all the time. And that might help explain why they, like Propellerheads, were kind of a one-album wonder. (They released a second album, Wildflower, last year, but their genius is really contained in their first album, Since I Left You.)

 

What makes their work sublime is that they’re both completely self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious at the same time. The “Since I Left You” track works so seamlessly as a seemingly fluffy retro pop song that most people probably don’t know it’s almost completely made up of samples. And that speaks to an extraordinary amount of effort and taste and talent.

But once you’re aware of the origins of the various sounds and songs, that almost everything on Since I Left You comes from somewhere else, that really the only thing original about it is the way the bandRobbie Chater and Darren Saltmann, reallybrought those existing pieces together, it becomes a completely different experience. And, yes, I’m being ironic when I say “really the only thing original” because an astounding amount of creativity went into crafting these tracks, and a lot of the samples are so heavily manipulated you’d probably never recognize them in their original form.

 

But that’s a big part of the album’s deadly serious playfulness, retaining the essence of what is, for the most part, some pretty trivial raw material while transmuting it into something that becomes an essential part of a radically different whole.

 

The greatest thing about Since I Left You is that it troubles notions of creativity and originality in very fundamental wayswhich both does and doesn’t lead to what I really wanted to talk about here: What does it mean to listen to Since I Left You on vinyl?

 

Unless I’m missing something (which is completely possible), the whole point behind the vinyl revivalor renaissance or backlash, or whatever you want to call itis to assert vinyl’s superiority over digital media. Simply put, that’s nothing but bullcrap because most people don’t have good enough equipmentor, if they do, it’s usually set up in a way that compromises the sound qualityto tell the difference.

 

The so-called revival is really just a vaguely elitist fadand a preference for coloration (a supposedly warmer sound) over authenticity. And boy does that open up a huge can of worms.

the avalanches since I left you vinyl

Since I Left You was reissued earlier this year as a two-LP gatefold, including a limited-release colored-vinyl version. So what are you actually hearing on those LPs? What nuances can vinyl reveal that digital media can’t?

 

I mean, we’re talking about an album made up of samples from all kinds of sourcesincluding, inevitably, old recordsall tossed into a vast bouillabaisse that made it virtually impossible to maintain an optimal level of sound quality. Since I Left You is filled with distortionthe kind of stuff that makes hardcore audiophiles want to rally for an old-fashioned album burning. But that distortionwhich sometimes borders on outright muddiness, and is very much deliberateis one of the most beautiful things about this very beautiful record.

 

So, again, when you listen to Since I Left You on vinyl, what are you really hearing? It could be argued that it’s still an audiophile experience because the vinyl could have greater fidelity than the CDbut faithful to what? It can’t possibly be to any kind of absolute sound, because that wasn’t relevant to the album’s creation, so I guess it’s to all that distortionand the pops, hiss, and sometimes questionable engineering in the sampled tracks, and to everything else that represents the antithesis of audiophile dogma.

 

Which might be why I love it so muchboth the original CD and the recent LPbecause it makes a mockery of all these sacred cows, not viciously, but by doing something really transgressive with wit and a deft touch, and a genuine love for the source material.

 

So if you cue up Since I Left You on your turntable, you can’t be listening to it for any kind of traditional notion of fidelityunless you’re deeply deluded. If you do prefer it to digital, it has to be because of a coloration, because of something that goes completely against the grain of the “vinyl’s better” battle cry.

 

You’re preferring it just because it sounds warmerin other words, because it creates the illusion of comfort in a very cold world. Which means you’re just trying to crawl back into the womb.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.