Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cover-versies: Payphone by Walk Off The Earth

Considering I sing ‘Payphone’ regularly at karaoke shows--it’s one of my signature songs--I am not a fan at all of Maroon 5.

Okay, to be fair I liked Songs For Jane, the debut album.  But back then you could see that Adam Levine and company was very conflicted as to the band they wanted to be.  One half of the album was this great, sludgy sort of funk rock and the other half was pop crap.  I so wanted the funk rock half of the band to win out.

Of course, Maroon 5 chose to go the pop crap route.  And the rest is history.

‘Payphone’ is typical of the kind of stuff Maroon 5 does now.  It’s firmly in the pop mode, to the point of having a rap break by Wiz Kalifa toward the end so it can be played of ‘urban contemporary’ station (it’s the transition from pop song to rap song that I think compels me to sing it over and over again).  Its based on a rather outmoded image of a lover trying to reach out to the one who spurned him from a device that’s been long gone from the public consciousness, yet does very little with that image.  I suspect that the one thing that saves it is what saves much of pop music these days, namely the hookiness of the melody itself is the only thing that matters.

Anyway, before I talk about the cover by Walk Off The Earth, here’s the original video:

(And no, I don’t know why the video is about a bank robbery)

Now that we’ve heard the original, here’s Walk Off The Earth’s version:

Okay, you can see that one of the things this band--who made their musical bones with covers on Youtube--did was dial back the production.  By simply stripping it down, they made this cover distinct from the original.  The male vocals seem a little quieter than Levine’s and less mannered.  This makes for a more sincere delivery of the story.  I also rather like the way the band adds the instruments one at a time, allowing us to concentrate on the lyrics and not drowning them in pop production goop.

But what elevates this cover is the rap break.

It’s entirely different from the Wiz Kalifa version.  Instead of the ‘I’m rich and got stuff so who’s the fool for leaving me’ rift we get the other side of the story--the female half of this relationship telling off our POV character, first by telling him ‘I’m pretty sure payphones don’t even exist’ and them insisting that she never had her say, hinting at some of the things he did and making it clear that she’s not picking up the phone and telling him to leave a message.

This transforms the entire song, giving us a fuller perception of the relationship the song is purportedly about.  It opens up the narrative and makes us question if our POV character is in the right.  In short, a song about a man freeing himself from a dysfunctional relationship becomes a dialogue about where to ascribe blame.  That takes some creativity.

Walk Off The Earth is presently preparing to tour in support of their new album.  Maroon 5 is still Maroon Five.  You can’t have everything.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

This Is Your Song For....June 18th, 2014: Karma Police

From their closet, they mess with you...
Today on This Is Your Song--a ominous cover of an already ominous song.

Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Flunk when I stumbled on the band’s version of ‘Blue Monday.’  Kinda fuzzy and low-fi with a compelling female vocal by Anya Oyen Vistar, the song maked the quartet as a band to watch.

This is a cover from 2009‘s This Is What You Get (I am fascinated by how this album, like their first, is named after a line from a song they cover), and it takes full advantage of the creepy vibe of the original.  By submerging the vocal in a sludgy guitar arrangement enhanced by electronic bleeps and blurbs, you do get the sense that there’s something really, really wrong with both the culprits and the speaker.  This is a person who has not crashed a party; this is a person who has infiltrated it for some sort of nefarious person--which makes the statement ‘This is what you get when you mess with us’ an actual threat.  And the way it slowly slows, degrading as if the song’s components are coming apart, makes for a somber coda.

I enjoy the chilly, vaguely scary cool of Flunk.  All evidence points to the band still being in existence, as they released Lost Causes last year.

Here is the song:

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

This Is Your Song For....April 30th, 2014: Handwritten by The Gaslight Anthem

We're from know, like Springsteen only
more tattoo'd.
Welcome back to This Is Your Song. of the best bands that wish they were Bruce Springsteen.

Well, not the best in my opinion--I still hold The Hold Steady high above all (as does Mr. Springsteen himself, who handpicked Craig Finn and company to cover himself for the War Is For Heroes compilation some times ago)--but I do love this band a lot.  Plus they’ve got the distinction of actually being from New Jersey, so they got Springsteen cred, and they have quoted a Spirngsteen song in one of their lyrics.  The thing that I appreciate the Anthem is Brian Fallon’s vocals, which manage to both have strength and seem to crack with emotion at the same time, and the fast, bright guitar playing by the members throughout.  While their Springsteen influence is front and center, I also see little glimmers of The Dropkick Murphys and The Wedding Present in the way they gleefully attack their melodies and worry them like my friend’s dog Cobie with a bone.

This is the title track from their fourth album, and while it does have the very Bruce-like theme of Blue Collar Love, there’s more going on.  This song also speaks of the way music bonds up together right from the first line-- ‘Pull it on, turn it up, what’s your favorite song’--and utilizes it to tell the story of a lover looking to reunite using mutual commonalites.  And if that’s not enough, they introduce the metaphor of love being handwritten to allude to the process of creativity.  As our singer talks of rewriting the story of his life with his lover to have a happy ending, I can’t help but think that he’s also comparing this love to the way a song begins organically, with a musician literally putting words on paper.  As with many Gaslight Anthem songs, many of which share the names of songs by artists I have to think are less obvious influences (Simon and Garfunkel, The Pixies), there are more layers going on than one would expect.  And that’s why I appreciate them as much as I do.

The Gaslight Anthem recently released a box set collecting their singles and an album collecting their B-Sides, and are working on a new album as we speak.

Here’s the song:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Karaoke Songs 1: Marlene On The Wall by Suzanne Vega

In the beginning there was an off-kilter
black and white photo
So what is this?

As some of you may know, I am training to be a karaoke host.  My best friend, Vinnie Bracco, is a karaoke host and has been mentoring me--and even before then, I have been a karaoke enthusiast for several years.  I enjoy singing, and I enjoy making a spectacle of myself.  So what this is is my weekly-or-so attempt to take one song I did at karaoke shows that week and talk about it.

I did this song at Friday’s karaoke show hosted by Mr. Jay, a friend of Vinnie, and someone who has been providing a lot of advice and guidance during my training; it’s Jay who allowed me to do my first full shift.  This was a slow night, so I decided to do songs originally performed by female singers.  This is not the first time I’ve done this--one of my signature tunes at this Friday show is Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic,’ sung for Locals Bar and Grill's wonderful bartender Gosha.  But Friday night was the first time I consciously did it as a theme.

As for this partcular song, it was the first single from Suzanne Vega, off her self-titled debut.  Most people would have probably forgotten it, as it was long ago eclipsed by the one-two punch off her second album, Solitude Standing, ‘Luka’ and ‘Tom’s Diner.’  But it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first time I encountered Ms. Vega’s work, and I owe it all to U68.

U68, WWHT, was an Ultra-High Frequency Television Station (and here’s were several generations of my listeners will go, “What?”) out of New Jersey.  For the longest time, U68 survived by being the home of Wometco Home Theater, a primitive broadcast based alternative to cable television where subscribers got a box that would descramble WWHT’s signal to get movies and smut.  When cable’s penetration into the New York tri-state made the station’s pay TV model unprofitable, WWHT became a music video station.  A change of name from Wometco Home Theater to U68 sealed the deal.

Of course, since many record labels had exclusive contracts with MTV, U68 was stuck with the also-rans and oddballs of the music video business--the stuff that MTV wouldn’t run.  Which is why, amongst U68’s bizarre signature station IDs (here’s a bum on the street singing opera!  Here’s Jon-Mikel Thor bending steel with his teeth!) ‘Marlene On The Wall’ found its way into my living room.

'Marlene On The Wall’ is an interesting song for how untypical it is from most Suzanne Vega songs.  It’s certainly Vega getting deeply in touch with her inner Elvis Costello; the staccato reading of the lyrics and certain imagery makes it clear who she’s channeling.  It’s the only song that has that triphammer delivery on the album, and she doesn’t return to that style of singing until 'Blood Makes Noise,’ the first--and to my knowledge, only--single off her own 'Glass Houses Moment, 99.9f.  Incidentally, that atypicalness of the song carries over in the rather awkward video that has the subdued Vega stuffed into a slinky black dress (one that she has to keep adjusting) and awkwardly trying to be all kittenish.  Not surprisingly, she fails, but in a charming way that emphasizes the awkwardness of song’s POV character herself.

Another antecedent I think the song has is ‘Bogart’ by Nik Kershaw.  Like ‘Bogart,’ this is a song about hero worship and the strength we can derive from it.  Unlike Kershaw’s track from Human Racing, however, the strength Ms. Vega gets from her heroine is more passive; this is, after all, a song supposedly written from the point of view of the poster of Dietrich that Vega had on her wall in the East Village.  It’s both more cynical and darker than 'Bogart,’ with Vega being ambivalent about her relationship and not actively seeking guidance from her hero.  Hell, she’s absolutely blase’ at spots (Even if I am in love with you/All this to say 'what’s it to you?’), her only worry is how this strange, tempestuous relationship is causing her to change who she is (But the only soldier now is me/I’m fighting things I cannot see).

Now, that staccato phrasing and the language, coupled with Vega’s tendency to write in a lower key, made it fairly easy for me to sing, and I loved singing it because it brought back fond memories of  a goofy music video TV station and an aspiring folk singer trying to retain her dignity while squeezed into a lil’ black dress.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

This Is Your Song For....April 17th, 2014: The Things We Said Today by The Gestures

Meet The...okay, not quite The Beatles....
Welcome back.   Today....Minnesota pop rock from the 60‘s from a band that really wants to be The Beatles.

And it’s very obvious that this song from 1964 is extremely influenced by early era Beatles.  An argument can be made that they’re more than influenced by the most famous Liverpudlians in the world; the melody line and Dale Menton’s vocals seems highly reminiscent of a certain composition of Lennon and McCarthy (listen to the song and decide for yourself).  But the freshness of the open composition--a composition that was most like written by one or two people and not the army that ends up writing most pop compositions these days--is pretty undeniable.  This is pop at its most stripped down, before Sgt. Pepper opened people up to what could be achieved in the studio.  This primitiveness has been away from mainstream music so long, it’s almost become modern again.  One can easily see this becoming a very minor hit, fitting comfortably alongside The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons of this age.

The other thing that fascinates me about this song, and the Gestures in general, is that they were purveyors of that long-forgotten tradition, the Local Heroes.  Now that music is so easily distributed worldwide through digital means and radio play is broadcast to several major cities simultaneously, the idea of a band that’s worshipped as Gods in their general area but is unknown outside of it is no longer commonplace.  Granted, there are still vestiges of that tradition--I shudder every Christmas when New York stations start playing the hideous ‘Dominic The Christmas Donkey’--but I almost miss having songs that are ours alone, songs that we we embrace as a collective nighborhood but everywhere else just doesn’t get.  These are the ugly stepchildren of pop music, unloved save for their parent location, and they are all beautiful in their own way.

The Gestures, not surprisingly, broke up decades ago.  But they were inducted into the Minnesota Rock N’ Roll Hall OF Fame in 2008, so there’s that much.

No video (why am I not surprised?), but the song is available on a number of compilations.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

This Is Your Song For....March 13th, 2014: Break Them Down by Graham Parker

Hiding behind a not very good album....
Welcome back.  Hopefully I can get up enough energy to submit these entries more than monthly soon.  Today...the Angry Young Man of New Wave most people forgot.

....which is a shame because if you consider Joe Jackson The Beatles, and Elvis Costello The Stones, then Graham Parker is The Kinks, the one that helped shape the genre while not getting the credit his peers deserved.  And let’s be honest; like The Kinks, Parker had a tendency towards inconsistency and an annoying habit of trying to chase the American market instead of being true to himself.

This is from a later phase in his career, after he broke ties with his most famous collaborators The Rumor, and was recording as Graham Parker And The Shot (this being the only album he records under that name).  This is a very transparent song about converting native cultures to Christianity and, while it’s not as unsubtle as ‘Green Monkeys,’ a song off the otherwise excellent,return-to-form album Struck By Lightning, it’s pretty obvious what Parker is getting at.  It’s sort of a sad period of his career, when he was flailing about trying to keep an audience that was growing bored with him.  It’s not for nothing that Parker never quite found another sympatico set of collaborators thoughout the late 80‘s onward until he recently reunited with The Rumor for the rather good Three Chords Good.

As you can no doubt tell, I don’t have much to say about this song.  If Graham Parker is The Kinks, then this is from the period in his career analogous to the late 70‘s era that saw Ray Davies produce Low Budget and Celluloid Heroes.

Here’s the song.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

This Is Your Song For....February 8th, 2014: Speakeasy by The Hollow Threads

This woman's voice is as beautiful as she is.
Welcome back.  Today...a beautiful voice and some weird music.

I know almost nothing about who The Hollow Threads are.  Their website only mentions that they are from Pasadena, California and they have an album available for whatever you want to pay on Bandcamp, and....they are odd.  Part ambient, part dreampop, the song features three actual lines of lyrics which seems to have nothing to do with the title of the song (Lay out the cards/let’s see who you are/you make me unravel) repeated several times over.

But to me, what makes the song is the dreamy, breathy voice of the band’s Meesha Black--who, frustratingly enough, is not named in any of the publicity information; if it wasn't for YouTube I wouldn't know her name.  This woman’s voice is just incredible.  While I may be ambivalent about the melody, her I am not.  I would love to hear more of in different settings.  Plus...downright gorgeous.  That’s gotta count for something.

I don’t know if The Hollow Threads are planning to make any more music--or, in fact, they still exist, but I’d love to hear more from this vocalist.

No video, but here's Meesha singing by herself.