Wednesday, May 16, 2012

36 Songs, 36 Days (2012 Edition), Day Fourteen: Toxic by Yael Naim

Not all things go better with a ukulele...
Yes, that 'Toxic.'

This is a live cover version of Britney Spears' Theme Song For A Bond Movie That Doesn't Exist done by the French Isreali singer perhaps best known for those MacBook Air commercials some time back. Naim's instrument of choice is the ukulele, although I admit that I can barely discern it here in this mix.

And it is...odd, and not in a good way.

Britney Spears is not exactly what you call an insightful lyricist--let's be honest, she's five degrees of braindead, her music being carried (like pretty much all 'pop' music these days) by its dance beat. And in the case of this single, Spears layered in a bit of hipster nostalgia by giving in to her inner Bond Girl and adding fills and instrumentation that evokes memories of vintage 60's spy culture. It's probably that later aspect that makes the original work for me, that attempt to evoke a period other than the here-and-now in what was up until that point an ephemeral musical catalog. Without that weird attempt to connect this fluffy little dance number with another musical period, 'Toxic' would be as forgotten like eighty percent of Spears' material.

What Naim has chosen to do is discard that aspect entirely. Her arrangement slows down the melody to such an extent that it takes on a dirge-like quality. This isn't the sprint through Spy-World of Spears' version; this is a slow march through an alien swamp, and that methodical plodding kills the kinetic forward momentum pretty much all of Spears' songs have. Naim tries to provide some form of fill by duplicating the swooping Bernard Herrmann-esque strings with her own voice, but the effect doesn't approximate the effect on the original. It's quite the opposite, in fact; it serves to push the listener away, as if this is some future Bad Girlfriend cornering you at a party trying to impress you with her many versatile, ummmm, talents.

Many times on this site I've talked about the hazards of alt acts covering hip hop songs in an 'ironic' way. I don't know if Naim is attempting this--certainly the cat noises at the end followed by laughter indicate it is, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt--but it really doesn't work. This cover represents the flip side of my contention that a cover needs to rejigger the original in some way as to give you a new perspective on said original. Naim has moved this song so far afield that it's damn near unrecognizable, and is forced to stand on its own...and on its own, the strange artifice and conscious quirkiness just doesn't work.

Here is Ms. Naim performing this cover for French television....



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