29 September 2006

Heard It All Before

As I was tooling around Manhattan today, I happened to hear a subway busker playing "O Holy Night" on a saw. Yes, a saw. And yes, a Christmas Carol in September.

For me, it was not the definitive version of the song.

However, the saw-lady's performance did get me thinking about cover versions, and I would like to extend these questions to all of you...

Which cover versions do you think surpass the originals? Are just as good? Are worse?

Here are my candidates for each category:

(1) Better than the Original

"Red, Red Wine" -- Originally by Neil Diamond. Covered by UB40.

Neil Diamond's version of this song is kind of like Neil Diamond himself: wimpy. It sounds like the epitome of 70s lite rock, and it was recorded in 1968. That should tell you something. Listening to "Diamond Neil's" version, I can almost see him squinting his eyes in earnest feeling. 'Cause the people don't know you mean what you sing unless they can see the power of it is about to drive you blind.

But UB40? To this very day, that sexy reggae beat still makes me want to take off my shirt. Their version is a sexy ode! Granted, it's an ode to how drinking makes you do stupid things, but being drunk is sexy at about 11:30 PM, when nobody's started throwing up. That's the time to hear this slow jam.

Oh, okay, it's always time to hear it, if only for the part where the guy with the Jamaican accent raps. "Red red wine you make feel so fine. You keep me rockin alla da time." Exactly.

(2) As Good as the Original

"Fall on Me" -- Originally by REM. Covered by Cry, Cry, Cry.

Cry, Cry, Cry was a side project of solo folkies Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. They released one album, and each track was a cover of something written by a lesser-known but highly talented songwriter.

And then there was "Fall On Me," the one song they covered that was originally recorded by superstars. Those who love REM tend to love this song, and rightfully so. It's a beautiful, haunting rumination on... well, who knows? The lyrics make no sense. "There's a problem/Feathers, iron/Bargan buildings, weights, and pullies." Um... okay. That's probably about environmentalism, but it could also be about Michael Stipe's acid trip.

Regardless, though, REM's version is great. Cry, Cry, Cry does the song justice by building beautiful harmonies out of the chorus, upping the tempo just a hair, and not using any of the echo-effects that make Michael Stipe's vocal sound so spooky. The result has a crisper, clearer sound, which makes "Fall On Me" seem more mournful. REM's version--recorded during the high point of their college radio days--feels more intellectualized, whereas Cry, Cry, Cry's evokes urgent emotion.

But either way, the song rules.

(3) Worse than the Original

"Big Yellow Taxi"-- Originally by Joni Mitchell. Covered by Amy Grant, then by Counting Crows with Vanessa Carlton.

You know what, artists of the world? One of the great things about Joni Mitchell's version of "Big Yellow Taxi" is that she does not take herself too seriously while singing it. Did you catch that giggle at the end there? Yes, she knows that we don't know what we got 'til it's gone, but she's not ending with the verses on how all the trees are disappearing. She ends the song with the verse about the titular taxi taking away her boyfriend as he dumps her.

And that laugh? Plus the sunny disposition of the music? They suggest that Joni Mitchell knows how silly it is to compare the loss of the forest with the loss of a boyfriend. Global catastrophe and heartbreak are just on different scales.

But sometimes it doesn't feel that way, so what can you do but sing about and try to feel better?

So... um... Counting Crows and Vanessa Freaking Carlton? You missed the point. Your cover of "Big Yellow Taxi," despite Vanessa's vocoder-enhanced "shoo-bop-bops," reeks of self-importance. Overemphasizing the words, Adam Duritz, does not make them poetry. And adding a crappy synth beat does not make this a song that the kids will dig.

Oh, and Amy Grant? I can't dis you too much. You were my first concert, after all, and I knew every word to your "Heart in Motion" album. Baby, baby, I had taken with the notion to love you with the sweetest of devotion.

And when I heard your version of "BYT," I hadn't even heard of Joni Mitchell.

What? I was 13!

But still... I think we both should admit that "Big Yellow Taxi," like everything on your "House of Love" album, is a little lame. Who could have guessed you could sound even more squeaky clean than you did on "Every Heartbeat?"


27 September 2006

A bit off topic...

Writing-wise, September has been especially busy for me. And I don't just mean the time that I spend crafting these blog posts, though I'm sure every one of them reads on a par with James Agee. (What up, Knoxville!)

My writing usually appears in publications that require paid suscriptions for on-line access, so I don't talk about it much here. It seems hankty to mention stuff that most of you can't read, you know?

But today? We're mixing it up! Today marks my first appearance in the print edition of The Village Voice, and that publication is 100% free. If you're in New York, grab a copy of this week's issue and turn to page 50 for some scintillating information.

If you're not a New Yorker (or you're a New Yorker who prefers clicking a link to going out into the cruel, cruel elements), just go here to read my story.

I'm excited to share something that everyone can read... It's not about pop music, but sometimes you gotta flip the script.


24 September 2006

When the Listening's Easy

Remember a few years ago when Five For Fighting released a song called "Superman (It's Not Easy)" that explained how hard it is to live up to the expectations placed on white, aging men from middle class backgrounds? "It may sound absurd, but don't be naive," crooned John Ondrasik (who uses FFF as a stage name), "Even heroes have the right to bleed... And it's not easy to be me."

I remember being in the car with my friend Amy when this song was on the radio. She said something like, "Oh, please, motherfucker. It's totally easy to be you. Quit whining."

And... really. Just like I don't have any sympathy for corporate executives who have to acknowledge their humanity in the form of a Viagra prescription, I don't feel pangs for a man who majored in math at UCLA before heading off on his successful music career.

And I'm not saying I've had it so tough that I can be judgmental. My life has been pretty terrific across the board. But I'm not writing songs pretending otherwise.

I'll be damned, though, if I don't enjoy the sound of Five For Fighting. Those gentle piano chords and softly crooned vocals can be awfully soothing. If they weren't, we wouldn't know names like Christopher Cross, Hall & Oates, and Kenny Loggins. (We all know those names, right? It's not just me and this guy?)

But is it possible to get my adult contemporary groove on without choking on sentimentality? FFF isn't the answer. And neither is Clay-freaking-Aiken. Even if I could get past the new bangs, I could not accept an album in which his freckled highness covers songs by Richard Marx, Bryan Adams, and, God help us all, Celine Dion.

However, that album exists... and thus pulls loose another thread from the tapestry of my sanity.

(On a side note: In checking facts for this blog, I often look up albums on Amazon, even if I have no interest in buying them. (Like Clay Aiken's album! Seriously!) The website, though, doesn't know which searches are for informational purposes only, so it uses all of them to make recommendations for things I might like. As a result, I am being nudged toward both the DVD of The Little Mermaid and a paperback edition of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Surivival.)

With regard to adult contemporary, where can I turn? Where can I go for light rock that doesn't make me want to throw up? I can hear some of you whispering, "Snow Patrol will do! Or how about Coldplay? Or Ryan Adams?" I agree with you, of course, that all those artists make pleasing music, but their ilk asks a bit more of a listener than your basic Huey Lewis (right, Laura?)

There's so much anger and despondency in Snow Patrol's lyrics, for instance, that they create a fascinating conflict with the band's power-pop music.

In cases like that, I want to think about the songs while I'm hearing them, and that's not what I'm talking about here. When I say "adult contemporary," I mean music that goes down smoother than Yoo-Hoo. I mean background tunes I can listen to while I'm flipping through Entertainment Weekly's Fall TV Preview for the fortieth time, making sure I've got the DVR set to record "Ugly Betty."

And not everyone who appears on A.C. stations will do. Just like intriguing rock, overly schmaltzy crap pulls me right out of my magazine. I get so disgusted by the histrionics on "My Heart Will Go On" or the soulless bombast of "This is The Night" that I can't pay attention to anything else.

Fortunately, I think The Fray can provide the wallpaper sounds I need. I've already mentioned that I like their first hit, "Over My Head (Cable Car)", and I'm equally fond of their latest top ten single, "How to Save a Life." On the latter, singer Isaac Slade sounds just like Ryan Adams, which means his voice is husky and emotive without being overwrought. And both songs' mid-tempo pace recalls your average episode of "Dawson's Creek." You know... intelligent and earnest, but not especially groundbreaking.

And when I do The Fray my full attention, I'm greeted by clever-enough lyrics like "I never knew... that everyone I knew/ was waiting on a queue/ to turn and run when all I needed was the truth."

Not Death Cab for Cutie, but not insipid either.

"Not inspid" may sound like snide praise, but it's all I need from adult contemporary ditties. When I want to relax with music for middle class white people, it's nice to have a go-to band.


21 September 2006

The Thermals : This Was No Accident

So there's this band called The Thermals. They've been around for a few years, releasing garage rock on Sub Pop, an indie label so famous for housing early Nirvana that it's hard to believe it's still an indie label at all.

(And as it turns out, Sub Pop isn't an indie label anymore. Thanks to Laura for the heads up!)

But The Thermals' newest album, "The Body, The Blood, The Machine," clearly comes from an indie band. And it's not because the album's subject matter--frustration with modern religion--is so underground. I mean, Sarah McLachlan covered an XTC song about not believing in God, and Green Day had a number one album when "American Idiot" examined similar subjects.

The Thermals are clearly an indie band because they sound so utterly unrehearsed. On my first quick listen, I thought the record was an explosion of pure emotion, just big chords and screechy guitars and some kind of sadness permeating every song.

Several things could explain this tone. For one thing, bassist Kathy Fisher had to step in on drums at the last minute after a group member split. There's a frenzy to her work, as though she were trying to squeeze in a drum fill before racing back over to the bass.

Equally unpolished are Hutch Harris' nasal vocals, which sound very much like John Darnielle's on The Mountain Goats albums. Harris moves between singing and yelping with the awkward effort of a kid leaping sidewalk cracks.

However, there is something beneath all that sonic fuzz that grabs me. Something more purposeful that makes me want to pay attention.

Second and third listens reveal honest-to-god craft that breaks through the walls of feedback. In the opening moments of "Returning to the Fold," for instance, Harris' soaring voice leaps ten miles above the minor-chord guitar licks. Right away, there's a dramatic tension in the material. It sounds like the instruments are going to get away from Harris as he keeps stretching out his notes. There's this rollicking rhythm, but will it leave him behind?

Then the voice and instruments get in synch--Harris gets more restrained and everyone's working at the same pace. It's like the singer has fallen onto a moving train and landed safely. During the chorus, every flows smoothly.

But then... he leaps! Another soaring note! "Wait for me, wait for me," he sings, and the words make perfect sense with the music. By the time Harris lands again--riding out the rest of the song, sitting directly on top of its tempo--an entire journey has occurred.

For all their wildness, the Thermals are very much in control. They've made a record that sounds spontaneous in its energy but is too diverse in its sound and emotion to be anything but carefully planned.

That kind of careful chaos enthralls me.


20 September 2006

Robyn is Here

(Whoops... the photo program isn't working. But at least there's a video at the end of this post!)

Okay, you guys, we've got to talk about Robyn.

For those who don't remember her, she had two catchy hits in the late 90s: "(Do You Know) What It Takes" and "Show Me Love." The video for the former showed her driving a van in rush-hour city traffic, seeing a hot guy on the sidwalk, and pulling her car across three lanes so she could climb on top of it and sing to him. It made her look impossibly cool.

But since those traffic-stopping days, Americans have heard little from the Swede (who writes her own songs) She's had albums released in Europe, but nothing has materialized here.

Earier this year, however, her new, self-titled record appeared on iTunes. This is noteworthy because it features the song "Be Mine," which is one of the most exquisite pop songs I have heard in a very long time.

But it takes a minute to realize that. "Be Mine" has such an unusual sound--all those slashing violins, that strange crescendo of backing vocals in the bridge, the spoken word segment--that I didn't quite get it the first time I listened.

However, since so many European critics (and Fred Bronson at Billboard magazine) were raving, I decided to ignore my befuddlement and give "Be Mine" another chance. And it finally clicked. Now the song has laid eggs in my brain like a tuneful parasite. It's just. Always. There. Its constant presence is pretty exciting.

So let me encourage everyone to give "Be Mine" a chance. You can purchase the song at iTunes, and you can watch the video just by scrolling down this post. And the video is CRAZY. What's going on with my girl's eyes? Are they mirrors? And did she shave her head, or is that latex?

Anyway, I'd love to know what you guys think of this song. It's been stuck in my head for months, so I figured it was time to share.


18 September 2006

Party Like It's 1989

As some of you may have noticed, I am not terribly hip.

I mean, even though I live in New York City, I occasionally hang out at the mall. It's a fancy mall, but still. No amount of Aveda hair whip can mask the stank of an eighth grade pastime.

But I have fun, dammit. And that brings me to today's topic.


Last Friday, Andrew and I celebrated our friend Topher's birthday at Culture Club. For those who don't know it, it's entirely 80s-themed. The walls are covered in big painting of Ferris Bueller, Madonna, and the like, and there's a DeLorean hanging from the ceiling.

If you opened up my head an examined the inner walls of my skull, you'd see they're decorated in just the same way.

Better still, Culture Club's playlist is almost entirely devoid of remixes. Instead, you get 80s songs with their original lyrics and melodies in tact. And the remixes that are played still bear a strong resemblance to the originals. You can grab your specialty cocktail--cleverly punning on names like George Michael or Banarama--tear your eyes off the televisions that loop old videos, and head to the dance floor for a few songs you actually recognize.

And you know what? Good! I hate--yes, I said hate--dancing to mind-numbing, repetitive techno. For me, the anonymous thumpa-thumpa massacres the potential for fun.

That's probably becasue when I dance, I want to pay attention to the songs. I want to be able to sing along, act out the lyrics, get excited for the key change. I don't want my dance music to be in the background.

I know there are millions of people who disagree with me, and that is totally fine. Y'all go ahead and have a great time with your 12-minute dub mixes and what have you. I'll be at Culture Club--or, frankly, in my living room--going wild to some original Taylor Dayne.

Don't like it? Tell it to my heart.

Or at the very least, tell it to my blog.


15 September 2006

Times, They Have A-Changed

If this were 1996, I would be losing my mind. This week, Barenaked Ladies released a new album, and next week there's a new platter on the way from Indigo Girls.

When I was a high school senior (1996-1997) these were my favorite artists. I can remember pulling into my space in the school parking lot (right next to a cow field) and just blasting "Life, In a Nutshell" from BNL's "Rock Spectacle" album. When the Cavalier's rockin', don't come-a-knockin', y'all.

And the night before I graduated Ooltewah High, I saw BNL give a free concert. FREE. I even sat on the stage. To this day, that's a tie for the best concert I've ever attended.

But even more than BNL, Indigo Girls were the sun of my musical universe. From freshman year of high school through freshman year of college, I was some kind of crazy-robo-superfan. I mean, I didn't choose Emory University because Indigo Girls had gone there, but it didn't hurt, you know?

I saw the ladies play five times in a single year. I knew the words to every song. Hell, my first AOL screen name was Indigomale. (Someone had taken Indigoboy already, damn them)

I have a crateful of memories in which Indigo Girls' music is playing in the background. Most of those memories are earnest because Emily Saliers and Amy Ray were the soundtrack to my burgeoning emotional life.

For instance... once when I was about seventeen, my friend Jessica and I were walking across the Walnut Street Bridge--Which is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. Snap!--and we heard the strains of "Closer to Fine," that quintessential Indigo Girls song, floating through the air. Time stopped for a second, and then we started racing toward the sound. We discovered two local singers on the back porch of a bar, playing an outdoor show and covering the greatest hit of our favorite group.

And it felt so magical, like this song was being played to give Jessica and me and special moment. Like our entire friendship had just been sanctified because we alone were on the bridge to hear what we heard.

I can remember how I felt when the song was over. Twenty hands were squeezing my chest from the inside. Faster breathing. Eyes a little blurred.

For the five years I loved Indigo Girls, my life was riddled with days like that.

It still is, but now transcendent moments don't need accompaniment. I still love music. (Have you checked out this blog?) But it no longer seems like proof of my life's meaning. I used to love songs when they spoke for my scrambled heart... when some chaos of adolescent feeling I could barely describe was articulated by Emily Saliers' words or the soaring chorus on "What a Good Boy."

These days, I know myself well. I still love artists who can say something surprising or honest, but I don't feel the tumbling-down devotion anymore. I am moved by my favorite music, but I am not defined by it.

I think about those Indigo Girls days, and it's a nostalgia storm. I can hear that music and feel softness for a guy who felt so deeply about so much that he thought his heart was going to punch a hole through his ribs.

But I can't listen to new releases from Indigo Girls or Barenaked Ladies. Rather, I don't. I hear samples, and they just don't interest me. For me, both acts may as well have vanished after 1998.

Have you guys had that experience? Is there some defining artist from your past who you haven't taken with you to the present? Is there music that feels left behind--a monument to someone you had to stop being so you could enter the next part of your life?


13 September 2006

Oh, Roe Is Me!

We all remember The Beatles. And nobody's going to forget The Supremes.

But not everyone who made music at the dawn of time--or, you know, in the sixties--is so lucky. Some people get forgotten. They are to the counterculture decade what Breathe are to the 80s.

Who? Exactly.

But Breathe made some really great songs, people! And so did artists like Tommy Roe.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe everybody remembers 1960s pop-rocker Tommy Roe. However, I get the sense that he's sliding off the edge of history, landing in a dogpile that includes Melanie, The Toys, and Gilbert O'Sullivan.

For the time being, though, I'd like to put his name back in lights. Because Tommy Roe recorded one of the most perfect pop songs in history.

It's a little ditty called "Dizzy."

I can remember being 11 or 12 years old, riding back home with my parents from somewhere. For the sake of this story--and because it's probably accurate--I'll say we were riding back from Ryan's Steakhouse and Buffet.

As usual, the 'rents had enforced their Draconian rule that we listen to the oldies station, since we'd listened to "my" music on the way to our all-you-can-eat bonanza.

What they didn't seem to get was that Technotronic, Bell Biv Devoe, and Wilson Phillips weren't "my" music. They were everyone's. Sheesh. Parents, you know?

Imagine my surprise, though, when this song appeared on LiteMix 105 that I actually loved. It had this awesome drum beat, and these rapidly changing chords. It was music that sounded... current. Listenable. Almost as good as a Technotronic.

"What's that?" I asked.

And you could see it. You could see my dad just loving the fact that I liked an oldie, as if I'd finally gotten some sense. "That's 'Dizzy' by Tommy Roe!" he exclaimed.

And when we got home, he handed me an LP (yes, LP) called "12 in a Roe." It was a greatest hits collection that also featured snippets of Roe being interviewed about each song.

I listened to "Dizzy" several times, and I learned it went to Number 1 in 1969. I also enjoyed other Roe hits, including number 1 single (and Buddy Holly soundalike) "Sheila."

Since then, though I still contend that "Pump Up the Jam" really is music for everyone, I've wised up to the fact that oldies can actually be goodies.

"Dizzy" remains one of my favorites.

I still remember you, Tommy Roe. I still remember.


11 September 2006

A Special Thanks

To everyone who reads "I Totally Hear That,"

I cannot express how grateful I am that all of you are here. Writing this blog gives me so much joy, and that would not be possible without you.

No jokes here. Just pure happiness.



08 September 2006

Double your glam, double your fun

Hungry for seventies rock? Well, come join me at the buffet! These days, there's enough polyester jamming for everyone.

For one thing, Elton John's upcoming album "The Captain and the Kid," is a sequel to "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy." The latter is a Nixon-era masterpiece, and I'm excited to think that Elton could return to his blues-rock roots and leave behind the sound of Disney musicals and adult contemporary cooing. At least for a little while. Just long enough to let us step outside of the circle of life.

And remember a few weeks ago, when I suggested I could get obsessed with a band called Under the Influence of Giants?

People, it's happened. Color me fascinated.

Along with Scissor Sisters, UTIOG are part of a mini-revival of glam rock--blending shimmery bleeps with fierce guitar riffs, stirring whipped cream falsettos with rocky road wails, and forcing me to mix my metaphors.

UTIOG's music is fun, but it's complex. The songs may all sound like the seventies, but they don't all the sound the same. "Mama's Room" is a disco anthem, but "Got Nothing" owes a huge debt to Queen Then there's my favorite, "In the Clouds," which actually sounds like a harder version of Duran Duran. Which is 80s. But close enough.

(I know saying "harder version of Duran Duran" sounds crazy. Like saying "a doggier version of cats." But listen to "In the Clouds." Hear what I mean?)

Plus, as luck would have it, Scissor Sisters have a new album, "Ta-Dah," coming out later this month. Go here to experience their disco-fabulous new single, "I Don't Feel Like Dancing."

Now, on the surface, SS and UTIOG two bands seem very much the same.

Okay, fine. They seem the same on very deep levels, too. If I were tipsy or tired, I couldn't distinguish them.

But I think we've got room for both. What am I going to do? Get annoyed that two bands are making music in a genre I like? Where I'm from, that's called a blessing. So give praise.

P.S. -- For those of you with time to kill, check out this video for the new Scissor Sisters song. Jake Shears is pretty. So, so pretty.


07 September 2006

The Alarm is Ringing

Hello, hello, hello! I'm back from Iceland, where Andrew and I celebrated our first anniversary. It was a perfect vacation, and I was able to buy a CD filled with Icelandic pop hits. I'll report on them ASAP.

For now, though, I'd like to discuss Beyonce. Those of you who have been reading this blog from the beginning may remember my previous entry on the former child of destiny. Now I have new reason to write.

Just watch this video, for her single "Ring the Alarm" :

When I first heard "Ring the Alarm," I was underwhelmed. To me, it sounded like generic hip-pop that was beneath a woman who created the jiggly masterpiece that is "Crazy in Love."

Then I saw the video.

Honestly, when was the last time you saw a pop star acting like that? We get posturing, yes, and plenty of sassy posing, but in this clip, Beyonce exudes fury. Her eyes alone could tear through the cheating man in queston. And watch her physicality on the line "you can't stay/you gotta go" (about 1 minute in). It's a simple finger wag, followed by a hand that brushes the air. But the cripsness of the movement, coupled with her unblinking glare at the camera, give it the authenticity of a spontaneous gesture, as though Beyonce were actually feeling the words of the song.

When the bridge comes--at about 2:48--she drops into a glaze-eyed sadness in which her face goes almost blank with despair. Instead of acting pissed off for the entire song, she shows range.

There's only so much depth you can show in three and a half minutes, of course, but Beyonce's commitment to her work bodes well for her upcoming turn in the film version of Dreamgirls. With "Ring the Alarm," she proves she has the chops to make lip-snyching much more than just mouthing along. I'll be very interested to see how she develops that skill over a full performance.

I'm also reminded how much a video can alter my perception of a song. I still don't think it's Beyonce's best, but now I can enjoy listening to the track, reminded of the video's vitality. In the fierce, staccato beat and in Beyonce's growling vocal, I can hear the emotion that inspires the visuals.

And it would be easy to say the song is at fault if it needs a video to make it listenable. However, I'm happy the video helped me discover something in the song that I wouldn't have heard otherwise. I'm happy to revise my stance on Beyonce. I may not enjoy everything she does, but I have to give her credit for doing some things better than her peers.