Friday, June 17, 2011

Better Than the Beatles

I’ve said before that I listen to the Beatles, own all their albums and play them more than I like to admit (I even have, and wear, half a dozen Beatles t-shirts), but I’m not a big fan. I can’t really explain it more than to say that while I do enjoy many of their albums immensely, it doesn’t fill me with the same emotive inspiration or awe that so many other artists do, and for all practical purposes my interest in them is purely academic.

Of course I’m in the vast minority with this viewpoint, and that’s fine. The almost religious fervor that surrounds the “myth” of the Beatles is sometimes interesting, sometimes annoying and always, it would seem, present in the music of the last five decades. From Motley Crue to Lady Gaga, everyone has to show their roots, reverence or raditude (oh yes I did) by drooling all over them in interviews and/or by laying down a little homage to the Fab Four on either record or in concert.

More often than not folks cover a Beatles song ridiculously true to the original, and while a good Beatles song performed to the “B” is (almost) always enjoyable, as often as not I ask, “What’s the point?” So it’s nice when someone uses one of these “rock n roll hymns” as nothing more than a blueprint to do their own thing and effectively blow the notes off the page.

I’ve been toying with the idea of a “best cover versions” post for some time now, but earlier today it hit me that some of the best ones are songs by the Beatles. I even find it interesting that really all my favorite Beatles covers come from the “White Album,” which I feel is a grossly overblown and overrated outing, where the best songs (I Will, Julia, Good Night and anything not by Lennon/McCartney) are often overlooked for some of the most banal rock n roll slush ever (Back in the USSR, Birthday, Helter Skelter, etc).

Of course that’s way, way off topic…so, here are four Beatles songs from the White Album reworked by other artists and, in my opinion, much more agreeable for the effort.

Dear Prudence – Siouxsie & the Banshees: Admittedly this one isn’t far off the initial mark, but there’s a spooky, sexy spark (as always with Siouxsie) that kicks this otherwise low key yawner into pop perfection, which is likely the band just getting off on how much they love the original, but still makes the experience a hundred times more enjoyable. Plus, it’s got Mad Bob on guitar, so…there you have it.

Wild Honey Pie – The Pixies: I’m really not a fan of this screechy stomper, and the Pixies don’t necessarily make the song any better, but they give it a visceral, caustic, borderline sinister edge that at least makes it more entertaining, with some of Black Francis’ best screams put down on tape.

Happiness is a Warm Gun – The Breeders: Kim and Co make this their song. I mean they seriously, seriously own it. It’s as if the Beatles version was basically a demo written for the Breeders, waiting for them to get together and make the Pod album and then literally kick the life into it. The hokey, almost dorky original rendition of “mother superior jumping the gun,” when in the hands of the Breeders, is a conduit for startled bitterness verging on violence, which in turn makes the chaotic, ramshackle “bang, bang, shoot, shoot” breakdown more poignantly disturbing and ultimately believable. This is likely the best cover version of any song by any artist…ever.

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey – The Feelies: This is a fun song no matter how you shake it, but the Feelies’ vicious attack fully realizes its true potential…even in this modern day live version. Crazy Rhythms (1980) is one of those albums that existed back with the creation of the earth and hung around in the stratosphere for the right time to manifest itself. Me and My Monkey was written to be on this album. Jerky, quirky, so high school awkward it makes me break out in pimples, it becomes an excellent centerpiece for an album that took the worn out, tired conventions of rock n roll, shook all the worthless posturing into the trash can and stitched everything back together with nothing but raw, impassioned energy holding it all in place. Go buy that record right now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

There's Only One Volume 4

Here are five more artists that if you only have the time or inclination for one, these albums would do you nicely.

Depeche Mode – Violator (1990): A perfect album. This is the culmination of everything DM had done up to this point, as well as the blueprint for everything they would do after. You’ve got the super hits (Personal Jesus, Enjoy the Silence) but you’ve also got seamless album cuts (Halo, Clean), creating a suite of songs that flow in and out of each other like a dark tide. Sexy, cool, elegant and beautiful, I promise you girls got pregnant to this album.

The Doors – Strange Days (1967): Fifteen or twenty years ago I’d have told you the debut all day long, and while the mega hits the Doors are most known for are found there, the key here is album tracks. Cut for cut, tune for tune, they’re just better. You’ve got the best of their straight rock (My Eyes Have Seen You), psychedelic crooning (You’re Lost Little Girl) and Morrison's poetic antics (Horse Latitudes), plus the hits (Love Me Two Times, etc) are easily as good, just not as infamous today. Oh, and you want to argue about The End? Well, I give you When the Music’s Over…talk about an apocalypse now.

Duran Duran – Rio (1982): I’ve spoken to this album before, and some days I may pick the debut as far as mood preference, but if you could only have the one, best stick with Rio. The most enduring of the hits are here (Rio, Hungry like the Wolf) plus a load of album tracks that are a perfect synthesis of post punk attitude and the New Romantic style and cheek. This is the New Wave Bible, easily the best album of the genre, maybe of the “80s” as we know them from MTV and public nostalgia.

The Go Betweens – Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986): This was a tough call for me. I know this is in general a fan favorite, and to be sure it’s worthy of such. I still prefer Before Hollywood or Spring Hill Fair, but I think what makes LBatBDE the one to want is that it’s the middle point in the GoB’s road from angular, post punk art pop to the more elegant, streamlined and la-la-lovely pop that should have later made them world famous. With feet in both worlds, you get the crux along with the cream, and both are super sweet.

PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000): While not my favorite PJ album, it’s admittedly the most accessible. A perfect coupling of excellent song writing and full band attitude, it’s not as crunchy (ok, grungy) as Dry or as murk-heavy as To Bring You My Love or as haunting as White Chalk, and while the dark and seedy imagery is there in full, the indie pop bounce lifts things up to more population friendly altitudes. But really, what makes it a must have is getting the full range of her majestic voice, from low mumblings to full on banshee wails, it’s everything she’s capable of doing on one disc and done to perfection.