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May 30, 2006

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Five

Into the Void

Belle hates it when I do covers. She says it's because I pick the worst covers ever, and she's probably right. I tend to make really obvious choices, the songs that were overplayed on the radio about 5-10 years ago. And I see her point, but I like doing them anyway.

Today's sketchpad, however, is not a well-worn cover. It's a very rough version of "Into the Void" from Nine Inch Nail's The Fragile. Since only three or four people seem to have actually bought and enjoyed Reznor's double-album, you may not know it. It's one of my favorites. I played this through three or four times to get the arrangement worked out, and then recorded it in one pass while it was still fresh, which will explain some of the... looser rhythms in the first half. For most of the song, the looper is in record mode, overdubbing whatever I feed in, and I wipe it clean halfway through (where the bridge begins in the original). The only editing I've done is to run the vocals through the grungelizer plugin (although it could use some cuts to tighten up the arrangement).

On covers in general: let's start with the words of my good friend, the Madmunk...

"To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it'--that alone should I call redemption."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1954), 251.

I like cover songs - not mash-ups or remixes or sampling (although come to think of it I like these for the same reasons) but covers. For one reason or another, they have tremendous power for me. I had trouble articulating why exactly I like the idea of covers so much until I remembered the above passage from Nietzsche.

So what follows is a quick and dirty examination of the function of cover songs:

  • Homage - It's important that this be pronounced "oh-mazh." This is cultural criticism here and I simply won't sound anything less than utterly pretentious. Homage covers your tribute bands: Beatles, Led, Stones, GNR, KISS. We love the band; we play the band; we are the band. It also covers bands that simply enjoyed another band's material and felt like playing it, e.g., bands doing a one-off of David Bowie at a club. We love the artist; we play the artist, but we obviously are not that artist.
  • Irony - While some covers demonstrate affection, respect, or even worship for a given band or tune, other covers have a different relationship with the covered. I'm thinking here of three covers in particular: Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz in the Hood," Nina Gordon's cover of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Ben Folds' cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." All these covers are of material by hardcore rappers N.W.A. or its former members. The deadpan sincerity of the covers allow for the misogyny, profanity, and violence of rap music to shine in all its glory. Gordon's singing of Ice Cube's verse gives the words "punk motherfuckers" a sweet beauty, and you can hear the dejection of a man who discovers his ho with another man when Ben Folds sings, "Man, fuck that bitch." It's sublime. It borders on parody, but I don't know that Dre would take the hit if he weren't in on the joke, so I call it irony. Then again, I don't know Dre not to take a hit when offered.
  • Paying your dues - While the first two functions deal in a band's relationship to the artist covered, these next two deal with where a band is at in its career when it releases the cover. Early in their careers, bands have to build up their repertoires, and naturally they fill out their sets with other people's material. Sometimes, you see bands score their first hit with a cover, e.g., Alien Ant Farm with "Smooth Criminal" and Limp Bizkit with "Faith." Maybe they go somewhere from there; maybe they don't, but you have to be able to draw like Leonardo before you can paint like Picasso. You have to show that you have the ability to play just about anything before you can legitimately choose to play a certain way. You have to pay your dues, so you play a few covers. I cannot believe I implicitly compared Michael Jackson and George Michael to Leonardo and Picasso. My apologies to all who were offended.
  • Phoning it in - You'll also see bands playing covers at the end of their careers. You're under contract for another album but the band is coming apart at the seams, or maybe your career is waning and you need to build momentum. Either way, you need to do something and do it now, so you phone it in. You play some covers. I'm not saying these bands don't like the artists and songs they're covering, nor am I impugning the quality of cover or covered. I'm just saying that, at some point in a career, you can tell when a band isn't terribly invested in coming up with original, provocative material anymore (if they ever were in the first place). Rage Against the Machine's last album was all covers, but the biggest sinner here is Metallica. Since "Metallica," their last good album, they've written a sequel (songs have sequels?) to "Unforgiven," released a double disc of covers in "Garage, Inc." (covers we've played before and covers we haven't), and essentially covered themselves with "S&M."

These are all good reasons, and I'll claim guilty as charged to at least a couple of them. But while the 'munk is many things--a philosopher, a man of principle, and a fine poker player--he is not a musician, and I think his list is therefore missing a motivation. To me, the real value of a cover song is that it is an instant connection, with yourself and with the people around you. Original material, don't get me wrong, is fantastic--but it probably has to build an audience. Nobody can sing along with it the first time. But for the average bar band, unlikely to find (or often uninterested in) commercial success, it can be nice to toss out a song and hear the audience's approval as they recognize the first few chords.

Covers, like bad fiction, are about the conversation, not the actual quality. With an audience it means making a connection based on the shared emotional response to the original song. For the artist themself, the point may be to take part in the song, to metaphorically wrap yourself in it and take ownership, even in some small way.

Unless, you know, you're playing Sweet Home Alabama and Cocaine to a bunch of drunken rednecks and fratboys, praying that lightning strike the next submoron to yell "Freebird!" In which case you ought to be ashamed.

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