Out I Never Did Figure It

When I still used to DJ regularly, I conformed to all of the college radio stereotypes. I spoke in the obligatory disinterested monotone (MP3 recording of a simulation here), played obscure bands on minor labels, and inflicted unlistenable electronic garbage upon my listeners.

I was sophisticated. I was hipper than thou. I was, in short, a complete jackass.

As I’ve gotten older, my tastes in music have both expanded and calcified. I’m willing to listen to almost anything, but there needs to be some hook, some immediate accessibility to let me in to the music. Noise and industrial soundscapes are simply not in the equation: when someone asks me to listen to something inscrutable, I ask myself: why am I wasting valuable time that could be spent listening to Tom Waits, instead?

While I’m sure this might deprive me of a lot of exciting new music, all is not lost, for there is one side door I have left open: I’m an absolute sucker for covers. The cover is accesibility personified. It’s a chance to witness the conflict between authorial intent and artistic reinterpretation from the front row. They can range anywhere from straightfoward and mundane, like Lana Lane’s cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (iTunes link) to profane and funny mockery, as in Oizone’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s ballad “Baby Can I Hold You” (iTunes link). At their best, covers can completely subvert and coopt their source material. Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” does this so completely that even Trent Reznor agrees: it’s not his song anymore. It’s Johnny Cash’s song now (watch the video here).

Finding covers before the Internet was a fairly haphazard activity, but today you can just subscribe to Copy, Right?, who regularly posts excerpts from covers so good (or, sometimes, so bad) it will make your head explode.

The other thing that has changed recently is that with the advent of better and easier to use computer music tools, it’s now amazingly easy for rank amateurs to create and distribute their own music. And sometimes, that music is a cover. Which brings us to an odd little project called Look What the Fans Drug In.

Look What the Fans Drug In is a project to record and distribute fan-remakes of nearly every song recorded by pop artist and producer Michael Penn, Sean’s older brother. Most people know of Michael Penn for his greatest achievement, which was marrying Aimee Mann. But it turns out that he has recorded some music too. His production values are very similar to Mann’s, leaning towards syncopation and combining sparse leads with layered backgrounds. His lyrics tend towards literary self-indulgence, but are emotionally sincere.

I’m somewhat fascinated with this fan-made tribute project for a few reasons. First, I know most of the music, which surely makes it more interesting. But it’s also audacious in terms of its sheer scope. The performances range in quality from somewhat embarassing to professional-sounding and fun. I won’t pick on the bad ones. These people aren’t trying to sell anything, and I see no reason to put down a sincere effort. The songs I didn’t like tended to have two things in common. First, an overly rigorous reliance on a click track or drum machine. You want to have some rhythm, but many of these just sounded too mechanical. The second problem is, quite simply, that some of these artists are trying a bit too hard to sound like Michael Penn, to the point of matching accents, intonations, inflections, and so on. I think a number of these songs would have been much better if the artists had been willing to bring the song to themselves, rather than simply immersing themselves in it.

Some of the high points of the collection were Michel Drucker’s cover of “Macy Day Parade” (mp3), Allen Walker’s rendition of “Drained” (mp3), and Andrea Zils’ “O.K.” (mp3). You can download the entire collection – including liner notes and album covers for CDs, should you wish to burn them, here. The project apparently has Penn’s blessing, so download without guilt. Then come back here, and share which ones you particularly liked.

Incidentally, Penn has done the odd cover himself – on the Badlands tribute album, he and Mann covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” (also known as “The only song on the Nebraska album that doesn’t make the listener want to slit her or his wrists.“) A sample is here, courtesy of Heartache with Hard Work.

So someone should let me know when the Nick Cave cover project starts. I’ve got this idea for this doo-wop/a capella version of “Red Right Hand”…