Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mark Kozelek Sings Anything Other Than Modest Mouse

In light of the "12 most important bands" debate going on at Andy Sikora's blog & Midwest Mindset, I had a thought about music in general yesterday that might bring peace and joy to all mankind and volcanoes, too.

I was reading this one part in High Fidelity where Marie LaSalle plays a short set in Rob's record shop, and mixes in a bunch of cover songs from artists Rob sells, and this is what flashed in my brain: All bands/artists ought to devote around half their sets to cover songs. Because all bands have influences, (and of the ones I'd like to see) I wouldn't mind hearing them sing and perform some of those influences. And of the ones I'd rather not see, maybe they'd be so embarrassed that the reason they first picked up a guitar was because of Hootie and the Blowfish, that they'd actually start seeking out more carefully crafted songs to cover, and actually become more talented songwriters because of it.

There are some genres, like country or jazz, that just lend themselves to covers -- and it's never thought to be hackneyed or derivative in the least. In fact, jazz artists never even play covers, they perform standards. Something by Ella Fitzgerald or Miles Davis or Duke Ellington. And everybody goes nuts over it.

But maybe rock bands can't do that. Maybe they're so used to trying to find their own sound (or trying to sound exactly like band-X) that to cover too many songs would be detrimental to everything they stand for (or expose them for the charlatans they are). I don't know. But I do know we'd be better off as a listening public if the artists we enjoy would play more things by the artists they enjoy.

Besides, we could all stand to hear more new music, especially if it's new music that we might not have ever heard otherwise.


Jeff BBz said...

The thing about jazz is that standards are really standards, not covers. Sure, groups and people cover the head of the tune (the intro and outro), but beyond that the song (solos, whatever else) changes vastly. In addition, the focus of jazz music is for the most part completely different from the focus of rock. While the focus can be a subject of debate, the primary thing of the jazz tune, even the standard, is the improvised conversation between musicians which means that even for groups playing thier own material, that material changes every time they play.

While jazz covers do pay an homage of sorts to those that came before, the jazz cover also reconstructs the the piece in a way that rarely even the most imaginative rock cover would/could do. This may or may not be the fault of the rock cover as, rock covers, like rock itself, serves a different purpose. And if a Jazz group played the same set the same way or a similar variation thereof every night, they would be made fun of and not taken seriously. If a rock band did that though (which they usually do) it is not thought to be weird or bad at all. Imagine death cab putting out a 3 disc live set of three shows in a row. (almost) No one would buy it, as each three nights would be nearl the same. but this is common practice in jazz and everyone buys it. People are even intersted in numerous alternate takes of songs, which if it were a regular rock song, would be stupid and boring.

To put it another way, the "mashup" may be more similar to the jazz standard than a traditional rock cover. which i think maybe something that more bands should try. not necessarily, the cut and paste techno method, but perhaps something more organic. then again that probably doesn't suit most bands.

i do agree with you that more bands should study and learn the "great" songs of the past, and that this would indeed increase thier skill at thier own craft and style. but i think this maybe should be a more private thing. I am not sure that playing more than half covers live is really a good idea. but could be good.

On the other hand, 1964, the beatles cover band, is kind of a nice novelty, but despite emersing themselves so much in the beatles music, they are still not really anything worth remembering.

and playing an instrument and songwriting are two very different things.

(finally as for country, i don't know why it works there. maybe because the structure of country and folk or more people oriented? Or it could be the story-telling tradition of passing down the legends and tales?)

jonny said...

You raise some good points, Jeff. I'm not sure what it is about country that allows cover songs to work. But there's a long tradition of songwriters, musicians and vocal talents having seperate tasks in the song production process in country music. Does it matter that Pasty Cline didn't write her songs? Not really. Even Mr. J-Cash sang songs by other people half the time. And he made it work, too. How? Hmmmm....

And jazz vocalists have been able to do the same things. You're spot-on about jazz tunes by Monk or Coltrane or Davis. By in vocal jazz, the emphasis in not so much on reimagining the song, but reinterpreting the vocals. Maybe the manner in which jazz vocals are sung makes it harder for rock vocalists to do the same thing with cover songs? That would make sense.

But even then, some rock vocalists, like Chan Marshall of Cat Power, or David Bazaan, or Kaplan/Hubley from Yo La Tengo, have done some amazing cover songs. And I wouldn't be dissapointed in the least if I attended one of their shows and they ended up singing and performing a bunch of songs that were not their own. Maybe that's because they derive some part of their inspiration from the folk storytelling tradition that you mentioned? Again, I'm not sure.

But I do know that if one of those bands were to do to a trio of shows in a row, with a goodly number of cover songs in each show, I would gladly welcome that hypothetical 3 disc set you mentioned.

Jeff BBz said...

You're right about vocal jazz, and i agree that the hardest part is the difference in vocal style. In jazz, the voice is treated much more as an instrument at least in the traditional sense. While i like chan marshall's voice, i couldn't really imagine her taking a scat singing solo like ella fitzgerald. Furthermore, especially with a singer like ella or billie, they also don't merely sing the words but improvise new ones (even if sometimes they are about the audience or about not knowing the words or what to sing) and as mentioned before, take lengthy "solos," which for many people are the highlight of the track.

But, I am still unclear as to what lends the power and ability to country/folk and the surrounding genres to cover at will with reckless abandon. I think it must be the storytelling thing, although, i admittantly haven't thought about it much.

On the other hand perhaps it is just the mere mediocrity of most rock covers that turns me off. Or the idea that if radiohead or someone covers a song, then that song will be just the original gone radioheadish instead of a new imagining. At the same time though, in the realm of dance music, i for the most part love remixes even though there are countless boring ones.

But thinking about it now there are a decent number of rock covers i like. so who knows? i wonder if it is the rarity of it and the excitement of a good band trying thier hand at a song i love (or even hate) that makes covers fun/interesting, while cover band just sort of seem to suggest a lack of creativity, and are not usually interesting. and while cover albums are intersting they almost never turn out to be anyones favorite album by a band. (and it seems that if it did, the band would be assumed not very worthwhile, if they play others songs better than their own.)

but why in rock the band must prove its ability before playing the music of others despite that in folk/country/jazz/blues, it is usually the other way around, is an enigma to me. it just the way it feels it should be with rock. Maybe with jazz its because of the complexity and country, like we are suggesting, the storytelling?

damned if i know. but i still wouldn't buy the triple album except by a very few select "rock" bands. and i wouldn't buy it anyway i would download it.