August 2008

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I’ve been meaning to post on the question since the conversation here in which I defended the idea that a cover should play off of or relate to the original in some way.

Thinking about it a little more, I’m really not sure, what the ideal relationship should be between a cover and the original — or, more specifically, I’m sure there are a variety of models for a good cover. I’m not sure, for example, how I would describe the relationship between the Flying Lizards’ excellent cover of “Money” (a song that has inspired a large number of covers because the sarcasm in the original lends itself to creative interpretations).

I stand by my position, however, that one of the most common ways for a cover to fail to be good is to lack a clear concept of what the song means and how the song should be performed. Too many covers feel clever, but like they’re a stretch. To me it can feel like reading bad genre fiction in which the author relies on genre tropes to substitute for original world building. It can feel coherent at first glance, but on greater examination falls apart. For that reason, I am inclined to give covers extra scrutiny for signs of conceptual laziness.

That still feels like a first pass answer to the question about how covers should relate to the original, and I am still mulling it over.

I have an album to recommend.

Normally I stick to songs, but in this case the album is by an obscure contemporary singer-songwriter, it’s very solidly good, and it seems like he could use the support.

I am developing a strong fondness for Lovers Leap by Dan Bryk. I picked it up on a whim, knowing nothing about it, along with a couple of other contemporary albums. On first listen, I loved the opening track, and the rest of album seemed distinctly the best of the group that I had purchased, but nothing particularly exceptional.

But, as I’ve gone back to listen to it, I feel like the album is very good, and repeated listening reveals the strengths of the songs that are sometimes obscured by his limitations as a performer.
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Breaking news, Chuck Berry is great.

This shouldn’t be any reason for surprise, but I just hadn’t listened to him at all until recently.

My general feelings about classics from the 50s are mixed. Some are great Johhny Cash’s Sun recordings, many are good (some Everly Brothers, some Buddy Holly, and Elvis’s Sun recordings are all worth hearing), but a significant amount pop music from the 50s feels too far removed from my formative musical tastes to be particularly interesting.

Chuck Berry is great (I repeat myself). Here are two tracks, the first of which is a straight ahead rocker, the second a little bit lighter, more casual fun with an entertaining wordiness for a Chuck Berry song.

If you enjoy them “Johnny B. Goode” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” at the least, are also essential and worth hearing the original versions if, like me, you’ve heard various covers (particularly of the former).

New Link

The discussion in the previous post reminded me to add a sidebar link to the Mudcat Cafe — the best online resource I have found for traditional music. It include an extensive database of lyrics, and active forums for people who perform, listen to, and enjoy traditional music. Well worth poking around.

If you haven’t read RS’s comment in the previous thread, he has a couple of great quotations reflecting different perspectives on “folk music.” Thinking about them made me realize that I feel like I have a hole in my vocabulary when thinking about “folk music.” Within the realm of what is commonly called “folk music” there are two categories that I feel are reasonably distinct. “Traditional music” refers specifically to songs that have been passed down as part of a musical tradition, and that have no recognized author. “Singer/songwriter” refers to a style of music that grew out of the folk revival, of people writing and performing their own songs, frequently with minimal arangement. Both of those can get fuzzy at the edges, but both of those terms have meaning for.

What I don’t have is a word for the area in between those two — of contemporary music written in an explicitly folk style. For example, there are a number of Ewan McColl songs that are frequently listed as (trad) e.g., “Shoals of Herring” Or, to pick a less clear cut example, I would say Woodie Guthrie and Joni Mitchell are clearly working in different styles. I feel like “singer/songwriter” describes Joni Mitchell well, but, even though Woody Guthrie was a singer/songwriter, I would like another term to describe his style of music.

I do like one definition proposed here

If I sing something not the way you’re used to hearing it, and you think I’ve got the tune or the words wrong, then it isn’t folk. On the other hand, if you think I’m singing a variant–then it’s folk. — Charlie Baum

On another note, there’s a very interesting discussion of lyric writing in hip-hop here. Well worth reading.

Pet Peeve

I was just listening to a folk compilation and, Sweet Lucy, immediately stood out as a great track. It’s a great example of the satisfaction of a minimally processed recording of good musicians playing music they like, having an unselfconsciously good time.

It also seemed to me to be very much of a time (1975 in this case), and that it would be hard for someone now to do something with exactly that spirit. Which made me think about it’s inclusion on a folk music compilation, which both feels right, and not unequivocal. It isn’t a traditional song, it is clearly influenced by then contemporary pop music (the fantastic vocal harmonies on the chorus feel, to me, like they draw as much from a group like the Lovin’ Spoonfuls as anything else). At the same time, it’s also obvious that the musicians involved have participated in the folk revival, and are actively involved in that musical culture, and that’s important.

Which, indirectly, helped me work out something that has been bothering me for a long time.
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Ella Fitzgerald Live at the Newport Jazz Festival (1957) singing a medley of sorts.

I don’t listen to that much jazz, so perhaps I’m a sucker for that sort of crowd-pleasing, high energy, showoffy, brilliant, incredible performance.

I just can’t figure out how she manages to avoid passing out from lack of oxygen (or hyperventilating) when she’s done. She is taking breaths, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

Following up on my earlier post about the process of getting used to a new song, I have an example.

I know that I like Fiona Apple’s Parting Gift, but I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why I like it.

To start I would say that I think the song is above average, but not great, but her performance is very good. The song didn’t catch my attention the first time I heard it because, while the chorus is memorable, the verses ran together for me. But as I’ve listened to it, I appreciate that her performance clearly has a sense of the song as a complete whole. I like the song better when I’ve heard a couple times, and can listen from the beginning knowing where the song is going.

I don’t know if I can give more specifics than that.
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Songs are short.

It’s impressive how much originality, surprise, emotion, and drama a song can pack into 2-6 minutes. At the same time, songs necessarily get a lot of their meaning from allusions to other musical or cultural tropes. A song, generally, isn’t going to try to invent something completely new (various form of avant guarde music excepted), it operates inside a cultural context, and gains a lot by being able to trigger familiar reference points.

As a simple example think about the hundreds of love songs that have been written (to quote John Hartford “you know, as much of a kick as love songs are, they sure are hard to write.”). They may draw upon specific personal experiences of love, but many are addressed to abstract cultural symbols of love and romance and play with, and against those conventions.

In the vein of songs mining cultural symbols, The Last Gunfighter Ballad by Guy Clark is a well crafted example.
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