Monthly Archives: February 2009

Covers, the hardest songs

All right, covers. For some reason, many people have a big problem with artists playing cover songs. I am not quite sure why actually, something about not being original possibly? Obviously there is a danger if all one does is copy/paste the original arrangement, choose the same kinds of sounds etc. But then is that really to do a cover? Hang on to that thought; lets look at the originality argument first.

The idea of playing only your own original material is new. It is actually very new, only about 40 years or so I would argue. Observe jazz: while I am not an expert on the genre in any way, I do know that playing songs written by other composers and performers is integral to the genre. Where would jazz be without “My Funny Valentine”? To play existing material intermingled with your own new material is simply to play jazz music. Looking back further, one finds that this is true for other genres as well – blues, and going back further, dancehall standards and folk music. And then stepping back further: classical music, opera – religious hymns? Clearly, music is actually more about playing existing material than it is about the constant production of new works.

So what has happened? Well, at the risk of sounding like someone else’s broken record – capitalism and consumer culture happened. Society has changed from a relatively slow construct lumbering along the path of history into something altogether more mercurial, driven of course by the explosive technological and political development since the mid-1800’s. At least in the west, making and spending money has become the prime objective in life. With that comes the idea of culture as something disposable, and the constant – and artificial – need of new things.

No wonder covers are unfashionable.

Of course, there are bands who are simply too original in themselves to play much in the way of covers, such as King Crimson. Also, Bono has always claimed that U2 were simply too bad at their instruments in the early days to play any covers – originality through ineptness, so to speak.

On the other side of this is the cover band. Normally considered to be at the bottom of the artistic food chain, they are nevertheless often the bands that are able to make a living playing music, usually a blend of current hits and golden oldies. The upside is that one gets to play music, for a living. The downside is that the only music that really works is the popular, radio friendly stuff. Originality is usually limited.

So covers are not something we should be afraid of doing, but not to excess, depending on genre. But how then to go about playing a cover? Still hanging on to that thought from earlier?

Obviously, the sound of a cover depends a lot on the type of instrumentation you have at your disposal as well as the general genre you play in. If you play in a metal band, your covers will have a certain metal-ish flavour – the tendency to use bone crushing distortion is higher than in a folk duo, so to speak, and the tendency to use gentle vocal harmonies is more pronounced in a folk duo. And so on and so forth.

On the other hand, this means that one will almost always bring something new to a song when doing a cover, by default. But just using different guitar sounds and then copying everything else is not exactly bringing something new. This newness can be a completely different sound, a new take on the melodies – or indeed a new melody altoghether – or, and this is often forgotten about, a new context. A few exemples of a successful cover follows below:

This is Neil Young covering “All Along the Watchtower” at a concert celebrating Bob Dylan.

So not exactly a novel context, but the man simply steamrolls the song with his enormous sound and enormous, well – Neil-ness. I would hate to have to follow a performance like that, and I think that at that time and that place, only Bob himself would be able to pull it off. The last verse and the end are brilliant.

Covering this song is almost a cliché these days: Jimi Hendrix completely reshaped it and since then blues-rock guitarists everywhere have produced endless note-by-note copies.

This is Jeff Buckley’s famous cover of “Hallelujah”:

It has been completely rearranged from Leonard Cohen’s original, of course. Sadly it has also become somewhat of a staple “sad song” in US television shows, which has watered it down significantly. Too bad, as Buckley really makes it his own, a good song even though I prefer Cohen singing it.

This is José González covering “Heartbeats” by The Knife:

This is a good example of a cover becoming more well known than the original. In sound it is completely different from the original. It gained widespread attention by being played in a Sony tv advertisment.

This is Patti Smith covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, live.

I love how she sings “dangerous” and “yeah”. This song is right up there with “All Along the Watchtower” and “Halleluja” in terms of being more or less a cliché, but this radical rearrangement (here is the original for comparison) is so far from the original that it sounds completely new again. And as the lyrics are so well-known, it is utterly familiar at the same time. Together with a passionate performer who still takes liberties with the lyrics we get one effective cover.

All right, a performance like that can not be topped so enought with the videos.

The Patti Smith video demonstrates possibly the most important thing about doing a cover: if you are a good performer and the material matters to you, it does not really matter if you wrote it or not. Passion is the key.

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Webcomics, pt II

So I have been reading some more webcomics lately, and some stuff I had forgotten about has reappeared.

I mentioned Dar last time and I have now decided I like it – I was not sure before now, but I will probably keep following it from now on. It is a more or less autobiographical comic by Erica Moen.

I have also rediscovered Questionable Content and read somewhere in the neighbourhood of 800 episodes during two sittings last week, doing really bad things to my sleep pattern in the process… It is about a group of friends and their various issues.  Imagine an indie version of Dawson’s Creek, only funny.

Finally, Alpha Shade is a well drawn comic with several parallell storylines on different worlds going on at once. It is slightly confusing because of this and the very infrequent updates, but I still like it. One of the worlds reminds me a bit about “Ghibli-verse”, the cheerlily steam punk/turn of the century kind-of Europe in movies like Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

That is it for now. Enjoy!

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Parceled Perfection: Brian Eno, “Another Green World”

Every once in while, one comes across a piece of music which is perfect, where there is nothing more to add and nothing to take away: the title track of Brian Eno’s Another Green World is one example of this. Out of the somewhat chaotic beginnings of the record comes a sudden moment of perfect stillnes – sombre, static yet in transition as it fades in and out. Layered electric guitar, a simple piano motif, a calm keyboard bass, an organ playing simple chords. It is its complete lack of anything spectacular that makes it so effective, as well as the great beauty of the melodies.

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The Blinding Light of Heaven

I have had two glimpses in my life of what Nirvana could be like, which for me is the dissolution of the self or the ego. They both came during and immediately after the most difficult period of my life in the early 2000’s, the first being watching 2001: A Space Odyssey from beginning to end for the first time – see my post on that movie below for more on that.

The second time, I was at a gig at Kulturbolaget in Malmö to review Bergman Rock. I had not even heard their album, only the single “Jim” with its wonderful video. I was a bit late and walked in as the opening act was playing – which annoyed me a bit as I always tried to mention the openers in my reviews. I was a bit tired and not sure how I would make my way home afterwards, and somewhat emotionally numb due to the general situation in my life at the time.

Bergman Rock came on and played their first songs, none of which I recognised. It was good stuff, but I still felt disconnected, disassociated.  And then they played “Jim”, and it was like a door opened, and I stepped outside, outside of everything – myself and the world. There was only the sound of that loud, raucous rock band and the sight of them on stage. I did not look away once for an entire hour.

It was not until the cheering for encores that the spell was broken, when the stream of sight and sound ended; I looked around, dazed, and found that I was standing right in front of the soundboard area with no one else around for several metres. I realised I had not had a single conscious thought for an hour, completely lost in the moment and the music and I was pretty amazed. And very, very happy – which lasted well into the night and made all the difficulties to get home seem rather unimportant.

Bergman Rock got 5 of 5 in my review.

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U2: Achtung Baby

I had a discussion with friend Rasmus a few years ago about records, and how some of them make up a sort of microcosm of their own – like entering a room and closing the door. One example I gave was Blur’s 13 and we both absolutely agreed on Achtung Baby belonging there as well. It’s a world unto its own, both a completely separate entity and  also completely the sound of the early nineties.

I had started listening to U2 before and during a week long hospital stay in 1991 – mainly Rattle & Hum because I was not entrusted with the LP player at that time. So I kept that CD and an MC copy playing all through the year, and then one day I heard a loud, loud racket from my room. My dad sat there painting an Airfix model plane we had put together with the radio on, blasting out “The Fly” for all it was worth. I didn’t believe him at first when he said this was U2’s new song.

This record, like few others, roars to life. In technical terms, that opening riff of “Zoo Station” is almost unique in rock music: a very rapidly strum slide. How often do you hear that as a featured riff? However, it quickly opens up from the tight soundworld of the intro to echoes, shimmering background guitars and flanging keyboards. I really like it, but it is dangerously repetitive and really needs the studio effects to make it varied enough – they played it again recently on the the Vertigo tour and it fell flat on its face. Still the best thing with this song may be how effectively it alienates the “fans” who want U2 to remain in their greyscale 80’s bubble.

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” starts off with a riff inspired by Edge’s new favourite toy at the time, the Digitech Whammy pedal, which is what makes the guitar sound “weeo-weeo”. There is some really fine playing by the Edge on this track, especially the thing he does right as the chorus starts. There is also a slide solo which is beautifully carried over into the next verse.

So far, the lyrics have been fine but not exceptional, dealing with starting-over (“Zoo Station”) and being horny, basically (“Even Better Than the Real Thing”). But taken into the context of the time, they are very different from what came before on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum, being much more personal and abstract. The next song, however, is an icon of rock lyricism whether you like it or not. Listen to “One” while disregarding the knowledge that it is dangerously close to becoming a cliché in popular culture, and read the lyrics carefully. It is an amazingly mature work for someone aged 30 at the time of writing and probably U2’s most well known song. Personally I think it is one of the best songs ever written – the dynamics of the music, the quality and restraint of the lyrics and the singing, the fact that it is not sullied with a guitar solo: all of it. The finest performance I have heard can be found on the PopMart live DVD.

“Until the End Of the World” is another classic, but this one is a proper rocker with another one of those simple-yet-sublime guitar riffs that just come flowing out of Edge on this album. The lyrics are of a biblical nature, but from a new perspective for a U2 song. This song is great live with an extended ending and it is great fun to play as well.

After that, unfortunately, the album enters a bit of a slump. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” has many good lyrical ideas, the bridge beginning with “ah, the deeper I spin” especially is brilliantly written and phrased vocally, but the music never takes off. The song plods on, feeling uninspired and unfinished. It is a shame, then, that the following “So Cruel” is even worse. I have simply never liked it, there are no original ideas in the music which feels too much like it was built in the studio rather than constructed out of the interplay between musicians. The fact that it is the longest track on Achtung Baby only makes matters worse. There is nothing wrong with the lyrics, they just do not feel comitted – and again, there is too much of them.

And then, “The Fly”. This is about as far from “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as one can get and that is a very good thing. Ferocious guitar playing, a relentless rhythm section, sneeering, brilliant lyrics – this is “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” as Bono himself put it. He has also commented on the lyrics as being a “phonecall from Hell, and the guy likes it there”. I love this song.

“Mysterious Ways” is a song in the same vein as “Even Better Than the Real Song” – a love song, focusing on the more physical aspects of love – while acknowledging that women really do rule the world, whatever us males may delude ourselves with. It has belly-dancing built into it and the live guitar solo is amazing.

While “Mysterious Ways” may have the best swing and swagger, “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” has the best bass groove by far. The lyrics sound like someone being comforted, someone who is trying to love everything and everyone and losing themselves in the process.

Something that influenced much of the lyrics on this record was the Edge’s divorce before recording started. It’s been felt before in “Wild Horses” and “So Cruel” and will dominate the last part of this album, starting with “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”. This is troubled love, love that has gone lost, with nostalgia and longing for days gone by in the last verse. Unfortunately, the music never really takes off and this becomes one of U2’s more forgettable songs.

The next song, “Acrobat”, is one of my all-time favourite U2 songs. The desperation in the lyrics is palpable and the vocal performance goes from despondent to emotional to equally desperate; this is someone stuck in a terrible situation, cut loose and flailing yelling “and I can love, and I can love” into the void at the end. The music has great drive, but it is that shriek from the guitar at the beginning of the solo that sends shivers down my back every time, a terrifying sound of pure desperation.

And in the end, there is only emptiness. The desillusionment of  “Love Is Blindness” is complete: there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no silver lining, no hope left, only grief. Rock bottom. U2 albums generally end on an emotional note – “Mothers Of the Disappeared”, “All I Want Is You”, “40” – but this is more like anti-emotion, the closest to nihilism this band will ever come. As an album closer it is devastating, confirming the emotional upheaval that has gone before and bringing it all to a numbing halt. Seeing and hearing Bono as Macphisto singing it at the end of Zoo TV is deeply chilling.

Achtung Baby is an amazing album in so many ways: how it brought colour into the previously greyscale U2 universe, how the lyrics are exclusively internal/personal – notice the complete absence of political songs? -, the way Zoo TV redefined the rock gig, that the Edge finally cut his hair. Etcetera. But it is also an exhausting listen, because to get the complete Achtung Baby experience the listener has to enter that loud, difficult, demanding, overwhelming, flashing multicolour room and live through the emotional onslaught. It’s not easy, but in return this is one of U2’s most rewarding works.

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The brilliance of Rowan Atkinson

YouTube is certainly a mixed blessing with the majority of the “content” being utter crap – but there is also parts of it that really are preserving part of our cultural heritage. One example of this is the videos of Rowan Atkinson’s early stage performances, before his immense Mr Bean fame. I will let him do the rest of the talking (or miming, as might be the case) below.

First, some quiet pieces:

Two religious pieces:

A series of solo, more or less, sketches (the Devil and the Dating sketches are modern classics):

Back to school:

There are many more, but these are probable the best ones availiable. Enjoy!

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2001: A Space Odyssey

The story of 2001 is, briefly, that someone or something interferes with the development of some primitive hominids at some point in the Earth’s past. Several million years later humans find a strange buried structure on the Moon which sends out a very strong electromagnetic signal aimed at Jupiter as it is hit by the light from the sun. An expedition is organised and sent off to Jupiter to find out what is on the recieving end of the signal.

There have been very few serious science fiction movies made, and the concept and genre of science fiction (sf) has been seriously watered down by Star Wars and its various clones and extended family (or the predecessors, such as Flash Gordon). Without getting too far bogged down in the theory of classification these latter ones are rather part of what is called space opera – lots of guns, swords, battle in space and young, preferably lightly dressed ladies in distress. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day are action/thrillers with space bits – a space ship does not make it science fiction.

To become sf it takes something more. A cornerstone of what is considered “real” sf is that the writer changes some basic condition (for example, someone or something gave what was to become humanity an evolutionary push) and then finds out what might happen. Sometime, as in 2001, Alien or Blade Runner the change is obvious, while in cases like Brazil it is more subtle.

Of course, the definition of “real sf” is under constant debate. This is a good thing, but may be slightly bewildering for the newcomer.

The first time I saw this movie I was really young, 7 or 8-ish, and I didn’t see all of it and didn’t make any sense at all. I did have memories of HAL being disconnected and Poole spinning away into deep space, probably causing all sorts of strange effects in my psychological development… The second time I saw it was in late 2002, at least ten years later. I remember watching it extremely intensely, eyes never leaving the screen more than ten times in the entire time and not once in the last hour. When it was over I was so stunned I could not move and just barely speak, semi-coherently. No other movie has quite managed that although some have come close.

In my book, especially visually, 2001 is the best sf movie ever made. To begin with it is amazingly well shot: the landscapes in the first part and the still unsurpassed spaceships in the later parts are stupendous. I especially like how light in space is rendered – sharp as a razor. And the Discovery is the best made ship ever to be seen in a film; computers have a long way to go before they can measure up to well crafted models, skilled lighting artists and really good cinematography.

As much as this is a film to look at, it is a film to listen too; from the deafening silence of the beginning to the whisper of air conditioning; the breathing of the astronauts in their space suits to the choral works of Ligeti. The aural detailing is every bit as good as the visual.

I won’t address the story of the film much, because so much of it is just hinted at or suggested. You certainly have many questions afterwards, from the profound to the very basic – where do the monoliths come from? How to use a zero-G restroom? What is actually happening in the finale, is that Bowman returning? What are the consequences of instructing a logical being to lie? How to stay alert after many monotonous months in space?

2001 is a major multisensory experience, and makes demands of its viewer. One has to be able to accept that a movie does not have to have fast-paced editing; that it can be long, slow and “different”; that not everything is answered. For me the best movies are those that stir up my thoughts, that I think of long after they’re over. 2001 does not end when the the screen goes black – for me, it will never go away.

PS. Should one really trust someone claiming that “Everything is going extremely well”?

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I think the first webcomic I really read might have been Yu+Me, which I got tired of pretty quickly. From there I moved on to Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life and Copper, which is pretty darn good stuff but was rarely if ever updated even when I found them a couple of years ago.

At this point I had started waking up to the fact that webcomics, as a medium, might be deeper than I had thought. I already knew that comics has matured considerably since its infancy  (there will probably be a post on Batman appearing in kbospeak in the future), but webcomics hadn’t really struck me as being very attractive. These first tastes of high quality, then, paved the way for what I and apparently everyone else agrees is the absolute pinnacle of the medium right now – A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage Is Irreversible. It is astounding: the artwork and the writing are brilliant, expressionism and impressionism with a great deal of abstraction. Often there is no defined beginning or end, or the end has little or no relation to the beginning, recurring characters change in appearance. The absurdist humour makes it occasionally hilarious, but what makes it all worth it in the end is the constant undercurrent of sadness that gives A Lesson Is Learned its emotional impact. I’ve used the desktop background based on number 014, “Getting Over Women” twice the last two years, because it is perfect.

Go read A Lesson Is Learned now, from start to beginning. It will take a long time but it will be worth it. It is unfortunately no longer being updated.

Completely different, in visual style, is Dresden Codak. In the words of its creator Aaron Diaz, it is “an illustrated celebration of science, death and human folly”. The scope is at times both interstellar and intertemporal, but it is more often more down to earth. Themes include the future of humankind, RPG:ing, the celebration of science, love, childhood memories, friendship, childhood trauma and tiny dream analysis. Most of the episodes are just that, episodic, but don’t miss the extended “Hob” storyline. Dresden Codak is being continuously updated.

For the more story-oriented reader I have two recommendations: Rice Boy and Shi Long Pang. Rice Boy is set on the Overside, a world invented and continually explored by its creator Evan Dahm in the story arcs “Rice Boy” and “Order of Tales”. Adventure in a sort of fantasy-ish world, lovely artwork and with “Order of Tales”, weekly updates. I love Rice Boy and am saving up for the book and posters.

Shi Long Pang chronicles the wanderings of the eponymous shaolin monk Pang, new to the world outside of his now destroyed home monastery and looking to save what can be saved of the wisdom of that place in the form of books that were rescued from a fire. Among the difficulties he now has to face is social intercourse, bullies, his guilt of surviving the attack on the monastery, normal life outside the walls – and girls. Updated weekly and a truly great read, often with fascinating historical/factual information and explanations in the footnotes.

In a very different vein comes xkcd, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”. It has no over arching story, but an enormous open heart and a solid footing in nerdy esoteria and science. Updated several times every week. xkcd is like candy that is healthy for you.

So, these last four are the ones I follow at the moment. I also look in on Dar and Anders Loves Maria, but I’m still a bit undecided on those. Good luck if you go webcomic hunting and I’m always happy for reading recommendations!

PS. Slightly less healthy but certainly hilarious is Gone With the Blastwave, updated very rarely. [updated 091128: new GWTBW domain]

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