Inside Llewyn Davis vs. Vanilla Sky vs. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The only thing worse than watching a film with no redeemable qualities is watching a film with some good elements struggling against its less desirables qualities. At least, that’s the way it is with me. When I like nothing about a movie, I can wash my hands of it, but if it has one quality aspect, it’ll burrow its way into my brain. For the next few days, my thoughts will keep drifting back to it. I’ll be compelled to ruminate over how that one great something wound up in a film with with all that terrible other stuff in it.
Vanilla Sky is the epitome of that kind of movie. Since I first saw it I get mad anytime I think about it. It’s a film that full of interesting ideas that gets drug down by one man. Without that guy’s involvement, it could have been a really great five-minutes-in-the-future sci-fi film.
You probably think I’m talking about Tom Cruise (because I was being deliberately vague) but you’d be wrong. Yes, Cruise is miscast in the lead role, and his presence undercuts the effectiveness of scenes, turning any drama into unintentional humor and camp.
But the real person that ruined the film was it’s writer-director: Cameron Crowe. You see, Crowe likes pop music, and he really likes to feature pop music prominently in his films. Sometimes this approach yields fantastic results, like the transcendent Elton John sing-a-long from Almost Famous. Other times, however, it falls so flat that you can’t help but imagine Crowe collaborators cringing and making awkward eye contact behind his back while he cries “YES YES!” over and over. Vanilla Sky is filled with such moments, such as when Cruise’s character experiences a moment of confusion and disorientation backed by a five-second snippet of “Good Vibrations.” The clash of tones and the sheer famous-ness of the track make stick out like a sore thumb.
But, that scene has nothing on the one where Crowe decides to frame a scene of Cruise and Penelope Cruz as a recreation of the cover of Bob Dylan’s seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It’s a distracting and wholly unnecessary move. Sure, there’s a moment later in film that gives a reason for the reference, but it’s not an integral part of the film’s story. Instead, it seems like Crowe put it in so he could justify referencing the cover of an album he liked.
I was reminded of this scene recently when I attended a screening of the Coen brothers latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, which focuses the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene and was clearly influenced by the same album cover. The Coens and the film’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, however, manage to resist making a direct visual recreation of the scene. Instead the film is full of shots that clearly invoke the image via their framing, costuming, and color pallet. In the still above (and for much of the film) Oscar Isaac wears an outfit that’s very similar to Dylan’s. The snow, the city backdrop, and the movie’s classic film-stock look draw further parallels to the album’s cover. Additionally, he’s framed in the vanishing point of a symmetric shot. This type of shot recurs several times in the film, and is even used in its poster.
This approach both acknowledges and draws upon the place that this album’s cover has in the American cultural memory. The Coens use this indirect approach to invoke the idea of a particular place in music history, without ever saying “hey, y’all, remember this?” It’s a far more subtle and effective way of creating an allusion, due to both its subtlety and the fact that it is thematically relevant.
That is why I find the Coens’ use of Dylan’s imagery is far more effective and adroit than Crowe’s. Firstly, their allusions are ones that make sense for the story they’re telling, and secondly, they don’t make make the reference explicit. While Crowe wants his viewers to say “oh hey I know that” while the Coens don’t. In my opinion, that’s what makes all the difference.
PS: No, I haven’t seen Abre Los Ojos, the film upon which Vanilla Sky is based, so I don’t know exactly what elements were holdovers from that version. But, that being said, I feel pretty confident that the Dylan reference was Crowe’s alone. If I’m wrong feel free to correct me.
So, naturally, it’s a little tough for me to choose my favorite Christmas song of all time. But if I absolutely had to, I think the song above would definitely be in the running. It’s a collaboration from the deadbeat winter of 2009, a year in which it seemed like everyone in the world who made music had decided only to record 60s-girl-group-influenced garage rock records or chillwave albums. I was (and still am) biased toward the former, and the collaborators in question (Dum Dum Girls and Crocodiles)1 are two of the best artists of that trend.
It may sound surprising that a blend of the reverbed vocals / hazy production / garage riffs trend of 2009 and Christmas music works so well. And, I’ll admit that they do seem more than a little disparate at a first glance. When you take a minute to think about it, however, a combination of the two actually makes a lot of sense.
Although I’m at a loss when asked to name my favorite individual Christmas track, I do know which album I’d put at the top of my list: Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You.2 If you’ve never been in a mall or listened to the radio in December, that record contains tracks by Darlene Love, The Ronnettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and The Crystals, many of which have become the definitive version of a particular song. It’s arguably the most beloved Christmas record of all time, and Rolling Stone once ranked it as the 142nd best album of all time in any genre. In short, it’s an amazing record.
So, since the basic formula for that trend was “Phil Spector pop + buzzy fuzzy guitars + lo-fi,” is changing the equation to “Phil Spector Christmas songs + buzzy fuzzy guitars + lo fi” really that much of a leap? Clearly, I don’t think so, but if you’re still doubting me, just listen to the track above. It’s a perfect gem of a garage pop song, festooned with just the right amount of Christmas song trappings. Hell, without the sleigh bells and lyrical references to mistletoe and Christmas trees it’s basically just a really good Dum Dum Girls song. That’s probably one of the reasons that this track is so wonderful. The artists aren’t straining themselves to make their work fit into a rigid frame of a different genre or style; they’re bending their own style just enough to change its shape. And, just like their predecessors, this approach works to perfection.
This track was released as a free download. If you like it, you can get it here.
1. Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls and Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles are married and have since started a side project together called Haunted Hearts. You can listen to their debut single here.
2. AKA A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector AKA A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records AKA Phil Spector’s Christmas Album
This post is barely about music. Mostly, it’s just a little curiosity that I’m pointing out. This featured artist really doesn’t steal the song he’s featured on. In fact, if his name wasn’t listed under “feat.” you probably wouldn’t even notice he was on the track. Instead, this is a case of a feature being notable just because of who it is that’s being featured.
The track in question is “Captain Lou,” a paean to late wrestler Captain Lou Albano1 by Kimya “half of the band that did that song from Juno" Dawson. The song features rapper Aesop Rock, who sings the chorus alongside a man named Bryan Danielson, better known to the world as professional wrestler Daniel Bryan.
For those of you who no longer watch wrestling (everyone did at some point in their childhood), Daniel Bryan is currently one of the WWE’s premier players, despite the fact he doesn’t fit into any part of the typical mold for a wrestler. He stands a mere 5’8” and has facial hair that’s closer to Robin Pecknold’s2 than Hulk Hogan’s. Furthermore, he’s a vegan and prefers indie folk to butt rock. But, he’s also a great wrestler with a unique mat style and a great grasp of match-storytelling.
Here, however, he (self-admittedly) doesn’t do a whole lot on this track. He and Aesop Rock do a little rapping thing in the chorus that isn’t particularly notable. I’ve never been a big fan of Dawson’s. Her style was always a little too cutesy-cutesy twee for me. So, naturally, I don’t dig this song enough to listen to it regularly or anything.
But I still do view the song in a positive way, purely as a fan of Daniel Bryan. One of the reasons that I do enjoy his wrestling is because he’s the type of person and performer who’s open to taking risks and doing interesting things. He’s the sort of guy who makes a catchphrase out of chanting one word, and the sort who does a feature on a twee-folk album, even though he thinks he has a terrible voice. That’s the sort of guy I like to cheer for.3
1. If you have a minute and are interested in wrestling, you should really read David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker’s biographic sketch of him. Dude had a weird life that took him from being a wrestling heel to playing Cyndi Lauper’s dad in the video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.
3. And yes, I am so hyped about the Daniel Bryan + CM Punk vs. the Wyatt Family storyline they’re teasing out right now. Between this post and this screenshot of my desktop, you should be able to tell just how hyped I am about it.
When we talk about artists that have influenced a particular musician, we’re usually dealing with artists who have made similar music in the past or those who have been specifically cited by the artist. But influence isn’t really restrained by genre and few people are genuinely able to examine themselves (or their own art) objectively. Thus, when we play Influence Detective, we’re entering into some very nebulous territory.
To illustrate this, look no farther than the track at the top of this post, a cover of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Bradford Cox under his solo pseudonym Atlas Sound. It was posted as part of a two-song covers EP way way way back in April 2008, during Cox’s absurdly prolific tear through the music blog-o-sphere-a-hedron. The title of the EP is “[Atlas Sound] Covers Two Songs For My Dad EP.” Between that, the family photo cover art, and the description that accompanies the post, I think it’s safe for us to take this as literally a couple of covers of his dad’s favorite songs.1
I’d say that this is the perfect example of musical influence that I would never have thought of in a million years if it hadn’t been presented so neatly to me. Listening to Cox’s version of the track, I’m struck by both how much it sounds like an Atlas Sound song and how much it still sounds like a Hank Williams song. On the one hand there’s the gauzy production and echo-heavy vocals, but on the other hand there’s the steely guitar accents and steady background strumming. This song creates a bridge between two parts of the musical landscape that I never would have thought to link together. Strange though it may sound, I kind of think Atlas Sound and Deerhunter have a few country/western alleles in their DNA.
And yet, maybe you don’t hear it. That’s cool. Hell, Cox himself might scoff at that suggestion. Citing influences is a science so inexact and inaccurate that it’s basically the 2013 Tom Brady of sciences.2 But to me, this track clearly suggests that Cox’s music is subtly inspired by his father’s taste in country.
If you would like to download this track, you’ll have to get resourceful: the original link died a long time ago. If you’d like to read another D/S post about an Atlas Sound cover just click here.
In the mid-1960s, legendary Motown founder Barry Gordy and his sister Ester Gordy Edwards hatched a plan to expand their label’s appeal in international markets. The basic idea was that they would pull some of their biggest artists back into the studio to re-record the vocal parts of their biggest hits, only this time the lyrics would be rewritten into different languages. Gordy and his Motown management team hoped that, for instance, Spanish listeners would connect with Stevie Wonder’s “Un Lugar En El Sol” in a way that they never did with his “A Place in the Sun.” Thus, there exists a strange annex of the Motown canon filled with Italian, German, Spanish, and French versions of the label’s most famous and enduring tracks.
The recordings that result are a strange listen. Aside from the vocal track, they’re the exact same songs you’ve heard a million times, and since the same artists are still doing the singing, they still sound shockingly like the originals. And, despite the fact that the artists were singing phonetically and only doing a handful of takes, their delivery sounds solid to my ears. Thus, listening to the final tracks really doesn’t offer much beyond the uncanny effect of the familiar being made somewhat unfamiliar.
Instead, I think it’s worthwhile to consider these tracks as compositions, or rather, as translated compositions. I’ve been unable to find credits for who converted the songs’ lyrics but if you just think about it for a moment, it’s seems highly unlikely that they were all transmuted by the same individual. Furthermore, if you look at the way that the songs were translated, the approach the re-writers took varies between tongues, but seems to stay consistent within each language. The German, French, and Spanish songs seem to take the same path, while the Italian translator chooses a far different route.
Consider the works of the German re-writer, who converted The Temptations’ “My Girl” into “Mein Girl” and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” to “Baby Baby Wo Ist Unsere Liebe.” You can actually see their approach right there in the titles; it’s a K-Pop-esque patois that uses English and German interchangeably based on whatever fits best in the meter and the lyrics of the original. “Mein Madchen” doesn’t fit original’s vocal part, nor does “My Madchen.” So, “Mein Girl” had to be it. The lyrics of these tracks continue in the same vein, peppering in English words every now and then amidst the German. Essentially, they chose to try to translate the song as literally as possible, and used a lexical hybrid to keep the meter straight.
The Italian translator chose to take a different approach, eschewing a literal translation for one that fits best in the song’s new language. The track above is titled “Solamente Lei” which can be loosely translated as “Only Her.” Don’t worry if you’ve never heard a Temptations song by that name, because no such song exists. It’s actually another translation of their hit “My Girl.” Rather than try to cram all of the extra syllables from the literal translation of the song’s title “Mia Ragazza” (according to Google Translate) into it’s central hook or hybriding it into “Mia Girl” the Italian re-writer chooses to rewrite the chorus into “É lei / É lei / É lei / Solamente lei” which mean “It’s her / It’s her / It’s her / Only her.” While it may not have the precise fidelity of the German arranger’s method, it does make the song sound a bit more natural in its new skin.
While I think it’s pretty clear that I personally prefer the Italian arranger’s approach, I can still see that there are advantages to both. It really all comes down how much importance the artist places on faithfulness to the original track, and I’m just a traitor at heart.
If you want to explore this antechamber of the Motown discography, all of their foreign language re-recordings can be found in the collection Motown Around the World, and if you want to read more stuff I’ve written about artists recording foreign language versions of their hits, just click here.
I had an unusual introduction to the band Yuck. (I think.) For most people, I’d bet that they were first introduced to the band via their first, self-titled album, or maybe one of the tracks that they released in the run-up to that album. I, on the other hand, happened across the track above in a post on the Fader nearly a year earlier.
Have a little faith in me, guys. I’m not saying that as a boast, but just as a little back-story to personalize this write-up!
If you’ve pressed play on the track at the top, then you can imagine the whiplash reaction I had when the tracks from that first album came out. Suddenly the band that I had been introduced to as a minimal-as-fuck, vocals+piano+waterfall-of-tape-hiss sort of group was a Sonic Youth + Pavement + Dinosaur Jr. group. I mean there’s nothing wrong with either of those styles or with a group with a dynamic range of styles. But it was just like biting into an oatmeal-raisin cookie you thought was a chocolate chip cookie.
Eventually, I learned that they wound up releasing this track (which was originally credited to just “Yuck”) that July under the name “Yu(c)k,” a sort of side project / off shoot sort of thing, thus separating their two styles into separate camps. Sort of. It was part of an EP that was limited to 100 copies, but this is 2013 so you can just listen to the whole thing on Soundcloud.
And I recommend that you do. This track is still probably my favorite thing they’ve ever done. I really love just how crazy minimal it is. It takes a lot of confidence to leave that much space in a recording, and that spare of an approach is really rare in lo-fi style recordings. (Young bands working in lo-fi tend to hide behind the fuzz-n-buzz.) And it’s also impressive how well the band handles creating music in a style that’s quite unlike their main approach.
Essentially, I think I’m just saying that Yuck/Yu(c)k are nice, bright young men and women, and I enjoy this song.
PS: I have no idea how the departure of Daniel Blumberg from Yuck will affect Yu(c)k because it’s rather unclear how the band approaches this side project and who exactly is involved.
This past November marked the fortieth anniversary of Can’s landmark krautrock / jammin’-with-the-bros masterpiece Ege Bamyasi. In keeping with the tradition of celebrating the ruby anniversary of any notable krautrock album by having a dude from a nineties indie band cover it in full, Stephen Malkmus played the entire album live in the band’s hometown of Cologne. Luckily for all of us non-Europeans who fall into the middle of the Venn diagram comparing Pavement fans and Can fans,1 the entire set was recorded and eventually released on this past Record Store Day.
This recording will eventually become just another footnote in the history of both the coverer and the covered, but I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile listen, because it might be the most genuine recording of Malkmus’s career.
During both his time with Pavement and his subsequent solo/Jicks career, Malkmus has traded in purposeful obfuscation. His lyrics have always been cryptic bits of nonsense that connect just enough to make listeners connect lines together, but still feel apprehensive about doing so. Onstage, he’s always affected an attractively aloof presence and (particularly during his years with Pavement) slightly-off style that simultaneously seemed deliberate, and like it was going to fall apart at any moment.
But this recording is devoid of any snark or willful distance. Malkmus is clearly having a fun time playing musical dress-up, and he perfectly recreates both the sunny, chummy atmosphere of the original and, you know, the actual music itself. Even his few bits of stage banter are straightforward bits of praise for the record. That may not seem like much, but in light of his general reputation, a drop of directness seems like a deluge.
Rich Boy on “Paper Planes (Diplo Street Mix)” by MIA
Diplo’s remix of MIA’s mega-ultra-mondo-giga-smash “Paper Planes” has a bit of an odd place in the world of remixes. It isn’t one of those world-conquering remixes that obliterates all traces of the original track.1 But it’s still managed to capture a degree of longevity due to a surprisingly large faction of bloggers who dubbed it the ~ultimate~ or ~essential~ version of the song in their Best of 2007 lists.
Personally, I would not go so far as to rank this song ahead of the original,2 which is a clever send up of pop songs that also manages to be a fucking perfect pop song. But, that being said, I do enjoy this version of the song quite a bit.
In particular, I’ve always really loved Rich Boy’s verse, which is a cross between Killer Mike’s verse from Bone Crusher’s “Neva Scared”3 and Common’s classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, which if you have never heard you should stop reading right now and open that link and listen to it all the way through BUT DON’T WATCH THE VIDEO. I’m doing everything I can to make this comparison without spoiling one of the best “DAAAAAMMMNN” rap moments ever, so just do what I say. The rest of us will wait for you to get back.
Okay, now that we’re all up to speed about that Common reference, let’s look at Rich Boy’s verse itself. First of all, I fucking love Rich Boy’s voice. It’s a viscous Alabama drawl that renders every word legato. His verses just pour out of the speakers. In the seven years that have passed since he released his only mainstream solo hit “Throw Some D’s" I’ve never gotten tired of listening to him chant "JUST BOUGHT A CADILLAC" or huff out lines like "Got peanut butter ice cream / Peter Pan Seats." He’s just one of those rappers who could sell me an audiobook of the Yellow Pages.
But, of course, the real pull of this verse is its twist ending, which reveals that he’s been talking about his handgun, not a woman. That type of verse is extremely difficult to pull off, but a successful version makes you immediately stop and rewind the track. I’d say that’s definitely the case here. The success of his lyrical feat is accomplished primarily through deceptive personification that plays on the listener’s expectations and hip hop tropes.
Take, for instance, the line “So bad she make ‘em wanna pull they money out,” which plays on the well-worn hip hop topic of spending money on a beautiful woman and the dual meaning that rap slang has added to the word “bad.” Without that last line, would you suspect that Rich Boy was talking about anything other than buy a girl drinks (or maybe prostitution)?
The most brilliant fake out of this verse, however, has to be the line “She look like 22 but she really 45.” On the first listen it seems to be say that the woman he’s discussing is older but still looks young. But, in light of the last line’s reveal, it’s actually referring to the caliber of his gun. What’s more, it’s really the linchpin of the verse. Without it, all of the other general personification might seem too slight to justify the final reveal, but this line is so good that it totally legitimizes the rest of the verse.
Really, though, I could talk about his part in this song all day. There’s a million other things I love about it, like how he spits out “she mother fuckin’ crazy!” or the liquid u he adds to “moolah” or the way his accent adds tons of assonance and bent rhyme to the phrase “helicopters to stop us.” Basically, if you haven’t picked up on it, I really fucking love this verse.