(In Which We Cover Covers)
Jai Paul - “Track 7”
Perhaps the most unexpect moments of Jai Paul’s 2013 stolen / leaked album / demo collection / mixtape (aside from it’s sudden, unceremonious appearance on Bandcamp) was its seventh track, a cover of pop singer Jennifer Paige’s sole hit, “Crush.” Paul’s exceptionally careful, a-prolific nature as an artist makes the track all the more surprising and intriguing. I mean, the guy’s only ever officially released two tracks. Any covers he’s going to record are going to be as carefully curated as the rest of his music. And the track he chooses to cover is a all-but-forgotten teen pop hit by a one-hit-wonder?
Thus, it’s rather tempting to return to Paige’s original version of the track and play Cover Song Sherlock Holmes, combing through it’s elements to find out why Jai Paul made the choice he did. Maybe it’s that the song’s pulsing rhythm and staccato bass translated naturally into his idiosyncratic recording style. Or maybe this was a song he heard as a kid that planted a seed that grew into his current style. Perhaps it’s the Paige’s vocals have a certain breathy quality to them that Paul recognized as somewhat similar to his own. As you can see, you may start off Cover Song Sherlock Holmes but you just wind up being Cover Song Jack D. Ripper, or Cover Song Xenophilius Lovegood, or Cover Song Time Cube Guy. Sure, those connection could be true but there’s no evidence you can point to support those theories. It’s just as likely that he has fond memories of a cherished babysitter who used to play it in her car, or, hell, that he covered it just because he likes the song.
And yet, there’s still much to be gained from listening to this track, aside from the fact that his version is, of course, fantastic in that singularly Jai Paul way. I think the fact that is a cover of a straightforward pop song allows us as listeners to get a glimpse into how Jai Paul constructs his songs. That’s the one of the best things about his work: all his tracks sound like excellent pop songs that have been pull apart and chopped up and shuffled around in such an utterly perfect way. They sound fantastically broken. By comparing this song to Paige’s version, you can see how he rearranges the beat, and adds in those guitar stabs, and that funky little baselines and all of the other flourishes that abruptly pop in and out of the track. I don’t think anyone but Jai Paul will ever truly understand what it is that he does, but this song might just let us get a little closer.
(Side Projects, Solo Albums, and Other Detours)
Percy “Thrills” Thrillington - “Ram On”
As we all know, Paul McCartney’s Ram is the best1 post-Beatles solo2 album, so it makes sense that McCartney would want to take a victory lap after completing that record. And so he did by recording a full-length instrumental cover of his own album under the name Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. Yes, he took a page out of George Martin’s book and created a far far far less essential version of his own music. Before Ram was even released, McCartney was already working with conductor Richard Anthony Hewson to arrange new versions of his songs. The recordings began less than two weeks after Ram hit shelves, and were completed within the month. That was June 1971. Thrillington was released in April 1977, nearly six years later. Apparently forming the band Wings distracted Paul enough to neglect his most outlandish creation for more than half a decade.
But in the run up to the album’s release, McCartney seemed to dive headfirst into creating the character of Percy Thrillington. He sent rogueish valentines to female reporters under that name, and regularly took out personal ads detailing adventures in exotica locals that Thrillington had supposedly recent experienced. Naturally, since Thrillington was going to working with his music, McCartney had to create a space for himself within the life of this fictional playboy. He cast himself as a sort of mentor figure for Thrillington, taking the young and talented musician under his wing and helping to arrange the lad’s first album.
Here’s the inside of the album, which details Thrillington’s life and rather unconvincingly denies that Paul and Thrillington are the same person:
Yet, despite Paul’s involvement and his attempts to drum up interest in Thrillington, the album went utterly unremarked upon when it was released, save a passing mention in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone. Perhaps Paul was great at convincing people of the existence of a fictional person, but not so great at convincing them to buy that fake person’s albums. So, Thrillington became a sort of, kind of collectors item, hampered somewhat by the nebulousness of Paul’s contributions. It took until a November 27, 1989 press conference for Paul to publicly admit that he was behind the record, which revitalized interest in it and turned it from a footnote in his career to a slightly larger footnote in his career.
But, beyond it’s undeniably amusing backstory, the question remains as to whether Thrillington is actually worth a listen. While this is far from a ringing endorsement, I will say that it’s a far more interesting listen than George Martin’s easy listening Beatles cover records. However inferior these renditions may be, at least they’re not boring. He turns “3 Legs” into a sleazy saxophone number, and nearly converts “Dear Boy” into a doo-wop track. Most, though, are given horn-heavy instrumental makeovers. None of the tracks manage to outdo the originals, but then again, they’re not really trying to. This record is a low-stakes lark, not a true McCartney album by any stretch of the imagination. Ultimately, Thrillington is an utterly inessential record, but also never an unpleasant one.
1. Yes, better than All Things Must Pass, and yes, better than John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. (The runners up.)
What? Ringo Starr? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure who that is.
2. Yes, Ram is credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney” but we all know that all projects by former Beatles will be lumped together under the title of [That Beatle] Solo Works. It’s not isolation from all people that matters; it matters that they’re away from The Beatles.
(Music and Other Media)
The Mountain Goats & Kaki King - “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle”
Back in 2008, The Mountain Goats went on tour with fellow folk artist Kaki KIng, and teamed up to create a collaborative EP for sale exclusively on that tour. Though both of those acts are notable for pushing the boundaries of folk music, their approach is still simpatico enough that the result EP slots nicely in to their discographies. Sure, it doesn’t really push either artist into new or unusual territory, but songs made in these artists’ wheelhouses are generally excellent, and the ones on Black Pear Tree EP are no different.
The standout track from the EP is unquestionably the one I’ve posted above. And yes, it is a song from the perspective of Super Mario Bros. supporting character Toad, who says the song’s titular quote to the player over and over again throughout the series. If you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. before and have somehow not gained a working knowledge of it through internet-nostalgia-Buzzfeed-Tumblr-.gifs osmosis, here’s a quick explanation of the series:
(Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re familiar with the series.)
Basically, you play as a plummer named Mario and your goal is to save a princess from an evil, fire-breathing dragon-turtle-thing. (No plumbing is ever involved.) You play through a series of levels by defeating or making it past various enemies. After you progress through several levels you make your way to a castle, where you hope to find the princess. But, of course, you won’t arrived at the right castle initially. Instead, over and over again, you’ll only find her loyal attendant Toad, who tells you “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”[sic]
The song, being from Toad’s perspective, describes the scene that precedes Mario’s arrival, but with imagery that’s far less cartoony than the game that inspired it. Terrifying darkness, the stench of sulfur, and echoing screams are rarely associated with NES games aimed at children. The conquered land that the Goats and King conjure sounds closer to war-torn Westeros than the Mushroom Kingdom. Really, aside from the title and a passing reference to “the bright, ringing tones of 8-bit choirs” there’s nothing that screams “SUPER MARIO BROS.” about this song. If those two elements were removed, I don’t think that any listener would draw a connection between this track and the video game character that inspired it.
A while ago, I wrote a piece about a similar tour-only team-up EP from the Mountain Goats discography: their collaboration with John Vanderslice entitled Moon Colony Bloodbath. Of that record, which was nominally about scientists accidentally conjuring a murderous demon while performing experiments at a lunar base, Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle said “Concepts like this are actually more fun when you abandon them but leave their traces kicking around…" And I think that’s clearly the case here.
Let’s be honest, no matter what r/music says, songs that are explicitly about nerd pop culture references are generally fucking terrible. Darnielle’s stated approach, in my opinion, is a far better one than (shudder) filk. Since he and King only uses the game as a jumping off point, enjoying the song is not wholly reliant upon getting the reference. Even if you’ve never picked up a controller in your life, you can still revel in the song’s dark imagery and subsequent catharsis, or its shuffling brushed percussion, or its gorgeous final chorus.
(In Which We Cover Covers)
Solange - “Fuck The Industry (Signed Sincerely)”
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Solange Knowles’s music knows that her career can be easily separated into two halves. The first encompasses her time as a major label artist recording mainstream pop and R&B tracks, ala her sister Beyonce’s group Destiny’s Child. The second, separated from the first by a lengthy hiatus from recording, is the current stage of her career, in which she’s been producing far more idiosyncratic music. She’s gone from being the sort of act that performs on the Today Show to the sort that shows up unexpectedly at Dirty Projectors shows. Basically, she went from being “Beyonce’s little sister” to being “Beyonce’s cooler little sister,” from being an inferior knock-off to a unique and enticing alternative.
So, if we all can agree that her career has two clear stages, where to place the break? Do we consider it to be when she began her mid-00s hiatus? Or perhaps when she ended it? Or what about the release of Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, her first mature album? All of those are solid suggestions, but they all pale in comparison to the track above, “Fuck The Industry (Signed Sincerely).”
Leaked in 2008 (just before Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams was released), it’s a flip of Kanye West’s “Everything I Am" that keeps the beat and a portion of the chorus intact, but it rewrites almost all of the lyrics. If you’re as a big of a Kanye Stan as I am, you’re probably already intrigued, because "Everything I Am" opens with the line "I’ll never be picture-perfect Beyonce." Yes, she keeps that line intact, and yes, it feels as monumental as you’re imagining. I mean, that’s basically her mission statement from the second half of her career. She’ll never be Beyonce, so she’s gonna just be Solange. If you knew nothing about Solange aside from her familial connections and you heard that line, you’d understand exactly what she was trying to do. She was trying to carve out her own space and make music that she wants to make. It’s an impressive accomplishment and an extremely cagey move. In a single line she told listeners exactly where she was going as an artist, and she’s been headed in that same direction ever since.
PS: STRAY THOUGHTS
RIFFS AND VARIATIONS
(Alternate Takes, Live Versions, and Early Mixes)
Sufjan Stevens - “Chicago (Solo Banjo Version)”
If you’ve ever listened to Sufjan Stevens, you probably started with “Chicago.” You probably heard it Little Miss Sunshine, or in your friend’s car, or on your town’s cool hip happening college radio station. Without question, it’s the biggest “hit” of Sufjan’s career.
Which means, basically, that anyone with even in a passing familiarity with Sufjan has an intimate knowledge of the song. I, however, am not just a dude who has a few Sufjan Stevens records; I am a 125% full-on dyed-in-the-wool Sufjan Stevens mega-Stan. My all-time favorite concert is probably when I saw him on the Age of Adz tour. (It’s one of three times I’ve seen him play live.) One of my greatest record-purchasing moments was somehow finding and purchasing a copy of The BQE a month before it was supposed to come out. Basically, I’m such a big fan of his could probably be arrested, tried, and convicted for stalking the guy.
Thus, since everyone who knows Sufjan knows “Chicago” and I have spend an inordinate amount of time and effort on knowing about Sufjan, I’ve listened to “Chicago” probably a million times.
And I never would have expected how naturally the song would sound if it were arranged for banjo. Sure, the banjo is the instrument most identified with Sufjan, so maybe I could have guessed that he’d be able to play it on that instrument. But, I certainly wouldn’t have thought that it would lend itself to the banjo so well. The album version is just so elaborately arranged, as Illinoise is the peak of Sufjan’s band-room-baroque style. It’s such a massive, complex swirl of sounds that I’m still not entirely sure what instruments play certain parts. Listening to that version, it seems like a pared down recording of it would be impossible, or at least ill-advised.
Instead, the song’s agile, bouncy style dovetails nicely with the similarly spry sound that works so well when played on the banjo. Sure, the loss of the swelling strings and massive chorus of voices also means that the song losing some of it’s soaring majesty. But, part of what’s great about the original version is that it contains the wonderful juxtaposition of those huge moments set beside smaller, more intimate ones. This version of the track removes the former, but in doing so it emphasizes and illuminates how effective those quieter and more personal moments are.
But, now I must be going. Since I started listening to this song, I’m just gonna have to go listen to his entire discography. See you next week.
(Side Projects, Solo Albums, and Other Detours)
The Charmer - “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t”
Don’t read ahead.
Just press play.
And read the name of the album this song comes from.
(It’s The Charmer is Louis Farrakhan.)
You’re listening to the future leader of the Nation of Islam sing a novelty calypso song about a transgender woman who becomes a famous actress. To me, a 1950’s calypso song about a transgender person seems startlingly improbable on it’s own, but it exists. And it’s performed by man who later became a major political and religious figure? That just sounds like the beginning of a Mad Lib.
__________(a famous political figure) once recorded a __________ (musical genre) album that opens with a song about a ___________ (adjective) person who achieves fame as a ____________ (profession)
When I first pressed play on The Charmer is Louis Farrakhan, the extremely creatively titled compilation of music from Farrakhan’s brief music career, I expected it to be a passable collection of calypso standards, remarkable only for the man the singer later became. Instead, it’s a passable collection of really really really weird calypso standards, remarkable mainly for the man the singer later became.
And it’s not even the fun kind of weird.
Aside from “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t” here are some of the, um, highlights:
(If “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t” didn’t tip you off, ”Female Boxer” and “Ugly Woman” should have: this collection is very much in tune with the gender politics of the 1950s. Then again, maybe the name “Louis Farrakhan” should have tipped you off too.)
Like many similar records, there’s really not that much here to enjoy beyond examining the album in relation to Farrakhan’s later life and works, which is a rather dubious approach. Aside from that, it’s mostly a run of the mill calypso record, neither an embarrassment nor a forgotten gem. Like I said before, it’s mostly just a strange listen and a minor footnote in his biography.
PS: I found out about this record at the fantastic blog Music For Maniacs.
PSS: There are some sources that claim that “Farrakhan” is an Arabic word that means “charming” or “charmer”, but it actually means “criterion.”