Upon listening to Patrick Stickles’s cover of “Hey Tonight” by Free Energy, you’ll probably be struck by how different it sounds from his recordings with Titus Andronicus. To a certain degree, that’s to be expected. I mean, he’s playing someone else’s composition without his usual collaborators. It only makes sense that the end product sounds noticeably different. Of course it’s not gonna have the massive guitar solos, or twelve sharp musical left turns, or million-man arrangements that we’ve come to expect from Titus Andronicus. “Duh doy, TWG,” you say to yourself. “Duh doy.”
But the thing is, I think Stickles’s cover sounds even more atypical than I would expect. Although you’d never mistake a Free Energy song for one by Titus Andronicus, they’re still relatively similar groups. Both have a knack for massive, anthemic shout-alongs, and they both have tons of Weezer alleles in their DNA1. Their similarities, however, really aren’t all that evident on this particular track.
The reason for that, in my opinion, lies in the track’s vocal part. While Titus do love them some short, repetitious vocal parts,2 those sections are always balanced by ones with much longer phrasing and SAT vocabulary. That dichotomy serves not only as a technical counterpoint to their shout-along, but also to make those sections all the more forceful. Take their track “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future.” In that song, hearing Stickles ramble effusively about losing his humanity through a dozen apt metaphors makes the ending refrain of “YOU’LL ALWAYS BE A LOSER” hit even harder in comparison. If anyone repeats something, then you know it’s important, but if Patrick Stickles repeats something, then you really know it’s important.
I think that’s why the track in question sounds so different from his usual output. The breathless shout-along section is still there, but there’s no sprawling, verbose verse to balance it out. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s nevertheless surprising to hear it coming from an artist who regularly takes a different route. That’s really one of my favorite things about cover songs: they make artists do things they wouldn’t normally do.
Since Halloween1 is coming up soon, and I was listening to Titus Andronicus’s still monstrous 2010 album The Monitor today, I had the sudden urge to go dig through their blogspot so that I could re-read lead singer and guitarist Patrick Stickles’s post about playing a horrific show on Halloween 2009. It’s a great read, alternately funny and scary in a not fun at all way. Here’s a link to it. You should really read it.2 Part of the way through, there was a line that really got me thinking.
Stickles says that the night was so shitty that even “playing the all-time greatest guitar lick at the end of the “Buddy Holly” solo* did NOT make [him] feel better.”
That line made me realize something about the little trifles I write about covers on this blogsite thing: I always approach them from a listener’s perspective. That is, I’ve never written about covers from the perspective of the one playing them. I don’t ever really write about the experience of playing a cover itself. As the especially astute readers have already guessed, that’s what I’m gonna do now.
Stickles’s comment really sums up one facet of the appeal of playing covers. It’s just fun, man**. Playing a song you love is experiencing it at an even deeper level than just listening to it. It’s like playing musical dress-up. You get to pretend for a moment that you’re Rivers Cuomo playing that rad fucking lick when the band drops out at the end of the solo. Playing a song by an artist you love is like getting to climb inside your favorite painting. It’s like artistic communion. Anyone who’s ever played the riff from “Smoke On The Water” on their friend’s guitar knows that feeling, like you’re getting to see something at a different level.
Of course, there are other reasons that playing covers are fun and/or artistically rewarding, but today, Dolphin/Shark is all about fun. That’s why the mp3 above is of a different Weezer song. I can’t find a recording of the Tituses playing “Buddy Holly” so I put up one of them playing “El Scorcho” instead. Whatever, man! It’s a good cover! We’re just having fun!
1. Halloween is objectively the best holiday.
2. The reveal of the costume he’s wearing is so fucking great. Seriously, go read it.
SUPERSECRET BIH SNEAK FOOTNOTES:
*This is my all-time favorite Weezer moment. Seeing as how I do not particularly care for them, there are few others.
**Speaking/writing as someone who was in a band in high school—one that did, in fact, play covers at shows—I can confirm that it is indeed fun, man.
Okay, kids, I know that this is like a year late, but I really wanna talk about how brilliant Titus Andronicus’s “A More Perfect Union” is.
Specifically, I wanna talk about how brilliant the line “Cause tramps like us/Baby, we were born to die” is.
(In case you’ve just gained sentience or something, the line flips part of the refrain of a massively famous song by Bruce Springsteen entitled “Born to Run.” Go listen to it before you continue. Also, congratulations on attaining cognizance.)
Okay, so in theory that line should not work. It shouldn’t work one little bit. Copping a line that iconic is just asking for trouble. A lyric like that has too much meaning caught up in it. It already has such a strong mental association that putting it into any other context shouldn’t work. Theoretically, it should come off as gimmicky, or at least awkward.
But it doesn’t!
It works perfectly!
And the reason it does is because those crazy kids in Titus Andronicus know everything I wrote above. They used it because it had those associations. They wanted those associations to come into your mind. And they used those associations as a part of the overall theme of the song.
At a basic level, anyone who here’s the phrase in question will undoubtedly first think of the man himself, the Boss, Springstreen. He’s a huge figure in American pop music and in American culture in general. But, the only place that he’s a bigger icon is in his home state of New Jersey. Hell, I’d wager that if you asked a random person on the street to name three things that they think of when they hear the words “New Jersey” they would say, 1. The Sopranos 2. Snooki and 3. Springsteen. (Accidental alliterations are always awesome.)
The reason that this matters is because the song is thematically based around the love/hate relationship that most people have with their birthplace. In this case, the song’s speaker is conflicted about his relationship with New Jersey (which is the band’s state of origin). It’s like Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” but with way radder guitar solos.
The speaker is “lookin’ for a new New Jersey,” so he takes the most iconic line from the most iconic song by the most iconic singer in the history of the state and distorts it. He flips it and changes it into something more vital and raw and fatalistic. Basically, he wants to remake the line, as well as his home state, into something that’s tailored to him.
But, as his later realization that he “never should have left New Jersey” indicates, the speaker still, to some degree, does love his state. He doesn’t want to totally disregard it. And that’s why the line works as well as it does.
Those lyrics are simultaneously an invocation of Springsteen’s chorus and a renounciation of them. It’s a subversion and celebration of Jersey, just like the song in which it resides. And that thematic context is what turns a potentially disastrous line into an ingenious one.
In Vancouver, I notice that the venue we’re playing has played host to Shonen Knife just the night before. “What a coincidence!” I think to myself, because I once encountered Shonen Knife, years ago, in Tokyo, when I was conducting research on Japanese girls’ bands and they were playing a small…
Guitarist/violinist Amy Klein from Titus Andronicus writes one of the most interesting music related blogs on all of the Tumblrs. She’s one of the few people who write long blocks of text on tumblr that are actually worth reading.
Go follow her if you like intelligent writing about both rock and roll. (She typically covers both.)
(This week, a SharkDolphin operative has been dispatched to observe and report on the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival. These are their stories.)
Wow. I’m really sorry, you guys. I’m like the worst SharkDolphin operative in history. (Except Jenkins. Jenkins was a terrible operative. May he rest in peace.) I was festivalin’ so hard that I couldn’t write anything coherent on either Saturday or Sunday night. So, I decided to sleep and post this when I got back. I know that it’s late, and that I’ll only get partial credit, but I still want to turn it in. Check it!
The Rundown: This ain’t you parents’ DFA-signed group, kids; these guys play guitars. The band apparently takes nomenclature very seriously, as their entire show is all about ENERGY. It was 45 minutes of upbeat, dance-influenced pop-rock that every high-school kid in the audience seemed to love.
The X-Factor: Short-shorts. I spent most of the concert watching the video screen and making “And now a little somethin’ for the ladies…” jokes in my head.
The Verdict: It’s nothing that you haven’t seen before if you lived through the great dance-rock heydays of the mid-2000s, but I honestly think I saw more teens rockin’ Free Energy swag than any other band at the festival.
The Rundown: Chill bros. abounded at this show, both in the crowd and on stage. They played three (3!) new songs, and Alex Bleeker asked if we were all as stoked for Pavement as he was. (And, yes, “stoked” was the word he used.)
The X-Factor: “Budweiser, Sprite/Do you feel alright?” (aka the best chorus of any song ever written by anyone)
The Verdict: Real Estate definitely aren’t a face-melting live band, but they were definitely a nice way to start off the day.
The Rundown: I’ve never been a big fan of Delorean, but I have to admit that their live show unquestionably encouraged me to give them a second looking. They remind me of Animal Collective’s European cousin (and not just because at least two of them could place in the top three of a Geologist-Look-Alike Contest). They take the swirly bits and drony transitions of AnCo and slip them under undeniably dance-party worth beats.
The X-Factor: Their drummer totally looked like Tumblr super-star Ned Hepburn.
The Rundown: I saw this show from afar (I got a good spot for Raekwon), and, man am I bummed that I didn’t get to experience this show up close. Their approximately 40,000 people on stage playing and approximately 39,995 of them went into the audience at some point. I was later told that being up close for that show was “so sick.”
The X-Factor: America. There were approximately one billion American flags on stage. (Note: I haven’t take math since high-school.)
The Verdict: Looks good, man.
The Rundown: The set got off to a rough start, and was plagued by technical problems. But Rae still did his best to smooth things over by talking to the crowd about “Real Hip Hop” and “That Classic Shit.” The show’s greatest weakness was intrinsically tied to the greatest strength of the Wu-Tang collective, collaboration. Even if Chef was doing something off of a solo record, he still had to either cut other rapper’s verses or just do them himself. But again, he did what he could with what he had.
The X-Factor: Break-dancing children. Seriously. And they were all siblings! And Rae brought them out to dance to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.” Seriously.
The Verdict: It wasn’t flawless, but Rae still made it work.
The Rundown: This was probably the biggest surprise of the festival for me. Yoni Wolf is amazing live. Who knew that the neurotic central figure of an distinctly nerdy art-rap group could be so damn charismatic? He command the stage by using simple movements and gestures that build along with the music (a technique that honestly reminded me of Karen O). Whether it was bunny-hopping across the stage or puffing out his chest on downbeats, Yoni had the audience eating out of his hand (Fatalist Palmistry LOL!).
The X-Factor: Yoni’s straw boater hat. It was ridiculous/cool/perfect.
The Verdict: Between Yoni’s arresting performance, Josiah’s maniac drumming, and the wall-sound guitar and bass, this was the most surprisingly rocking show of the festival.
The Rundown: I actually missed the beginning of this set because I stuck around for all of the Why? show. My band, Wolf Parade. So, I’m not sure what I missed, but from what I saw they mostly stuck to stuff from Expo ‘86, which sounded fine, even if their show is pretty unremarkable. But, “This Heart’s On Fire” is still jam-tacular, and they played the hell out it.
The X-Factor: The bros I chilled with (including the “Less Chill More Wave” guy). They gave me some of their Jack Daniels.
The Verdict: They sounded fine, but their live presence leaves something to be desired.
The Rundown: Okay, here’s the thing, I like Panda Bear. I really do, you guys. So be cool when I say that his live show doesn’t work in a festival setting. Okay, thanks for being cool. It’s just that his visual projections are a big part of his show, and sticking them up on a screen to the side of the stage takes a lot away from the set. Like most people, I spent glancing back and forth between the stage and the screen, which was not a pleasant experience.
The X-Factor: Geologist and Avey Tare, who made cameos in the visual portion, screaming and karate-chopping a fish, respectively.
The Verdict: Panda was a bit out of his element and the only song he played from Person Pitch was ”Ponytail,” but people still had fun (especially “Slow Motion” which inspired vast amounts of awkward, pseudo-interpretive dancing.)
The Rundown: Oh man. You guys. This show. Let me put it this way: they didn’t play “Dance Yrself Clean” and I didn’t even care. Everything was so goddamn good that I didn’t mind one bit. Every aspect of the performance was immaculate. I literally cannot think of anything negative to say about it. And “All My Friends” was (and I know how lame this sounds) absolutely magical.
The X-Factor: Nancy Whang, James Murphy’s perfect foil.
The Verdict: Awesome, wonderful, great, fantastic, etc.
PS: I did some recon work about the Modest Mouse show between sets, and I found some surprising news. The people I talked two could be divided into two groups. First, people who (like me) aren’t really fans of the band. These people thought that the show was pretty good/fine/okay. On the other hand, people who like Modest Mouse hated the show. They gave me long talks about how great Modest Mouse shows were circa 2001 and how Issac Brock didn’t care anymore and how they should have played “Float On.” Yep, that’s right. The legit fans wanted “Float On.” Madness.