We Dig What You Do

Record Store Day was the past weekend, which means two things:

1) A bunch of nifty music was (re)released on vinyl.
2) I am now poor.

The stuff that comes out on Record Store Day tends to be a mix of older material (Aerosmith, Nick Drake, Cream), and newer material (Foals, The Gaslight Anthem, MGMT). But there’s always one or two things that come out each year made specifically for The Day, so to speak. And this year, one of those things was this:Stephen Malkmus - Ege Bamyasi

The nuts and bolts: Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) covered Can’s Ege Bamyasi, live, in its entirety, last year in Cologne, Germany during something called Week-End Fest. Can are from Cologne, too, and 2012 just so happened to be Ege Bamyasi’s 40th birthday, so this performance was kind of a neat thing. And Von Spar, Malkmus’ backing band during the performance, are also from Cologne, so there certainly wasn’t any shortage of synchronicity.

Now, my favorite two Can albums are Tago Mago and Future Days. Ege Bamyasi would probably be third. Probably. I haven’t listened to Can’s other albums enough to really be sure. But Stephen Malkmus *loves* Ege Bamyasi – loves it enough to play it before he went to sleep each night, every night, for about three years (or, at the very least, loves it enough to be that hyperbolic about his love for it in print).

Musicians and bands cover whole albums by other musicians and bands live with some regularity. And why not? It’s a fun little one-off event. Dream Theater is a great example; they’ve covered Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, and Deep Purple’s Made In Japan live, and have released the recordings of all of them as “Official Bootlegs” that you can buy through the band’s label, Ytsejam.

But what about those who cover entire albums in the studio? That takes more of a commitment. It’s easy to scoff or dismiss a bootleg, official or otherwise. But a studio recording is different. There’s a permanence to it that a live recording just doesn’t have. It’s a risky endeavor. People are inevitably going to compare the new recording to the original (assuming they’re familiar with it), and chances are the original will prevail in their minds, because that’s human nature – we tend to like art best the first go-around. Sometimes, though, there’s a fire inside that you just have to work out. Even if it’s someone else’s.

One of the more high-profile song-for-song covers in recent memory was done by The Flaming Lips (with contributions from Henry Rollins, Peaches, and Stardeath and White Dwarfs). Together, they covered all of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, an album that’s so ingrained in our culture that everyone has some sort of a relationship to it, even if it’s only tangential. The Lips & Co. rendition is pretty solid, but it’s harsh at times – particularly when Peaches starts wailing. It’s like an icepick to your eardrums.

The Flaming Lips’ Dark Side rendition was a calculated affair: there was first an announcement that they were going to be doing it, then the recording of it, then the release of it, then a tour promoting it. If you’re looking for the polar opposite of that, look no further than Beck’s Record Club; to date, he’s covered five albums, top-to-bottom (with the help of a dizzying array of guest musicians). And all of these albums have been completed in one day. One day. Jesus. That kind of productivity is foreign to me.

The albums that Beck & Co. have covered for Record Club (and the order in which they’ve been covered) is as follows:

1) The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
2) Leonard Cohen – Songs For Leonard Cohen
3) Skip Spence – Oar
4) INXS – Kick
5) Yanni – Live At The Acropolis

I can’t really say what any of these sound like as a whole, as I’ve only taken in a few tracks from each. But I think that’s the point. The page for Record Club lays out their purpose thusly:

“There is no intention to ‘add to’ the original work or to attempt to recreate the power of the original recording. Only to play music and document what happens.”

That’s why this stuff’s not up on Spotify, or for sale on iTunes, or getting pressed on vinyl. Because doing so would violate that spirit. You can still go through each album on the website’s archive and take it in as a whole if you want –  but you have to do it on Beck’s terms.

David Longstreth is the principle songwriter of a band called Dirty Projectors. In 2007, he set out to write a batch of songs that, in his words, “already existed.” What came of this was Rise Above, a “cover” of Black Flag’s Damaged. At the time of the recording, Longstreth hadn’t heard Damaged in about 15 years; he wanted to create the album from his memory, as best he could, and fill in the gaps where needed. Of course, Rise Above sounds nothing like Damaged. It was never going to. But it’s fascinating to hear a band take a half-minute suckerpunch like Spray Paint and turn it into this:

The best part of that song for me is at the very end, when you hear everyone stabbing the same beat in unison – but slowly. Speed it up to 300%, and it could almost be Black Flag. Rise Above is littered with moments like that. I know Dirty Projectors have found favor with a lot of folks after Bitte Orca came out, but this – this is the tops for me.

Usually, if someone is going to cover an entire album, they’ll have gotten a few other albums of stuff they’ve written under their belt, first. Not so with Dave Depper. The first album of material that he ever recorded was not, in fact, his. It was Sir Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM. Depper re-recorded the entire album himself, playing every part, recording each drum one at a time because he only had one mic. And he gave himself a 30-day window to complete the whole thing. If that sounds kind of nuts, it’s because it is. Depper’s quest was borne out of frustration:

“I was in a rut. I’d played on and helped produce dozens of different records, but I’d had yet to follow through with completing anything of my own. I knew that I needed to do something – anything – to prove to myself that I was capable of finishing something that I’d started.”

He succeeded in his endeavor. The RAM Project (as it wound up being called) exists, and can be purchased or streamed from a host of different places. As of this writing, it remains the only record Depper’s released. The temptation to compare it to the McCartney’s album is great. But again, that’s not the point. Depper didn’t set out to top them. He set out to finish something. And he did. And if there’s now another cool version of Dear Boy as a result, well, then that’s icing on the cake.

Unsurprisingly, Beatles albums get covered in their entirety a lot, and in just about every style you could imagine. Quite fitting for the most enduringly popular band on the planet. But there’s one Beatles reinterpretation that stands out above the others to me, because it’s so goddamn weird. It’s a cover of the album Let It Be, and it was made a German industrial band named Laibach in 1988. It’s hard to wrap your brain around it; it’s brash, militaristic, and cartoonishly-exaggerated. I wouldn’t say I love it – it’s the kind of thing that’s hard, if not impossible, to love – but damn if it doesn’t make me smile every time I hear part of it. Listen to what they turn Two of Us in to:

Wow.

Personally, I think that’s great. It’s Two of Us…but not. But new. On a molecular level it’s the same, but beyond that, it’s like a different allotrope, or something. Maybe. I don’t remember how allotropes work. But you get the idea. The whole album is like that, each song radically different, but with the core of the original intact. Why did Laibach to make this album? I have no idea. None.

Sometimes it’s easier to take a guess at that “why?” then others. Boris The Sprinkler (a punk band) have covered all of The Ramones’ End of the Century *and* Circle Jerks’ Group Sex (punk albums, the both of them). There’s a link between them. It makes sense. But that link can sever quickly. In theory, Six Feet Under (a death metal band) covering all of AC/DC’s Back In Black (a hard rock classic) makes sense. Kind of. But when you actually listen to Six Feet Under’s version of Back In Black (it’s called Graveyard Classics 2), the link is more tenuous. It’s missing whatever that special something is that can make buzzed bar patrons the world over howl along on cue to You Shook Me All Night Long. Also: it’s worth noting that death growls and major key riffs do not work together. It just sounds silly. Six Feet Under fail doubly in their sole song-for-song cover album (Graveyard Classics 1 and 3 are traditional “here’s a song, there’s a song” cover collections). I see neither them, nor AC/DC in a new light because of it. And yes, that’s fair, because with no other explanation as to “why?”, that’s what anyone going into it should expect to get from it.

One of my favorite albums ever is My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. It’s a mythical record. “Nothing else sounds like it.” –  that’s what everyone says, even if it’s not true. It feels true though, and that’s the important thing. In 2007, a band named Japancakes released an instrumental version of Loveless. There’s no vocals on it, no distortion, no haziness or obscurity to the sounds you’re taking in. When I first heard it, I hated it. Hated it. It was criminal, taking these songs and making them…normal, when what made them all so special to begin with was the fact that they weren’t normal. But I’ve since grown to like Japancakes’ take on Loveless; in a way, they’ve demystified the album for me, and I’ve grown closer to it as a result. It’s easier to appreciate how full and luscious When You Sleep is after you’ve heard how open and clear Japancakes made it.

On July 10th, 2007, Against Me! released their fourth album, New Wave; less than one month later, on August 19th, Ben Lee covered the entire album – just him, his guitar, and his voice. His reasons for doing so couldn’t be simpler:

“I fell in love with [New Wave]. Really. Like, couldn’t stop listening to it. As heavy and gnarly as it sounds at times, it is unmistakably a pop masterpiece. Listening to it on the way to Australia, I wondered to myself how these songs would sound acoustically. A couple of days later I was on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne and had the thought ‘I’d love to cover this album.’ The whole thing. Beginning to end. So I did.”

There’s a million different things you could say about pairing down a punk album to the singer-songwriter level, but at the end of the day, none of it matters, because Ben Lee just *had* to play New Wave. There’s really nothing more to it than that. Like Depper covering RAM, he’s not doing it for me, he’s doing it for him. And I get that. Maybe I should go easier on Six Feet Under, then – but I won’t. Six Feet Under want me to spend $13 on Graveyard Classics 2; Ben Lee is giving his version of New Wave away for free. Money talks.

So. How does it sound, Malkmus & Co. tackling Ege Bamyasi? I’ll just say this: everyone is having a blast. You can tell that this is something meaningful for all involved, and they’re all enjoying themselves, and having a good time playing music together. What more could you ask for?

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