Covering the Uncoverable

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Whew.  A full six days since my last post! What can I say.  Those Sondheim posts wiped me pretty hard. That was at least a month’s worth of blogging concentrated into a week’s time. The next few posts will be a lot less dense.

I’ve been thinking about the point I brought up in my P. Diddy post, specifically how songs that make heavy use of sampling and the creating of soundscapes (ie Definite Content) aren’t really possible to cover without losing its identity, the essence that makes the song what it is. More traditional songs that rely on a flexible framework of melody and harmony can have that DNA transformed by other artists and it’s still very much that song, but songs that rely more on recording technology and less on melody and harmony (the stuff that older generations considered “music”) can’t be covered in the traditional sense.

Yet there are still examples of these transformative covers, and sometimes they’re really great.

Beyonce’s Single Ladies is an example of a song that relies upon recording engineering and digital manipulation of sounds (and skin tight catsuits) for its very existence. Just listen to the accompaniment. There’s virtually no harmony or melody , heck there’s almost no pitched material at all. There’s a single barely audible repeated note that serves as the tonic while Beyonce sings a bare  bones Do Re Mi melody.  Then at the chorus a synth comes in and emphasizes the minor subdominant. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this song (particularly the flattened sixth degree in the chorus). But musically (as the older generations would define it) there’s not much there. How could you actually cover it? How can you change the sound without changing the song? The sound IS the song.

Pomplamoose gives it a shot. They’re a duo out of Northern California who create video songs of their own works as well as unlikely covers of other works. The idea behind a video song is that every element of the  song has to be videotaped as it’s recorded, so every sound that you hear on the track has to be seen at some point in the video. So if you hear a kick drum, you have to see the kick drum at some point.  If you use a polaroid camera to make a percussive sound, you need to see that camera making that percussive sound. Which also means that the source material has to be completely acoustic.

So how do you make an acoustic cover of Single Ladies?

Here:

It took me a while to warm up to this cover. For one, they flip the beat around.  In the original, the word “Single” is on beat two, while in the cover they place it squarely on the downbeat, which at first is really jarring, but after a few listens I totally dug it. It’s a truly transformative cover. They take the lyrics, the bare bones melody, add a distinctive rhythmic twist, (greatly abridge the bridge), put in very different harmonies, add Cocoa Puffs, and the result is great for entirely different reasons than the original was great.

Go check out there other videos on YouTube.  I particularly recommend their cover of Earth Wind and Fire’s September. Best use of a puppet in a music video since that Genesis video.

I’ll be posting more examples of transformative covers in the upcoming weeks. And I haven’t forgotten about the String Quartet. It’s coming. As soon as taxes are done.

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