Monday, May 17, 2021

Queen For A Day

Maybe I should have saved this for one of those "How do you come up with ideas for posts?" topics that always come up in the mentoring week we do for Blaugust but we might all be dead by then. Best not risk it. 

I wanted to do a music post today because it's the middle of the month and it's May and that's a lot of "M"s. Even more if I throw in "Mixtape" which is what we suddenly seem to have gone back to calling these things. Alliteration. Always a good place to begin. I started kicking some ideas around.

Things coalesced when I opened Feedly and saw a post from Simon Reynolds'. He has a blog he calls, with admirable lack of self-consciousness, embarassment or, as far as I can tell, irony, blissblog. Or possibly blissout. There's some inconsistency. I like that. 

Most of his posts either irritate me or aren't interesting at all but this one was called Chip off the old Roblox and the gaming connection piqued my curiosity. It turned out to be a proud parent's puff piece for his son's first New York Times article, a short piece on the relatively recent musical movement known as robloxcore. (Everything has to be "core" now, doesn't it? I wonder why? Nothing's ever "periphery" or "hinterland". That would be so much cooler).

It's an interesting article. I learned a few things. I also ended up on TikTok for about twenty minutes, watching video fragments cascade down my screen in a disorienting cataract. Life would have been so different if I'd been born just recently.

For a moment I considered doing a whole post about the robloxcore thing but of course I know absolutely nothing about it. Not that normally stops me. The easiest way to become an expert among your peer group is to know a tiny bit more about something than they do. 

But even for that, first I'd have to try and find something out and then obviously I wouldn't understand much and I'd get most of even the little I did understand wrong. I pulled away in time because I do have some self-awareness, at least. Enough to realize it would be a lot of work, anyway.

Then, because I'd followed the links from cybyrbae on TikTok to the tune it uses, Yameii's Baby My Phone on YouTube, so I was thinking about phones, I thought I might do a post of songs with the word "phone" in the title, of which there are many. Except not so many that are any good, as you'll find out all too easily if you try using any of the usual search tricks.

I thought maybe I already had some tucked away so I riffled through my records (digital not vinyl) and came up with some really strong candidates. Enough that I might even do that post one day. While I was in the files, though, I had an even better (You will say "worse") idea. 

But before I had that idea I had a more obvious one. I seem to have been on a bit of a streak of finding good new music recently. Maybe I could turn that into a post. Except I kind of already did, even though I didn't use half of the tracks I wanted to and certainly not some of the ones I liked the best.

And that was when I finally settled on a post. This post. The one you're reading. And, I hope, although not with any expectation of having that hope fulfilled, watching and hearing.

I was in two minds whether to go with it or leave it as a thought experiment. Even by the historical standards of music posts on this blog this is an outlier. It's not like I'd expect anyone to watch any of these videos or even care that they exist. Then I thought, what the hell, it's my blog. I'll enjoy putting it together and that's really all the excuse or reason I need. So here we are.

About six weeks ago I had the brilliant (to me) idea of putting together a version of the Velvet Underground's first album made up entirely of covers of the songs by other people. Yes, well, of course by other people. That's what covers are... here's one to prove it. A really, really good one...


Since then I've been trying to think of another album I could do and it's not as easy as you might think, especially since it also needs to be an album I really like and all of the covers have to be at least interesting and preferably good. So far I haven't come up with one.

I've been itching to post a really very good, indeed rocking, cover of the title track of Lana del Rey's ever-more-magnificent Chemtrails Over The Country Club (It's a real grower, as DJs used to say back in the seventies, which is appropriate since the 70s often seems to be the decade Lana thinks she's living in). It's by the wonderfully-named Hayley Mary, of whom I had never heard until I came across this performance on TripleJ's always entertaining "Like A Version".

It made me wonder whether I could do the whole of that album in covers. Well, I knew I could. There's a whole sub-culture of covering songs as soon as they're released and uploading the dubious results to social media platforms with no concept of quality control and Lana's one of the artists most susceptible to that unsettling mix of adulation and coat-tail hanging.

Whether I should, though. Different question altogether. I guess the only way to find out would be to watch a whole bunch of fan-made covers and see if the market would hold. So I've spent the last three hours doing just that. Don't thank me. Not yet. And don't pity me, either. It was fun. No, it was. I'm telling you...

Enough with the introductions. Let's have the covers. 

There are probably more covers of the opening track, White Dress, than anything else on the album. Maybe because it's easier to sing. It does have a relatively traditional melody although some of the phrasing is challenging. Maybe just because it is the first. I noticed covers got scarcer the further down the tracklist I traveled. But the songs do tend to get more abstract and structurally challenging towards the end of the album, so there's that, too.

The cover I chose, by Bernardo Monteiro, is heartfelt without being (as so many are) histrionic, self-aggrandizing or cloying. I love the static one-camera video with the scratchy super8 filter and the birds chattering in the background. Just a really sweet cover. The ukulele works, too, which is not something I say very often.

 Here's the one that started it all and the only proper pop star cover in the set. I watched this half a dozen times in a row when I first found it. It's an object lesson in how to do a cover. She absolutely owns the song, makes it over in her own likeness, and yet still layers it with respect and love. Just magnificent. Plus the entire band seem to have walked straight off the set of some sixties popsploitation movie. And it really rocks.

That thing I said I don't often say? About ukuleles? I'm going to say it again. This one's by and it has a disturbing, disorienting quality I would never normally associate with anything calling itself a "ukulele cover". I never noticed how almost the entire melody is on one note for so much of the time. Somehow the sound and the visuals don't quite seem in sync and the way she stares into the middle distance, off to one side, is really sinister. I love it.

A lot of Lana covers are by people who appear to be women in their twenties, not that I'm making assumptions, except, yes I am but not in that way. There are plenty by people who appear to be men in their twenties, too, and not a few by people who appear both to be men and to be somewhat older. Some of those make a point of putting "male vocal" in the description so I guess no assumptions necessary there. This is by Shaun Riley and he does a great job of finding the nuances. I find hearing Lana's lyrics in a male voice brings out things I hadn't noticed. Come to that, I find listening to all these covers does that. She really is a fantastically good songwriter and hearing these stripped down interpretations brings all her strengths into focus.

Another popular track but that didn't make it easy to choose. I discarded a lot of not-so-good options before I found this. It's possibly the least-well sung of all the covers I've picked but that doesn't detract one iota from its impact. In fact, it adds to it, considerably. It's by Angelgurlkira, who can't hit all the notes, can't fit all the words into the tempo and occasionally sounds as if she's about to run out of breath. All of which works for her and for me. Another great use of fixed camera and filters, too. Less is more as we used to say until minimalism fell out of fashion.

I think this is probably the most professional of the non-pro covers here, although I just bet SirDiggsy (for it is he) is some kind of professional musician. He gives it a kind of mid-noughties pop-emo twist in the vocals although the arrangement could come from some AOR singer-songwriter of the late-seventies. At times it could almost be Al Stewart. Barely recognizeable as Lana's song, which is a compliment to both him and her.

By this point we're well into the middle of the forest. The tunes are getting harder to find and the emotions are getting harder to handle. Many have fallen and of those still standing many are faltering. This one I picked mainly for the video, which is mesmerizing. Also I like the way the wirewound strings squall. Thanks, MySundayBlues (aka MyCorduroyBlues on Instagram, apparently).

Yosemite comes like a welcome clearing, a shaft of light in these deep woods. For a moment we can see again. Everyone wants in. So many covers, so many clips of Brokeback Mountain, so many cowboys and motorcycles and people not getting beneath the surface. Theo Nguyen (Thao) makes none of those mistakes. She does it for the right reasons. Beautiful video, too. I wonder what city that is?

This was the toughest of them all. There are plenty of covers on YouTube and I watched most of them. Just be glad you didn't have to. Almost all of them are bad. Some of them are very bad. I spent almost as long on this one track as the rest of the album put together. I very nearly gave up and went with a live version by Lana and Nikki Lane in which Nikki sings lead, but that just makes it an alternate version, not a cover. In the end, way, way down the list, I happened on Léia Saturno, who gives the lyric both the pathos and the certainty it needs.

I don't quite see why the penultimate track on Chemtrails is so unpopular with the cover crew. It seems like it would be straightforward enough but there aren't even half a dozen to choose from and one of those is by someone I've already chosen. Of the rest, this is the best and it's only just okay. It does have that James Taylor, Laurel Canyon vibe going for it, at least until the piano turns up and spoils it. Room to improve, if anyone wants to take it on.

And finally "For Free" which is, of course, a cover already. A Joni Mitchell cover. I was hoping someone might either not have known that or might have tried to cover Lana covering Joni but it seems no one has. So here's Lana.

A perfect way to end.

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