‘Back’ to the Future

(Copyright Signature Sounds)

When I was in college, I cut off all my hair. My long hair had been my trademark, my most defining feature — waist-length as a kid, then just past my shoulders for most of high school. In a rash decision, just to try something new, I chopped it to my ears.

“I don’t even recognize you!” my aunt said to me the first time I came home with the new look.

That’s how I feel about the work of musical alchemy that Brooklyn-based Lake Street Dive pulls off with their cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”. This version is sultry and smoky: Bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese set the tone with an easy, assured tempo, and the listener instantly forgets the frenetic pace of the original. Trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson plays his notes languid and low, a patient pleading to match the lyrics.

With these choices, the reinterpretation becomes a song for adults. The rapid-fire momentum of the Jackson Five’s version embodies the madcap antics of a teenager trying to win back his girl; Lake Street Dive’s update has the assured confidence of experience. The singer recognizes she made a mistake, and she isn’t too proud to admit it. In fact, she’ll take her time to seduce and win back her girl.

The distinctive vocals and phrasing grab the listener’s ear and don’t let up. Vocalist Rachael Price sings with an assured confidence and maturity that, from the opening notes, make the song her own — a most unexpected feat, given the original’s iconic status and singer. When the rest of the band joins her in harmony on the chorus, it’s an experience as memorable as the first version. Cumulatively, the stripped-down, slowed-down performance becomes intimate and personal. If Price tries to woo someone with this song, she’ll succeed.

The song recently came up on my iPod shuffle, while I finished up the dinner dishes with my husband (himself a musician and pop culture junkie). I hummed along, by now familiar with this new interpretation.

“What song was that?” he asked when the song concluded, and I clued him in. Such is the power of a stellar re-arrangement, as it makes even the most famous and familiar work fresh, unexpected, and thrilling. It also speaks to the enduring strength of a world-class pop tune: Its foundation is always stable enough, despite the years, for other talented musicians to come along and put their individual stamps upon it.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

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