‘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.

(No) Practice Makes Perfect

(Video copyright National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)

I love when the familiar is made new. I love when a performer leaves his or her comfort zone. And I love when these two things happen at the same time.

In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” opera at the Grammys. On doctor’s orders, he had to make an ultra-last-minute cancellation. Who steps in, with just twenty-two minutes to prepare? Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. In the original clip, there’s a the collective gasp of surprise when Sting announces the replacement. And then it seems as though the entire audience is holding its breathwould she make a fool of herself? Could she do justice to the song? What the hell were the producers thinking?

Franklin seems to have the same concerns herself. Early on in the performance, just before she starts to sing, she makes a little exhalation, one that could signal a moment of centering, or a moment of oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into. It’s the equivalent of the nightmare where you’re standing in front of the classroom with no clothes on—but in this case, it’s actually happening, and in front of millions to boot. Perhaps not having any time to prepare was a mixed blessing, in this caseshe had limited time to worry, little time to build up the jitters.

The first few notes are tentative. She comes in a little late at one measure, but quickly recovers. A few more lines go without incident, and very subtly, her body language changes as the orchestra swells. She begins to enjoy herself. Any attempt to evoke Pavarottiif there ever was one to begin withis completely abandoned.

Halfway through the performance, just before the choir comes in, a tone shift seems to take place. Franklin knows at this point that she’s made the song her own. It’s not quite opera, it’s definitely not soulit’s something completely unique and only something she could do. The performance takes on a once-in-a-lifetime moment, something borne of an act of friendship. It’s also an act of consummate professionalismof one artist taking up the mantle for another in an hour of need. What an understudy, and what a lucky audience was at the Grammys that night! The show must go on, and Aretha always puts on a damn great show.

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