‘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.

When ‘Wrong’ is So Right

(Copyright The Swell Season; Plateau, ANTI- recording studios)

“Once” made a huge impact when it hit theaters in 2006. The little indie movie that could featured wonderful music, touching performances, and the awwww-inducing real-life behind-the-scenes love story of lead musicians/actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Critical and widespread acclaim, including an Oscar for Best Original Song, soon followed.

Fast-forward to 2009. Hansard and Irglova are no longer a couple, although they’re still making fantastic music together as The Swell Season, demonstrated with the release of “Strict Joy”, their full-length album of songs inspired by Irish poet James Stephens. For me, the album reaches its peak on track 9, the Irglova-penned “I Have Loved You Wrong”. Whether it’s inspired more by Stephens or Hansard and Irglova’s own relationship is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s a mix of both.

It’s such a quiet song, but full of surprises. The two leads switch their trademark instruments — Irglova on Hansard’s holed guitar, Hansard on Irglova’s piano. Hansard, such a ferocious guitar player, is demure and controlled on the keys, letting Irglova steer the direction of her song in every way. The song’s hushed tone, and its last lyric of fond remembrance tinged with just a hint of regret, makes it come across as the ultimate demonstration of respect and reverence for a lost love. It’s the universal paean to “if only…”

And that last lyric–and refrain–is where the music, for me, becomes sublime. Irglova and Hansard sing together, “you’ve been/every now and then on my mind/yeah” for several measures, their voices in perfect unison. Strip away the lyric itself, and the timbre of their voices, the vulnerability and emotion behind the delivery, sums up where they once were, and the regard they still have for each other. In the span of two minutes, they manage to convey a love that’s morphed from lust to heady romance to heartbreak and, finally, to mature friendship.

As a listener, I feel a mix of sorrow and joy listening to this song — sorrow that these two kids couldn’t work things out, and joy that this gorgeous song (now available to the masses) was the result of such heartbreak. Sorrow because this song evokes the one who got away, who every now and then is on our own minds; joy because we’ve hopefully moved on to better, more sustaining relationships. The whispers of Irglova and Hansard’s voices, and the restraint of the arrangement, conveys that clash of resignation and hope, realism and acceptance.

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

PSA (Proud Spouse Alert)

This photo shows an album on a record player

Sure, I know this is a space for me to share my writing and what I’m working on. But from time to time, I’ll take a minute to showcase a fellow writer, and in this case it happens to be my spouse.

After a long hiatus, my husband Andy is blogging again. If you’re a music fan (particularly indie rock), a vinyl aficionado, or just appreciate music criticism, check out The Record Nerd. I’m willing to bet you’ll find some new favorite bands here.

First up is a review of The Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — and there will be much more to come.

Photo courtesy pumcus via Flickr