Thursday, July 14, 2016

Versions of You

Reduce, Reuse, recycle.  

The pop music industry already has these particular basics of economy down pat. (Putting responsibility and the music industry in the same sentence feels very strange.)   Every hit, near hit or just brilliantly written (but possibly unjustly ignored) song eventually rises phoenix like from the ashes of a generation’s dis-remembrance.  Hits will be covered (for better or worse), hits will be remixed (for airplay, for clubs, for someone’s ego power trip) and a plethora of acoustic versions (either heartrenderingly treacly or stunningly revealing) will repeatedly renew the shelf life of a song.  Even hooks and riffs, to say nothing of the blurred (lines) feel of a song can be reclaimed, partitioned and renewed for a second, third or however many chance(s) in some airplay shape or form.  All about the benjamins of course, but enough artistic success is engendered to make the most of attempts a worthwhile listen, in theory at least. 
But beyond the lazy artists covering a golden oldie as a follow-up to a one hit wonder, or the bloated cock rocker shooting one last wad on an acoustic cover of a song with no discernable melody, there are some true gems in the game of musical reuse.  These real experts of economy are artists who are brave enough to remake their own signature hits.  Here then, are a few artists and their songs, who, despite having considerable success the first time, were daring and talented enough to make lightning strike twice.

Frank Sinatra “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Frank’s vocal performance of “Someone” from 1945 sounds tentative and the strings overpower him at times. His hits all the notes perfectly of course, and his voice, so young here, is flawless, but there no passion in the performance, no connection to the lyrics in this performance.  Instead of a plea, Franks sings the lyrics almost as a boast.  Frank even does some dipping in his vocal, perhaps to add some drama to the all too careful rendition.   It’s such a great song, and Frank is such a vocal talent, that it would hardly be fair to call this version a disappointment, but it doesn’t connect as well as it could have.
Just nine years later, Frank recorded the song again, and it is astonishing to hear the difference.    The more sympathetic strings help, but from the first breath, Frank owns this song.  His vocal is much more measured, he’s reassuring, cajoling, and pleading in this version.  His voice is richer,and he uses it brilliantly, modulating volume, adjusting tone and adding shades to dramatic effect; all within a single phrase.  Frank’s phrasing here is beyond impeccable, the way he draws out the tension by breaking up following line into tiny phrases and  staggering the emphasis within each section , “ although I/ may not/ be the /man some /girls/ think of/, as handsome/, but to her heart/, I’ll /carry/ the key,/” is breathtaking.  Even his breathing becomes a part of the song, as during the “Won’t you tell her please, to put on some speed (breath), follow my lead (breath), oh how I need (breath), someone to watch over me.”  Nothing showy; sung strongly, but never loudly, perfectly in tune literally and figuratively; that’s a primer on how to sing the hell out of a song, holmes. 

Neil Sedaka “Breaking up is Hard to Do”
The Brill(iance) Building shine of the original “Breaking up is Hard to Do” cast a long shadow.  “Breaking “ was (and is) the archetype 60’s pop song, filled with every imaginable hook; a great vocal intro/chorus; “do do do, down doobie down, down come-a, come-a, down doobie down, down,” that kicks into an indelible melody, tight female harmonies mirroring Neil’s lead excellent vocal, and the perfectly placed key change at the bridge at baked into a breathless 2 minutes 30 seconds.  This song is undeniably joyous pop perfection and made breaking up sound like so much fun.
Which makes 1975’s remade “Breaking” all the more fascinating.  Starting with a nod to the vocal intro of the original, this remake smoothly breaks down into torch song territory with a piano driven, slowed down broken hearted version.  A measured, sympathetic adult vocal from Neil replaces the fun of the original with a dose of chagrin and hesitation.  Sure, there’s a little MOR balladry embedded in the paint by numbers arrangement, but it’s an interesting remake with a completely different dynamic than the original.   And it beats the nakedly incestuous “Should’ve Never let You Go” for best Neil ballad by a landslide. 

Aerosmith/Run DMC “Walk this Way”
“Walk” a top 10 hit from 1977, has one of the signature opening guitar hooks of the rock era courtesy of Joe Perry’s amazing guitar skills and the main guitar riff aint nothing to walk away from either.  Instantly identifiable and compulsively listenable, (your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for screechy lead vocals and juvenile lyrics) the song is a mainstay of rock album radio and understandable so.
A slightly different kind of remake/remodel brought Aerosmith back to the charts in the mid 80’s when Run DMC covered their signature song with the band guesting.  Let’s be clear here, it’s not like Aerosmith really did anything all that special with their part (one should be happy that they were still alive enough to even play at that point in their drug careers), they basically played it and sang it just like the original.  But they do deserve credit for having the vision (desperation) to allow their sound to be grafted onto a hip/hop track. But Run DMC did all the heavy lifting here.   And what an amazing success this version is, commercially and artistically.  It still has that propulsive drive, and not just because of the sampled drum kick intro combined with vinyl scratches, but seamlessly merging two disparate musical styles is pure genius.   Popular?  Visionary?  Influential? Revolutionary?  Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes.

Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now”
When she first recorded “Both Sides Now” in 1969, Joni Mitchell was in her mid 20’s, and still somewhat girlish, where romantic notions of life and love still held sway.  With simple production and a straightforward guitar strumming against the melody, Joni’s pure singing promises perspective and understanding.  Her disillusions with love may have colored her performance then, but she’s optimistic her losses grant her wisdom and strength for the journey ahead.  The girl may not have known clouds that day, but it was just a momentary disappointment.  A cloud front across the sunny day that is just around the corner. 
However our experience defines the limit of our emotional understanding, all deceptions fail to time.  By the time she returned to the song in 2000, experience laid bare the essential truths of life.  Against a wash of strings and the occasional horn accents, an older wiser, wearier Joni has really seen all sides and she sings that awareness into this version.  Her voice is rougher around the edges and her voice can no longer straddle both sides of the sky, but her performance is still honest.   Remembrance, regret, and loss color this version of “Both Sides Now.”  There are no moons or junes or dizzy dancings ways to feel.  She really has seen all sides now and there are no more illusions.  While there may still be some hope, her vocal is all about understanding and acceptance.  When she sings that she really doesn’t know life at all, it’s her truest vocal moment, her barest moment as an artist.

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