Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Copy Right

When a band plays another band's song, one of two things happens. Either they play is straight, either as an homage (Radiohead's take on Can's "Thief") or an ironic sendup (Faith No More's version of The Commodores' "Easy"); or they tear it apart, either to explore its inner workings and expand on them (John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" or Bill Frisell's "Live To Tell") or because they want to make fun of it (at least 1/3 of the songs on those Pravda K-Tel parodies of the '90s).

Whether it's Judith Owen turning "Smoke On The Water" into a piano ballad or Scott Miller faithfully echoing Nico on "Fairest Of The Seasons" (I bet it's the first time he's had to transpose a vocal line up an octave), it's become almost de rigeur to do cover songs in a live setting, to prove both your chops and your taste, and sometimes your sense of humor. Since most musicians start out in cover bands, returning to your roots makes sense. What bands do with, and to, the songs they already know makes for interesting listening.

Yo La Tengo pay tribute to The Ramones with a letter-perfect (for Yo La Tengo) version of Sheena Is A Punk Rocker from a show in Sweden in 1997. Respectful, although it's much easier to pay respect to a band whom everyone in your world loves.

Camper Van Beethoven take a bigger risk with an extended smashup of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. They play the song straight, and then pull it inside out, sprinkling in samples and whacking things about on laptops and otherwise. It's a much more interesting take, because you've no idea when, if ever, the song will end.

Playing someone else's song gives musicians a chance to figure out what, if anything, they got from the original. Sometimes it's chords and structure, and sometimes it's freedom.

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