Wednesday, 24 June 2009

How not to make a cover version

I had a conversation a few weeks back about how cover versions which add something to a song or completely re-interpret it can become interesting in their own right, or even more popular than the original. Blank and Jones' version of Kosheen's "Catch" is not one of them. (Hear it on Youtube, here). I heard it a few months ago, possibly in the gym where musical taste often takes second place to BPM in the criteria for choosing background music, and thought it was pretty poor. However, realising that it was Blank and Jones, who I had thought were reasonably decent musicians, was a bit of a shock. Surely they would have higher standards than this? Their arrangement is a bit mediocre and the vocalist they've used is even less exciting. Unless the mood of the song is going to be heavily changed, you can't take a song performed by a powerful vocalist like Sian Evans and give it to a singer with no punch who sounds so bored she may as well be reading the weather forecast*.

A better song by Blank & Jones is "Miracle Cure", which they did with New Order's Bernard Sumner. In that song, they overproduce Sumner's vocals a bit but this works for the song and with his voice. The fact that he has an interesting, if inconsistent voice probably helps here, as a lot of dance tracks take female singers whose voices might stand out in some situations but then layer on the compression and pitch correction so heavily that any life they may have had gets sucked out of them. Just sounding dreamy is not good enough. I can't easily remember too many perpetrators of this because the singers are so forgettable, but if pressed to think of an example I would mention the Blank & Jones remix of Delerium and Jael's "Lost and Found", in which Jael sounds pretty flat. Even distinctive singers like Kirsty Hawkshaw† aren't immune from being overproduced on occasion. In a later entry I will list some of my favourite vocal parts in dance music, with particular emphasis on how the singing contributes to the song rather than serving a a nice bit of fluff.

*I think I might have taken this line from an episode of Inspector Morse.
† Who appears on so many songs using exactly the same vocal style. Maybe the musicians in question just ask her for this, which seems reasonable given her most well known songs — probably "Dreaming" with BT and "Running down the way up" with BT and Hybrid if I had to guess which ones — are like that, but still, I'm sure she can do more.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Pet Shop Boys - Gig Review (The O2 London, 2009)

Go West! Life is peaceful there! Go West! In the open air!

I have been a big fan of Pet Shop Boys since I was very young. I remember "Go West", "Can you forgive her" and "Single-bilingual" very clearly from the early 90s. Their Greatest Hits collection, PopArt was easily one of the best presents I have ever received at Christmas, as almost all of it is first class. If I had to pick a favourite Pop band, they might be my first choice.

I saw them last night in the O2 Arena, and they were brilliant. Every song's music was great, Neil's voice held up well and the dancers were pretty good too. The visual presentation was impressive too. I would imagine that were one in the standing crowd they would not be quite as impressive as they were for me up high, but the use of nothing but lots of boxes was a great way of having a stage which can be remodelled. As they were all white, they could have things projected onto them, which is a great way of adding some very good graphics and video footage to the performance. Some of the Boys' videos were drawn from in creating the graphics, and probably the choreography too.

I particularly liked "Go West", as you might have gathered from the line at the top of this entry. The original video can be seen here. Their new graphics were a bit like an update of this, with the marching remaining but no silly hats or Red Square. Taking its place were some occasional appearances by red and yellow Chinese characters, of which the only ones I recognised were 「去西方」, literally "Go West".* I imagine there is an ironic intent to use of Chinese in the graphics, but what specific intent I can only guess. Maybe if I could have remembered the other ones I would have a better idea.

They did a lot of songs, but given how long they have been around for, they could never play enough to satisfy my completely (it would take most of an evening). Yet I was very pleased with the ones they did do. I thought that "Pandemonium" and "Love etc." from the new album should have been later in the set list, but again, how do you choose what order songs should come in when all of them are so good? My favourites were definitely "Love etc.", "Go West", "It's a sin", "Always on my mind" and surprisingly, given that it's not my favourite on the album, "The way it used to be". There were a few songs I did not know, which is annoying because they were very good and I will now have to find them†. They also did a bit of a song I thought I knew but couldn't immediately place, which turned out to be "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay, and was greatly improved by not being sung by Chris Martin.


Frankmusik was the support act. I thought he was pretty good. His music is highly derivative of the 80s and 90s dance music I adore so much, but I'm not really going to complain about that when he does it so well. I will probably write more about him when I hear more of his music. Certainly a good choice to support the Pet Shop Boys.

*I only recognised 西 (West) because we had been discussing fruit and veg two weeks ago in my Chinese class, and the translation used by my teacher for "tomato" starts with this. The complete word is 「西红柿」. Why on earth did I remember that?

† I have found this many times before. The songs from Avril Lavigne's second album all sounded pretty good live, and I was a bit disappointed when I actually bought that album because it sounded so flat and over-produced. "Guilty" and "Overkill" by Kosheen were better when I heard them live in 2004 than they are on Damage. The unkown PSB songs and all of Frankmusik's songs were just as exciting. The only exceptions I have encountered so far were the new songs by Queen + Paul Rodgers which they performed when I saw them last year and these, when surrounded by better songs by Queen, Free and Bad Company , were pretty damn boring and left me with no desire whatsoever to buy the resulting album.