Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Captain, Covered

Speaking of tribute albums, I have been listening to one called Fast 'n' Bulbous: A Tribute to Captain Beefheart. Released in 1988, the album is OOP or at least that's the claim of the blog I got it from. It is not an especially good album, although it is interesting to hear XTC doing "Ella Guru" and I could listen to Sonic Youth's version of "Electricity" again if I was suddenly divested of every other recording I own. The remainder of the album mostly consists of vaguely familiar post-punk groups like the Membranes and Dog Faced Hermans proving themselves incapable of either emulating or appropriating the Captain/Magic Band's charm, skill and sheer out-thereness.

In high school my friends and I had strong opinions about which bands were supposedly "uncoverable". I think we all agreed that Zeppelin were untouchable (we had typically limited teenage boy points of reference/reverence) and we demanded from covers of "coverable" bands a certain level of faithfulness to the original. Fiddling a bit was fine but the original structure and (as far as possible) instrumentation should be left alone. Tricky's "Black Steel" was probably the song that persuaded me that you could tear apart a composition to the point that it was distinct from the original - in some cases better than the original - tear it apart so that what made it a good or interesting song in the first place was still there somewhere, only transformed, embedded in the new song. Tribute albums generally offer surface readings at best, "punk versions" or whatever the particular comp's flavour might be. It's a futile and unrewarding approach and a strange way to pay tribute to an alleged influence. Far more interesting is P.J. Harvey's method, which involves embedding musical and lyrical allusions to Beefheart in some of her otherwise original songs. Harvey's is a tribute that operates from within the music, an acknowledgment of influence that is essential to the song instead of crassly opposed to it.

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