In Search of Ruby Tuesday

A couple of days ago I wrote a slightly-alcohol-inspired lament that there weren’t any good covers of the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, one of my favorites from the Stones, back before they turned into zombies and continued to shamble through the music scene for eternity. I had intended to do a little more research before that episode went live, but then I forgot about it completely, and out it came.

This morning I fired up eMusic and drifted through covers of Ruby Tuesday, and I learned a little bit; I now have a musing or two to share about music in general and covers in particular. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

It turns out there are a lot of covers of the song. It’s just that most of them suck. In my lament I asked where the guitar/folkie covers were, and I have since found the answer: “Right where they belong”. There are quite a few of these, and while some of them don’t suck, none that I found were particularly good. Overdone, overwrought, over-engineered. And while I applaud artists who change the original material to put their own identity into the music (fundamentally that’s the appeal of covers), those changes still have to make some sort of sense. Singing “When you change with every new day stillI’mgonnamissyou” with the last phrase crammed into the tightest space possible is jarring and doesn’t reflect the emotion of the song. Amazing how many times I heard this.

I suspect that one musician decided on this musical tic and then a host of others copied that cover, without referring to the original source material as well. So there was a lot of Band B covering Band A covering the Rolling Stones. It would be interesting (but not interesting enough to actually do it) to trace the family tree of the song based on mutations introduced along the way.

And thinking of songs going through generations and mutating, it would stand to reason that later mutations would be more fit to survive in the new market conditions. Darwin should totally work, here. As musical tastes and economics changes, the covers literally evolve with them, and songs diversify into different niches. Ruby Tuesday has certainly done that.

Take country music, for instance. A cat name Don Williams has put out several albums with his take on the song. It’s… OK, but it lacked a little something. Then I listened to a performance he did with Dolly Parton, and it was massively improved. It wasn’t necessarily that Parton was putting in the performance of a lifetime, but I realized at this point that vocal harmony on the chorus makes an incredible difference. You hardly notice it’s there in the original, but you would definitely notice if it wasn’t there. Without the harmony, it takes a great arrangement or a voice more versatile than any I sampled to pull off the cover of this deceptively simple song.

One of the tricky parts, and one that the Stones don’t do that well either, is handling how different the verses and the chorus are. Most of the guitar/folkies tried to manage that by adding a bunch of annoying stylisms. Yes, I’m talking to you, Jade Leonard.

On I searched. There were the inevitable elevator-jazz instrumentals and Philharmonic “do arrangements of pop songs to pay the bills” renditions. Lullaby versions so boomer parents (and grandparents) can indoctrinate further generations into “their” music. Single-synthesizer efforts programmed by some kid in his basement. Massive electronic efforts that sounded just like the one the kid in his basement did. There was one I was tempted to buy just for comedic value – I’d bet my favorite molar that it’s by the same guy who arranged William Shatner’s Mr. Tambourine Man, only on this one there’s no vocal and it’s 13 minutes long.

I heard a lot of vinyl pops while searching.

The first cover I liked enough to pay for was one of those impulse buys I’ll likely regret later. Sheena and the Rokkets is a classic bad-singer-in-front-of-reasonable-band outfit, with the added bonus that they are Japanese and Sheena has a tough time with a lot of English words. Words like, for instance, “Ruby”.

I came across a Scorpions cover that has its moments, and fits the definition of a “good cover” — there’s no doubt the Scorpions are performing, they do it their way, but they maintain the essence of the original that motivated the cover in the first place.

Momentum improved. I came across Don and Dolly as described above, and surprisingly, Twiggy, closer to the original but nicely done. Then the inevitable lounge versions started coming in, vapid and vacant. A modern-punk song called Jack Ruby Tuesday came up, and I simply could not tell if it was a cover or not, since I couldn’t make out a single word (or note, even) in the solid wall of fuzz.

After downloading the Don and Dolly version, I went back and listened to the whole thing. Ouch! Someone shoot the arranger and get the trumpets the hell out of there. Wow, what a difference between the 30-second preview and the entire song. There are times I really don’t miss the ’70’s.

Lars Brygdén did a reasonable country-ish cover on an album called “Songs I wrote”, which seems deceptive – I hope in the song data it gives proper credit to the actual writer.

Then there’s Melanie. She’s taken more than one crack at this tune, and one of them isn’t bad. Toward the bottom of the search list is the album “Pan Pipes Play Rod Stewart” in which we have the inevitable Peruvian interpretation, and the [email protected] Chorus wheeze out a version in which the lead singer sounds like she has loose dentures. (Yes, that is mean to say, but it’s also true.)

No Hip-Hop. No Riot Grrl. A few that were labeled ‘alternative’ but really weren’t — this seems like excellent emo/shoegazer material, but none was represented. I despaired of finding a punk cover until Thee S.T.P. cranked out a definitive version that is two minutes of pure fun. We have a winner!

Ultimately, I have to conclude that maybe this is a tough song to cover, despite its surface simplicity (or because of it?). Bands with more instruments and voices seemed to do better, along with bands who are able to turn their amps up (and then turn them back down).

Genius Loves Beatles

My fruit-flavored music-playing device has a not-quite-as-intuitive-as-it-should-be feature called “genius”. The theory is simple. When you’re listening to a song you like, you touch a little fifties-era atom symbol and the machine will find twenty-four more songs that the genius inside believes are similar, so you can keep the mood going.

My first attempts with the genuis mix button were frustrating. I had the FFMPD set to play random music while I worked out. A song came on that helped fuel a second wind, so I hit the genius button. It glowed under my finger and returned to normal when I released my touch. The song ended and another came on, not dissimilar. But I couldn’t tell – was it geniusing? Another song came on, also similar, and I concluded that there was a decent chance that my music player was indeed genuising, but there was nothing in the interface presented to me to indicate that fact.

Then the player went from Blink 182 to a Beatles song. “Elanor Rigby”, if memory serves. Nope, I concluded, my music player was NOT geniusing; there’s nothing that song had in common with the one I had asked it to base the list on.

I went back to a particularly racous, up-tempo tune that had gone by (unsteady hands poking at the screen as I chugged along), and tried the Genuis button again. Three songs later I was treated to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Don’t get me wrong, I really like that song. Good for listening to in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of the stereo while sipping whiskey and wondering what the point of it all is, on those nights of doubt where inertia is your only guide. Not so good for working out, though.

“Fine,” I thougt, poking at the screen. “I’ll go through the interface and choose a particular song, while not on random play, and see if it geniuses for me.” Stabbing at an iPad while working on an elliptical trainer is not ideal; if you move your finger while touching the surface the machine assumes you mean to drag something. Which under any other circumstance is correct. I jabbed and poked until I came upon a tune (if I recall correctly, which honestly isn’t that likely) by Mudhoney, and pushed the little atom. “Not enough information to make a genius list,” I was told. Same story with Drill (whose eponymous and only album I once picked up used and remains one of my faves of all time). Maybe I should have started with L7.

My workout ended before I got a satisfactory answer to the genius problem.

Of course, I could have fiddled with the device while not working out, and possibly have found the answer sooner, but that’s not how I roll. After a little frustration at the start of the next workout I decided to turn to a playlist I’d already defined. There right next to it, was a Genius list based on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Sweet,” thought I, the genuis button had worked after all. I fired up that mix and started my toil.

And… after a few tunes had been pumped into my ears, a Beatles song came on. It was “Come Together,” which, yeah, I can see working with Nirvana. Nice work, Genius! I wouldn’t have gone looking for that one. A little Queens of the Stone Age, then Black Sabbath, followed by “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

What the hell? That is nothing like Nirvana.

I viewed the songs in the genius-created playlist. Three were by the Beatles. Out of curiosity, I geniused the Ravonettes. Three Beatles songs. Green Day? Three Beatles songs. I tried some other bands, sticking to what I thought the mainstream might be. Three Beatles songs each time. When I genuised ‘Holiday in the Sun” by the Sex Pistols, there were only two Beatles songs.

So it turns out the genius feature was working all along. It just wasn’t telling me it was, and it has a boner for the Beatles. It should be noted here that the Genius ex Machina has more than 10,000 tunes to choose from.* I promise you that fewer than 10% of those are by the Beatles.

The question, of course is, “Is this a conspiracy? Does the Genius get a kickback on Beatles albums sold?” Or are Beatles tunes the automatic fallback filler when the database that guides the genius is confronted with too much unknown?

You know where this is going, of course. I’m going to be hitting the genius button a lot, looking for The Tune That Has No Beatles Matches. I’ll keep you posted.

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* I miss the unlimited legal downloads back when eMusic was young, which was when they hadn’t cut deals with major record labels yet. That might be part of the problem; my library is skewed strongly toward indie labels and obscure bands that I discovered by spending an afternoon sampling the used CD bins at Wherehouse. I contend that the only difference between a popular band and an obscure one is the marketing budget.

That is how I found Drill, sitting on a stool, headphones on, operating a CD player in a suburban music store. I had a system. I’d listen to the first track, and if it seemed to be going well, I’d skip to maybe the third or fourth. Also good? Sweet. Vocal power is absolutely required to get past this stage. Skip forward in the song. Does anything change through the song? Good musicians know how to find strength in softness as well as noise. The final test: skip around through several songs. If there’s not variety, then that sound they do every time better be awesome.

My original copy of Drill was badly damaged when I loaned it to a friend, and it took a couple of years on the waiting list at Spun.com for me to find a replacement. Should I become president, I will track down the members of that band and have them play at my inauguration.

How many other Drills are out there? The chances of me stumbling on that band were remote, which suggests that there are many more waiting for me to discover them.

But the point of this giant footnote is that the genius don’t know Drill. Can we teach the genius? Broaden its horizons past RIAA-sanctioned muzic? I aim to find out.

Speaking of Flash…

Long ago, as a follow-up to my giant hit “Duck!” I undertook a much more elaborate project. Once more, Jose provided some of the key images (William Shatner, mainly), and I did the rest.

I never finished. I got close, and I put a lot of time into it (lip-syncing is time-consuming, to say the least), but it’s not quite there yet. There are flat spots. I haven’t got the easter eggs in yet. No credits, and no preloading. It looks like the audio has been shifted a frame. Still, there’s a lot to like about it, too. It’s Shatner, after all, at his psychedelic best.

I’d finish the thing, but I don’t even own a version of Flash that will run on my current hardware, and Flash is expensive. Hard to justify shelling out that kind of cash just to put the final touches on this monster. Still… It would be cool.

Note that this animation is interactive — don’t take your hand off that mouse just yet! Your final score will be displayed at the end. Also, there are a couple of things that happen differently each time, and a lot of things going on you won’t notice the first time through. Not as many as I planned, but the project is stalled.

If someone who has Flash would be interested in helping me get across the finish line, let me know!


Notes: It may look like it’s running, but you need to right-click the animation and select ‘Play” to make it go. (Controls are obviously something that didn’t get put in before the project stalled.) I optimized this animation for slightly larger display; if I could figure out why there’s no full-screen option when you right-click I’d fix that, too.

Enjoy!

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New Album Out!

I haven’t seen the cover for the Foo Fighters’ new album, but if the song I heard today is any indication, it’s pretty easy to imagine what it looks like. Here is my humble rendition:

The cover to the newest Foo Fighters album

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Memo to Bay Area Radio Stations

Apparently at some time Monday afternoon a rumor began that it was no longer acceptable for a radio station to rock. (I suspect the Chinese and that Internet they have are somehow to blame.) Since that time there has been little but Enya and Yanni in slightly more electrified renditions. There has been no rocking of the airwaves.

Rest assured, Radio World, it is still acceptable to rock. Any assertion that rocking is unacceptable is the work of terrorists or at the very least individuals who wish ill for our nation.

Give me something to listen to on my commute this morning. DO IT FOR AMERICA!

Sticky Music

My sweetie and I both woke up with Christmas songs stuck in our heads. For me, the song was “Toy Jackpot” by Blackalicious, with its super-catchy chorus “Is it time yet? Is it time? I can’t wait” in a smooth hip-hoppish vibe. My sweetie emerged from slumber with “10,000 Watts” by Crystal Antlers, a high-energy song about Christmas lights, made to be turned up loud.

Now I have “10,000 Watts” in my head, too.

While very different in sound, these songs have two things in common: They are both really cool, and they both came from Target. In fact, you’ve probably heard parts of the songs already, along with a bunch of others, in Target ads. It was after watching an ad with a song called “You’ll Never Find My Christmas” that the light of my life encouraged me to go in search of the original music to download.

Well, what do you know? There’s a whole Christmas album for download for free at Target.com, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. Target found a bunch of different up-and-coming bands and gave them a great opportunity, and got themselves some fun advertisements built around the music at the same time. To me, this seems like exploitation done right.

For the Ebenezer Scrooges among you: Yes, Target is a big, giant retail corporation, and I’ve just become a shill for them. Lighten up, would you? It’s Christmas! These are good songs you wouldn’t get to hear otherwise!

So hop on over and give a listen — you just might find your new holiday favorite.

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Ground Control to Lincoln Marketing Team

I’ve noticed a couple of new ads for Lincoln automobiles lately. They’re pretty standard fare; cameras sweep over the body of the car, revealing design details that are somehow supposed to make this car better than Lexus or a Cadillac. Then there is the music. I’ve seen two different ads, with covers of two different songs. The first is Cat Power’s rendition of David Bowie’s classic “Major Tom”, the second is Shiny Toy Guns covering Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)”.

While both songs have their uplifting moments, you have to wonder about associating your car with songs about a man being killed when his vehicle fails.

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