The Complicatist : Kurt Vile, and the allure of cover versions

Rock anthems can be their own worst enemy

by Gordon Campbell

CD reviews tend to be consumer guides, a few paragraphs that boil the music down to a buy/don’t buy advisory note. At The Complicatist, we’re pointed in the opposite direction. Each month, this column will be featuring a song or artist or genre that’s as complicated as anyone cares to make it be.

In the 1950s, cover versions enabled white people (I’m talking about you, Pat Boone) to cash in on black music without scaring the public. These days though, an artfully chosen cover version can usefully demonstrate the depth of your musical knowledge, and your sense of flair. By general agreement, the Jimi Hendrix version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is the greatest cover version of all time, partly because it so completely topped the Bob Dylan original, a feat the composer has generously acknowledged. “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this.” Dylan wrote in the booklet for his Biograph album, “ and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

Like self esteem, originality can be an over-rated virtue. In the great French movie The Mother and the Whore, one character makes the case that cover versions are actually better than the original, because their fakeness is more genuine. I’ve decided to kick off this column with three of the better cover versions in recent memory

1. This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody) by Miles Fisher This has been out for over a year now, but in case you haven’t come across it, Fisher pulls off two cover versions at once here. He sings the Talking Heads classic while acting out some of Christian Bale’s nastier moments from the movie American Psycho…and in the process, puts a new spin on David Byrne’s wacky old “Psycho Killer’ persona. At the same time, he manages to insert a self-referential plug for this “Miles Fisher” guy’s great new EP. Who said guys can’t multi-task?

2. Dream Lover by the Dust Bunnies Down the years, dozens of people have liked Bobby Darin’s 1950s hit well enough to have a crack at recording it, but this version succeeds by focusing on the ‘Dream’ side of the lyric… In doing so, it treats the lover not as a teenage burst of wishful thinking, but as something out of a David Lynch nightmare, howling through the night after the singer …”I want a dream lover/so I don’t have to dream alone..” Not alone, never again and not entirely in a good way.

The Dust Bunnies are essentially a few pals of long time Atlanta scene-maker Adam Bruneau, who has made videos for Deerhunter. Bruneau numbers among his side projects a band called Kiwis, aka Kiwis of the South Pacific. The referential traffic on this track is also pretty dense. Yes, this Dust Bunnies version begins with the thunderclap drumbeat opening to “ Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, itself recycled famously as the intro to “ Just Like Honey” by Jesus and Mary Chain. To complete the circle, the closest similarity to this arrangement of ‘Dream Lover’ is this one from 1964 by the Paris Sisters…..which was produced by Phil Spector, and featured in the Kustom Kar Kommandos experimental film by Kenneth Anger, which can be seen in all of its refreshingly brief buffed cars/buffed boys entirety right here.

Finally, the Dust Bunnies have turned their hand to a few other versions of this same trick. Their droning, narcoticised take on Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ can be found here.

For a similarly strung out, string-laden version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on the Wire’ the link is here.

3. ‘Gloria’ by Robb London This deserves a mention for doing a reasonable job of the virtually impossible. At this late stage, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could take Van Morrison’s r & b chestnut ‘Gloria’ ( G-L-O-R-I-A) and re-imagine it. Yet this version enable us to hear the song in a new and (mostly) welcome light. Hurrah.

Live by the anthem, die by the anthem. As bands from U2 to Arcade Fire have found to their cost, it does get difficult to keep on delivering inspirational arena-sized anthems without becoming a self parody. The challenge for the new Arcade Fire album due mid year will be to resolve the anthem issue without being bombastic, and committing all the other busily self-important sins of U2-ness.

Talking of which…while Regine Chassagne’s charity work for her homeland Haiti has been admirable, the point in her recent editorial in the British Observer newspaper where she used earthquake metaphors to describe her own anguish (“Since Haiti shook and crumbled, I feel as if something has collapsed over my head, too. Miles away, somehow, I’m trapped in this nightmare. My heart is crushed..) was worthy of Bono himself.

Kurt Vile, whose Childish Prodigy was one of the more celebrated albums of 2009, is not an anthem guy at all. True, he gives props to older anthem-mongers like Tom Petty and Bob Seger, but Vile’s music is so swathed in reverb and slap delay that it doesn’t seem to be playing in the same room, let alone urging anyone to wave their lighters. Vile’s songs circle and repeat and echo like introspective ideas racketing around inside your head for a while, before they just peter out, and stop. Like Beck in the mid 1990s –who had a similar command of blues//folk/ soul tropes – he seems to have ended up in the spotlight somehow, by taking a wrong turn at the bar. Like Will Oldham, Vile projects a conscious form of primitive artlessness, and that’s a good thing. None of us wandered in from Appalachia, either.

Kurt Vile (his real name) is a 29 year old former skatepunk, one of ten siblings. He comes from Philadelphia, where his dad Charlie Vile still drives trains for the local metro system. Apparently, neither of his parents had heard of that Kurt Weill guy from the 1930s, who wrote ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Pirate Jenny.’

This time last year, the New York Times usefully contrasted Vile with the strand of current music known for cranking up the artifice and orchestration. Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, and Of Montreal have all gone down that self conscious route, mostly with good results. Vile has more in common with the punkier likes of No Age, the late Jay Reatard and ultimately ( to go right back to the drone source) with Velvet Underground. Vile has his VU moments, but he also taps into even older music traditions – much of them learned from his father’s large collection of bluegrass, country and blues recordings.

Not that he’s really a neo-folkie thumbing through his Harry Smith Anthology and looking for a direction home. The songs go round in circles, but keep adding layers as they go. From the NYT article :

“I don’t use computers at all,” he said, adding that music made on hard drives “loses all character whatsoever, all these nuances, slight mistakes you realize weren’t mistakes at all. You’re sitting at a keyboard editing out anything beautiful that happens.”

But…Vile is an exacting tinkerer. “I like adding layers to a song,” he said, “putting the mike a certain way, putting some weird delay or some weird phaser on the guitar. It’s kind of like Brian Eno, on a much less skilled scale.” After [recording] a song, typically using a digital 8-track at home or a 16-track reel-to-reel at a friend’s studio, he will drive around blasting it in his wife’s Toyota Echo, making mental notes about what to tweak. “I’ve pretty much blown out the speakers in there,” he said, grinning.

In other words, a lot of effort goes into sounding so effortless. “What I like about artists like Kurt is that they work with a four-track or whatever, but they think about the production of their songs in really ambitious ways, figuring out how to produce as if there weren’t those boundaries,” said Brian [Geologist] Weitz, of Animal Collective. Several years ago, Weitz said, he weeded a Kurt Vile CD-R from a pile of demos sent to his band by hopeful young musicians: “It was one of two CDs I didn’t throw out. I remember thinking it sounded really unique and personal.”

The Childish Prodigy album on Matador is Vile’s first widely available album, but his two earlier albums Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This to You are also well worth checking out. One of those early songs called “Red Apples” consists pretty much of the same repeated phrase “ Two packs of red apples, for the long ride home/ that’ll be just fine..’ Here’s a link to a downloadable January 16, 2010 concert by Vile at the Bowery in New York:

Previously, Vile drove a forklift for a air-freight company in Boston, to help support through college the woman now his wife, while she studied for a graduate degree in English. Until last July, he drove another forklift, for a brewing company in his old home town. He’s genuine blue collar, with the work ethic to match.

‘I’m not a slacker,” Vile saud in one interview.“I’ve worked hard my whole life. But I’m not going to be a total sucker, and put all my energy into someone else’s job.’ To quote another much cover-versioned song, that just gets you another day older, and deeper in debt.