June 12, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
WE ALL NEED heroes. I just need to pick mine with more care. One moment of extreme glory in a Noise Pop set a year or so ago, and I was ready to sign on to the sinking Eric Bachmann ship for a very short life. His second album with Crooked Fingers, Bring on the Snakes, was torturously fine, preaching redemption somewhere way over the rainbow, and I barely needed any convincing. But the moment in the set that got me wondering what a Bachmann Is God tattoo would look like on my forearm (not too good) was when he sang Queen's "Under Pressure" toward the end of the night. Last week at Bottom of the Hill he reprised it, and I saw the danger signs again.
It seems strange and slightly wrong to me. So many songs to swoon over pills and whiskey to, so many eloquent, elegant manifestations of self-loathing and vitriol, and I fell hardest for the one he didn't write, the one that wonders if we can do a little better. Bachmann did it well. A man who dared to take on Freddy Mercury and David Bowie at once could have looked a terrible fool and many have, at karaoke bars all across the land but he was channeling his usual demons, and he wanted them out, and it sounded like the best kind of hell. Now, on a five-song EP of covers, Reservoir Songs, he picks his way through some of life's gorgeously dismal moments as penned by Kris Kristofferson ("Sunday Morning Coming Down"), Neil Diamond ("Solitary Man"), and Bruce Springsteen ("The River"), as well as "Under Pressure" and a vaguely disturbing version of Prince's "When U Were Mine."
All I wanted was to hear "Under Pressure" again in that battered voice, sounding like acid burns on the road to recovery. Yet for a while, all I could hear on the album was the difference between that night and a studio recording. Which is just what people do when they listen to covers, especially the ones that fall somewhere within their life's Top 40.
In a way, recording an album of other people's work is a brave move in the rock idiom, covering the classics is a side project, not an honorable way to earn your keep. You're bound to suffer comparisons, and people are bound to wonder if you've worked all the originals out of your system. I do it all the time. I did it when Mary Lou Lord came out with Live City Sounds, recorded in a Boston subway station and Harvard Square in the fall of 2000. The sound of her vocal flourishes attached to the questions "Won't you tell me what you're thinking of? Would you be an outlaw for my love?" on Big Star's "Thirteen" was initially so unpleasant I had to fast-forward. I wondered how many people passing her on their way to a train had understood the delicate weight of those questions; I wondered if they'd been able to hear it properly not over the sound of oncoming public transportation, but over the sound of Lord walking on someone else's very precious territory.
The thing is, I never wanted another soul to touch "Thirteen"; I never even wanted to hear another Big Star recording of it. I'd grown accustomed to its intonations, the pacing it's put through on #1 Record. There are only a few songs with the terrible grace to make your stomach turn over year after year. "Thunder Road" is another for me, and what do you know track number 10. But it's not fair to ask that a band never change its tune, and maybe it's not fair to ask a cover artist to leave it alone. Besides, someone else out there surely feels attacked by Lord's attempt at "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a Richard Thompson song that to me sounds lovely in her hands. She starts sounding like a girl in a subway station playing favorites with a quake in her voice, and I almost forgive her for taking "Thirteen" away.
Musicians might be just like the rest of us, needing to transmit their sonic touchstones to others the more obscure the cover, the more private the communication. I think of Chan Marshall, making other people's songs sound like aliens or newborns on 2000's Covers Album. Of course, not everyone has a voice like hers, or a way of interpreting that sounds like it's coming from deep under the skin. The first time I heard her perform from that album, on a night when she was feeling ghosts at her back, she sang something it took us the ride home and a frantic tear through record collections to understand was the Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason," a song I listened to several hundred times before graduating from college. She'd twisted it up and made us listen only to her. It was kind of like having your memory stolen not always a safe thing for works of art to accomplish, but worth experiencing.
While Lord stamps familiar tunes with her own vocal habits, Marshall dissolves the memory that these songs belonged to someone else, were written out of someone else's heartbreaks, histrionics, misfortune, distrust, fall from grace. Bachmann doesn't go that far on Reservoir Songs, but manages to send his heroes away for a while. When they come back, they're like Marshall's ghosts, hovering near their songs, letting Bachmann feel what he's singing, letting us forget a bit and listen.
E-mail Lynn Rapoport at email@example.com.