Snap Sounds: Forest Swords -- and the spirit of Aaliyah


Dagger Paths E.P.
(No Pain in Pop/Olde English Spelling Bee)

High on the "Ideas I Wish I Had" list is Forest Swords' cover of Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew," a different (if equally idiosyncratic) take on R&B than that of fellow Olde English Spelling Bee act Autre Ne Veut. The group's M. Barnes taps into the recessive, almost ghostly shade-throwing of the original — one reason why Aaliyah was a unique pop phenomenon — and slows it down to near-Gothic stasis, while adding another twist to the lyric's romantic intrigue by flipping the gender of the vocalist. The spirit of Aaliyah haunted dubstep and its mutant kin in 2010, thanks to Forest Swords' "If Your Girl," and also James Blake's "CMYK," which sends the vocals of her best-known hit, "Are You That Somebody?," through a series of flying-floating transformations. Check out the originals and covers/updates, as well as some more ruminations about this phenom, after the jump.

Of course, Aaliyah's influence has been seeping into non-pop or R&B places for some time, from the Gossip's live interpretation of "Are You That Somebody?" (which followed in the footsteps of Northwest no-bass counterparts the Spinanes cover of the same song)  to Gang Gang Dance's professions of love for her around the time of Saint Dymphna. The vinyl version of The xx's debut album includes the group's cover of "Hot Like Fire," which, like "If Your Girl Only Knew," comes from Aaliyah's 1996 album One in a Million, where her lithe mystique found a perfect home within Timbaland's shadowy and spacious yet rhythmic production.

It's tempting to view Aaliyah's eternal return as an outgrowth of the fact that some if not many of these artists (and others) were probably kids swept up in radio love back when she was a major phantom of the airwaves. But as time passes, the summer and fall of 1998 -- when "Are You That Somebody?" was topping the charts, Missy Elliott's songwriting was in full effect, Brandy and Monica were fighting over a boy, and R. Kelly was beginning to explore musical narratives with Sparkle and Kelly Price -- is starting to seem like a halcyon era of R&B pop. While I like some of the tributes to Babygirl I've just outlined, I can confidently say her originals stand supreme.

Forest Swords, "If Your Girl," from Dagger Paths EP:

Aaliyah, "If Your Girl Only Knew," from One in a Million:

James Blake, "CMYK," from CMYK EP:

Aaliyah, "Are You That Somebody":

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