A radical cover version of a favorite song can be like a negative lullaby. Ask the Residents, who became known for a version of Satisfaction featuring a vocal that sounded like a talking jackhammer. Or Bob Dylan with decades of strange shows under its belt, you have to go back to reviews of Self-Portrait from 1970 to remember how fans felt when first confronted with an indifferent version of Like A Rolling Stone.
I thought a bit about Self-Portrait, and a bit about the Residents as well, when I heard The Brave and the Bold, a new collaboration between Tortoise and Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Will Oldham. The first time I listened was in my car, a situation which left me unable to pay attention to the track titles, so, although Id read about it a bit, I was still a bit jolted when an obnoxious synth intro led to the lines The screen door slams/Marys dress waves
Born to Run was one of those records I bought when I had the drive to familiarize myself with the foundational texts of rock and roll, but its one of those albums I respect more than enjoy. (Although Bruce is the first somewhat-new-at-the-time artist I remember liking, it was the sprawling two record jukebox The River which hooked me in and still brings back the best memories.) Ive heard Thunder Road many times, but its never had quite the same impact for me as for some others, perhaps because Im more a music person than a lyrics person, or because dates werent much of an option for me at the age when guys commonly thought that one date could make the difference between life and death. Still, I can appreciate how each line has something worth remembering, how the progression from seeing the vision dancing across the porch to pulling out of the town full of losers manages to surprise me each time out.
Chris Gardners review of The Brave and the Bold sums up Oldhams take on Thunder Road well. (To offer my own play on the lyrics in a manner similar to Gardners, Oldham sounds like someone needs to convince him to show a little faith.) However, what intrigues me more is the music. (See the music/lyrics comment above.) Springsteen has had his experiences with weird covers see Manfred Manns Blinded by the Light, which, by shoehorning a great lyric into music rife with the meaningless sound-and-fury which some people thinks typifies all prog-rock, has become one of the songs which automatically makes me change channels when it appears on the radio. Or David Bowies Its Hard To Be A Saint In The City, from his 1975 cocaine-soul period, which reportedly prompted Springsteen to bolt from the studio when Bowie played it for him.
Perhaps even more than the vocal, the music on this Tortoise version might elicit a similar response from the Boss. Not only have Tortoise changed all of the major chords to minor, theyve put the song into a style not a lot unlike Manfred Manns. This Thunder Road sounds the way people who dont like prog rock think prog rock sounds, partly because it does sound that way sometimes, unless youre the sort of person who would dispute the idea that Pink Floyds Have a Cigar is prog rock.
I understand that Tortoises 90s records made the vibraphone and lounge music cool with indie rockers who previously wouldnt have accepted anything that wasnt on a Velvet Underground album. Will this cut send people back to Genesiss catalog? I dont know. I can, however, enjoy the perversity of it, as well as the fact that it makes me listen to the lyrics a bit more than I would if I heard another Springsteen version.
The other song on the Tortoise/Oldham CD most familiar to me was Elton Johns Daniel. This cover has virtues which perhaps go beyond perversity. Hearing Daniel reminds me of how Elton, in those early days, put down some of the most surrealistic MOR around, perhaps largely because he had Bernie Taupin, a non-performing lyricist, in the days when non-performing lyricists stayed home writing things like A Whiter Shade of Pale and 21st Century Schizoid Man. In the original version, the Caribbean-tinted music smoothes over a lyric which seems to be withholding some key information, a lyric which hints that the title character is damaged without saying much about why and doesnt make it clear whether the male title character and the male singer are friends, relatives or lovers (or some combination thereof). In Tortoise and Oldhams version, the vocalist becomes a distant voice commenting on the title character sitting in his pleasantly woozy, post-traumatic state.
Tortoise and Bonnie Prince Billy recontextualizing Elton John and prog rock, putting them both next to Brazilian music, punk and some current electronic guys I would have to Google to discuss further. Brave and bold, indeed.