Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cover Me

You Know I Know When It's a Dream...

Brandon Schott, whom I first wrote about here, has a new single coming out next week on iTunes: "God Only Knows" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever." And he's performing this week to celebrate the release.

More on that in a minute. But first:


As listeners, we hear covers in a very different way than the way we hear original songs.

This is more pronounced when the songs are well known. Many "classic rock" songs from the 60s and 70s are so deeply imprinted after decades of radio play (not to mention hours spent listening to these songs on vinyl, cassette, CD, and MP3) that they're nearly a part of our DNA.

For songs that are well-known, we carry our memory of the original with us as we hear the cover. That makes Slavishly Faithful covers purely an exercise in nostalgia. It makes Radically Rearranged covers more interesting for how they differ from the originals than in how they are similar. And it makes Slapped Together covers something best enjoyed in the moment during a live show (where hopefully there's enough else happening to distract us from how crappy and poorly executed the cover is).

For most musicians, covering really well-known songs is just asking for trouble.

Because, really, does the world ever need another version of "God Only Knows" or "Strawberry Fields Forever"?


Which loops me back around to Brandon Schott.

These two songs aren't your typical covers. The arrangements are neither radically different nor slavishly faithful.

Instead, Brandon's versions tunnel inside the songs, letting us rediscover essential truths we might have forgotten, combining the very familiar with the revelatory and peeling back layers of songs we thought we knew everything about.

Brandon's "God Only Knows" opens with Indian tabla marking out percussion, infusing the track instantly with a 1966 vibe. Bells and organ echo the original, but veer off from the Beach Boys arrangement. Harmonies are understated here, sneaking up on you instead of hitting you over the head Beach Boys-style. The song builds and builds as it moves along, confidently gaining momentum, and power. And then there's the ending.

Holy ****.

Brandon's son Tyler sings a boy-soprano counter-melody at the end of the song that completely takes my breath away. (And if you don't get goose bumps from it, you either don't like music or you're a robot passing for human -- and in either case I wonder what you're doing reading this.) Close your eyes when you listen to this and you'll swear for 3 minutes and 50 seconds that Brian Wilson really could write teenage symphonies to God -- at least for a few months in 1966.

Here's a taste of Brandon's take on the Beach Boys:


"Strawberry Fields Forever" is a song most people know backwards and forwards. Originally recorded to be a cornerstone of the Sgt. Pepper album (whose loose concept had something to do with childhood... and nostalgia... and LSD), it was rushed out as a single (a double-A side with "Penny Lane") in early 1967 when EMI realized that Sgt. Pepper would take many more months to finish.

Brandon's take on "Strawberry Fields" is simple and stark, mostly just a piano and voice. All through the song, you'll wait for familiar instruments to come in -- starting with Paul McCartney's mellotron that opens the Beatle version. But for the most part, things are kept austere here, with ghostly reverb and faint glimmers of instruments substituting for the full psychedelic orchestration of the original. Time and again, I find myself waiting for Ringo's familiar drum fills, then feel thrown off-balance when they don't appear. Instead, backing vocals emphasize the ethereal nature of the song, underscored by a piano that sometimes sounds like it was stored in a damp basement for several decades. The overall effect is mesmerizing -- and wallops you with the full force of something long-forgotten but vitally important.

Here's a taste of "Strawberry Fields":


For those of you in or around Los Angeles, Brandon will be doing a special release party for his "God Only Knows" single on May 20 (this coming Thursday) at the Renaissance Hotel and Spa in Hollywood. Admission is free (my favorite price) and open to all ages. Great music and maybe a few surprise special guests. 25 people will also win a special limited-edition CD single of the songs.

Then, a week from Tuesday (May 25th), you can buy the single from iTunes. For more info, go here.

Very highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Awesome! Can't wait to hear the whole thing.

William V. Madison said...

Intriguing -- tantalizing, in fact, since the samples are so brief.

I'm about ready for singers to do for some of these classics what Ella Fitzgerald did with early-20th-century pop standards and show tunes. If this rock music is indeed great (as I believe it to be), then it can be interpreted, "Songbook"-ed, and reappraised in a new context.

LateBloomingMom said...

Really cool covers. Thanks for posting. I am in nostalgic mood after the Carole King/JT show -- which was so lovely, BTW, even if the LA Times reviewer carped about them not "challenging" the audience (please, this is a geezer rock tour built on revisiting the music as it was, and did so beautifully -- you shoulda heard the sighs at each song intro). I think Bill's right though that it's time for others to come along and do new interpretations; if a song is good enough, it becomes a standard, and is not dependent on a particular solo or the original recording for all its power and appeal.

Alex said...

The full version of "God Only Knows" is now streaming over on MySpace.

Anonymous said...