Monday, September 7, 2009

#115. 'Take my shoes off and I will throw them in the lake'

The Futureheads "Hounds of Love"

I love a good cover version, but my standards for what that entails are probably different from many peoples'. The key thing for me is that whatever artist is doing the cover makes the song their own to some degree. While a straight retread can be enjoyable enough provided the starting material is good, I lose interest in that sort of thing far more quickly than when the song is actually reinterpreted as opposed to just remade. Of course, the mere fact that it's a reinterpretation doesn't make it an automatic winner, but most times even if it's a complete botch job it's an interesting one simply by virtue of it not begging the question 'why not just go listen to the original?' Essentially, by giving the song an infusion of personality other than its initial one you're halfway towards impressing me whereas playing it straight gives you more of an uphill battle. Of course, if you happen to be covering a personal favorite song of mine you're gonna have an uphill battle regardless. I wouldn't say I'm closed off to new interpretations of my favorite songs, but when the original sets the bar that high it's much more inevitable that you'll fall short. Once again, it doesn't mean the spectacle of the attempt won't be interesting to some degree, and I'm probably more tolerant of interesting failures as far as covers go when it's based around a song I adore anyways than just plain interesting failures, but in plenty of cases I find it nigh on impossible to judge this type of cover completely objectively, no matter how hard I try.

Given all that you wouldn't think that I'd be one to sing the praises of The Futureheads' take on Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love." It's not that the 'heads play it too straight, they add their stamp to the proceedings quite obviously, or that their take on it doesn't gel with the original, but that the original is one of those songs I'd rather no one touch. Kate Bush was one of my dad's favorite artists so I got my share of her version during my youth and I wouldn't surprised if it wound up among my 50 favorite songs of all time if I ever were to make that list. As such, I'm not as amenable to it being radically reimagined as I would be to something not so familiar. Yet when I listen to the two back-to-back it strikes me just how un-radical The Futureheads' version of the song is. There's the cosmetic differences of course, the gender switched vocals, replacing the barely there synth backdrop with insistent, chugging guitars, but outside of that it's remarkably faithful to Bush's original. I'd still call it a re-imagining as opposed to a remake, but it pulls off the trick of remaining faithful to the source material while at the same times turning it into something new.

While the changes that The Futureheads make to the song don't go all that deep, they certainly liven it up a bit. The quasi-barbershop harmonies that will probably be remembered as their trademark (either that or the only thing that made them not sound exactly like every other British neo-post punk band of the 00s if you're not feeling particularly generous towards them) take what was only a minor though essential part of the original's chorus and turn it into a rather enthusiastic call-and-response intro that then slips under the rest of the track as a bit of a subconscious theme. The major change though is the way that the overall arrangement makes the song sound more purposeful than before. Bush's version was a stately bit of defiance, and its arrangement made that stance seem that much grander by putting so much emphasis on her strong vocals. I don't think any modern band could pull that off, let alone The Futureheads, so their decision to shift the focus on to the guitars works well for their version. In an odd way, this more lively sounding arrangement actually dulls the defiance in the lyrics and makes proclamations like 'I don't know what's good for me, but here I go' sound more hesitant than anything. It's almost as though the arrangement is dragging the vocalist through the song's key posts as opposed to the original where Bush's vocals were clearly leading the way. An interesting choice but one that suits the band much better in the end. I wouldn't come close to saying that it's a better song than the original, but it's a very creative and unexpected reimagining of it that casts the song in a different light without ruining its impact.

It's especially odd to be saying things like 'creative and unexpected' in reference to a song by The Futureheads, a band who never struck me as anything more than middle of the road neo-post punk. Sure they had the vocal harmony thing going for them (and that's in great effect here) but the songs were never more than just...kinda...there. Sure they could knock out a moderately good one on their own ("Skip to the End" comes to mind) but as songwriters they never made too much of an impression on the whole. Paired with a true masterpiece of pop music they seemed to flourish in a way I don't think they can ever replicate.

Coming up tomorrow: Sometimes you should believe the hype, but only to some extent or another one where two words knock the song up a notch or two.

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