I love how Cat Power reinvented – or rediscovered – the covers album in the mid-2000’s. This is the thing that everybody does now, like a musical version of the trend for vintage fashion. But it seemed very subversive and anti-pop in 2006~2008 era, just as it had when Bowie, Nilsson and Ferry shook the songwriter-as-demigod cult in the early 1970’s. Doing covers is really all about imprinting other people’s material with your own persona. Having said all that, the song that’s making me wax poetic is actually an original composition by Chan Marshall herself, eased in among classics by Dylan and Holiday. What’s great is how well it eases in. It’s the right intimate mood, the right contemplative thoughts. Who is Bobby, in this context, I wonder. Is it Bobby D himself? Or just some vague Bobby who serves as a songwriter’s casual muse? There’s no right answer, of course, but it’s nice to ask the question. Jukebox, in short, is the kind of record that makes one muse about muses.
Marianne Faithfull really knows how to find cool people to hang out with her in the studio. Old and young, they all line up for a chance to guest star on one of her records. Everyone wants a touch of that louche glamour. On her cover album Easy Come Easy Go, Faithfull had a neon-name guest on nearly every track. Some of them were trusty old sidekicks like Nick Cave and Keith Richards, some – like Cat Power and Anohni – are spiritual offspring. She’s had a particularly fruitful friendship with Jarvis Cocker over the years. They’ve written some great songs together, and he’s exactly the kind of soulful dandy she would have been in the arms of in her younger days. One thing they share is their conviction that being sad in a cloud of smoke is a high art form. I love hearing the old queen trade mournful sighs with the young acolyte. They chose an old chestnut from West Side Story that’s been handled by everyone from Aretha Franklin to The Pet Shop Boys, and it’s exactly the kind of song that generations of sad sacks have been drawn to for its mix of mournfulness and hope.
Maybe it’s my nostalgia for things I heard on the radio in 2008 kicking in again, but let’s listen to some more P!nk. I know, I know, how sad is it that I’m already having nostalgia pains for the late 2000’s? And, yes, I know that I said I don’t like P!nk. I guess I’m at that point where I’m starting to like the things that I don’t like just because they remind me of a time in my life when I was 11 years younger. But also, this woman sings live while swinging on a trapeze. In the 90’s/2000’s teenybop wave, P!nk was on the 3rd or 4th tier in terms of cultural traction, far behind superstars like damn Britney and X-Tina. Heck, she had less name recognition than Jessica Simpson. But I guess she really got the last laugh in terms of having a consistent career and not going to jail, or rehab, or getting fat, or being declared mentally incompetent, or becoming a porn star, or any of the other unsavory fates that have befallen her peers. No, she got her shit together and learned how to trapeze. Again, she performs on a trapeze, and even if her on-key vocals are all backing track, that’s pretty impressive.
Let’s set the WABAC Machine for the halcyon days of 2008, with one of the biggest pop hits of the decade. I think this song should bring it all flooding back nicely. It was one of the last pop hurrahs of the slutty, plastic crystal crusted, Adderal-manic 2000’s. Times sure were different back then – there was this thing called ‘optimism’ and everyone was spending buttloads of money to look like a drag strip hooker. I always thought that the singer P!nk was pretty much the worst of 2000’s pop music: she combined some of the most bombastically generic production with a mawkish earnestness untroubled by irony, all while having the aesthetics of a teenager trying to dress ‘punk’ in a suburban outlet mall. I wouldn’t say that she was the nadir of lowest-common-denominator pop music, because she is, at least, a pretty decent vocalist, but she’s pretty close to it. Even a stopped clock, however, is sometimes on point, and P!nk’s combination of trashy-white-girl posturing and insecure-white-girl vulnerability served her well at least once. She pulled the inspiration for this song from the breakup of her marriage, and although it turned out to be a false alarm and they got back together, the angst is real, and it provided fodder for one of the best defiantly crying-only-on-the-inside breakup anthems. It’s an exact, specific feeling that everyone knows: when you loudly insist, to anyone at the bar who will listen, that you’re still a rock star, while your makeup runs down your face and most of your drink is on your shoes, and you know you’re probably going to wake up with a black eye. Yep, you know you’ve had nights like that, and this is your song for nights like that.
Gee, I wonder what Passion Pit’s been up to. Does Passion Pit still exist as such? Their most recent record came out in 2017, and I guess that they’ve suffered from having singer Michael Angelakos’s personal life being made into a focus point. (He came out in 2017.) Also, is this particular brand of dreamy electronic pop still au courant? I mean, as far as I’m concerned, electro-dreampop is the genre of the decade and I will never stop loving it. But also it’s 2019 and maybe it’s something else to crest the wave. (Please don’t let it be overly-earnest singer-songwriters with high-pitched voices.) Anyhow, in 2008, when they released their first EP, Passion Pit was ahead of the wave, and that makes them essential listening.
Passion Pit peaked with this one. They’ll never do anything this great again. When I first heard this, I thought it was both the catchiest and the most annoying thing I’d ever heard. I hoped that the rest of Passion Pit’s work would be similarly weird and edgy. Granted, I love Passion Pit, but none of their other work ever got this weird again. Mostly it’s hooky uptempo dreampop, and great at it. But it doesn’t balance on the line of grating and compelling the way this early experiment does. I’m sure that Michael Angelakos will continue to do interesting and fun things in his career and whatnot. Maybe it’ll be weird and psychedelic, but it’ll probably be more on the pop spectrum.
Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.