#7. (tie) The Bird and the Bee – Interpreting The Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Hall & Oates
& Mates of State – Crushes: The Covers Mixtape
Oh the gall! The nerve! Just the thought of including two cover albums in a year-end list is preposterous, but then to list them as a tie! What a cop-out! How can your list have any credibility when you’ve vaulted TWO albums of other people’s songs to the #7 spot on your list?
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to explain myself. These two albums are similar in that they are both (mostly) cover albums by boy-girl pop duos, but that’s about where their similarities end. In fact, they really illustrate two very disparate purposes for releasing an album of covers (or “remakes”, as my dad used to call them… In his words: “A ‘cover’ is playing someone else’s song in the middle of your concert.”). On one hand, you have the rather obscure The Bird and the Bee, offering up an original tune before taking a tour through Hall & Oates greatest hits. On the other, there is indie stalwarts Mates of State, paying homage through reinvention of their favorite contemporaries and a few loves of yesteryear.
Why I love what The Bird and The Bee has done:
Right off the bat, they give you “Heard It On The Radio”, their original number that sets the stage both musically and lyrically, while measuring up in every way to the Hall & Oates classics that follow. Singer Inara George coos in her velvet voice: “When we first met, they were playing that song \ And then it stuck into my head \ Stuck into my head \ When we first kissed you made it to my list \ And then I couldn’t stop myself \ Think of nothing else”. Besides just being a truly brilliant slice of pop perfection and an ode to Hall & Oates and the romance radio pop as a whole used to offer, “Heard It On The Radio” really shows how much George and bandmate Greg Kurstin get it. It is their thesis statement at the beginning of their Hall & Oates dissertation, and they go above and beyond showing just how well they understand the material.
All that said, George & Kurstin are not out to reinvent the wheel (or the Hall & Oates catalog, in this case). They have a signature sound that permeates the entire album, offering smooth, pitch-perfect vocals, urbane grooves, and a satin studio sheen. Yes, I have heard one of these tracks played while shopping. Yes, I have friends who have recommended this album to their mothers. It could certainly be called “Adult Contemporary”. But I mean, so could Hall & Oates, so…
And to that point, the group runs these 80’s classics through their consistent and signature filter. “One on One” sounds fresh through warm synth pads and George’s syrupy sweet vocals. “Rich Girl” is reinvigorated with spacey blips and bloops, airy pads, and stacks of George’s vocal “Ooh”s. The duo takes a Feist-circa-Let It Die approach with “She’s Gone”, employing an elevator groove and soft synth lift to underscore George’s prominent backing vocal repeats.
While Interpreting The Masters, Vol. 1 isn’t going to sell crustpunk or black metal fans on Hall & Oates’ back catalog, it still serves to enliven a collection of songs entering their fourth decade with some modern, albeit mild, textures. For those who loved these songs the first time around, most of what attracted you initially is still there, with added polish and saccharine. If nothing else, its good to see modern-day musicians taking a moment to pay tribute to those who influenced not only them, but an entire generation of artists and fans alike, even if it is a group as equally lauded and derided as Hall & Oates.
Why I love what Mates of State has done:
I remember when my dad used to tell me about specific instances in music history when one pop music superstar wrote a song specifically for another to record, or had a cut left off of their latest LP, which they in turn handed over to some promising up and comers. This type of song-sharing and favor-writing used to happen a lot, apparently. Nowadays, also-ran singer-songwriters and marginalized producers form “songwriting teams” to concoct the next big hit single, available to the pop star with the deepest purse. Rarely do you hear about one band’s frontman penning a tune for his good friends in the pop group across town, or two different artists taking an equally visible stab at the same song around the same time, with each other’s blessing (and purchased rights, of course). Imagine if Isaac Brock gave Wolf Parade a tune for their next LP, or Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem both did a rendition (and not a remix!) of James Murphy’s latest track. I know hip-hop mixtapes nowadays almost glimpse this notion, but I feel like that’s a somewhat different phenomenon.
But it’s funny you (well, I) mention mixtapes, since that’s what Mates of State is calling their recent covers release, Crushes: The Covers Mixtape. First off, its cool to see an indie pop group embrace the idea of a casual, “unofficial” release explicitly referred to as a “mixtape”, and to then use said release to re-imagine the songs of others much like the hip-hop community’s take on the concept. But secondly, and most importantly, it serves as a refreshing example of an established band exposing their own fandom – in many cases here, of their contemporaries. The married tag-team of Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner touch on the tunes of active bands such as Girls (“Laura”), The Mars Volta (“Son et Lumiere”), Belle & Sebastian (“Sleep the Clock Around”), and Death Cab For Cutie (“Technicolor Girls”). It’s fascinating to hear a band commit to tape their own take on songs within the last decade by bands who they’ve likely shared music festival stages with over the years. The prospect of hearing more artists do this, even in small, B-side doses (and I know it’s been done before, so I’m not saying its this totally novel idea), it’s just exciting as a music fan. It fulfills the music geek fantasy of dreaming up mix-and-matches of the “What if _______ played “______” by ______? That would be epic.” Kinda like how I’ve always wanted to hear Arcade Fire cover Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” But I guess that would be dipping into yesteryear, and that’s not really what we’re talking about here.
Or is it? Mates of State don’t exclude by era, apparently. They give Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” the breakbeat treatment, get breathy with Nick Cave’s “Love Letter”, explode Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home” into a pop anthem, and close the disc out with Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End”. So there is still some nods to past influence as well, which is equally interesting from a fan’s standpoint, as it gives an exclusive view into the band’s own record collection, and hypothetically, helps make sense of some of the ingredients found in the musical stew of their own catalog.
Gardner and Hammel also take the opportunity stretch themselves even farther from their organ-and-drum wheelhouse than 2008’s Rearrange Us did. Hammel claims lead vocals more often here, and the instrumentation isn’t limited in the least. Guitar, bass, and synth are favored just as much as piano and their signature Yamaha Electone, and drums are divided diplomatically between real and fake. On a whole,Crushes sounds very much like a record that began with the question, “Wouldn’t it be fun if…”
In the end, that’s what really draws me to both of these releases – they sound like musicians being music fans being musicians, and having a really good time doing it. Maybe the tracklists start-to-finish aren’t as ground-breaking as some of the other material released this year, but the appeal here goes beyond just the recordings contained within. It’s the incredibly attractive notion that a song isn’t simply born upon its recording and left to die a slow death of eventual irrelevance – it can be reborn again, whether through the tribute of a lifelong fan, now grown into a musician in their own right, or live an alternate life through the re-creation of a contemporary, celebrating the quality output of their fellow musicians. In a way, both groups are teaching us a lesson: We should be sharing the music we love with other people. And I’m not talking about file-sharing. I’m talking about making recommendations, the way we used to… Telling our friends about this new band we can’t get enough of, or making a mixtape for a friend who’s never heard of Nick Cave, or Tom Waits, or even Hall & Oates.
In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with this 2010 recap, so it’s only fitting I give both of these releases their due. They’re sharing the music they love with us – we should pay it forward.