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The interpreters
Covering Wire and Björk

Nouvelle Vague’s new wave recast as bossa nova covers and Paul Anka’s entertaining Rock Swings (Survivor and Bon Jovi in the main room at Harrah’s) share an implicit view of the past half-century of popular music as a garden of distinct but related species hardy enough to survive crossbreeding. So it may be inevitable that the recent spate of high-concept cover albums would include instances of a much rarer breed. A Houseguest’s Wish (Words on Music) and Army of Me: Remixes and Covers (One Little Indian) are both devoted entirely to versions of a single song: respectively, Wire’s "Outdoor Miner" and — no points for guessing — Björk’s "Army of Me."

Rare, but not unprecedented: the 1960 LP The Stardust Road gathered extant renditions of Hoagy Carmichael and Michael Parrish’s jazz perennial, and the mid-’80s disc Brother Can You Spare a Dime? surveyed versions of E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney’s Depression-era plaint by everyone from Tom Waits to Sally Jessy Raphaël. These precursors took undoubted standards as their source material, but their contemporary counterparts raise related questions. Just how malleable is a song? And, more practically, how much of one song can you stand?

Not 74 minutes. "Outdoor Miner," the poppiest cut from Wire’s 1979 Chairs Missing album, should be a natural for eclectic interpretations. Colin Newman’s lyrics are a bit of insect-themed existentialism, lying between Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis" and Magazine’s "A Song from Under the Floorboards": "He lies on his side/Is he trying to hide?/In fact it’s the earth/That he’s known since birth." But the song’s simple yet non-obvious structure is the real attraction, with a three-chord verse cycling asymmetrically under a melancholy melody, and a slightly more dramatic chorus that briefly leaves the song’s home key.

Yet, despite shifts in tempo and texture, too much of A Houseguest’s Wish is overly indebted to the rhythm and vocal phrasing of Wire’s original — or to a 1991 cover by Britpoppers Lush, included here. Titania, the Meeting Place, and the Sems serve up indistinguishable indie-pop variants; acoustic readings by Adam Franklin and Sharon Kraus prettify the song out of existence. Only a few burrow deep enough to crack the song open from within, notably Timonium’s down-tempo, narcotized take and Fiel Garvie’s galvanized, industrial-tinged version. Not that every risk pays off: the National Steel country-blues of Christian Kiefer’s solo contribution is better heard about, than heard.

Army of Me: Remixes and Covers doesn’t wear out its welcome quite as quickly. Perhaps it’s the freshness of the mostly unknown contributors: the disc was compiled from more than 600 responses to an invitation on Björk’s Web site, with final selections made by the cybersprite herself and the song’s co-writer, Graham Massey. Or maybe it’s simply the song, which is among her sturdiest, and one of a handful that aren’t so idiosyncratic as to be unperformable by other humans. What isn’t evident from the original is how readily the verse’s main riff can be recast into minor-key metal — an accident on which Canadians Interzone capitalize powerfully on the opening cut.

Other heavy-gauge versions (by Hemp and Random) blunt that opening salvo, but the disc largely delivers the variety — and humor — that one would hope for, jumping from Martin White’s solo accordion to the electro-sass of one "r.luvbeats," a dead ringer for Le Tigre. There are as many new recordings here as remixes per se, and the track by Dr. Syntax is a little of each, switching between the original vocal and a hearty male Spamalot-ian chorus: "If you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me." As with the Wire tribute, there’s even a straight-country version, by the Messengers of God: here, the stunt works, with the just-quoted lyrics becoming a kissing cousin of Merle Haggard’s "The Fightin’ Side of Me." It might as well be a different song entirely.

Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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