Monday, September 28, 2009

Meta Shop Boys

These are a few leftovers from last week's offering of Pet Shop Boys covers that deserved their very own post because they live in their own little world of cover wackiness.

Pet Shop Boys - We're the Pet Shop Boys [originally by My Robot Friend]
What's weirder: the Pet Shop Boys performing a song called We're the Pet Shop Boys or the fact that it's a cover song? Amusingly, the Pet Shop Boys cover is essentially the same with Neil Tennant replacing the faux Tennant vocals of the original.

My Robot Friend - We're the Pet Shop Boys
The original is from New York electronic artist My Robot Friend who produced the Pet Shop Boys tribute on his 2002 debut Hot Action!. One of the best bits is a monotone roll call of Pet Shop Boys song titles reminiscent of the coda of Madonna's Vogue.

Robbie Williams - We're The Pet Shop Boys (with Pet Shop Boys) [originally by My Robot Friend]
Piling another yummy layer of meta, Robbie Williams covered this for his 2006 album Rudebox. It was produced by the Pet Shop Boys themselves, who also produced another track from the same album called She's Madonna. The Pet Shop Boys also remixed Madonna's song Sorry from her Confessions on a Dance Floor album and, if I remember the liner notes from Discography, their own song Heart was offered to Madonna before they kept it for themselves. If only we could get Madonna to cover We're the Pet Shop Boys.

West End Girls - Booglurbia [originally by the Pet Shop Boys]
West End Girls are a Pet Shop Boys tribute band from Sweden who recorded a full album of PSB covers in 2006 called Goes Petshopping. To the untrained ear (like mine) it might sound like this particular cover of Suburbia was recorded in the duo's native language, but it has more in common with the Swedish chef than actual Swedish. No, this cover was recorded in Simlish, the nonsense language used by the Sims in the popular computer game. Specifically, this was featured in the expansion pack The Sims: Pets (ha, get it?) and even then, not in the US version.

By the way, if you missed the exciting news, it was announced a couple weeks ago at D23 (A Disney convention) that Muppet Studios would be releasing a covers album called Muppets Revisited. The track list isn't finalized and no release date has been set, but the announcement included these:

  • It's Not Easy Being Green by Andrew Bird
  • Mahna Mahna by The Fray
  • Rainbow Connection by Weezer
  • Our World by My Morning Jacket
  • Halfway Down the Stairs by Amy Lee

Monday, September 21, 2009

Opportunities (Let's Hear Lots of Covers)

On Saturday night, I went to see the Pet Shop Boys perform at The Centre. Back when tickets went on sale, I was hemming and hawing whether I should even go or not. I mean, I pretty much began and stopped listening to the Pet Shop Boys with their 1991 release Discography, essentially a greatest hits up-to-that-point collection, but I remember this being one of my family's earliest CDs (no doubt bought by my mom) and I consider it a seminal album in my music listening experiences. I was probably 8 when we got that album and who knows how many times I popped it in the CD and just sat there reading the liner notes. In fact, up until that point I didn't even know what a "discography" was. Sadly, I don't even digest new music that way anymore, but the Pet Shop Boys' Discography has always stuck with me. I felt like I would punch myself later if I didn't take the opportunity to see them live since I know they still perform the songs I love, plus I heard they put on quite a show.... and they did.

I didn't really have a clue what to expect going in, seeing how at their core it's just Neil Tennant on vocals with Chris Lowe playing keyboards/synthesizers and manipulating the music from his control box podium thingy. What they may lack in band members is countered by pure visual spectacle and, of course, awesome songs. The best way I can describe the show is that it was like watching a music video come to life. The theme of this tour appears to be blocks and cubes... as in Rubik's cube imagery, blocky cityscapes, dancers in cubist outfits, blown up pixels, and an awesome set design made up of movable blocks. The show started with two screens of 5x5 blocks with video projected on it, before doorways materialized in the middle of each screen and the Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe stepped out... at least you'd assume so by the grand entrance and roaring reception. You see, they both wore cubes on their head, but as one made his way to his control booth stage left and one started belting out Heart, it was clear who was who. While this set-up lasted for a few songs, the show ascended to the next level during Building the Wall, in which a digital wall was being built on the video projections before the screens toppled over into their block components revealing a much deeper and cube-filled stage. Throughout the rest of the show, roadies in white lab coats and white hard hats would rejig all the giant cubes for each song. It was a remarkably versatile set design and I was shocked to read after that most of the cubes were simply cardboard boxes-- so much for hi-tech! This interview with designer Es Devlin provides some interesting background on the stage concept, though it's probably meaningless if you didn't see the show (as is my entire description of it, I suppose!).

The songs were probably a 50/50 split of hits and material from their most recent release Yes. But even on the new stuff, elements or phrases from familiar songs would creep in, most noticeably on a sort of mash-up of Can You Forgive Her? with the new Pandemonium. This could have been a fashion show there were so many costume changes, but one of my favourite moments was when Tennant was backed up by four dancing Manhattan skyscrapers (starting at 4:12 of this video). Maybe dancing mascots just make me laugh, but I loved it. It was definitely a show unlike any I've seen before and most of my all-time favourites were played. My one complaint is that I wasn't completely immersed in the show from up on the balcony especially when people couldn't decide if they were going to sit or stand, so they ended up standing only for songs they knew then sitting down... kinda awkward. Also, I was surprised to hear Tennant announce "Yes, Vancouver, we finally made it." It was the Pet Shop Boys first tour stop in Vancouver in their nearly 30 years as a group!

From a covers standpoint, the Pet Shop Boys are pretty much kings of making a song their own, scoring hits with distinct renditions of Always on My Mind, Where the Streets Have No Name (Can't Take My Eyes Off You), and Go West. I still remember being in a movie theatre and hearing U2's original Where the Streets Have No Name for the first time and mistakenly thinking they were covering the Pet Shop Boys. Oh, how my cover knowledge has grown since then! Even years after that, I was watching The Deer Hunter and the rest of that childhood cover riddle was unintentionally solved as I watched Christopher Walken animatedly singing along to Franki Valli's original Can't Take My Eyes Off You.

So here's big batch of some of my favourite covers of the Pet Shop Boys, naturally almost all taken from Discography:

Frankmusik - It's a Sin (live on BBC2) [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This was the last song the Pet Shop Boys performed before the encore break, but with all of the elaborate choreography for each number and the fact that a good chunk of the backing music is prerecorded, was an encore ever in doubt? This recent cover was recorded earlier this year for the Dermot O'Leary show. Frankmusik actually opened for Pet Shop Boys at a couple UK dates in June.

To/Die/For - It's a Sin [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
A cover by a Finnish gothic metal band... because the world can always use more of these.

Merril Bainbridge - Being Boring [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
I was absolutely thrilled when this was the first song in the encore (the night ended with West End Girls). This cover is from Aussie pop singer Merril Bainbridge's debut album The Garden, which spawned a mid-90's hit with Mouth. I knew about this acoustic cover for a long time though hadn't heard it before randomly stumbling across a copy of the CD at a used bookstore(??) right here in Vancouver. I could have saved myself some trouble if I had known about 10 Years of Being Boring, the most absurdly comprehensive website I've ever seen dedicated to a single song, though I can't really argue since it is my most played PSB tune. Check out the "renditions" sections of that site for even more Being Boring covers!

Skin of Tears - Suburbia [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is the inevitable German punk cover and yeah, it's pretty awesome. I used to think this song was about dogs running in the streets at night... funny how childhood misconceptions stick with you longer they they should. Interestingly, the song itself was inspired by the 1984 film Suburbia about suburban punks, which featured the acting debut of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and cover-friendly punk band The Vandals as themselves. Saturday's performance of Suburbia featured video projections of an army of cube-headed businessmen moving boxes on an infinitude of moving escalators while two dancers in the same cubehead business suits mimicked the actions on stage. These two dancers who spent probably 75% of the show with cubes on their head then stripped off their suits (and cubes) to reveal that they were both actually twin clones of Gwen Stefani. And you think I'm joking.

Frank Bennett - Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
Before Paul Anka was swinging modern hits, before Richard Cheese was lounging against the machine, and even before Pat Boone was in a metal mood, Australian singer Frank Bennett (as in, Frank Sinatra + Tony Bennett) was bringing big band arrangements to contemporary songs from Pearl Jam's Better Man to kd Lang's Constant Craving with his 1996 album Five O'Clock Shadow. Unfortunately this was not on Saturday night's setlist, but I dig this unlikely cover from Bennett's 1998 follow-up Cash Landing.

The Del Rubio Triplets - What Have I Done to Deserve This? [originally by Pet Shop Boys feat. Dusty Springfield]
This was the only song I was slightly disappointed they didn't perform, but at the same time why would you even bother trying to replace Dusty Springfield? The Del Rubio Triplets were actual 60-something year old triplets performing novelty acoustic guitar covers during the late 80's and making appearances on episodes of Full House, Golden Girls, and even Married with Children. They were "discovered" by songwriter Allee Willis who has co-written I'll Be There For You (i.e. the Theme from Friends) and September with Earth, Wind & Fire. As it turns out, Willis also co-wrote this very song with the Pet Shop Boys, which probably explains this odd duck of a cover.

Sky High - Can You Forgive Her? [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
Sky High is a Swedish blues band that has been around for over 30 years. This fantastic brassy rock cover came from their 2003 double CD release On the Cover: 25 Years of Madness, which features a few other covers too.

Dubstar - Jealousy [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is from the 1998 covers compilation Essential Interpretations, which is surprisingly more essential than you'd expect with its generic title and oddball album cover of an ostrich. At the show, two dancers performed an interpretive dance of a tumultuous, violent relationship. During the big orchestral finale, they started tearing down bits of the set and throwing cubes at each other. Fun stuff.

Hungry Lucy - Jealousy [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is a beautiful cover from the Pet Shop Boys tribute album Very Introspective Actually, which actually features some other pretty decent covers from the likes of Momus and David J (of Bauhaus).

Motormark - Left to My Own Devices [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
My other favourite cover from that same Very Introspective Actually album, this is probably the most drastically reinvented Pet Shop Boys song going from a lushly orchestrated disco number to some sort of electro art punk thing. I love it.

Pet Shop Boys - Girls & Boys (Live in Rio) [originally by Blur]
The Pet Shop Boys were given Girls & Boys to remix and they later started covering it in concert on their 1994 tour.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Yarrrr, billions of blue blisterin' barnacles, it be Talk Like a Pirate Day! Aye, we be celebratin' here at Fong Shanties with some cover song booty. Plunder away!

The Pointer Sisters - Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me) [originally from Pirates of the Caribbean]
Before 2003, the idea of a movie based on a theme park ride seemed absurd. Arrrr, a couple billion doubloons in booty later, nobody be laughin' now. Except, of course, them Disney buccaneers... all the way to th' bank, yarrr! T'is be from the 1996 out o' print CD Disney's Music from the Park.

Captain Bogg & Salty - Part of Your World [originally from Disney's The Little Mermaid]
Aye, 'tis another Disney cover and Captain Bogg & Salty do a fine piratey rendition.

Captain Tractor - Drunken Sailor [Traditional]
Captain Tractor - The Last Saskatchewan Pirate [originally by The Arrogant Worms]
We be in fer a solid floggin' by the grog-swillin' CRTC if we don't be servin' up some more CanCon here, so here be both a traditional and a modern shanty from Edmonton balladeers Captain Tractor. Sailin' through the rough green waters of the North Saskatchewan river, Captain Tractor be renowned across the land for pillagin' them Arrogant Worms of their most popular shanty and havin' a bigger radio hit with it.

PRESS PLAY ON TAPE - Theme from Monkey Island [originally by Michael Land]
'Tis a jolly rockin' cover of the main theme from the uncle of all pirate video games, The Secret of Monkey Island as performed by PRESS PLAY ON TAPE, a Commodore 64 revival band from o'erseas in the land of the Danes. In celebration of today's festivities, the hearty folks at TellTale Games, who have done a superb job reviving Guybrush Threepwood & Co. from a long murky slumber, be giving away the first episode of The Tales of Monkey Island! Aye, put away those gold doubloons and sail on o'er to for yer free game-- TODAY only! Speaking of which, the recently revamped special edition of The Secret of Monkey Island is also 50% off this weekend... only $4.99 o'er at Steam.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Apologies

Depending on your gaming preferences, this weekend you may be either butchering the Beatles or making Kurt Cobain your karaoke puppet. You may have recently read about Courtney Love's wacko ravings on Twitter or Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic's "dismay and disappointment" over the use of Kurt Cobain's likeness in Guitar Hero 5. Players can "unlock" Cobain and have him sing Duran Duran or Bon Jovi, for example. Having properly secured the "necessary licenses", Activision has nothing to apologize for except perhaps terribly bad taste. Funnily enough, getting the usage of Cobain's image was a lengthy process dating back to Guitar Hero World Tour... not only did Love have to sign off on it, she was providing photo and video references for the game designers. Apparently less controversial: Johnny Cash rapping.

Well, Courtney Love may be stupid for letting it happen, but Activision is also stupid for wanting it to happen. Food for thought as you digest these reinterpretations:

DJ MikeA - Celebrity in Vain [Hole vs. The Clash]
"You want a part of me. Well, I'm not selling cheap." Gee, it's like rain on your wedding day, eh? More mash-ups on DJ MikeA's myspace.

Gringo Floyd - In Bloom [originally by Nirvana]
For your next Nirvana-themed cocktail soirée.

Preteen Pornstar - Breed [originally by Nirvana]
Despite the off-putting band name, this is one of my favourite Nirvana covers. Feels like you're visiting some sort of experimental sonic art installation.

Orba Squara - All Apologies [originally by Nirvana]
All this preamble just to present this awesome cover that popped up in my mailbox this week. Orba Squara is the alter-ego of New York artist Mitch Davis whose song Perfect Timing (This Morning) was (speaking of licensing) used in Apple's iPhone TV advertising campaign. If you dig his sound, listen to live audio from NYC's The Living Room or check out the Orba Squara website, which features an incredible 430-foot long side-scrolling travelogue/art project, the result of a 10-day bus run from New York to Portland with music from his follow-up album The Trouble With Flying (due October 27) providing the soundtrack. While Davis wrote and performed nearly the entire album on his own, a fortuitous meeting led to childhood hero Billy Squier contributing vocals and guitar to two songs including the title track. Orba Squara also has a cover of Lady Gaga's Poker Face on the iTunes (but not in Canada, I guess).

Saturday, September 05, 2009

In a Post-HD World

Normally when I wear my Harvey Danger shirt around, I'm mistaken for a staunch supporter of High Definition or, sometimes, hard drives. But for one glorious weekend, I could be readily identified by strangers as a fan of Harvey Danger. And perhaps it would be the only time in history I would run into somebody wearing that same shirt and we'd exchange silent nods of approval. In the Emerald City, this was literally the end of the yellow brick road for Harvey Danger, 17 years after forming at the University of Washington. I've mentioned before how the band has a relatively small but extremely passionate following and that was demonstrated in spades last weekend. At least a few superfans had attended multiple shows in different cities on this final tour, which went through Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles before swinging back to their hometown Seattle for three final shows: an all-ages show Friday, an early show Saturday, and the Last Ever. I met a mom who had flown in for the Friday show from Orlando with her 18-year old son for his graduation present (awesome!). Others had flown from as far as North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, the UK, and elsewhere to be at their last ever show. Me, I hopped on a train down from Vancouver to take in the festivities.

Sleepy Kitty, a two-piece band from Chicago/St.Louis, restored my faith in opening bands, which lately I've been entirely ready to do away with. Sleepy Kitty consists of original Harvey Danger drummer Evan Sult (on drums, naturally) and Paige Brubeck on guitar, keyboards, and harmonized vocals (looping pedals!). Ever since I've been addicted to their song Gimme a Chantz! from their $3 EP What I Learned This Summer. Check it out on their myspace site. They opened for two of the three shows and I enjoyed them so much I could've gone for a full blown gig. It was only their third (or fourth?) show ever, so hopefully we'll be hearing more from them soon. The early show on Saturday featured Can You Imagine? as the opener, a bubblegum pop/50's rock & roll band that includes one-time Harvey Danger producer Steve Fisk on keyboads and cartoonist Peter Bagge on guitar/vocals. Afterward, I was mentally forming a blog post about other comic book people who've released music... off the top of my head I could only come up with Robert Crumb and James Kochalka, so that might require some more diligent research.

For the uninitiated, I won't bore you too much with the details (there's another forum for that), but needless to say it's a little magical being in a room filled with people who know every single Harvey Danger song inside and out. At one point, Sean Nelson just stopped singing and let the crowd takeover for the first couple verses, which he really could have done for every song. Over the course of two days, Harvey Danger played well over 7 hours of music. Someone who wrote down the setlists tallied 77 songs total! The all-ages show at The Vera Project, a non-profit music/arts centre for youths, clocked in at almost 3 hours, which was probably the band's longest ever show... until they topped it the very next night. The format was the same for all the shows: ~1.5 hour set, followed by an "on-stage encore break", then Q&A/request free-for-all. In order to make a request, one had to raise their hand and ask the band an "interesting" question, which ranged from the uninspired ("What is the meaning of [insert HD song]?"), intriguing ("What was your creepiest encounter with a fan?"), painfully cliché (nearly anything pertaining to Flagpole Sitta), and random ("Do you love your father?"). Sean would usually pause before making a decision: "Uninteresting! NEXT!" or "Now that's an interesting question." Occasionally, the worthiness of the question would be decided by a gladiatorial thumbs up or down as determined by the cheers or jeers. If your question was answered, then your request was granted.

  • For the last ever Flagpole Sitta, John Roderick of The Long Winters ran on stage to help sing the BA-BA-BAAA's. After the song ended, Sean said something along the lines of "We're going to take five seconds to appreciate the fact that we never have to play that song ever again", followed by a band toast.
  • They played my all-time favourite HD song Loyalty Bldg. at the final show. Perfection.
  • During the middle of what seemed like a record-breaking fifteen minute (Theme from) Carjack Fever, Sean gave each member of the band an extended introduction for the last time.
  • Someone asked if they ever play Rock Band and if they do, do they play the instruments they play in real life. Sean went to each band member for their replies: "No." "Nope." "No." "No, but I'm buying that Beatles one."
  • BNL's Steven Page was around somewhere but I didn't notice. @stevenpage: "Harvey Danger taking requests. No teleprompters, no binders of lyrics. Pretty impressive. Tho they only made 3 albums."
  • The first two shows both ended with Radio Silence, which is a fitting last note to go out on. When this was played during the requests portion of the final show, we were left in suspense as to what would the last Harvey Danger song played would be. In a risky, but brilliant move, they capped off the night with a new song, the appropriately titled The Show Must Not Go On, which was followed by what may have been the first and last band hugs.
As with all the shows, the band came out after to chat with fans, sign things, take photos, etc. It speaks to their extreme generosity that they stayed until absolutely everyone had been taken care of. Personally, it was just wonderful to have the opportunity to say thanks for all the years of fantastic music.

On the covers front, they played a stunning cover of The Beatles' You Never Give Me Your Money at the Vera show. When asked later by a young fan what was his favourite song ever, Sean said probably that one. At the final show, Bowie's Oh! You Pretty Things was the first request, saving me the trouble of requesting it myself! Another request was their almost never played cover of The English Beat's Save It For Later, here mixed with a snippet of Pearl Jam's Better Man. I overheard them playing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road during the soundcheck but that didn't crop up at the actual show. Their Dead Sea Scrolls rarities CD sold at the shows contains an unheard cover of Hall & Oates' Maneater and a live cover of Randy Newman's Louisiana, 1927.

Here's where I'd usually post some cover songs, but instead here are my two favourite HD originals from each album.

Harvey Danger - Jack the Lion [from Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?]
Harvey Danger - Carlotta Valdez [from Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?]
Harvey Danger - Loyalty Bldg. [from King James Version]
Harvey Danger - The Same as Being in Love [from King James Version]
Harvey Danger - Moral Centralia [from Little By Little...]
Harvey Danger - Cream and Bastards Rise [from Little By Little...]

The latter two albums are both available on iTunes, while their debut album is more or less readily available as a physical disc (check Amazon or your local used CD shop). Of course, as it has been for the past 4 years, Little by Little... can be downloaded for free from the official site. When asked if that release tactic was regarded as a success, Sean said the fact that the room was filled with people singing along to every song from the album proves it was, though in hindsight they'd make the "donate" button more prominent, ha ha.

One last thing I want to tell you about is a stunning collection of live music housed at the University of Washington, one that you can only listen to IN-PERSON if you happen to be visiting Seattle. Between May 2002 and December 2007, audio engineer Jim Anderson recorded every (or pretty damn nearly every) show at the Crocodile Café before it closed down, re-opening in March of this year as The Crocodile. In October 2008, he donated this massive collection of digital recordings to the University of Washington's Ethnomusicology Archives. In total, this amounted to over 2800 HOURS of live music. It is not available online and can only be listened to at one of two terminals at the Libraries Media Center. Here are some of the gigs that caught my attention:
  • Five full Harvey Danger shows and a handful of solo gigs by band members
  • Andrew Bird 2003/06/12
  • The Dresden Dolls 2004/08/22
  • The Living End (!!) 2006/12/16
  • Sam Roberts 2003/10/24
  • Jon Brion 2004/12/18
  • The Ditty Bops 2005/03/10, 2005/06/25

    For White Stripes-related fare:
  • The Greenhornes 2002/11/13
  • Brendan Benson 2005/11/08
  • Blanche 2005/06/25
  • Holly Golightly 2003/09/26, 2004/10/26
  • The Kills 2003/09/26, 2004/12/04, 2005/03/25
And that just barely scratches the surface. In fact, the list is so dense it hurts my eyes reading through it. There are even recordings of Disney Cover nights!! In one recording, Sean Nelson performed some Mary Poppins, Pinocchio, and Winnie the Pooh tunes! I even heard a pretty decent punk rock cover of Oogie Boogie's Song. Disney cover jackpot! Take a look at the extensive list to see if your favourite artists are on there-- tons of indie blog faves I'm leaving off. I'll be back in Seattle in October for a Ben Folds + symphony show at Benaroya Hall, but I think I know where I'll be spending the afternoon...