October 22, 2015

Electronic rather than acoustic for low-key covers of over-the-top songs

After the peak of high-energy music in the 1980s, the hip new thing was to play low-key acoustic covers of songs that originally had electric instruments and layer upon layer of slick studio production effects. During the '90s, MTV put together a popular series of such concerts that exploited the trend, MTV Unplugged, and their sister channel did likewise with VH1 Storytellers.

The reasoning was that the bombast of the original hit required not just a toning down of the intensity of the performance, but a change in the instrumentation -- perhaps because electric guitars suggested electricity, high voltage, etc.? It seemed straightforward at the time, but it's not as though there weren't electronic songs that still created a minimalist atmosphere -- "Cars," "Pop Muzik," and so on.

Those minimal synthpop songs are danceable, though, and the whole point of a low-key performance is to keep your body still and get you to appreciate the music on a (relatively) more cerebral level. But then there were minimal and non-danceable electronic songs like "Song to the Siren" by the Cocteau Twins for This Mortal Coil. That one was a cover, too, showing that there was nothing incompatible between the atmosphere that the Unplugged trend was aiming for, and plugged-in instruments.

I stumbled upon a recent example of a cover of the Backstreet Boys' mega-hit "I Want It That Way". The original is about as catchy as pop music could have been in the doldrums of the late '90s, though it does sound overly-produced. Most people will probably remember this as a techno-pop song, but the main riff is from an acoustic guitar, and there's a piano as well. This shows that it's not incompatible for an over-the-top dance-pop hit to use mostly acoustic instruments.

The cover version is by Charli XCX, an electropop singer whose recent hits you've probably heard without knowing her name. First impression of what they're channeling -- "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins mixed with "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper, as sung by Gwen Stefani.

The only instrumentation is a pair of synthesizers and an electronic drum. It sounds more "unplugged" than the original, despite substituting electronic for acoustic instruments, because they're sparse and atmospheric rather than heavily layered and in-your-face. That is more important to create a low-key version; the synthetic timbre of the instruments doesn't make us feel like we're listening to a bombastic chart-topper. The slowed tempo also helps to change the mood.

In fact, the only exaggerated thing in the cover is the vocal embellishment, admittedly making it somewhat harsh to listen to. I think if she studied Phil Collins' voice better on "In the Air Tonight," it would come off much better. Simpler, cleaner, gradually escalating and receding in intensity. But then she's a Millennial, so I don't know if she can speak in anything other than mumbling, vocal fry, and tantrum-growling.

Although this is hardly the greatest re-interpretation you've ever heard, they recorded it for a cover song project by the Onion AV Club, rather than putting the most thought and effort into it for a track on one of their own albums. It is a pretty clever rendition of such a bubblegummy pop hit, though, and it's refreshing to hear an electronic approach to the minimalist cover song.

We live in another period of over-produced bombastic dance-y poppy mega-hits, and it would be nice to hear understated cover versions that still used electronic instruments, rather than the usual formula of acoustic = low-key.

Bonus: Au Revoir Simone performs an understated electronic cover of "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. The original was not a super-slick studio production effort, but did have a heavier emotional intensity than the cute little cover version. What sound are they going for here? It sounds like Joy Division plays for a children's tea party. Prim post-punk.


  1. The Postmarks do a nice cover of JAMC’s “Nine-Million Rainy Days” that’s more electronic-y than the original but still remains faithfully dark.



    No one has done a good cover of JAMC’s best song, “About You.”

  2. "The original is about as catchy as pop music could have been in the doldrums of the late '90s, though it does sound overly-produced. Most people will probably remember this as a techno-pop song, but the main riff is from an acoustic guitar, and there's a piano as well."

    The vocal melody is easy to remember (as is usually the case with hit pop songs) but I couldn't tell you what's going on with the backing instruments since mixing and production went to hell around 1996. Even though recording technology is light years ahead of what it was in the 80's (let alone the 70's) it doesn't make any difference since they squash the dynamics to hell in order to make it as loud as possible.

    The great thing about 80's music was that, sure, layers of naturally loud keyboards/synths/electric guitars were often used, but they still had more of a pleasing and resonant sound since engineers usually left the dynamics intact.

    Truth be told, if it wasn't for striving era competitiveness we would get much better sounding production. I couldn't tell you how well played or well recorded music has been since the mid 90's thanks to the hatchet jobs that the artists themselves often insist on (why should they care about aesthetics when they want more zeroes in their accounts?). Also, let's not forget that middle aged and elderly artists/producers have such terrible hearing that they may not consciously notice how awful modern music is produced.

    In additional thing to consider is that cocooning people are so hard to stimulate that we see desperate attempts to get their attention. Like killing dynamics. The first heavily compressed popular albums came out in 1992 (like Alice n Chains' Dirt). That was the first year that really felt like the 90's, when people were obviously getting harder to reach.

  3. With regard to vocal styles, vocalists of all generations got noticeably more grating and flat in the 90's and we've never recovered. Granted, Millennials might be the worst offenders but cripes, the Sheryl Crowes of the world were insufferable when later Millennials barely existed.

  4. Grunge was needed after the 80s. You can look at popular music in cuclical terms, when styles swing between studio-polished vs raw sounding, formulaic vs meandering, feminine/dancey vs masculine/angry, comfortable vs experimental, keyboard driven vs guitar driven, and so on.

    As the 80s wound down and early 90s began, the upbeat pop as well as the heavily stylized hard rock, despite peak moments like November Rain, seemed to beg for a new direction, almost like punk rebelled against disco. Hence the freshness and appeal of Grunge.

    In my opinion alone, as much as I like the 80s music (my teenage years), and especially hard rock and power ballads circa 90-92, one of rock's peak moments is Pearl Jam's "Black." The 1992 Pink pop performance on YouTube is a great version.

  5. Something 80s music was uniquely good at was creating an atmosphere of almost transcendent longing. A few examples:

    Life in a Northern Town
    Lawyers in Love
    Holding Back the Years
    Love Theme to St Elmos Fire
    This Could be the Night (by Loverboy)

  6. Grunge (in quality and popularity) peaked in '91-'94, which is basically the last period in which Western artists had anything to say. The second half of the 90's is mostly bad. I once looked through the mid 90's bill board charts and Youtubed songs I didn't remember off-hand. It was around April of '96 that the top 15 or so songs were unlistenable, being mostly austere/cold to a fault. I guess the faux sophisticates were relishing the lack of music to party to (or even smoke a joint to), seeing as how slow to rile and utterly devoid of passion or excitement it was.

    The nineties are difficult to summarize or stereotype, probably because they were a somewhat slow transition from the earnest and urgent 80's to the current period of snarky cocooning. Still, most 90's pop culture (ESPECIALLY the movies) is overhyped and joyless. The crown jewels of early alt rock aren't so bad, but Jeeessuuus, have you ever gone back and watched some of the hit movies from '93--'99, like Batman Forever or Independence Day? Turgid and embarrasing idiocy with no depth or emotional resonance. Homos started getting a lot more work as directors and lead actors in the 90's, too. No wonder things went downhill.

    Editing got way faster, and sound levels went way up, in music and in movies. As the ideas dried up, desperate gimmicks were used.

    The We Hate Movies podcast covers a lot of 90's movies, and they love to call these movies out for lapses in taste and basic logic. One thing that usually sticks out is characters being mopey, self-absorbed, and smug.

    Maybe I'm being a dick here, but I'm never sitting thru True Lies all the way through. Terminator 2 was already pushing it, in terms of de-fanging Arnie, but True Lies was the last nail in the coffin. I've got a book about 90's horror movies (almost a contradiction in terms, the 90's being the decade that killed off the exciting moodiness of 80's style) that talks about how 90's movies frequently blew their potential by being either too bland or too goofy. Too much, or not enough. Characters stopped acting like normal, sympathetic people. Would you really want to hang out with Tarantino or his obnoxious characters?

    The eighties have been ridiculed (or ironically praised) for supposedly being the height of garish flamboyance. So why do people seem to always go back that decade's culture? Maybe because it was actually the height of people being open, sincere, and up for anything. People sometimes mock these attitudes, but really, I sense that many of them actually envy a period where it was ok for people to just be themselves and express their feelings. Whereas now, you have to cut through a fog of posturing and self-conscious output of thoughts and feelings to have any idea what's up with another person. Especially people born after about 1988, who have no experience at all with an outgoing period.

  7. "Something 80s music was uniquely good at was creating an atmosphere of almost transcendent longing"

    Yeah, you get the impression that these artists had strong but sympathetic feelings and they knew how to express them in an interesting way. On an 80's comp. I have (the liner notes were written circa '94 and snark is already leaving a nasty stench) it acknowledges, that, well, it turns out 80's artists could express angst too! Imagine that, maybe people didn't discover their souls and brains in the 90's after all.

    The cocooner propaganda really gets old. Post early 90's music rarely achieves much beyond sounding petulant, dull, joyless, or just tired.

  8. Transcendent longing I associate most with "Higher Love," and going to the 1986 Billboard Year-End charts shows that the air was saturated with that feeling.

    Some of these have more transcendent lyrics than others, but the delivery at least sounds transcendent. Look at how many there were in just that year alone:

    "No One Is to Blame" Howard Jones

    "Higher Love" Steve Winwood

    "Kyrie" Mr. Mister

    "Take My Breath Away" Berlin

    "Amanda" Boston

    "If You Leave" OMD

    "Invisible Touch" Genesis

    "The Sweetest Taboo" Sade

    "Talk to Me" Stevie Nicks

    "Take Me Home Tonight" Eddie Money

    "Your Love" Outfield

    "Life in a Northern Town" Dream Academy


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