Cultural Consumption: 2/7/24

On covers that do or do not need to exist, curbed enthusiasm, and exposure of a northern variety

Cultural Consumption: 2/7/24
Brass Zeppelin

During my years as a "recording artist," one of my favorite ways to liven things up during studio downtime — and if you've ever done anything in a recording studio, you know there's a lot of downtime — was to horse around with covers of favorite songs. (Another favorite way was to play a hearty round of Hair Metal Alphabet, in which you have to come up with an act whose name begins with the letter you've landed on, but that's a story for a different day.)

Relatively early in this period, my co-writer/producer/band partner made the argument that if you aren't going to do anything new with the song you're covering, you might as well just stay quiet. It was a point of view that surprised me a little in the moment, just because I'd never really thought about it in those terms, but I think he was right. Covers can be a lot of fun for the performer — I knew it was time for me to retire from noise pollution when I realized I'd grown so bored with my own material that I was marking time between covers during my live sets — but if you're just giving the listener a carbon copy of something they've heard before, then what's the point?

I thought about this relatively recently, specifically when Paramore's cover of "Burning Down the House" dropped:

I'm not knocking Paramore, who seem pretty fine at what they do, at least in my rather limited experience with their catalog. And I'm not a rabid Talking Heads apologist, although I appreciate their best stuff as much as anyone. But c'mon — on a musical level, this shares enough DNA with the original that the two versions could get married in West Virginia. It's essentially Hayley Williams doing karaoke. Aside from the limited novelty value, what is this doing for anyone? I mean, hey, if a Paramore fan hears this and is moved to investigate the Heads' catalog, then that's a net positive. But still. Why not do something creative with the song?

These are all thoughts that tumbled around in my brain while I was listening to Bonerama Plays Zeppelin, which is exactly what you would expect after seeing that title: An album-length set of Zeppelin covers performed by the band Bonerama. If you've never heard of Bonerama, well, friend, you aren't alone — prior to a couple of weekends ago, when I fell into a deep and entertaining musical conversation with the driver ferrying me on a two-hour ride from my house to Logan, I had no idea who they were either. But he treated me to a cut from this record, and I was intrigued.

The short version of the band's background is that they're based out of New Orleans, they were founded by a couple of trombonists, and they've been doing their thing since the late '90s — which is more than enough time to get your shit good and tight to the point that it makes at least a little bit of sense to take a run at recording brassy covers of some of the most well-known songs in rock 'n' roll history. And based on the evidence presented here, the members of Bonerama are indeed one tight crew — this record doesn't just sit in the pocket, it luxuriates in it. It is, to continue overusing a phrase I seem to keep falling back on in 2024, some truly funky shit. Just listen to their version of "In My Time of Dying," which I've probably played a dozen times today.

See, this is how you cover something: Work within the established template, but make it your own. (Note to the "sad acoustic covers of uptempo songs" crowd: You can try having some fun with the music too.) I could probably write about New Orleans bands in half of these Cultural Consumption posts, which I don't want to do because I'm not an authority on this stuff and I don't want to create the impression that it's all I listen to, but I had to make room for Bonerama today. My one objection to this record is that there are too many vocals, and too many of those vocals sound too much like Robert Plant or someone trying to give the listener a reasonable facsimile thereof; that limited quibble aside, this is a very entertaining view of selections from a classic catalog, presented from a new angle.

Watching: Curb Your Enthusiasm S12 E1, in which Larry is hired by a billionaire to attend a party in Atlanta. A whoooole bunch of other shit goes on, up to and including Larry being arrested for handing a bottle of water to someone waiting in line to vote, but that's the basic gist, and it's classic Curb. There are people who think the Larry David depicted in this show is an out-and-out asshole — including my wife, who has a visceral anti-Larry reaction anytime I even talk about the show — and there are people who think that while fictional Larry David might be kind of abrasive, he's also perpetually misunderstood. I am solidly in the latter camp; I welcome Curb's return, and preemptively mourn its (allegedly) final farewell. Reviews for Season 12 basically boil down to "pretty (pretty) good, but not as sharp as the show's best," and based on this episode, I basically agree. The show's been around long enough at this point that you can feel the arc of any given episode mere minutes after it begins, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing when the end results are as comfortingly entertaining as this.

I also started Northern Exposure S1 E1, which is streaming (along with the rest of the show's run) via Prime Video. Yes, I'm one of the people who's giving Jeff Bezos an extra $3 a month to avoid commercials; no, I don't feel great about it. But I hate commercials more than I hate giving a piece of shit megacorporation a little more of my money, so here we are.

ANYWAY, much like Moonlighting, rewatching Northern Exposure has filled me with a swell of nostalgia I'm not sure I knew I had. I certainly loved this series while it was on, although I came to it after it was already a hit — I'm not sure I'd ever seen the pilot before today — and, like most of the audience, checked out around the time Rob Morrow gave in to the foolish notion that he was a movie star in waiting. Still, I clearly watched enough to have a deep sense memory of fictional Cicely, Alaska, and it was nothing but pleasurable to get reacquainted with the quirky cast of characters that populate the town. If you've got Prime and you either watched Northern Exposure while it was on or you're in the mood for a sweet little dramedy about a big-city doctor who's an unwilling fish out of water in a tiny Alaskan town, I could not recommend it more highly.

Reading: Deep into A Drive into the Gap by William Guilfoile, specifically the part of the book that details the mystery of which bat Roberto Clemente was using when he notched the 3,000th — and final — hit of his remarkable career.