Mike Atkinson

Stylus Singles Jukebox: The B-Side Special

Posted in singles reviews, Stylus by Mike A on November 18, 2005

Will Young – Hey Ya 

I like Will, so I’m going to try and be nice. All credit to him for realising that, buried within the first half of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” there’s an altogether more melancholy song – not so much ripe for covering, as for uncovering – and there will be no minus points for attempting to uncover it via the medium of Supper Club Jazz, either. (This might get me lynched, but I liked Jamie Cullum’s versions of “Frontin’” and “High & Dry”. There, I’ve said it.) However, Young’s major interpretive mistake is to lose sight of the song’s essential concision, opting instead to ornament his delivery with a series of aimless trills and cadenzas which strive for soulfulness, but instead betray his unfortunate Jamiroquai-fanboy roots. Most annoying of all is the endless vamping around the phrase “nothing is forever”– pulled from its context, slapped around a bit, and then subjected to a slow, lingering Death By Faux Gospel. (4)

McFly – Mr. Brightside 

What interests me most about this whole collection of largely bashed-out-in-spare-studio-time, play-them-twice-and-forget-about-them oddities is trying to fathom out the varying intentions which lie behind them. In McFly’s case, I can only assume that this is part of a strategy of making the little kids feel like they’re not listening to a little kids’ band – ‘cos, you know, The Killers are like Dead Cool and all that, right? (You’ll have to construct your own translation into the current vernacular; I fear the task is quite beyond me.) But as a cred-booster, it’s such a strange choice – way too current, forcing all the obvious detrimental comparisons from NME-reading older siblings, and suggesting such a fore-shortened grasp of musical history. And they just don’t do anything with it, beyond an efficient carbon-copy workmanship which brings to mind those awful Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits albums that you could pick up for 99p in petrol stations in the early 1970s. (4)

Busted – Teenage Kicks 

Excuse me while I calm myself down for a moment. This shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t matter in the slightest. I mean, poor old Peel’s not around to suffer the slings and arrows of Tory Boy Busted’s out-fucking-rageous fortune, now is he? And the rest of us can cope with the DESECRATION (eek, I said it), can’t we? Besides, it’s not even as if Busted themselves can be expected to comprehend the enormity of their crime. They’re young, why should they care, and this is no worse, in generational terms, than Sid Vicious pissing over “My Way” from a great height. Oh, who am I kidding, this is an utter abomination, and if this isn’t sitting RIGHT at the top of the page when our scores are totted up and the full article assembled, then I despair for our future as a nation. (1)

José Gonzalez – Hand On Your Heart

Oh God, it’s him again… that dreary acoustic bloke who sucked all the life out of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” a couple of years ago, now attempting to do the same job on Poor Brave Kylie? The sheer insensitivity of the man! She doesn’t need this right now! The trouble in this case being: if you take Kylie’s tangy seasoning out of the equation, all you’re left with is a drab slab of processed SAW/PWL sausage-meat, without any discernible flavour of its own. Hey, you want slow acoustic versions of pop classics, done by craggy Latin dudes? Then go seek Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers, from the soundtrack of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He’ll see you right. (2)

Lemar – I Believe In A Thing Called Love 

“This week, I’ve decided to do something a little different for the judges, and for the voting audience back home. It’s a tough song, and not the sort of thing I’d normally go for – but this show is all about challenges, and stretching myself as an artist. I’ve been working really hard on it all week, together with my voice coaches, and I only hope that my interpretation does it justice.”

“Lemar, I’ve got to tell you: on that stage tonight, you were a disaster. Hold on, hold on, let me finish, you’ll have your say in a minute. Lemar, you looked nervous, you were trying too hard, and as for starting and ending the song with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”… what were you thinking of? It was a car-crash of a performance, and I think you might well be in serious trouble this week.” (3)

Girls Aloud – Girls On Film

Suffering hair-straighteners, this is enough to make me come over all Rockist in my old age middle youth. How DARE these manufactured Reality TV Pop Moppets, with their weedy, indifferent, processed, pick-and-mix counter at Woolworths so-called voices, DESECRATE the CHERISHED memories of True Vocal Artists such as, er, Simon Le Bon? Anyway, another argument (and one which I fully expect to hear expressed in an adjacent paragraph) would have it that the essential blankness of the girls’ performance is actually a perfect foil for the glossy vapidity of Duran Duran’s original. You choose, listener. Still, it’s nice that they’ve replicated the original guitar chops so precisely, and there are some pleasantly funky percussion flurries to keep you amused along the way. (4)

Goldfrapp – (Let’s Get) Physical 

It would be easy to perceive this as a smirking piss-take of Olivia Newton John’s aerobicised, flagrantly be-headbanded original – but the way I see it, Goldfrapp have taken a song which was already cheerfully aware of its own ludicrousness, and have actually stripped it of kitsch, thus imbuing it with a genuine sense of erotic potency for the first time. (Mind you, our Alison is clearly giving that porta-theremin some serious welly round her unmentionables towards the end, the saucy minx. Still, the theory stands.) (7)

Embrace – How Come 

If I were being flippant, then I’d say that as my indifference to Embrace is matched only by my indifference to D12, then the two elements nicely cancel each other out. But that’s the sort of cheap shot to which I would never stoop. There’s an awful lot of this sort of “genre-busting” cultural cross-pollination going on with these B-sides, isn’t there? R&B singers covering rock, indie bands doing hip-hop… before now, I hadn’t quite realised to what an extent this was happening. All of which rather numbs my response to Embrace’s shot at translating Eminem’s Middle American trailer park angst into their own idiom of dour, drizzle-spattered Northern English angst. It basically works well enough – give or take the odd linguistic dissonance (do Yorkshire homeboys “beef” with each other?), but then I guess that’s part of its charm. (5)

The Streets – Fit But You Know It (The Futureheads Remix) 

Blurring the lines between “remix” and “cover version”, The Futureheads smartly chuck out every last shred of Mike Skinner’s weedy, half-baked after-thought of a backing track, even muscling in with their own vocals come chorus time. The result is a wholesale geographical transposition of the track – from Lewisham kebab house to Mackem chip shop – which somehow works a whole lot better, making me actively long for a complete Alternative Northern Version of the second Streets album. (Oh, and I love the bit at the end which sounds like The Members.) (8)

Ladytron – Oops (Oh My) 

When Tweet sings this song, you sense that she is describing an auto-erotic “scene” that has been played out before, and which has been honed to teasing perfection; there’s something wickedly pre-meditated about all that “accidental” clothes-shedding, as if she’s the star of her own peep show. In Ladytron’s version, there’s no sense of self-control whatsoever; there’s barely any sense that the singer knows what the fuck is going on anymore. This is the sound of someone stumbling back in from the club – alone, totally trashed, all sexed-up and then some – but with no options for satisfactory release left, save for crashing into a sweaty, writhing, gasping, finger-frigging, amyl-nitrate spilling mélange of feverish, glassy-eyed, relentless, remorseless, keep-right-on-to-the-bitter-end self-abasement. Where Tweet invites you to watch, Ladytron dare you to. (7)

Jamelia – Numb 

In this instance, I am in what many might consider the fortunate situation of never having heard Linkin Park’s original. As a result, I find it almost impossible (beyond a certain degree of dark shading in the melody) to imagine this being sung as nu-metal, and quite inconceivable that these lyrics could ever have been sung by a conventional male rock voice. I mean, what self-respecting rock singer is going to admit to being this pussy-whipped by a Chick, eh fellas? Maybe that alone betrays how little I know about Linkin Park. Anyway, Jamelia plays the weary, wounded victim – right at the end of her tether, major Self Esteem Issues – to heart-rending perfection, her ever-intensifying anguish soaring way above the Lite Lounge Unplugged instrumentation behind her, the contrast between the two making her performance all the more effective. (8)

Teenage Fanclub – He’d Be A Diamond 

As good an example as any of the intentions behind one species of B-side cover: to take a strong song by an obscure artist and grant it a wider exposure. Listening to this – a sexual politics “message song” of the old school, with its lilting, gently strummed Byrds/Simon & Garfunkel qualities – my received wisdom concerning the Bevis Frond (leftfield psychedelic outsider, fairly whimsical, strictly cult appeal only) is overturned in an instant. Job done, then. (6)

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Yes Sir, I Can Boogie 

Sophie’s a sharp cookie, and hearing this makes me realise how much I miss having her around. I love the way that she effortlessly recontexualises the whole essence of the song, turning it right around from the dead-eyed, wilfully gormless, no speaka da lingo mista, port-and-lemon swilling Desperate Slapperhood of the original, and transforming it into a sly, knowing, effortlessly commanding, I-call-the-shots-round-here-Mister signal to arms. In this context, the lines “already told you in the first verse, and in the chorus, but I will give you one more chance” take on a gently chiding, finger-wagging, amusedly world-weary quality which I find utterly charming. Nice filtering on the disco strings and all. (9)

Belle & Sebastian – I’m A Cuckoo (The Avalanches remix) 

Full disclosure. That Avalanches album from a few years ago, which gained universal critical acclaim for its groundbreaking use of sampling technology? I always thought it was massively overrated: such a dense, continuous collage of so many disparate elements – competing as much as harmonising – that every listening left me with a kind of mental indigestion. However, with this one remix-slash-complete-remake for Belle & Sebastian, the Avalanches have justified their entire career. I absolutely adore it – especially the ecstatic South Sudanese choir towards the end. And the curious thing about it is this. Whenever I listen to Belle & Sebastian’s original, I never give a thought to the Avalanches version – and yet, whenever I listen to the Avalanches version, I can never imagine it existing in any other form. Thus, despite sharing the exact same vocal line (if nothing else), the two versions co-exist, side by side on the same EP, as fully distinct pieces of work in their own right. Not many remixes manage to do this. (9)

The Delgados – Mr. Blue Sky

It’s impossible to form a serious objection to The Delgados’ good-natured romp through the ELO’s so-called “guilty pleasure” classic. Sure, the chop guitar chords during the verses are no substitute for the heavenly staccato strings of the original, which keep the song bouncing along with such airy precision – but we’re not here to burden ourselves with comparisons. Not that this is a slapdash job, either – a fair degree of care has been expended on the arrangement, considering that this was on a single which got no higher in the UK charts than #72. Fair play, if you ask me. (6)

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