Pop Playground
Something You’ve (Never) Heard Before



reworks. Versions. Tributes. These types of songs have always existed in America’s musical tradition. Jazz was built on the reinterpretation of tunes from the canon. The practice crosses all genres—from Bob Dylan’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind” to Christina Aguilera’s take on “Lady Marmalade.”

As you might expect, though, not all imitation is flattery, i.e. the uncountable number of Nirvana rip-offs resounding in the bar band circuit. But while these bar bands barely bring in enough beer sales to pay their gasoline bills, items attributed to Cobain auction for mucho moola—an empty hair-color bottle used by Cobain recently reaped $175. On that premise, select record labels, such as CMH and affiliate Vitamin, dedicate a substantial portion of their attention to tribute albums. The musicians behind these revised versions are rarely publicized prominently on such releases (and why should they be?)—depending on their famous counterparts to push records by name recognition alone.

James Curtiss, a CMH project coordinator/developer, says his label targets enthusiasts of original composition as opposed to classical music fans searching for a little bite with their Beethoven. “We try to satiate fans’ desire for more music,” says Curtiss. These are bands that have sizeable followings, but more so they have rabidly passionate fans.” Those salivating devotees don’t want straight-ahead, pub-style covers when they can hear a well-liked version on the initial album. Instead, CMH and affiliates get creative with their titles. Between CMH and Vitamin, the two labels have released everything from Something You’ve Never Heard Before: A Bluegrass Tribute to Modest Mouse to a String Quartet Tribute to the Deftones.

Vitamin even beat out Axl Rose’s supposedly forthcoming LP Chinese Democracy when it released its G n’ R tribute in 2004. (If faceless tribute artists take your music more seriously than you do, maybe it’s time to step away from the business.) Big names like Axl Rose mean big sales, which allow tribute labels to fund other projects. In addition to cover albums, CMH also supports original material by way of a metal subsidiary, Dwell, and a punk affiliate, CrossCheck. It also launched the “Rockabye” series through Baby Rock, transforming popular music into nursery rhymes.

CMH’s first priority, however, is locating musicians properly versed in the art of imitation; otherwise a serious project mined from established material could turn into an unintentional spoof. Tony Robertson, who played on Something You’ve Never Heard Before: A Bluegrass Tribute to Modest Mouse with his band Iron Horse, says busting guts is the last thing his group goes for. “Some of the stuff that had been done pervious to Iron Horse had been tongue-in-cheek,” said Robertson. But, on this, “we went at it as a sure and true album.”


To hone a decent homage, the arrangers and musicians must abolish their inherent instinct to personalize and instead incorporate the original artist’s intention. That’s trickier than it sounds. Many of the records on CMH or Vitamin pair presumably incongruous musical genres, such as bluegrass and modern rock. “These tributes are really extensions of the band or they don’t work,” says Noah Agruss, arranger of the String Quartet Tribute to the Deftones. “I don’t want to impose my style or my ego into this.”

Agruss finds satisfaction by manipulating the strings to fit the energy and vibe of the initial material. For the Deftones tribute he concentrated on the low-end rhythms that drive the music and the floating melodies that complement the base. Short bow strokes from the cello in songs such as “Engine No. 9” and the eerie fiddle-esque, scratchy tone from the higher strings in “7 Words” capture the urgency and menace of the model.

These screeches, along with other idiosyncratic additions, such as players tapping on their instruments with hands or bows, allow Agruss to capture the Deftones sensibility with classical acoustic instruments. “The thing that is important to me when I start arranging these tributes is to do more than transcribing the parts … If you go for a straight transcription it really won’t translate,” says Agruss. “Guitar and violin are two different animals.”

Likewise, Robertson says he relearned the mandolin to cover Modest Mouse songs in a bluegrass vein. Iron Horse’s arrangements for the MM tribute accomplish a balance between down-tuned and down-home. The zest of Isaac Brok’s overstated voice transfers well into Robertson’s low-key country twang. The tunes maintain the same pace, chord structure, and melodic arc, although Iron Horse adorns the music with a healthy set of rolls, which gives it that traditional bluegrass sound.

“It’s good to keep in mind we’re not trying to be the artist,” says Robertson. “We’re trying to give the customer a look at that music in a totally different light.”

Although Robertson’s version of “Float On” will never top the Billboard charts or render his name recognizable to the masses, his work will entertain Modest Mouse fans searching for a twist on something they already love. That’s the point over at CMH. “We just try and do something that we think is interesting,” explains Curtiss. “At the end of the day we want to put out something we can listen to ourselves.”


By: Julie Pinsonneault
Published on: 2007-03-06
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