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Monday, February 21, 2011

Rediscover Pixies' Doolittle Tuesday Night, Courtesy of Your Local Music Corps

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 2:02 PM

click to enlarge dolittle_art_big.jpg

There are covers of songs, and then there are reinterpretations of songs. It's the latter that interest the 100-plus local musicians who will perform Pixies' Doolittle at Public Works tomorrow night.

So what's the difference? Well, chances are you've heard bands dive into "You Shook Me All Night Long" or (god forbid) "Free Bird" at the beery end of their encores -- so you know how playing the right notes can produce all the wrong chemistry. Turns out reproducing a song as it was originally designed can be fun -- or awful -- but isn't usually all that interesting either way. 

Reinterpreting a song, now that's risky, involved, difficult -- and entirely the focus of a local group called UnderCover. This group gathers together local artists to cover (in the good sense) classic albums, rerecording them and performing them live. Tomorrow's performance of Pixies' Doolittle is the second such undertaking; the first was on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and its live show included Stephan Jenkins and Liz Phair while featuring a cadre of locals that included Mark Matos, Jazz Mafia's Adam Theis, and Ethiopian-born singer Meklit Hadero. (Full disclosure: I hosted.)

UnderCover Presents Trailer from Michel Hulsey on Vimeo.

With Doolittle, UnderCover upped its ambition: This effort includes more than 100 musicians, guest directed by local Aaron Novik, with each ensemble tackling one song. The Doolittle album (out on the Mission's Porto Franco Records) was also recorded in advance at S.F.'s Faultline Studios, instead of live like the last one. Here's a preview:

As they did with the first project, the musicians take the songs of Doolittle largely in their own direction. Albino! gives "Debaser" an Afro-pop treatment, adding shimmying grooves, strings, and complex horn figures. But the vocals strive to evoke Frank Black's inflection. "Wave of Mutilation," by the musicians of Classical Revolution and local singer Unwoman, is a case study in how string instruments like viola and violin can evoke the sustained, distorted notes of an electric guitar. Then there's Conspiracy of Venus' a capella "Monkey Gone to Heaven," which gets about as far from the original as one could imagine. It's not massively satisfying like the Pixies' version, but the point here is demonstrating the beauty one can extract from songs that originally sounded completely different. And hearing a mass of voices hit the "... and God is seven" climax of the song is stunning.

While a lot of the project emphasizes acoustic, "classical" instruments over rock instrumentation, some of its most thrilling moments match them. "I Bleed," as performed by Doctor Edmund Welles and the Axe-Wielders of Chaos, combines bass clarinet with heavy metal guitar on its soaring path to total chaos. It feels like the song on this album that Doolitte-era Frank Black would have liked best.

Things calm down toward the end of the album, and start to drag around Blue Rabbit's pretty but overlong take on "Hey," which reproduces the dark atmosphere of the original without its tension. At two minutes longer than the Pixies' cut, this is one of several places on the record where the urge to expand and reframe took the original material in places it was never designed -- nor well-suited -- to go.

But the UnderCover project's new album is mostly rewarding, even when it's not ripping into new sonic territory. On "Here Comes Your Man," Joe Bagale de-emphasizes the surfy atmosphere of the original for drum-machine beats and Huey Lewis keyboards, but otherwise keeps the song mostly intact. It's sunny, bouncy pop that, like a lot of the songs here, reminds you of the original's greatness while providing a refreshing new take on it.

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