When It Comes to Some Tribute Records, Mature Imitation May Be Most Flattering

May 4, 2010

in Musical Musings

As T. S. Eliot once famously remarked, regarding the nature of talent and artistic development, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And although Eliot was lashing out against critics who accused his allusive poem The Waste Land of mere plagiarism, he was also providing a valuable template for any would-be artist, whether bard or bass player. In other words, borrowing from your predecessors is fine, just don’t act like a copy-cat.

It’s definitely a ruler I’ve used to quantify my work habits. But it wasn’t until recently that I took a closer look at the rest of the quote and realized its currency for music reviews: “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, something different.”

Another case of "Adult Education"?

That is certainly the case with the The Dark Side of Hall and Oates, a new tribute album by an artist collective known as Koot Hoomi. There is little imitation here, and certainly no defacing, either (not intentional, I don’t think). What there is is good poets taking someone else’s work and making into something much better and different. Definitely different.

First, a bit of a disclaimer: The immensely popular duo Daryl Hall & John Oates represents just about everything I hated about pop music in the late 1970s and early ’80s — from their wacky hairdos and goofy posturing to their watered-down soul and gooey overproduction. I avoided their songs whenever they came on the radio, which was often back in the day. And I regarded their fame as a watermark — if you liked them, there was a good chance I might not like you.

So when I recently found out there were not one but two new H&O tribute records hitting the market, recorded by two different groups of hip kids, my first reaction was, “What for?” quickly followed by, “What the?!” I mean, do we really need more versions of these tired old tunes? If I want to hear “Maneater,” complete with its cringe-making sax solo, I’ll go to my dentist’s office. Worse — and this thought concerned me the most — could it mean that H&O had somehow become cool, especially among young alt- and indie-rockers, and were receiving a revival?

The truth is I was right, at least in one regard, and completely off-base in just about every other way.

In addition to the aforementioned Dark Side release, the other H&O tribute record to hit the shelves this spring was Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1 (A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates), by The Bird and the Bee. For their contribution, the LA-based synthpop pair gathered up the most popular and revered H&O songs, dusted them off, and updated them a bit according to their New Wave-like dance-club whims. They’re faithful covers and don’t stray too far from the outline of the originals. Their interpretation of the urgent yet bouncy “Private Eyes,” for instance, sounds a little breathier and more uptempo (you can sample their version here). But it’s essentially the same song, with a more contemporary coating. I imagine the result will be endorsed by fans of both bands, it just isn’t surprising or satisfying.

On the other hand, the group known as Koot Hoomi — which I assume takes its name from Kuthumi, one of the “Masters of the Ancient Wisdom,” whose job is (appropriately) to bring back knowledge that has been lost to mankind, according to the Theosophists — has created an album of cover songs like none I’ve encountered in quite a while. Koot Hoomi doesn’t merely repeat history, reviving the biggest hits from the Hall & Oates catalog note for note. Instead, they tackle lesser-known and relatively obscure cuts, too, reinterpreting (and, in some cases, completely reinventing) them all.

The genius (and maturity) here lies not in the choice of songs but in the way the musicians have chosen to play them. According to the band’s Web site, the album was recorded “in living rooms and basements, using cheap instruments” and analog tape devices, which creates a somewhat homemade, “lo-fi” atmosphere. And that was appealing to me right away, given the heavy-handed production quality of the originals. (I know that was “an ’80s thing,” and not necessarily H&O’s intention, but it’s always been a big turnoff for me.)

Moreover, there appears to be a 1:1 relationship between song recognition and interpretation. In other words, Koot Hoomi give the lesser-known tracks like “Say It Isn’t So,” “I’m Sorry,” and “Had I Known You Better Then,” a stripped-down, straightforward treatment that captures the essence of the originals but creates something that’s novel and strong enough to stand on its own.

Listen to “Had I Known You Better Then” (mp3):

What was surprising to me is that, by going back to the basics and clearing away the layers of phony studio effects, the musicians are able to reveal an artistry in the songwriting — that’s right, I said “artistry” — that I missed in the originals. Which makes sense, I guess: it’s why I liked “MTV Unplugged” so much.

However, it’s the more popular tunes that bring out “the dark side” of Koot Hoomi. Each of the band members takes a turn taking apart the three chart-toppers that are included, sometimes with a scalpel and other times with a hammer. This eye-opening approach — doing the unexpected to the thing with the most expectations — now seems the most appropriate for a tribute record. It’s what Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim was aiming for with her fur-lined teacup: sometimes, to recognize the value in a familiar object, you have to look at it in a new (even absurd) way.

For instance, “Maneater” is sung by a woman, group member Harper Piver, which turns the whole “dating-advice” conceit on its head. Meanwhile, “Kiss on My List” gets a “suite” transformation, going from a traditional four-minute pop song to an epic three-parter, complete with Apocalypse Now-like helicopters, psychedelic guitar flourishes, and a host of found sounds, including an electric drill (!).

Listen to “Kiss on My List” (mp3):

This is not parody, mind you, but there are definitely some moments when the tongue is planted firmly in the cheek — as in “I Can’t Go For That (Suite),” with its humorous rap outro, an outlandish rant about pop culture that name-checks everyone from L. Ron Hubbard to Celine Dion. It’s not for the fainthearted true believer.

No, and that’s the point here. If what you seek is a reworked yet fairly loyal rendition of your favorite Hall and Oates classics, then go get The Bird and the Bee’s new collection. I’m sure you will not be disappointed. But if you want to try something a little bit different, something that challenges your opinions and yet is still gratifying, then come over to The Dark Side of Hall and Oates.

It may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — at least that’s my mother used to say when my little sisters were “copying” me in the backseat of our Ford station-wagon. But, as I learned by listening to and comparing these two new tribute records, imitation may be most meaningful if it causes you to reconsider the original source and, possibly, see things you hadn’t seen before.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you heard either of these tribute records before? What are your favorite songs by Hall and Oates? Do you think cover songs, good or bad, have any value? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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