Monitor Down

The music blog that doesn’t want to hear itself

When Acoustic Covers Amount to Masturbation

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Post intro: Another one pulled from CB. Hey, something needs to go here.

The post:

snideAs Einstein once said, the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

In other words, if no one can figure out where your inspiration came from, then whatever masterpieces you’ve created are attributed directly to you, making you a creative genius.

Musically speaking, a band can take full advantage of this axiom, if they’re clever enough to weave together a collage of influences to create a sonic concoction to which no one can point and say “hey, that sounds just like that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song.” If you can do that, then sweet, you’ve created an original piece of work.

Or this axiom can be the sword your unimaginative ass falls on after you plunk your way through some mainstream guitar ballad everybody has already heard, turning down-tuned F7 chords into open Es and ad-libbing from Internet-sourced lyrics before pressing it onto 40,000 silver discs and littering the sidewalks of Hollywood with hopeful, paper-wrapped debris.

When it comes to acoustic covers, it’s a tough call which side you’re going to fall on. It seems to come down to whether your aim is to discover a new aspect to someone else’s song that no one might have noticed yet, striving to capture it with only your burning, tortured soul, a minimal of instrumentation and countless nearly perfect takes. Or…whether your aim is to realize your teenage fantasy about banging out your favorite band’s song on a plastic-backed Ovation, hoping the girl you were crushing on in high school has a radio in her cold, lonely trailer park home and suddenly notices you after all these years, and finally contacts you through your Myspace account. On which you’ve had said song posted in hopeful anticipation for the last eight months.

Thus, there are good acoustic covers and bad ones. The line is thin, it doesn’t take much to cross it, and once you have, you’re either a creative genius or Bright Eyes.


All you need to create a decent acoustic cover is a tiny bit of originality. That’s it. Do something with the guitar other than play goddamn open chords. Don’t turn that F7 into an E — run it up the neck and make it sound Latin. I never like defending Gap poster boy and Brad Pitt replacement John Mayer, but the man nailed Radiohead’s “Kid A” on a guitar by turning a strange, atmospheric and absurdly abstract electronic song into a catchy, clever and still relatively abstract guitar jam.

Rufus Wainwright added some clean, well-mixed guitar gloss to Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” complete with some heartfelt harmonies and a little extra instrumentation. Gary Jules made a quiet, melancholy piano version of a relatively uppity ‘80s pop song with “Mad World,” convincing everyone that it was meant to be depressing.

Or, you can expend more effort in telling your friends about an acoustic cover than you did making it, and end up in this paragraph. I’ve derailed Clem Snide’s version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” before. Say what you will about the suburban soul anthem, Snide’s rickety acoustic version of it sounds like it began as a post-it note on Eef Barzelay’s fridge. “Milk. Bagels. Record Xtina song.” If the wasted 3 a.m. guitar minstrels of the world didn’t nail that one first, they’ll definitely have the confidence for it now. And even though Audrye Sessions’ pull on “Waltz No. 2” is easier on the ears than your average two-molecule singer-songwriter ballad, a sunny, electric-pop indie band still can’t out-Elliott-Smith Elliott Smith any more than a white Catholic school dropout can make “I Put a Spell On You” creepier.

I’m likewise baffled by the blushing approval over Ben Kweller’s acoustic version of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.” As innocent and well-intended as I’m sure he was, I won’t buy anything I can’t make myself — or for that matter, have an eighth-grader make for me. Yeah, fifth chords, yeah, the basic melody. That’s on the original, is there anything else? What makes someone follow through with producing a cover song that adds nothing to the original? Why put a veil over a piece of art just for the sake of doing it?

There’s only one factor that explains this concept. Actually, it explains about 100% of rock music, unless someone wandered down to the studio while sleepwalking and accidentally recorded a thundering hit about bagging their landlady. It’s masturbation. Grinding an axe just to hear yourself grind it, self pleasure with an audience. And just like in real life, everyone is guilty except for the 1% who happen to be Syd Barrett.

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