Summer is not a time of thinking or contemplation. It's too hot to mess with all that, so please, just give us cold beer and dumb fun. And there's nothing musically that fulfills both "dumb" and "fun" quite like cover versions. In fact, my mentioning them just now caused thousands of lighters across the city to pop up.
On Sept. 4, hipsters will have their turn to indulge with the release of a delicious little compilation by NYC label Engine Room Recordings, titled Guilt by Association. A sense of humor runs through the collection; most of the selected songs, if anyone considers them pleasures, would most definitely be guilty (um, Spice Girls, Take That, Fall Out Boy, anyone?). However, the dubious tunes here happen to be reinterpreted (and chosen) by artists that even the haughtiest indie snob would admire.
Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," a song that's come back in a huge way, gets an a cappella makeover by Petra Haden that's as clever as it is hilarious. Devendra Banhart's oblique sensibility turns the majesty of Oasis' not-so-guilty anthem "Don't Look Back in Anger" into a flitting, gossamer folk song. Other highlights include Luna's minimalist languor imposed on Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," Superchunk's headlong dive into Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," and Mike Watt's gravelly, broad-shouldered take on Blue Oyster Cult's "Burnin' for You."
It's been a while since I thought about Erykah Badu. I sorta burnt myself out on her years ago, and she hasn't released a formal album in, well, forever. But her radiant performance Aug. 19 at House of Blues was one big hammer of a reminder that not only is she still around, but she's got the nerve and verve to dominate all her peers. Well, you gotta have real moxie if you even hope to hang with her famously huge hair. But as soon as she opened up those silver pipes of hers, the bouffant became as distant a thought as quantum mechanics because she commanded the stage with a level of élan seldom seen. It's not often that a performance this supremely smooth can also be so poignant.
There's no denying her historical and artistic importance; she was a key figure in the salvation of soul. But beyond genre-rescue, very few artists have perfected every aspect of being a true icon as completely as she has. It flies in the face of any notion of human justice when you tally up her list of virtues. Whether it's voice, image or persona, she represents the pinnacle of it all. Next to this, so-called artists like Beyoncé are nothing but a vulgar joke.
Maybe that's why Badu's occasionally been guilty of egomania. Thankfully, she mostly avoided obvious indulgences of this vice, allowing her larger-than-life personality to awe without the unpleasant aftertaste of towering vanity. However, even with HOB's famously watertight stage timing, she did pull a diva move by appearing onstage 45 minutes after she was scheduled to. But in the end, even that yielded to a rawness of spirit that impelled her to abandon the safety of the stage and physically connect with the crowd with mild crowd-surfing and mic-sharing, effectively freaking the shit out of her bodyguards.
More butter dripped two nights later at the Social with the CD release party for Nonsense Records rapper S.K.I.P. Most artists, logically, go all out for their own release party. Seeing as how he's usually a one-man track act, S.K.I.P. really stepped it up with the backing of a full band (comprising members of the Future Funk Collective) and a show studded with guest appearances by local luminaries. The well-furnished live approach brought the lush production of his impressive debut album to full, vibrant life and culminated in the most moving performance I've seen from him yet.
One of the opening acts was Mobella, whose music is a funk stew peppered with jazz, rock and soul that tends toward the smooth and jammy side a bit too much for my taste. Though they qualify as a fusion band, a term that freezes my blood, they're quite good at what they do and are way above the average.
Sending it home, though, was Nonsense dynamo DJ SPS, whose turntable performances are part surgery, all ballet. Fresh off a second-place victory in the DJ battle at America's largest hip-hop festival, Scribble Jam (his recording partner X:144 took first in the production battle), SPS dropped two high-impact sets, flashing skills that were nothing short of email@example.com