A Menby Brandon Edmonds / 02.06.2011
There are precedents. A history of inspired female singers taking possession of “male” songs. Let’s see. Aretha Franklin spiritualized the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” back in 1967 and elevated a frustrated lads blue balls anthem into a State of the Nation civil-rights address (to dance to). Sinead O’Connor’s everlasting 1990 version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” turns Prince’s slick original into a sliding scale of break-up emotions, hurt, hope, rage; a young woman’s sorrowing, dazed incredulity as she gets her (shorn) head around unspeakable loss. Wounded by love. Patti Smith inhabits and transforms Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a meticulous, uncanny frontier séance – you feel yourself leaning in closer as her redemptive ashen supple voice passes, like country-rock necromancy, from itself into Cobain’s, and back again.
And there are still greater highs. Chan Marshall, who is Cat Power, has been unpicking popular songs (Oasis’ “Wonderwall” / Ceelo’s “Crazy”) and flooding them with her inside voice, its lush Chet Baker sadness, for decades now. She may well be the millennial Lena Horne. Phil Phillips’ suave, yearning 1959 smash hit “The Sea of Love” becomes a slower, chiming, near-amateur rendering in her hands, a bare confession of devotion, sincere and never twee, the closest we come to post-modern spirituality. It’s so strong it even survived the Juno soundtrack.
There was a South African instance certainly worthy of this company. Only one until now. In 1991 Miriam Makeba, along with her friend and “sister”, Nina Simone, possessor of the first and last voice you ever need to hear, covered Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released”. With Mandela rumoured to be freed, the song’s refrain “Any day now, any day now I shall be released” was especially powerful and the local version mines the song’s elevated choral possibilities. Makeba, intimidated by Dylan’s star-power, decided, “I can try to sing it my way, with my own little accent.”
Which brings us, finally, to The Frown. A fashion-forward Joburg duo melding electronica with trad pop structures, they have a new 5-track EP out called A Men. Lead singer Eve Rakow, like Miriam, certainly has her “own little accent”. She hits consonants like foreigners do in spy movies. It was a cloying, distracting affectation during her tenure with The Frown Family Karavan – a dead entity that conjured a sort of antique fairy-tale folk listenable with several pinches of salt – but this EP reveals a band doing so many different things, well, you can forgive just about anything.
She’s a player, a modernist, a performer who can’t wait to translate the sprawling immediacy of her sensations into art. And yet it’s not all about Eve anymore. This is a real band. The music is faultless, replete. Tasteful atmospherics, immaculate programming, sly borrowing and, at last, the forswearing of self-conscious hipster coterie-servicing in exchange for grace, power, conviction and something we may as well call emotion. This is half-dazed dance music for head-scratchers. Calm, calculated headphone pop so in command of its own reach, references and goals tears happen at the deft beauty of it all. I’m overwhelmed.
“Robyn” has the sweet spry glory of The Postal Service’s seminal Such Great Heights. Run through Roxy Music’s luxe early Eno sophistication. Again it’s the rightness of the behind the boards choices. The elegant production value, all done in London, apparently. Quality and skill makes everything feel lasting and fresh. There’s a spring-water clarity to the sound. I could live without “Boo Who” (all accent and fable) and “No Breath” (which wishes it was The Knife). “This is How the World Ends (TIHTWE)” showcases Eve’s rapturous range, and she ends up sounding like St.Vincent kicking back with How to Dress Well. Very good things.
But who’re we kidding? This EP will go down in history as the original glimpse of a song that justifies the endless pre-amble above: The Frown’s cover version of N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star”. The Neptunes’ (Pharrel and Chad) standard crunchy template of “nervy danceable rap-rock electro-funk hybridity” – which saw them justly tagged Producer of the Decade by Billboard – is summarily set aside. The Frown opens the cover really stark with isolated piano chords dripping like stalactites. No guitar samples or drum loops. None of the abrasive frat-rage energy bursts of the original here. There’s a limpid calm to the aural palette throughout the EP. An inhibition at once cerebral and hot.
The original song is about updating cultural expectations in light of Web 2.0. Short, skinny, black Pharrell tells us he’s a rock star. But a hunky Kings of Leon Followill brother he ain’t. It’s a shout out to geeks, the marginal, the behind the scenes kids, as work changes into immaterial labour, and commercial culture is increasingly driven by hobbyists, awkward teenage girls and asocial fan boys. Nerd.
Pharrel taunts posers, jocks, the old guard, whoever. “Fuckin’ posers / It’s almost over now.” His faux gangsta posturing is more laughable than lock up your daughters: “You can’t be me / I’m a rock star / I’m rhyming on the top of a cop car”. But the song never becomes anthemic. The times are too confused for that. Victory is too confusing because nothing feels like freedom. Rakow metabolizes that frustration and turns it into a burned out torch song flinching at an online generation desperate for definition: “You think the way you lives okay / you think posing will save the day…you can’t be me.” You can’t be me she sings repeatedly. I’m a rock star.