Covered: “Modern Romance”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Recently we’ve linked to a multiple articles that discuss New York’s place in recent music history, including one that took a look back at the “rock revival” spearheaded by NYC groups at the turn of the century.  While many of the bands that initially tasted a bit of success (or at least caught a couple of weeks of intense buzz) have long since faded in our memories, there are bands that have endured to become respected elder statesmen and albums that have since become modern classics.  One such record is the debut album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell.

The album is known for capturing the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s incendiary garage-punk of which only a select few had seen glances with their early EPs and their fiery live performances.  Fever to Tell is filled with all sorts of beautiful noise and anarchic glee, with singer Karen O expertly toeing the line between playfulness and pure sleaze, shattering normal stereotypes about gender and their resultant expectations with lines like “Boy, you just a stupid bitch and girl, you just a no-good dick.”  The band deservedly broke through into the mainstream with the gorgeous ballad “Maps”, which bucked the traditional YYY formula and showed another side to the band, namely one of vulnerability.  But album closer “Modern Romance” takes this shift a step further–after the brash shot of defiance that was “Y Control”, the band retreats with a declaration of existential ennui.  The weary resignation of the song captures the hangover after the raging party that was the rest of the party, and while it is difficult to accept, its placement at the end of the album indicates at least the band recognizes its existence.  The song is built on a monotonous yet hypnotic simple guitar riff (and an expertly deployed sleigh bell), as Karen O laments over the top with the fact that, try as we might, “there is no modern romance.”  On its surface, it may appear depressing, but somehow the band is able in its performance to convey a sort of rebelliousness, that while things as they exist may be awful, there is still the chance at change.

TV on the Radio, whom we praised effusively for their brilliant new album Seeds, recorded a cover of “Modern Romance” from their fellow compatriots in the New York rock-revival scene for their New Health Rock single soon after the release of Fever to Tell.  It’s a solemn performance, and those unfamiliar with the original would have little reason to believe it was a cover, as it’s dressed up in a lot of the production that is a TV on the Radio trademark (namely the gentle electronic drumbeat, the hazy atmospherics, and the various squiggly beeps, which combined with the soulful vocals help capture a lot of the early TVOTR sound).  However, despite the delicate vocal performance, the band doesn’t really capture any of the pathos of the original, and otherwise is unable to do enough to put a personal stamp on the song to answer the question of why record a cover, either than as a tribute of admiration.  It’s a respectable performance, but because of a lack of a perceptible intimate connection with the material it never really rises above an intriguing novelty; in other words, for TVOTR completists it is worth enough to track down the rare EP, but it’s not enough to stand side-by-side with the original.

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