The Exile Project takes on a gauntlet of Beatles covers

A conversation with a few of the local musicians covering The White Album this Saturday at the High Noon.

In an effort that's either crazy, futile, beautiful, or all of the above, two dozen-plus Madison musicians will gather at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, January 23 to cover The White Album in its entirety. Named The Exile Project, after a show last year covering the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St., this group will play in a variety of collaborative configurations as they run through the double album in sequence. Covering The Beatles—especially in such a specific context—raises a whole bunch of thorny issues and has yielded results ranging from the transcendent to the grotesque. So I asked five of the performers—singer-songwriters Anna Vogelzang and Nick Brown, producer Jordan Cohen of Chants, singer/guitarist Annelies Howell of The German Art Students, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Moore—to let me torment them with a few striking Beatles covers and share their thoughts.

St. Vincent, “Dig A Pony”


Scott: I’m going to start us out with this, since it’s been a staple in St. Vincent’s live set for years now, and I just really admire how Annie Clark relies only on her voice and cutting guitar tone to bring it across. Also there aren’t many decent videos of this out there.

Andy Moore: This is a super cool version. Clark’s aggressive-yet-minimalist guitar treatment eliminates the impulse to try to understand the song’s nonsensical lyrics. The words seem to have only one purpose anyway: to create a thick blanket of sexiness. I don’t like invoking gender in discussions like this. However, Lennon had a machismo that often called attention to itself. Clark dismisses Lennon’s (omnipresent) male-ness and transcends the song’s sexy come-on. John said he wrote the song about Yoko. This version seems to let Yoko speak for herself.

Annelies Howell: I agree with Andy about the purpose of the song. I am carried away by Ms. Clark’s guitar playing. First, the tone is impeccable when the song opens and through the first several verses. When she cuts into that distorted solo, I want to jump up and down. The guitar just sounds so FAT. I’m also a huge fan of her use of the tremelo. I think I’m actually salivating. The guitar juxtaposed with her vocals creates just makes the listener notice hard and soft, loud and quiet even more.

Jordan Cohen: I have to preface this by saying that I never had a “Beatles period.” The only Beatles songs I consciously remember hearing as a teenager were jazz versions. Just think of me as the Encino Man figure here. When they cross my path now, I kinda enjoy hearing them unencumbered by the weight of history or nostalgia. Usually my reaction is "Hey, what do you know, the Beatles are a pretty good band, huh?"

So, “Dig a Pony” is a pretty clever little song, huh? I'm surprised you could say "penetrate" in a song in 19-whatever. Not being familiar with the Beatles version, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the guitar playing here is more interesting than the original, and that the banter is...less so.

Anna Vogelzang: I actually have to echo Jordan in my non-Beatles-ness. I had Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road as a kid, and that was it. I only knew maybe three songs on the White Album list and had no context for the two I picked[“I’m So Tired” and “Bungalow Bill”]—it’s gonna be an educational night. So, I just listened to this and then the original for my own edification. Everything Annie Clark does wins a huge fucking trophy in my book. To me, she’s totally carrying the song with her voice—breathy in tone but softly aggressive in delivery (also, yes, totally sexy). And her playing is jabby, interesting, and aggressively aggressive. I agree that the juxtaposition is totally on point. I also love that second vocal mic. It feels victorious to hear her tone thicken up like that.

Nick Brown: How high do you have to be before these lyrics start to make sense?

Alanis Morissette, “Dear Prudence”


Scott: I really really do not like Alanis Morissette, but when I watched this TV tribute to John Lennon back in 2001, I was surprisingly charmed by her version of my favorite Beatles song. Revisiting it now, I feel like the eBow and synth stuff is a bit much, but otherwise it feels like a faithful update of this song’s slowly mounting joy.

Anna Vogelzang: OK, so I think that covers are weird and hard to judge by their nature and it’s something I think about a lot when I end up doing something like this. Do you, the audience, just want to hear the performer singing a song you love in their own way, or do you want them to change it up completely so it sounds like their song and is no longer linked to the original composer? Or do you want it to be as close to the original as possible? Sometimes I think a great cover can help you to realize how amazing a song is on its own legs without the original performance attached to it (or conversely, how boring a song is without the pomp and circumstance). I think the general public just wants to hear the performer’s voice/tone/sensibility while still paying homage to the original and staying in the pocket. I think she nails it, in that sense: there’s no doubt it’s Alanis’ “brand” (shudder), but you still get that “oh this is such a Beatles song, aww, the Beatles, you guys!” Also, I think I had those velvet flare pants in eighth grade (circa 1999).

Jordan Cohen: I’m bored but I don’t blame Alanis. She seems like a chill lady.

Annelies Howell: I also had the velvet flare pants (in 2001?). I cannot blame being in 8th grade. This cover is surprisingly low-key for Alanis. I was not a faithful fan of her during her peak, but I did appreciate her hits because they were expressive. This cover does not showcase her passion.

Andy Moore: I’m wearing a pair of pants like those right now. The straighter you do a cover, especially a super popularly known one, the higher the stakes. Not that doing your own version of a tune is cowardly. But this was neither-nor for me. And it felt psychedelic-light which gives new meaning to bad acid.

Nick Brown: If I were in Alanis’s band for this show—which, for the record, I was not—I might have ever-so-gently made some light suggestions about the arrangement, perhaps sharing a nice dinner composed of ethically and sustainably sourced seafood and a nice, dry chablis. I’d say, “Alanis, you know I love you, right? But I was just thinking—and, I’m thinking out loud here—I wonder if the slower tempo diminishes some of the jump of Paul’s great bass line in this one. It really drives the song, and at this tempo, it just seems to me that the car is sputtering a bit. Even with just a few more beats per minute, I’m sure you’d still shine like the bright star that you are.” In my experience, she most likely at this point would ask me to please unhand her chablis.

Beatallica, “Got To Get You Trapped Under Ice”


Scott: OK, stretching the definition of a Beatles cover here. This is a Milwaukee band that combines The Beatles’ melodies with Metallica’s instrumentation and a mutant weave of both bands’ lyrics. And because I’m 12 and also like Metallica, I think it’s hilarious. The execution is fantastic, and this is their wittiest mashup in terms of lyrics—”Got To Get You Into My Life” from Revolver and “Trapped Under Ice” from Ride The Lightning.

Jordan Cohen: Metallica were my Beatles, so A++ 10/10. Although this would be better if it was the music from “Trapped Under Ice” with Beatles lyrics, looks like they mess with that in some of their other mash-ups. Real solid Hetfield imitation there—he should probably get called in to ghost for the next Metallica album. By the way, Metallica is better than the Beatles and Harry Potter is better than the Bible.

Annelies Howell: I checked out the link and was disappointed to find there was no video to go with it. I felt compelled to do a little investigating, and ended up with “Fuel On The Hill.”[http://bit.ly/1PbislB] It was everything I hoped for, including a long-haired *left-handed* bass player playing a flat black Hofner copy and four hands playing a black guitar that looks like a Country Gentleman (it might be an Epiphone, but no matter). I have to say, as a fan of both bands, I think Beatallica do an awesome job of paying homage to both by paying attention to details...even if it is a little bit “Weird Al.”

Andy Moore: Weird Al for sure, Annelies. This reminded me of how much I hate bluegrass versions of rock standards. I like Metallica and I like Del McCoury but overlaying a genre wholecloth over a tune doesn’t keep my attention.

Anna Vogelzang: Holy crap. I laughed a lot.

Nick Brown: I feel very comfortable saying this is one of the best Beatles/Metallica mashup cover bands in all of Milwaukee. Hell, all of Wisconsin.

McCoy Tyner, “She’s Leaving Home”


Scott: I haven’t gone all that deep into jazz renditions of Beatles songs, but McCoy Tyner is one of my favorite jazz pianists, so that’s one place to start. “She’s Leaving Home” crushes me harder than any of the Beatles’ other sad songs, but I’m not sure how I feel about Tyner’s interpretation. I feel like a bit of the sadness gets brushed off, and it doesn’t have that harmonic massiveness that I love in Tyner’s playing. Do you guys have any feelings about Beatles tunes in a jazz setting?

Jordan Cohen: Before we had jazz Radiohead, we had jazz Beatles. Buddy Rich doing “Norwegian Wood” could have been the first Beatles song I consciously heard. I’m listening to the Herbie Hancock version of that now and it’s nice. This is nice too. Not really familiar with Tyner’s ’90s trio—seems safe compared to his ’60s/’70s rhythm sections but this is a Beatles ballad, so who knows.

By the way, Brad Mehldau’s version of “Dear Prudence” is way better than Alanis’. Sorry Alanis.

Annelies Howell: This version is wonderful; it changes the whole feel of the song. I’m not well-versed in jazz, so it’s interesting for me to try to write about it. It’s cool how the bass stays on one note on the choruses. That adds to the dynamics of the song and grounds the “She.” The song has a wonderful build throughout.

There’s something here I don’t quite know how to describe—my knowledge of music theory isn’t solid enough. For me as a listener, the jazz chord changes dilute some of the feeling I get in the original. It’s a totally different experience to listen to this version. I’m listening to each voicing.

Andy Moore: This is too Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack for me.

Anna Vogelzang: Diluting the original feeling is exactly how I would describe it—I could happily listen to jazz versions of the Beatles all day, I’m a jazz nerd at heart, but I agree that the breezy tone in this one takes away the solace of the original. Clearly that’s what they were going for, and it builds interestingly, but I’m with you, Scott—the flowing, resonant crushing-ness is one of my favorite parts of “She’s Leaving Home,” and that’s definitely out the window here.

Nick Brown: Whatever gets the pop kids into jazz, I guess.

Sparks, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”


Scott: I love Sparks, and it’s weird to hear these gorgeous freaks of pop decoupled from their lurid, black-humored original songs. Here they turn “I Want To Hold Your Hand” into a billowy mid-tempo R&B track, and Russell Mael’s soaring voice pairs strangely with the innocence of the lyrics. It’s so ridiculously late-70s, and yet I think it works pretty well as a cover.

Jordan Cohen: I’ve never listened to Sparks, so for me, it’s a fun new fact that [Ron Mael] rocks a Hitler moustache. That’s cute. The Al Green version of this song has to be considered the definitive version, right? That’s the one I heard first. This is not as good as that, but it’s cool. I like how expensive it sounds.

Annelies Howell: I’m going to go ahead and date myself. I instantly feel four years old when I hear this version. I get that “Mom, can I stay up and watch Love Boat?” feeling. I also want to put my dad’s Best Of Bread LP on the record player and sing “If” for some reason. Not sure if that’s related to this song specifically.

Andy Moore: Talk about bad acid. I love it. I’ve never heard of Sparks. This sounds futuristic back when futuristic meant 1994.

Anna Vogelzang: Man, that vibrato is so intense. I can’t get past it. It’s literally all I can hear. Wait! I just heard some whisper-background-vocals. That’s awesome. But nope, sorry, back to the vibrato. Holy shit. The whole shebang sounds like such a farcical attempt, even though I’m sure it’s not. Sorry, maybe I’m dating myself now—most records with this treatment make me think about my parents meeting in college and wondering what LPs they made out to.

Nick Brown: This doesn’t really resemble all the Sparks songs that my dear friend Kyle Motor has forced me to listen to during long car rides to gigs in Wausau that pay like garbage. How’s that for context? I love this once and I never want to hear it again. It’s completely ridiculous, like a turducken.

Rascal Flatts, “Revolution”


Scott: I wanted to keep the focus on good or at least compelling Beatles covers for this piece, but can you have a discussion about covers without talking about bad covers? So I had to torment you with this biliously mediocre rendition, no doubt a great comfort to those who would neuter “Revolution” into an anthem of complacency. Also, what the fuck is up with the brief spell of chunka-chunka nu-metal guitar right at the beginning? I’m sorry, and may Rascal Flatts die in a fire.

Jordan Cohen: Couldn’t make it through this. I’m sorry (but also, as they say, not sorry), Scott.

Annelies Howell: I’m sorry (also not sorry) to keep subverting the assignment. I went to this Rascal Flatts live version. I just felt I owed to RF to *see* them perform it. I’m left wondering what kind of revolution RF is advocating. Fashion? I don’t know that it’s going to be all right. Disclaimer: I liked the “shooby-do-wop” backing vocals in spite of myself.

Anna Vogelzang: Ugh. One thousand eye rolls. I wish I could write something meaningful for you but I can’t stop rolling my eyes for long enough to think of anything to write. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Or as my 14-year-old sister would say, “BRUH”.

Nick Brown: Somehow when Rascal Flatts tells me everything is going to be alright, the reaction in my head is “No, it’s not. The world is nothing but a bag of cats, and we’re all going to die like animals.” However, I do think this version could go a long way in helping invigorate Jeb’s campaign, should his team find a way to get the rights.