In some ways, death is the same for us all. It equalizes us as human beings, sending us
to our knees in anguish and despair and despite the constancy of death around
us we are so often bereft of the ability to understand it.
One assumes that it was much the same for Gabriel Greenburg
when, as a young child, his teenage sister died tragically. There must have been years of confusion at
her absence and as he grew up, illustrating some album covers for his friend
Thomas Bartlett and entering graduate school, he continued to hold the small
cup of loss that had entered him the moment that his sister had departed.
Then he discovered one of his sister’s old cassette tapes:
the soundtrack to the 1984 film Footloose. It was like a key that opened his sister’s
world to him. As Greenburg himself
writes: “I couldn’t stop listening: it was a portrait of 80’s love, desire,
pain, freedom, and frenzy; of being a teenager in a time of change.”
Greenburg asked his friend Thomas Bartlett-aka Doveman-to
rerecord the entire album. Perhaps it
was a way to re-envision his sister’s life, to bring it somehow into his own
life, to bring her back to him in some way that was useful or significant.
Barlett did re-record the album-all of it-and it is
something to behold, particularly when one considers the source material. 1984 was a year that the pop charts were
dominated by names like Culture Club, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, and Duran
Duran. Footloose represented the big money studio dreck that had come to
dominate the culture machines of the entire decade. The fertile mid-1980s underground was
burbling somewhere deep under the surface but if one tuned in the radio one
only heard Kenny Loggins’ irritating yelp about, of all things, the need to
dance. The Replacements’ Let It Be, the Minutemen’s Double Nickles on the Dime, and Hüsker
Dü’s Zen Arcade all appeared in 1984
as well, but what role could they play in Reagan’s America except as
reactionary material to exactly the kind of mainstream fodder that Footloose represented. What other position was possible for art?
Having made that point, it must also be acknowledged-nay
admitted!-that despite this writer’s obvious snake hatred of the mainstream
culture he grew up in, it’s undeniable that those songs do have a tidal pull on
his soul. It’s likely this way for many
of us: Good or bad, the mainstream music of our teen years forms the backdrop
to much of our lives regardless of our desire to have it be otherwise. So many high school dances with blaring top
40 music we despised, knowing all the while that our claims that we abstained
from dancing (or from attending at all) because the music was so awful was
merely a feeble excuse for a serious lack of teenage courage.
What Doveman does with this material is something akin to an
reinterpretation via outsider art (even though Bartlett himself is an in-demand
session keyboardist; far from being an outsider to the music scene). His voice is a high, warbly creature just on
the verge of being out of key but never actually dropping, much like Mark
Linous’ breathy quietude on his Sparklehorse albums. With Doveman, Bartlett’s breathing is nearly as
loud as the singing itself and the end result is a breathy, lo-fi tenderness
that might drive the listener to want to put on the pumping dance music of the
original just to get the blood flowing again.
The listener might want to do that, but he or she likely
won’t because Bartlett, somehow, manages to pull it off. With Loggins’ title track he takes the lyrics
and dispenses entirely with the music, reimagining the song as a sad piano
ballad, a form that works amazingly well and accomplishes much of what Mark
Kozelek does with his reimagining of AC/DC classics as slow folk ballads. In fact, the tempo throughout the album is
slow, but there are enough instance of drums and rhythm and occasional blasts
of noise to keep things interesting, case in point, “The Girl Gets Around,”
originally recorded by Sammy Hagar for the soundtrack, which Bartlett has
turned into a Chris Whitley-style dirge grind.
The best covers (if that’s what these are) accomplish what
Doveman seems to do with ease: revealing the hidden beauty of the source
material, uncovering something new about a song or a melody or a lyric,
bringing something new to the listener’s ears.
If that can be accomplished with source material that the listener has
heard hundreds of times, that’s quite an accomplishment, and especially so if
the listener actively dislikes the original (which I imagine to be the case for
many, many contemporary listeners of Footloose). The breathy tenderness might not be every
listener’s cup of tea; consider yourself warned.
The best part of the story is that the album is not for
sale. Doveman and his label Brassland
have been offering it as a free download until quite recently when they
received a cease and desist order, proof that the major labels still behave
much as they did back in 1984 (Sony Is Watching You!) but you can still hear
the whole thing as a stream at www.dovemanmusic.com. Do so before it’s gone.
Standout Tracks: “Footloose,” “The Girl Gets Around” CHRISTIAN KIEFER