I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (YGtCTO Music #8)

Song performed by JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound
Written by Jeff Tweedy

I am an American aquarium drinker…

Damn, that is a great line that any writer would give his eye teeth to create and find some appropriate way to use. Sometimes, it takes courage to use the crazy, but it still needs to serve the message if it is going to succeed as art. I admit that I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot over and over, loving it, denying it, deciphering it, and just bathing in it. I knew I liked it, but it felt like it was fighting me all the way.

So, I can’t imagine what JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound heard that one of them stood up and said, “You know, there is a great soul song hiding in that mass of noise and angst.” Cover bands are often rated for their slavish loyalty to the original tune. That can take remarkable ability, but it denies the imagination. I recognize that a good Elvis Impersonator is one thing, but give me the one that fronts Dread Zeppelin any day of the week.

But that would not be enough, would it? Just knowing that there is an acapella version of Strawberry Fields Forever out there or a fully fleshed out performance of Dylan’s Tambourine Man in existence does not make the cover versions into art. Those are concepts, like the Bauhaus Manifesto or the recipe for tomatillo salsa. The art happens between the outline and the finished piece.

Consider John Sebastian’s beautiful Darlin’ Be Home Soon. The Association were a fine pop band and you could happily spend a couple hours listening to their live album, but their cover of Sebastian’s song pales after you hear what Cocker and Russell could do with it on Mad Dogs and Englishmen (more on that magnificent opus some other day).

So what do Brooks et al bring to the table? They seemingly straighten the song out, deconstructing the density that imbued Wilco’s original with such power. They play to their strengths, as they should, but they latch onto that braggadocio at the heart of the song and invest it with all the power of soul music. The original version, which may well verge on creepy for some, suddenly becomes a song less sinister and more in the vain of Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Granted, the chorus always sits there as a well-placed warning for the skittish.

I can’t imagine the Doors were sitting there with their organ driven dark ride, Light My Fire, thinking that it would be a hit re-worked as a folk song, but songs are that rare art form waiting to be appropriated by anyone with a little inspiration. Music is hard and songwriters learn by tearing apart the work of others, to say nothing of a long tradition of separating the songwriting from the performance. Only the producer ever hears the Broadway show performed by the composer. Many can carry it off onstage, but they can’t do every role.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 278 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.

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