Couldn’t Be Without One

ImageI grew up with what I later learned was supposed to be a trick: many a VHS lined the walls of our home near the TV and VCR, and one of those tapes contained exactly two movies, one of which was of primary interest to me–that movie was the animated 1986 Transformers: the Movie. But, preceding it (these were not commercial tapes, let’s be honest…) was The Point. Both are animated, but I learned the choice to put The Point first was deliberate, and forced me to sit through it before the reward of the movie I always wanted to see (I’ve spent many years knowing Transformers: the Movie end-to-end by heart).

Well, it worked.

The Point became one of my go-to, favourite movies, its existence eventually leading me to an interesting relationship, a job, and, from that job, even the love of my life. No small feat for a movie that couldn’t even settle on a narrator. I mean, in each incarnation it could: first it was Dustin Hoffman, then Alan Thicke (apparently there was also Alan Barzman, possibly second, but I begin to question the multiple telecast claims’ order), and on home video it was Ringo Starr. It was an animated fable set around the story of Harry Nilsson’s 1971 album The Point! (no exclamation point as animation, apparently). It’s bizarre, strange, engaging, and unusual. And it’s all about Nilsson’s music, as it should be.

I’m writing this because you should hear the songs from the album, though they total a whopping 17 minutes overall (the rest of the original album was narration from Harry, accounting for the overall runtime of 32½ minutes). They were my introduction to Harry Nilsson’s music, and are wrapped up in the same kind of love that the Beatles tracks on Yellow Submarine‘s soundtrack are, as it was yet another animated movie that went from “Yeah, I like this” to an absolute favourite.

But I’m also writing this because I recently stumbled into this:

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It’s a collection of covers of the tracks from the original album, as well as “Down to the Valley”, which has been attached to the album’s CD re-releases a few times as a bonus track, or inexplicably inserted into the middle of the album. I picked it up largely over Andrew Bird’s name being attached to a cover of “Think About Your Troubles”. I started listening to it on my way home from work today, having finished my listen to Halo of Flies (via Music for Insect Minds). The opener is DeVotchKa’s cover of “Everything’s Got ‘Em” (from which the title of this post comes, despite the fact that folks seem to think the lyric is “wouldn’t” for some strange reason, which it quite audibly is not). It’s not impressive. Nilsson’s lyrics are rendered in a flat monotone over new and repetitive music. It’s confusing: they clearly don’t know what makes Nilsson’s songs good (there’s a reason his voice is discussed in any review I’ve read), especially as they are taken as pop, or occasionally even “an American Beatle”. There’s no melody left. Why would you do that?

Nada Surf turns “Me and My Arrow” quite reasonably into an indie rock song, and it works–they don’t abandon the melody, though their movement from the original is, of course, far less extreme. The Sex Mob and Catherine Russell turns “Poli High” rather soulful, a bit jam-y, but it largely works. And then we hit Bird’s cover of “Think About Your Troubles”, and dear god it’s terrible. It’s really, really bad. It sounds like he literally tried to make it one of his own songs, sounding much like them. But it isn’t one of his songs–there’s a forced, torturous nature to the changes in melody, turning up or down in contrast to the original, like a partial movement between keys. 

And so I felt inclined to say something: it’s actually impossible to define what a good cover should be (almost compeletely accurate can be boring; too adventurous can become off-putting). There’s no clear formula, it’s not as simple as “Faithful, but make it your own”. That’s a cop-out answer, which means little in the end, being as vague it is. The answer, however, is something more like: not this. I thought a bunch of light, airy indie voices would make sense, but I question how much appreciation they have for Nilsson’s work. And rejecting the original entirely often seems to work best only when you have few, if any, ties to the original, like Luna choosing to cover “Straight Up”, the Paula Abdul hit. Or maybe it’s just that Dean & co. know better how to construct a cover.

Hell, I don’t know. Just go listen to The Point! or watch it. It’s good stuff.

Skip this thing. Whatever good is minimal, and the bad is just…bad.