Different Rub

It’s always a treat when a band writes a song where they sound nothing like themselves. A lot of times, examples of these can be found on bands’ first albums, where the group is still testing out their sound, and the freedom of experimentation is a little more abundant than it might be on later releases. One of my favorite examples is “Chest Fever” by The Band, which, with its outrageous synth intro and surreal lyrics, is one of the legendary band’s weirdest songs. Some bands include an oddly-chosen cover song for their debut, like The Clash, whose version of “Police & Thieves” foreshadows the heavy reggae influence that they would later exhibit more explicitly.

Every once in a while, though, a song will show up on an album that totally sticks out against the group’s established sound. Sometimes it will be a move in a more commercial direction (like “Our House” from Madness‘ fourth album), or a brief return to their earlier sound (the original intention of The BeatlesGet Back project). What makes those songs particularly special is how they often strongly contrast the sound that a particular band has, by then, worked hard to uphold. So you may be asking yourself (especially when you hear one of these oddball songs for the first time), why wouldn’t the band just make music like that all the time if they sound so good doing it this once?

I considered that question when I recently saw Antony & The Johnsons at the Keswick Theatre. Naturally, a lot of the set was devoted to material from the terrific new album, The Crying Light, as well as songs from their acclaimed breakthrough, 2005’s I Am A Bird Now. I’ll admit that while I really like the band’s music, it’s not exactly what you’d call ‘rocking.’ Most of Antony‘s songs are piano-based, highly personal ballads that are often accompanied by his multi-instrumental ensemble. One of the songs they did (“Shake That Devil” from the Another World EP), though, morphed from the moody template they had set up through the first half of the performance into a Motown-evoking call-and-response raver in The Yardbirds sense. Okay, so it may not have been “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” but that’s besides the point. My concert buddy, Josh Pincus, was generally nonplussed by Antony and his emotions, however I did catch him tapping his feet during the momentary lapse of gloom.

Listening back to the studio version of “Shake That Devil,” I find that it certainly is a standout track because, while it is undeniable a product of the band that performed it, it’s hardly an accurate representation of their work. I’m under the impression that, if you look deep enough, just about every band has a song in their catalogue that doesn’t really sound like them (heck, even Sparks have one: the big band send-up “Looks, Looks, Looks”). But before you petition your favorite band to make music that sounds like that one great track, consider that it’s the context that makes that song so wonderful. If all of Antony‘s stuff was upbeat and bluesy, “Shake That Devil” wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. Also, no one’s going to buy an album full of genre-jumping experimentation. Or maybe they already have

You can read my buddy John V.‘s full review of the concert (with pictures) here

Antony & The Johnsons perform “Shake That Devil” from Another World EP (2008)

E.

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~ by E. on February 5, 2009.

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