Interpreting Songs—Postmodern Jukebox

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 23, 2016

My generation embraced singer-song writers back in the 1960s. We wanted bands that played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. Before that, bands and song-writers were often not the same, and popular songs would be performed by all the crooners of the day. Hell, jazz musicians made an art form of interpreting songs. Being part of the generation that grew up with The Beatles, made us prejudice against “cover bands.” I had to age some to appreciate Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

Last year I discovered Postmodern Jukebox, a group that specializes in taking modern songs and putting a period spin on them. The best way I can prove what I’m talking about is to play the songs off of YouTube. Listen to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. It’s from 2003, and very edgy. Meg’s spare drumming and Jack’s angry guitar make the song unique, driving, defining it’s era. It’s gotten 97 million hits on YouTube. Listen to this original version of “Seven Nation Army” first.

Can you imagine anyone covering this song? Now, lets listen to how Postmodern Jukebox arranges the song. Is it even the same song? Musically, it’s still simple. The words are the same. But the mood of the song has changed. The music of The White Stripes grabs me, but the lyrics dominated in the Postmodern Jukebox production. Of course it’s hard to ignore Haley Reinhart, the vocalist, but she really makes the words more important than the individual instruments.

Here is Radiohead’s “Creep.” The two versions are much closer. Is Thom Yorke just creepier than Haley, so he fits the lyrics better? Is Haley too pretty to be a creep? How much does the rock sound color the song compared to the vintage arrangement by PMJ? Does each of these versions convey a different message?

When Haley sings, “I want a perfect body, want a perfect soul” do you think something different than when listening to Radiohead? Are songs less authentic when sung by people who didn’t write them? Especially if we feel the original songs represent the artist?

How much of a song’s flavor comes from the time in which it was produced? If Elle Goulding had been recorded back in the 1960s, would she have sounded like the Postmodern Jukebox version?

Do I prefer this oldie version because that’s how music sounded when I was growing up?

What if Postmodern Jukebox did the opposite of what they normally do – taking a new song and making it sound old – and took at old song and made it sound new. I’d like to see what they would do with “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Frank Sinatra. Could they do it in the fashion of The White Stripes, Radiohead or Elle Goulding?

Visit the Postmodern Jukebox page on YouTube for dozens of more great interpretations.

[If you got this as an email, you’ll have to follow the link below and visit the web to hear the songs.]

JWH