O Superman (cover)

February 11, 2009 4:06 PM

Here's an attempt to cover O Superman without copying it; no synths, no vocoders, no sampling or looping.

Laurie Anderson's original recording off Big Science is one of my favorite recordings of all time. I heard it once in the car as a kid, riding around with my dad and listening to public radio—whatever show was on played the song and I think a bit of an interview with Anderson, and I recall the song making a deep impression on me.

It wasn't until years and years later that I figured out what the song was and picked up a copy of the album. It was amazing to hear it again having grown up into a musician in the interim.

This recording features a bunch of not-exactly-pristine vocal harmonies that hopefully, pitchiness aside, capture organically some of that great vocoder vibe and buzz from the original. There's a couple electric guitar tracks, some piano, an acoustic guitar track, and some harmonica as well. Also, the original reference demo track makes a number of appearances at about -20db panned hard right throughout the recording.

I've been vaguely meaning to cover this song for years, and I've been not doing it. I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to get when I set out to do this this morning, and I'm not totally satisfied with what I ended up producing, but it was fun to put together and now at least I can stop some-daying the damned thing.

posted by cortex (24 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

I had never heard this before, or the original, so I thought I would lookup the original also.

Both are pretty awesome, and this one is more impressive once you hear the original material.
posted by mrzarquon at 4:14 PM on February 11, 2009

I like this a lot.
posted by rtha at 4:27 PM on February 11, 2009

That was flat-out amazing, and the fact that you put it all together in one day even more so.

posted by carsonb at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2009

An end to some-daying! This is terrific.
posted by jessamyn at 5:59 PM on February 11, 2009

posted by ageispolis at 9:30 PM on February 11, 2009

Ho. Lee. Crap. Cortex.

I also heard this song for the first time as a kid, albeit while flipping cable channels late at night. It actually made me cry, and I had no idea what I was crying about. I just sat there, tears coming down my face, confused, crying. I didn't sleep that night, or very well for a few nights after that. The song remained with me as some kind of semi-transparent phantom that followed me everywhere I went for years afterwards. I can still feel its icy hands on my shoulders. It's one of those rare songs that effortlessly reaches into me and takes hold of a place I let no one see.

Hearing this version made those hands slightly warmer. I giggled a bit at parts. Giggled. It was lovely.
So thanks.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:04 PM on February 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

I started out being underwhelmed, worrying that the unthinkable had happened... cortex had made an unimpressive song.

Then I got past the 12 second mark...

... and by the end I was blown away. This was fantastic cortex. It's goin' on my iPod and getting 5 stars. Another impressive effort from MeFi Musical Muse!
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:41 AM on February 12, 2009

I dunno what the backstory here is. I just clicked play. But this is one of my favorite things from Music Evar. I'll go listen to that original now.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:31 AM on February 12, 2009

Okay, worlds opened. I like this a LOT. You clearly put a lot of work in on this one, boss. I like that most of all.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2009

Whoa- nicely done! I think this warrants my first comment in Music, ever!
posted by pjern at 2:16 PM on February 12, 2009

This is so, so awesome. Wow.
posted by robcorr at 1:44 AM on February 13, 2009

Oh hell yeah!
posted by Jimbob at 2:13 AM on February 13, 2009

Thanks, everybody. I was getting on toward ear-blind by the time I was done mixing this, so it's good to know it works well on a fresh listen.

The feedback guitar just right of center stereo was a happy accident—I haven't played with guitar feedback much, and my process at this point is

1. Go down to basement, turn on amp, plug in guitar.
2. Crank "drive" knob to full.
3. Wrestle desperately with guitar.

The two major tones in the feedback are F# and G, which fits the song very well; one of the elegant simplicities of O Superman is that it's pretty much two chords the whole time, the I and the iii, and the only difference between those two triads is a major seventh tone instead of a tonic tone. The original is in G# but I went for G to give my voice a break and make the piano stuff easier to play, and so G and F# are the tonic and the seventh of the key. Perfect!

Most of that guitar recording consisted of me trying to coax the feedback from F# to G and back and otherwise trying to shut it up occasionally—I had the levels on the amp set just so that making the guitar not ring out took constant work. One of the tubes on the amp has been getting more and more microphonic over time as well, and I think that was a big part of the consistency of the feedback I got: the drive (or power) tube getting caught up in sympathetic vibration with the guitar sound and making it a multi-step feedback loop.

There's a little bit of basement-feedback hijinks in this recording as well; it's something I want to keep playing with to see if I can figure out how to control it more precisely.

AV, I'm glad I got you discovering Laurie Anderson; she's awesome.
posted by cortex at 7:08 AM on February 13, 2009

Awesome, awesome, awesome. I especially love the vocal layering; it's very effective, to say nothing of beautiful.

I wonder if you could use a few less solitary 'uh's at the end? One or two might even be enough.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2009

I wonder if you could use a few less solitary 'uh's at the end? One or two might even be enough.

Call it loyal obnoxiousness, maybe. One or two wouldn't have been enough of an homage for my tastes, basically.

From the conversations I've had about Anderson's original recording, people seem to find it either enticing or maddeningly unlistenable—a more polar reaction than most individual pop music tracks, at least—and the droning tempus of her solitary, looped "ah ah ah ah" seems like a key part of that. It's how the song begins and ends, and it persists throughout even if you might lose track of it in the middle when other things are going on. It's an iconic sound; along with the vocoder vox, it is the song. I'd recognize the sample, that simple half-electronic laugh of C, anywhere.

So making that part of my recording was important to me. But I didn't want to copy that exactly—instead of the isolated vocal at the start and the end, I used piano as a proxy, and while there's one part or other playing that steady-on-the-B theme in one form or another through most of the recording, it's still much less static and austere than how she handled it. Finishing off with a really clear, inescapable nod to the original, and carrying it on for a few repetitions to leave things hanging on that references, felt right.

A couple other things about that "ah":

- My recording is at much higher tempo than the original; hers is about 150bmp, mine is 230bpm. As a result, the "ah" tempus done on some even division of the beat is going to be either faster (done at the same beat) or slower (done at half that beat) than the original. I ended up splitting the difference—the piano opens fast, the final vocal drone ends slower. (If I had wanted to really wanted to spook the number nerds, I could have pushed the tempo to 243 and aimed for a tight approximation of the golden ratio between the original and mine, but that would have been (a) ridiculous and (b) too fast.)

- It's hard to sing those steady "ah"s like that. I would have gotten a cleaner, less pitchy recording if I'd been willing to get down a bar or two of it and massage that into perfection and just loop it. It's less organic, but it sure as heck wouldn't sound so much like me desperately trying to keep my voice in check. I'm glad it doesn't bug other people as much as it bugs me, but I do wish I was the sort of person who could make their pipes behave really, really well instead of just well enough. The same lack-of-vocal-precision informed a lot of the vocal decisions I made in my cover of Fidelity, which I think I talked about in that thread some.

- I'm still messing with some of Garageband's effects chain; I tried putting some gentle master compression on this just to see if it would help even out the level on the recording, something that I think worked out reasonably well in this case but which had the effect of boosting the volume on both the initial piano and the final solo "ah" cadence more than I would have liked.
posted by cortex at 11:25 AM on February 13, 2009

Now, I love the original with a fierce, fierce passsion so approached this with a semi-sceptical ear...but, no fear! Excellent stuff. I'm loving that Grails-y spectral guitar line - loving it!
posted by freya_lamb at 4:13 PM on February 13, 2009

I'll bet Laurie Anderson would dig it.
posted by AppleSeed at 2:10 PM on February 22, 2009

I also had a revelatory moment with a Laurie Anderson song at a young age, for me it was Sharkey's Day coming on the radio, I grabbed the nearest blank tape and recorded the last 2/3 of the song over part of my dad's Stevie Ray Vaughn tape.

The fast tempo makes the insistence of the melody less demanding, it becomes a stream rather than a slow drip, so to speak. The instruments and singing style are also much more human and warm, less alienated.

I think Anderson had this idea that we should feel alienated by the technology, the changes in the world around us. Did you consider changing the lyrics? It almost seems like with making the music more comfortable and familiar, the words should change too, stop talking about love and force and justice and start talking about baby baby I love you. The technological world she felt alienated by, but still embraced, has become our new native environment, has had it's sharp edges smoothed out a bit, has become more familiar and less threatening, and this cover reflects that in a way that interests me. I mean the computer technology involved in your making this track is so far more advanced than the simple machines Anderson was using to make hers, so much more complex, and also almost invisible, as if this almost could have been performed live.
posted by idiopath at 2:00 PM on March 8, 2009

I think Anderson had this idea that we should feel alienated by the technology, the changes in the world around us.

Yeah, a whole lot of Big Science has that sense of coldness and detachment, whether re: technology or history or causality or or or. One of the wonderful and creepy things about the album and a lot of her work at the time, really. And how different was the world in the early 80s, in that respect, with so much technology blossoming but still only just, things that we take for granted now still largely science fiction or the semi-secret domain of Great Big Corporations. Plus that whole cold war thing.

Her recording of O Superman feels like literature; it doesn't feel dated so much as like something that captures its time and place. A document of 1981, so to speak.

Did you consider changing the lyrics?

I don't change lyrics on covers often. I might do it if I think something in the original lyrics is unsingably stupid (though not necessarily even then, or if the change in the lyrics is what got me going in the first place, or if there's something too personal about the original lyrics that I'd feel like I was like trespassing, or if I'm trying to just aggressively do something different with that part of the song (no one wants to hear me try to sing the original bridge for Fidelity, so I rewrote it entirely).

I didn't have a problem with anything in O Superman; the lyrics are a strange jumble in the first place, and I don't feel like I have anything like a deep insight into why Anderson chose the phrases she chose, so switching some of it up just for the heck of it didn't really come into it.
posted by cortex at 2:10 PM on March 8, 2009

the lyrics are a strange jumble in the first place, and I don't feel like I have anything like a deep insight into why Anderson chose the phrases she chose

Oh, this hurts me. Now, I don't argue for artistic intent as a determining factor in the significance of thematic content, so don't ask me to. But her phrases are an impressive synthesis of a number of ideational approaches to postmodern subjectivity and the anxieties attendant thereto. I mean, my goodness, she puts Foucauldian and Lacanian notions of identity in conversation (though if I had to pick a theorist most akin in themes to this song, I'd peg it as Derridian) at the moment when the flaneuresque modern analog experience was beginning to be destabilized, fractured and threatened by the dawn of digital communication and representation.

So, whereas in 1972, we had David Bowie relating an analog-styled, documentarian realist, visual and auditory witnessing of the end of humanity

I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and t.v.s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there

ten years later, Anderson's synthesized world is not one of emotionally overwhelming countdown to oblivion, but one of negotiating a sense of subjective reality within the new non-linear, infinitely capacious, infinitely reconfigurable space of the database, with her phrases blinking in the static, like command lines of code, each reading "help. i am a person. a person needs help. a person is not a thing." The power commanding justice is indomitable in this universe, the digital, synthetic and hypertextual revolutions in representation have not changed the reality of that, in fact they've made it clearer, but clearer also by contrast is the irrefutable proof of our unique imprints, our human origin, Mom. There's always Mom. But what is Mom, exactly? What is human nautre that we seek to find a place for it in this new realm of our own creation?

Gary Numan's extremely odd and aspergersy synth-music love affair with the new avenues for definitions of the human (as a driver of a car, most notably) counterpoint and in some ways, exemplify these themes.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:59 PM on March 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I mean, my goodness, she puts Foucauldian and Lacanian notions of identity in conversation (though if I had to pick a theorist most akin in themes to this song, I'd peg it as Derridian) at the moment when the flaneuresque modern analog experience was beginning to be destabilized

i like music it is fun and pretty
posted by cortex at 5:08 PM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

I used this as a chaser to the superhero/superman party. It got lots of nice comments.
posted by The Whelk at 9:53 PM on November 9, 2009

I love this.
posted by not_on_display at 10:48 PM on December 16, 2009

Discovered via Meta! This is ace, I have the original on 7" vinyl.
posted by marienbad at 4:12 AM on August 6, 2014

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