About a year ago after a Grails show in Amsterdam, I found myself amidst a little debate about the merits of cover songs in a band’s setlist – they had none, which was a problem for my interlocutor. Generally speaking, I am deeply uninterested in cover bands and it’s not that common that I get excited by a cover song. It thus came as a big surprise to me that one of my favourite records of the year so far is a collection of covers.
The second disclaimer that I should add before jumping to an analysis of the four songs contained in this Wreck and Reference EP, is that I didn’t know Guided By Voices until reading the release’s liner notes on bandcamp. By now, I’m familiar with «Alien Lanes», the record to which this EP pays homage, but not with their vast discography (of just 157 releases). Nevertheless, the story goes that the band received an advance of around a hundred thousand dollars from Matador Records to record «Alien Lanes». Out of this advance, they are said to have only used ten dollars for the recording itself, discounting beer of course. Released in ’95, «Alien Lanes» spans about forty minutes of lo-fi indie-rock with 27 short songs, a song-duration ratio that I’m not used to outside of grind and punk hardcore. The songs themselves tend to carry a somewhat happy tone, although ridden with negative undertones and anxiety-inducing lines. Hell, the first song covered in «Alien Pains», «Always Crush Me», is so eerie that its instrumental wouldn’t be out of place in some Circle Of Ouroborus records. The ending section of the song is almost begging for an industrial treatment, which, given Wreck and Reference’s past, you’d expect them to go for it. Alas, this is a record where taking the easy way out is carefully avoided.
The lengths to which the duo of drummer / vocalist Ignat Frege and synthesiser-wielder / vocalist Felix Skinner go to transform the four tracks chosen from «Alien Lanes» is best appreciated through listening to both versions of each song side by side. Upon reaching the second track, «Closer You Are», the difference in treatment is mind blowing, as the original is, to put it mildly, a happy song. The version of Wreck And Reference, on the other hand, starts ominous and only gets bleaker from then, to the point that cowering in foetal position as Skinner’s disconcerting voice warns us not to get closer is not that far fetched of a reaction. It is as if the duo ignored the songs in an of themselves, focused on the bleakness of the words and crafted a soundtrack that truly embodied them. Another example of this comes in the following song «Game Of Pricks», where after the lines “and when you come calling me down // I’ll put on my disease” we are treated to an emphatically low bass that is downright perfect as a segue to the song’s decadent ending.
In the end, «Alien Pains» might only be a four-song EP and last less than fifteen minutes, but it goes to show that the band’s evolution leading to and showcased throughout «Indifferent Rivers Romance End» has gotten them to a songwriting level full of personality and with an uncanny ability of using non-trivial ways to convey emotions without falling in genre-tight clichés.
«Alien Pains» was self-released by Wreck And Reference on April 2 and is available in digital format at this location.