Wistful, downtempo pop songs are a funny breed. We need 'em -- every rom-com needs a post-breakup montage, after all -- but they have to be unusually earwormy and compelling to really hook their claws into our brainwaves, let alone climb the Billboard charts. Dido's 2003 single "White Flag" accomplishes this by being so confident, with its layers of strings and polished-to-perfection production value, that you almost don't notice its lyrics are devastating.
So what happens when you strip away those layers, scratch off the shiny coating? It's dark. And sexy. And lonely as hell.
Jay Som, aka San Francisco songwriter and national buzz generator Melina Duterte, knows something about quietly heartbreaking songs; her debut record, Turn Into, is full of them. Here, with her smoky voice driving this cover, Duterte sounds like a friend confessing her relationship problems at the bar after maybe your third drink. That vulnerability -- with the vocals up front and naked over a simple lonesome-cowboy guitar twang, and later, layered over her own voice again in lieu of strings -- is far from a display of weakness. It's a power move. And it helps underscore something ominous in the song: the inherent danger and powerlessness that comes with being in love.
This cover is just one of 11 songs on Group Effort Vol. 1, a new compilation that features 11 Bay Area artists each covering a different pop song of their choosing, issued on a limited-run cassette and available in pay-what-you-want mode online. The comp is the result of a collaboration between two new Bay Area organizations, GROUP (a project from Never Young's Nik Soelter that hosts benefit shows; a recent one raised $1700 for the Trans Assistance Project) and LMSFN (an arts and events collective started by Different Fur Studios' Patrick Brown).
If the songs sound a little rough-hewn -- Never Young doing a cacophonous version of Morrissey's "Suedehead" is, unsurprisingly, another favorite -- that's by design. Each band was given a Tascam 8-track and four hours to record; the songs were mixed only minimally after that. The goal, says Brown, was to showcase up-and-coming Bay Area musicians in an accessible way, "at a time when everyone's complaining that the scene here is dead."
So, yeah, don't go mourning Bay Area music in its entirety. But if you do feel the need for a moping montage: at least you now have a great soundtrack.
I post new-ish local tracks I like on Fridays now. Got something I should hear? Hit me: email@example.com.