Friday, January 15, 2010

For fans of "The Wire": Citizen Cope sings "Way Down in the Hole"

Citizen Cope, the rigid jawed balladeer of D.C. origins has released a cover of "Way Down in the Hole" originally by Tom Waits, whose gravel-gargling version you hear open every episode of The Wire's second season. I'm a fan of Citizen Cope (I even interviewed him over Skype for an assignment at writing the bio for his website. I was passed over for a publicist, boo hiss.) Cope's cover has been released as a free download (get it here while it's hot). I realized how much The Wire's theme song means to me after listening to Cope's version of it. The Wire changed how I watch television, but Cope's attempt at its theme song does nothing for how I experience it, other than to cause me to wonder half-way through: "Am I really listening to the same thing?" 

Cope's version flirts with being good, but in the end balks and bangs bland, instead. It's replete with all the Copeness of his past work, solid percussion, steady guitar, clapping for a touch of gospel, and bright if not monotone vocals.  But from one end to the other it's like staring at a long gray ribbon without the mercy of a pattern change to relieve the eyes as monotony cooly steals their exuberance for sight. I can't tell where the middle is compared to the beginning or the end.

That said, it's not terrible. It's a good song and Cope is a talented musician, so I can listen to it and enjoy it as some level. But for an artist to cover a song properly, I think they should have an insight into the piece that they want to share. Listen to Ray Lamontagne's cover of "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley next to the original or Janis Joplin's cover of "To Love Somebody" by The Beegies and you'll get an idea of what I mean. 

Compared to the originals (see link to Tom Waits' original at the top and here for season 1's version), which each seem to capture a tangible desperation evinced by the show itself, Cope's is disconnected and aloof. Without carefully mapping out the lyrics for myself, I have no idea what the song is about. I may as well be reading a review of it rather than listening to it (wink wink). 

Being an artist is probably one of the most cruelly difficult endeavors one can aspire to. One must bring truth to everything he or she does in order for it to be good.  I watch Cope closely because I know he's capable of it. Just listen to "If There's Love" or "Son's Gonna Rise" and tell me there isn't some truth in this guy. I'm just waiting for that one he hits right and suddenly everyone around starts crying.

I may also be prejudiced here. I confessed that "The Wire" changed the way I watch television, so of course I'm going to strongly associate its opening song with the tone and feelings I took away from the show. Cope's insight into the song may be completely different from the way I prefer to listen to the song, so I call it aloof. Someone else may call it hopeful or soaring. You'll have to listen for yourself and tell me what you think. 


Scotty said...

If they did Season 6 about Mcnulty working as a Fells Point meter maid, theyd use this

Damo said...

I have (inexcusably) not sat down yet to watch The Wire. One of the ultimate ironies of Damo, I suppose. I also haven't heard any version of the song. But this was a fantastic post. Without having seen the show or heard the song I know exactly what you're saying and I think you said it true and fair.

You're awesome, thanks.

Matt Lindeboom said...

@Scotty - I agree. And that was damn funny. Kudos.

@ Damo - Thank you! Everybody loves to be called awesome. You really do have to check out The Wire (as I'm sure you've heard one and a half million times.)