July 16, 2007
Live band karaoke is a weird thing, and it brings out my snobbishness about rock music like few other things. It’s not just that you have to indulge people in their selection of really obnoxious songs — that’s just part of karaoke, you know? — but that you’re at the mercy of a short list of tunes pre-selected by the musicians, and the sort of people who form live karaoke bands, well, they all seem to skew heavily towards the shlock rock end of things. R.E.M. always seems to turn up on these lists, but it’s always the same few songs — “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” pretty much always. “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” usually. And more curiously, I have encountered both “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8.”
I saw some dude do “Driver 8” last night. His voice sucked and he was missing his cues badly enough to skip an entire verse, but who cares, it’s just karaoke. The band, however — ugh, I feel like “frustrating” might be the most charitable word I can use. Peter Buck’s guitar parts alternate between the gravity of the opening figure and a light, uncluttered arpeggiation, but the karaoke band flattened all that out into a distorted, generic post-alt-rock crunch. For most of the selections being played, it didn’t really matter if the guitar tone was boring and anonymous, but their thoughtless arrangement sucked the life out of “Driver 8.” The song may be well-written enough to retain a certain amount of charm even when it’s being butchered by an unimaginative cover band, but its most essential appeal comes from the way Buck’s chords and tone evoke the patina of old train lines and the ghostly feeling of abandoned, obsolete industrial sites. There’s a romance, there’s a mystique, and most importantly, there’s a subtext, and if you dumb down the arrangement, you’re throwing all of that out and leaving the listener with nothing more than just another catchy tune.