Thursday, January 20, 2011

For a Song Special Edition: Blister in the Sun

Sometimes, choosing a song for the For a Song feature is difficult. It can require digging through my memory banks to find the song that perfectly matches my mood that week. But this week, it was easy. Put simply, Blister in the Sun got stuck in my head for no reason that I know. It popped in there while I showered, and then it came back at odd moments throughout the day. I decided that featuring it might be the best way to get rid of it. So here’s hoping it works.

Luckily, I do actually like the song. It may not be the most covered song of the 80s, but there are clearly a number of people who like it too. So, I thought it would be fun to return to one of my favorite themes: what makes a good cover? It’s a tricky business, because it must capture something of the original, and yet, the artist doing the cover must also make the song their own. For me, the three covers included here succeed on both counts. But let’s begin with the original version.

Violent Femmes: Blister in the Sun


Blister in the Sun is a simple song. Two verses and one chorus have only two lines of lyrics each, and there is no bridge. The lyric is so skeletal that it is hard to say what the song is even about. There seems to be some young lust involved, and also some drug use, but it’s hard to say for sure. This invites cover versions, with artists finding different meanings in the lyric, and having these interpretations color how they approach the song. What the song does have is a great rhythm. The beat is in the guitar part, with the drummer punching in off the beat to really drive the song along. When the bass comes in on the chorus, it really makes the whole thing go into overdrive. So Blister is a fine example of the drive of the best new wave music. But the instrumentation is mostly acoustic, which really made the song stand out in 1983, and it still does.

Vitamin String Quartet: Blister in the Sun


Look for a familiar song in Amazon’s mp3 store, and you will discover that the world is filled with groups that do nothing but tributes. These groups turn out full albums of this stuff quickly, and they seem to only need to sell a small number of songs to get by. I can’t help thinking that most of them are not very good. Vitamin String Quartet is certainly in this category, and I don’t even know what made me check this one out. But I’m glad I did. Of course, they have arranged Blister for string quartet, and they do the song as an instrumental. So, they are drawn to the sheer force of the rhythm. They have to make changes for the instruments they have, but they capture the excitement of the original. I assume that the musicians in Vitamin String Quartet have classical backgrounds, because they do a wonderful job of playing Blister as a theme with variations. It sounds strange, but it really works for me.

Bruce Lash: Blister in the Sun


Blister in the Sun contains the lyric, “Man, I’m so strung out.” Bruce Lash latches on to this. He slows the song down, and gives it an exotic percussion treatment. For me, this emphasizes the drug references in the lyric, and also gives the narrator a slightly dangerous edge. The arrangement has a completely different feel than the original, but it works.

Eric Anders: Blister in the Sun


Finally, we have Eric Anders’ version. He strips away the rhythm scheme entirely, and renders the song as an atmospheric ballad. He also alters the lyrics, with a surprising result. He changes “I” to “we” in most places, and loses the words “big hands” from the chorus. Suddenly, the song becomes either a generational anthem or a love song. It’s a radical transformation, but Anders makes it stand up.