"Fixing a Hole" /
The Wood Brothers
Wow, thanks for all the recommendations on Facebook -- evidently I have tapped into a rich vein of music here. That I Am Sam soundtrack alone is chockful of Beatley gems.
So why wait? Let's get cracking....
Now as you may recall, I'm a dedicated evangelist for the Wood Brothers, rock guitarist Oliver and jazz bassist Chris, who slip into this Americana mode like a pair of worn slippers whenever they get together. What started out in 2005 as a side project has grown into something enduring -- their fourth studio album, Muse, comes out in October -- and I love their quirky bluegrass-and-jazz-tinged roots rock. This is from their 2009 album Up Above My Head, a collection of cover songs, though they've been known to include a cover song or two on their other albums as well.
The Sgt. Pepper's original "Fixing a Hole" is Paul McCartney Psychedelia Lite, neither druggy nor draggy -- sure, the lyrics free-associate, but Paul's trademark song-and-dance flair won't be denied. The phantasmagoric harmonies on "Where it will go . . . " are kept tethered by Ringo's steady soft-shoe drumbeat, and the verse's sinous melody and offbeat syncopations switch in the chorus to punchy rhythms and tic-like repetitions -- "And it really doesn't matter / If I'm wrong I'm right / Where I belong I'm right / Where I belong."
He may want to let his mind wander, but he's still testy about the naysayers and critics. It all crests on a single yammering high note: "See the people standing there / Who disagree and never win / And wonder why they don't get in my door" (poor Paul, all those intrusive fans outside his St. John's Wood house), before swooping wearily back down to the next verse. I've always imagined that Paul wrote this song while doing household repairs, or at least thinking that the house needed repairs, before deciding instead to screw it all and just smoke a joint. Oh, and maybe write a song, which was after all his real job.
Of course I love this song -- of course -- but ultimately it is bound up in the particulars of the era, and the historical impact of Sgt. Pepper's, and the ongoing Lennon-McCartney dialectic. So when a cover version cuts the song free and lets it breathe again, it's a welcome breath of fresh air.
As you'd expect, Oliver and Chris Wood take this song instead for a walk down a country road. The tempo's slowed down to a genial amble, the guitar's unplugged for a lazy strum, and the bass is plucking softly behind. No drums, no harpsichord intro; even the instrumental break is simply a free-form jazz ramble on the bass. Oliver's appealing creaky vocal adds to the loose-limbed charm of this song, as does the low-fi production quality. (The video of them singing this in a stairwell fits perfectly.) It respects the original, and yet brings something new to the table.
What I love is how Oliver changes things up, scatting the melody a bit, and syncopating McCartney's syncopation even further. He makes us listen to the melody like it's something new, makes us hear words that weren't emphasized in the original. Suddenly I hear the first verse differently: "I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in / And stops my mind from wondering where it will go." He adds minor-key intervals, turning McCartney's mysterious hints (I mean drugs, wink wink) into a what-can-you-do sigh of modern melancholy. Instead of Macca's doubled vocals, the Woods give us close brother harmonies that really hit the gritty discords, wringing them out, making us wait deliciously for the chord finally to resolve. He slides around on the chorus, straying from the one-note phrases, as if shrugging his shoulders -- he's not bugged so much by those silly disagreeing people. That lovely long pause before "I'm taking the time for a number of things"? He really does take the time.
This cover version isn't psychedelic at all, nor does it try to be. After all, 40 years after Sgt. Pepper, getting high is no longer a coded secret, an act of defiance, a willful escape from the status quo -- it IS the status quo. The Wood Brothers aren't tripping, they're on vacation, and that makes this old song new again. Isn't that what we want from a cover?