[Eds. note: This is the first of what will, for now, be a bi-weekly column by our own Karl Rozyn, our cover point man. Every other Wednesday, Karl will write a column about a cover song. Why? Because Karl loves covers, he loves what they represent, the idea behind them, the motivations.]
There are a lot of things I both like and dislike about Amanda Palmer. She’s made a lot of good music (Theatre is Evil with the Grand Theft Orchestra is fan-fucking-tastic) and a fair heap of mediocre music, both solo and as half of Dresden Dolls. She promotes acceptance, positive social change, self-esteem, mental health issues, all manner of good things – but she’s been known to do it in less than optimal ways (her poem about the Boston Marathon bombers was….. let’s call it “mistimed”). To her credit and occasional chagrin she uses her talent and her platform as she wants to, without apologies.
But we’re here to talk about covers, and in this case that means Dresden Dolls’ recording of “Pretty in Pink”, the classic Psychedelic Furs song. The Psych Furs version is on the short list of my personal favorite songs of the ‘80s (a bunch of the Pretty in Pink soundtrack is – especially Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center”); so I’ll say it flat out, the original is better. There are other covers of it I’d typically prefer to listen to. Why even bring it up then? Because out of all the many different covers of it I’ve heard, Dresden Dolls are the only people who’ve ever really gotten it right.
“Pretty in Pink” is nestled in that grey spot that’s both post-punk and post-new wave. Its guitars are big and fuzzed out; Richard Butler’s vocals are somehow both earnest and droll like only a peculiar stripe of Brit can be, simultaneously tender and detached; the music dropping back from the line “She doesn’t have anything you want to steal / well, nothing you can touch” then ripping into the last stanza and chorus amplifies the dichotomy – it’s a deceptively complex song, a lot of nuances. Every other version I’m aware of takes the music pretty straight, just rocking out and having a good time with it. Most of those aren’t bad, it’s a great song that’s hard to not enjoy if it’s played competently.
So what did Palmer and drummer Brian Vigilone do that everyone else seems to miss? Arranging it to accordion and Palmer’s low alto just sets it in the Dresden Dolls universe, neither a plus nor a minus (it’s a little cheeky, but that’s their off-kilter cabaret schtick). The trick is that it’s the only cover that remembers “Pretty in Pink” is such a fucking sad song. You can hear how well Palmer understands poor Caroline, her terrible decisions about the men who use her, her desperate optimism, that final moment where maybe she finds herself, maybe she cracks. Butler knows her, is probably in love with her; Palmer, for a day or for a decade, has been her. The stripped down arrangement supports the wistfulness – whether it’s on accordion or on guitar, taking the lushness down a notch will make a song lean towards intimacy, and Dresden Dolls use their considerable experience mining the personal to good effect. This “Pretty in Pink” epitomizes the good cover: clearly recognizable as both the song in question and the band playing it, tweaked to fit in a few places but never losing the core identity. It simply works.
So Dresden Dolls didn’t do my favorite version, or even my favorite cover of it. But they did record a “Pretty in Pink” that I truly respect, even if it isn’t always my bag.