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More Than This
July 1, 2012 6:29 PM   Subscribe

How much difference does a musical arrangement make? Here is Peter Gabriel's More Than This, from 2002's Up. And here is The Polyphonic Spree Mix, using the same lead vocal track.

Bonus: The Elbow Mix, another study in alternative musical arrangement.
posted by hippybear (37 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
How much difference does a musical arrangement make?

Is it surprising that it matters a great deal? The Polyphonic Spree mix sounds like an outrageous send-up of the original.
posted by Nomyte at 6:54 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I actually dislike all variations of this song- something about it rubs me the wrong way. I'd never heard it before, but it just was irritating to my ear.

That said, this is what always irks me about songwriting, especially in pop music: some ditzy pop starlet or boy band goes into a studio with a 3-chord strum and some inane lyrics, and then someone like Jon Brion punches it up by making it actually music: adding in instrumentation, depth, etc. The stars- the "face" of the music- get credit as "songwriters", while the copyright system itself considers arranging music to be incidental for the purposes of credit- yet it's that arranging that makes the song fully realized and memorable! It'd be like Miley Cyrus walking into a studio and saying "I'm thinking a dah-dah-dah-DUH kinda thing, like you know?" and having Beethoven as a producer transform that four note idea into the Fifth Symphony. All that instrumentation and composition that makes it one of the greatest symphonies of all time is, as I understand it, seen by copyright laws as not deserving of credit! It's insanity...

The pop stars themselves often couldn't begin to accomplish this work, and without it their songs would be forgettable boring melodies- the kinds of things strummed over a campfire; but the producer that effectively did 99% of the work is a footnote, fame wise.

Yes, I know the great producers are worth their weight in gold, make a fortune, sometimes get songwriting credit, and are highly sought after... but something about the fact that the real musical minds are not recognized outside the industry just eats me up.
posted by hincandenza at 6:57 PM on July 1, 2012 [16 favorites]


Of the three, I preferred the Elbow mix. Sometimes more banjo is not more. Made me think about a song I hadn't listened to in ages, thanks hippybear.
posted by arcticseal at 6:58 PM on July 1, 2012


hincandenza: surely you're comparing Peter Gabriel with Miley Cyrus.

(I know you're not.)

(But you do realize that neither The Polyphonic Spree nor Elbow are big name producers, and that Gabriel self-produced that album, and that the original track has backing vocals by The Blind Boys Of Alabama, bass by Tony Levin, guitar by David Rhodes, and mandolin and keyboards by your beloved Jon Brion? And that Gabriel really doesn't fit into any of the mold that you're complaining about, anyway?)
posted by hippybear at 7:03 PM on July 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't know, it's no Trooper Believer.
posted by nanojath at 7:04 PM on July 1, 2012


Sometimes more banjo is not more.

I can't even assign these words meaning.
posted by cmoj at 7:09 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Peter Gabriel tends toward grandiosity, which I find tiresome. So when I saw Polyphonic Spree, I almost didn't bother to listen. The banjo had me excited for a moment. That was unexpected and welcomed. But in the end, I think the Elbow mix works best.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:23 PM on July 1, 2012


Speaking as someone that is an invisible part of the creative process, I don't care about credit or fame; I just want to get paid.

Do not confuse the technicians with the artistes. We are not interested in screaming fans or public recognition; if we care about your opinion, chances are good that you know we were involved. Otherwise, please just make sure we get to eat.
posted by nonlocal at 7:27 PM on July 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ha! I'm a big fan of earlier Gabriel, but I never got into Up very much. So I had to refamiliarize myself with the original track -- pretty standard stuff, his usual crappy lyrics, not much of his amazing music. [I still have no idea what many of his songs are actually about, even though I've listened to them hundreds of times... his lyrics just make no sense. But I play them anyway, because the music... whoah.]

The updated version gave me a big grin. The difference is amazing. Gabriel and banjo in the same track is not something I would have expected to hear in this life.

I still have no idea what the track's about, though.
posted by Malor at 7:32 PM on July 1, 2012


The original sounds like Peter Gabriel trying to emulate Nine Inch Nails and ending up sounding a lot more like that other guy from Genesis than he might have intended.

The second mix is much better--which is to say, it is actually good.

The third ends up awesome, but takes way too long to get there. Something something "less than this."

And that's how I feel about that.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:32 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I prefer the Polyphonic Spree version. Gabriel tends to express himself in very serious tones that come across to me as dark and depressing - and maybe that's the point that he's making; life is not easy, after all. I sometimes think of music as colours and Gabriel's is often black. I think too that he he might feel this way as well since he often dresses in black, his album covers are often sparse, dark or even black.

Don't get me wrong, I love's me some Peter Gabriel but I have to be in the mood for it and I guess my mood right now is Polyphonic Spree.

Remixing is much like doing a cover song. When done properly and not as a clone of the original, I get different interpretations, different thoughts about it. Check out the Slits doing I Heard it Through the Grapevine. And here's CCR's version. Both are excellent of course but the Slits have a bit more menace and seriousness while CCR turns it into a sobby beer tale.

Anyway, yeah, no surprise that the song composition makes a difference. It's usually the first thing I notice, not the lyrics. There are songs that have been ear worming my head for years that I still don't know all the lyrics to but I count as being faves because of the sum total, ie how it's sung, how fitting is the music to the lyrics, how awesome are the lyrics, etc. Example, the Gotye song that's currently overplayed - Somebody That I Used to Know.
posted by ashbury at 7:39 PM on July 1, 2012


Wow, this is great -- thanks, hippybear!

For what it's worth, my all-time favorite over-the-top arrangement makeover is the Ben Folds/William Shatner/Joe Jackson version of Pulp's Common People. Not quite the same thing in that it doesn't use the original's vocal track, but I still find it quite a jaw-dropping and exhilarating transformation.
posted by treepour at 8:06 PM on July 1, 2012


I'm not sure I understand the remixes. They sound sort of ridiculous to me, and not in a good way.

I guess I should have expected a warm welcome from the Metafilter/I don't drive a car/or own a TV set, but both of those mixes seem like they were created on a dare.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:26 PM on July 1, 2012


both of those mixes seem like they were created on a dare

They seem to be odd foreshadowing of the ill-fated Scratch My Back / I'll Scratch Yours project, in which Gabriel covered songs by a bunch of different artists and then tried to get those same artists to contribute covers of his songs to a second album.

(Scratch My Back's string arrangements themselves are a foreshadowing of his New Blood album and tour, in which he reinterprets his own material with a symphonic orchestra playing and no conventional rock instruments.)
posted by hippybear at 8:35 PM on July 1, 2012


Because of this title I spent awhile listening to the Roxy Music version of More than This. That's a really evocative song- makes me sad, but for what? 1982? I was 8!
posted by bquarters at 8:37 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had thought that More Than This was a Roxy Music song.
posted by ovvl at 8:38 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


ovvl: this particular More Than This is not a Roxy Music song.
posted by hippybear at 8:42 PM on July 1, 2012


I'd say the Elbow mix wins by a mile. That quiet, stripped down beginning really suits it, and the slow build of the instruments around his voice is affecting in a way the other versions just aren't. The PS version seems busy by comparison, and the original album version just doesn't click right for me. It seems unfinished somehow. The Elbow mix actually sounds more like what I think of a classic Gabriel tune sounding like.

When I was a teen I had a car with screwed up radio speakers, it would drop out certain tracks in a stereo mix. I was listening to the local classic rock station a lot, and my radio turned the Stones' Mother's Little Helper into this very stark, sinister thing. It was just Jagger's voice with a slight echo, and then between each verse there were a few seconds of nasty, sarcastic guitar. It was awesome, like a campfire song in hell. I thought that's how the song was supposed to sound, and then I heard it a few years later with all the other instruments on top and it was all wrong, it sounded like they were playing 3 songs at once. I've never heard what I think of as the "original" version since, and I miss it.

Neil Young has a new album of folk songs rearranged into hard rockers. It's bizarre to hear these wholesome tunes I remember being forced to sing in elementary school, all scuzzed up and Neil Young-ified. His version of Clementine will peel the paint off your walls. It arguably goes on a bit too long, but damn.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:51 PM on July 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


ovvl: this particular More Than This is not a Roxy Music song.

Although the Roxy Music song is very good too. Somebody should do a big post on Avalon, Roxy Music's last album. So well produced! It was a make-out album for me, so maybe I'm biased.

Actually, somebody should just do a big post on Roxy Music.
posted by ashbury at 8:55 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


ashbury: why don't YOU do a big post on Roxy Music? You seem to have passion for the topic.
posted by hippybear at 8:57 PM on July 1, 2012


Heh heh. But no, hippybear, I don't have much talent, time or desire to do big posts. For the time being I'm happy reading the results of your research, which you do so well.
posted by ashbury at 9:06 PM on July 1, 2012


The original sounds like Peter Gabriel trying to emulate Nine Inch Nails

My wife walked in as I was listening and asked whether it was Trent Reznor.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:44 PM on July 1, 2012


For the time being I'm happy reading the results of your research, which you do so well.

*blush* Well, thank you. I have a couple of items in the queue ahead of your request, but I'll get to Roxy Music (per your request) when its time comes around.
posted by hippybear at 10:21 PM on July 1, 2012


I am a massive, massive Roxy Music fan – I can recite from memory the lyrics from most of their albums. I scoff at those hipsters who claim to only prefer the Eno albums; Country Life is an utter masterpiece, for example, and even Siren is sublime. But Avalon makes me spit bile, and listening to even five seconds of Roxy's "More Than This" knots the pit of my stomach such that I have to listen to the "A Really Good Time" four or five times just to unwind it. If there is a post about it, I will try to avoid it, as I've tried to listed to Avalon without hearing mush several times and always failed.

Anyway, my ridiculous reactions aside, this "More Than This" is much better than the Roxy Music song, I think. Thanks for it, hippybear.
posted by koeselitz at 11:56 PM on July 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't stop watching the bird flocking footage in the Elbow video. Well worth the price of admission.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:41 AM on July 2, 2012


I liked Scratch My Back.

...I'll just show myself out.
posted by KChasm at 2:13 AM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


FWIW - count me as really liking the Polyphonic Spree arrangement most. Peter Gabriel's music is such a template that the banjos and sunshine rinse they put on this track made it far more interesting to listen to.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 2:51 AM on July 2, 2012


KChasm: "I liked Scratch My Back."

My one-sentence review of Scratch My Back goes something like this: When I first got the album, I noticed that about halfway through I was just staring into space, consumed by every bad memory and current worry. I had to stop it to actually get any work done.
posted by mkb at 3:11 AM on July 2, 2012


I find myself surprised at liking the original version a hell of a lot more. Had no idea Gabriel was still (c. a decade ago) making music I'd want to listen to. On the flip side, I love love love the Polyphonic Spree but sometime Tim DeLaughter values prettiness over musicality and the version here sounds weirdly static (as in, no forward thrust, no tempo) to me.
posted by psoas at 5:16 AM on July 2, 2012


It was just Jagger's voice with a slight echo, and then between each verse there were a few seconds of nasty, sarcastic guitar. It was awesome, like a campfire song in hell. I thought that's how the song was supposed to sound, and then I heard it a few years later with all the other instruments on top and it was all wrong, it sounded like they were playing 3 songs at once. I've never heard what I think of as the "original" version since, and I miss it.

(Technical derail ahead)

What has happened there is it was mixing the one channel of the stereo mix with the inverse of the other channel. This would cancel out anything that was in both channels, and present one channel out of phase.

One way this could happen is a failed amp block. A second is miswired speakers, though often, miswiring them in this fashion will kill the amp. The third has to do with how stereo FM work.

The issue, when they decided to broadcast stereo, was this -- what about all the mono systems out there?

The way that you radio knows that it's a stereo signal is the pilot tone -- a signal at 19KHz. If it hears that (and you don't, because the actual audio output is filtered to 15KHz, leaving a 4KHz guard band around it) then it knows there's a second signal, with the other channel information, that's frequency shifted above the normal FM signal, starting at 38KHz. So, it gets that, down converts, and now you have two audio streams.

But they're not Left and Right. If they were, mono systems would only hear one channel, not a mix. You could state that "Well, they should mix them", but mono systems didn't have the hardware to decode the higher channel. They had *only* the normal channel, thus, that channel had to have a mix that worked with mono receivers.

So, the trick. The lower channel -- the normal one, broadcasts a mix of the left and right channels. Mono receivers play this. Stereo receivers hear the pilot tone, and get the other channel, which has a mix of the left channel, with the inverse of the right channel added, or if you will, the right channel subtracted.

So, you have two channels -- L+R, L-R. The receiver then just does a little math.

For left, it adds the two channels together, so you get (L+R)+(L-R), or (L+L)+(R-R) or 2L+0, or 2L. You have the left channel.

For the right, it subtracts them. (L-R)-(L+R) or (L-L)-(r+r), or 0-2R, or -2R. Hey, you have the right channel.

In case you're wondering about that -2R. Yes, technically, that's out of phase, but the rule is you broadcast the right signal inverted, so after all the math, you end up with L and R, both in the same phase, and present that to the amplification block.

So, mono receivers get L+R in the mix, from the first channel, and stereo derives L and R from the L+R and L-R signals.

So, if you receiver went very strange in the decode block, it might have been presenting only the L-R signal, which would happen if, for some reason, the first channel wasn't being received properly in stereo mode. So, in this case, you'd get 0+(L-R) and that would be L-R for the left speaker, and (L-R)-0, which would be left-right for the right speaker.

You could probably recreate this with software -- just mix the inverse of right with left.

An, as an aside to the aside, you can use similar trickery to broadcast quadrophonic stereo with one main and three sub channels, and still have a mono mix on the main channel.

1) (LF+LR+RF+RR) This is the mono mix
2) (LF+LR)-(RF+RR) This is all the left channels, minus all the right channels
1 and 2 can be used to derive a normal stereo signal (where L=LF+LR and R=RF+RR)
3) (LF+RF)-(LR+RR) This is all the front channels, minus all the back channels
1 and 3 could be used to make an all front and all back mix.
4) (LF+RR)-(LR+RF) This is the diagonal difference channel, the left front and right rear are the first diagonal.
The exact extraction is left as an exercise for the reader. :-)

This particular implementation is called "Matrix Encoding", and it get quite complex -- often involving 90° phase shifts as well as simple inversions -- Dolby Digital encoded four channels onto two, with a limited bandwidth third channel for the subwoofer.

Later digital technologies just present channels and expect the receiver to handle downconversion. This works because, unlike FM Mono, down and up conversion was explicitly thought about when the standards were done, and if you have a stereo digital signal, it's sending L and R as separate channels, and if the receiver isn't stereo, it must mix the two signals to get the L+R pseudo-mono mix.

I say pseudo-mono, because at one time, you might have had a separately mixed mono recording and stereo recording of the same track, and summing L+R on the stereo recording would *not* recreate the mono mix. But that's another digression, bordering on holy war.
posted by eriko at 6:39 AM on July 2, 2012 [22 favorites]


I'll get to Roxy Music (per your request) when its time comes around.

Yes, please--a big, sparkly post is needed for the greatest art rock band of all time...

I am a massive, massive Roxy Music fan

and possibly some matching jackets for MeFi superfans.
More to the point of this thread, I thought Gabriel's cover of The Power of the Heart on Scratch My Back was exceptional.
posted by condesita at 7:24 AM on July 2, 2012


This effect is even more obvious when you look at some of the remarkable creations made with Microsoft Songsmith using existing vocals and some interesting choices in terms of musical style.

For example: Johnny Cash - Hurt, salsa style
posted by Deathalicious at 8:02 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


>>> Somebody should do a big post on Avalon, Roxy Music's last album.

Someone did.
posted by grabbingsand at 8:08 AM on July 2, 2012


I wonder if we like simply like things based on their novelty factor.

Mapped this way, the Elbow Mix version is the most expected, with the vocal being the main focus and instrumentation in a supporting role. Pleasant, but not memorable.

The Polyphonic Spree version tries at times to be too novel, sometimes to the point of failure. Overall still interesting... once.

In Gabriel's original, the vocal is just one instrument in a carefully calculated composite. (The talent level of the people involved, as noted by Hippybear, has a lot to do with this.) It hits the sweet spot of the "different, but not too different" rule, which I guess is why people are still doing covers 10 years on.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 8:33 AM on July 2, 2012


hippybear: hincandenza: surely you're comparing Peter Gabriel with Miley Cyrus.

(I know you're not.)

(But you do realize that neither The Polyphonic Spree nor Elbow are big name producers, and that Gabriel self-produced that album, and that the original track has backing vocals by The Blind Boys Of Alabama, bass by Tony Levin, guitar by David Rhodes, and mandolin and keyboards by your beloved Jon Brion? And that Gabriel really doesn't fit into any of the mold that you're complaining about, anyway?
You misunderstood- I wasn't comparing any of the linked artists- Peter Gabriel or otherwise- to Miley Cyrus (and I don't mean to pick on Miley, who from what I can see is reasonably cool regardless of her uptight parenting and Disney upbringing). I was responding to the general question you asked- "How much difference does a musical arrangement make"- by saying "Well, all the difference in the world" and expressing my frustration that the real work of music is taking some basic melody or idea and turning it into something fully fleshed out- yet copyright laws among other things act as if the session musician who creates the legendary guitar riff, or the producer who composes the various backing strings and organizes the whole sound of the song from intro to code, are incidental to the song's creation.

Rare 'pop' artists like Gabriel are talented and trained enough to do this themselves; yet often, pop artists don't write their own songs or if they do they "write" them in the sense of the basic lyrics and guitar strumming idea while the producer turns that from nothing into a full song. Because no one would buy an album of just lazy three-chord strumming, yet that work is what's so critical to making a particular song a song.

I consider it the musical equivalent of "MBA Seeks Code Monkey".
nonlocal: Speaking as someone that is an invisible part of the creative process, I don't care about credit or fame; I just want to get paid.

Do not confuse the technicians with the artistes. We are not interested in screaming fans or public recognition; if we care about your opinion, chances are good that you know we were involved. Otherwise, please just make sure we get to eat.
Why can't it be both? Why can't you be paid- well- for creating a hit pop song and get the fame of being the real creator?
posted by hincandenza at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2012


Why can't it be both? Why can't you be paid- well- for creating a hit pop song and get the fame of being the real creator?

I don't know. First the traditional music publishing system usually took a big cut of the profits. And some producers such as Phil Specter, Rick Rubin, Willie Dixon, and Gorgio Moroder are recognized as important hit-makers.

I'm also seeing more cases where the composer/producer gets primary credit (Fatboy Slim, Wax Tailor) or is a pivotal part of a collaborative "project" (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley).
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:52 PM on July 2, 2012


Eriko, a lot of your explanation flew right over my head, but I appreciate the effort. And it is nice to know that if I ever really want to hear what I think of as the "original" version, I can probably recreate it without too much trouble.

I did eventually get used to the "real" version. It's actually not a very over-produced song or anything... It just sounded that way at first, compared to the absolutely minimal version I was used to, which sounded like they'd recorded Mick and Keith at the bottom of a well.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:11 PM on July 2, 2012


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