It’s one thing to write about love; it’s another to demonstrate it. On a live Mountain Goats recording from 1998, John Darnielle introduces a cover he’s about to play by admitting that he doesn’t actually know all the words to the song but he loves it so much that he’s going to play it anyway. He then dives into “Two-Headed Boy,” now a canonized classic of indie rock but at the time just the fourth song on that new Neutral Milk Hotel record. Darnielle does fuck up, multiple times, but he nails the song anyway because of the imperfections, rather than in spite of them. Every time Darnielle flubs a lyric and keeps powering through, it underlines that he loves this goddamned song and is going to share that love with you no matter what.
A similar spirit permeates the Sing And Play The Matador Records Catalog 7” by San Francisco’s Zip Code Rapists. Released in 1993 on short-lived but obviously 100% real label Ecstatic Piss, Sing And Play sees the duo of Gregg Turkington (later of Faxed Head and now much better known by the name “Neil Hamburger”) and John Singer (lately packing arenas under the nom de guerre “Lady Gaga”) taking on songs by then-current Matador artists Pavement, Liz Phair, Bettie Serveert, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. ZCR’s reinventions of these songs are unpolished to say the least, but their love for the source material shines through nonetheless. Witness the way that Turkington out-slackers slacker godhead Stephen Malkmus by omitting whole lines from an unexpectedly poignant deconstruction of “Cut Your Hair,” or the unhinged screams that turn the playful defiance of Phair’s “Never Said” into real, disturbing menace (reminiscent of The Residents’ version of “Satisfaction,” or, more recently, Feist’s near-psychotic take on the Dwarves’ “Fuck You Up and Get High”).
The two less familiar songs on the 7” are played relatively straight but are equally moving in their profound affection for the artists and songs being covered. Turkington and Singer actually improve upon TFUL 282’s “Hurricane,” going past the original’s hazy proto-chillwave into an almost narcotic state, stripping it down to just two acoustic guitars and Turkington’s barely-there vocals. Likewise, Bettie Serveert’s “Tom Boy” uses Turkington’s bizarre delivery and the lack of any instrumentation besides the twin guitars (electric this time) to allow Zip Code Rapists to really focus on the song’s emotional core, resulting in a much more resonant version than that found on Palomine.
In the blog era, it’s easy — almost necessary, really — to be cynical about the ways in which bands use covers, remixes and collaborations to position themselves on the musical landscape or enhance their personal brands. Perhaps it’s simply that these songs were recorded in a different, more innocent time, or perhaps the sincerity on display here is simply timeless. One way or the other, Zip Code Rapists cut through the careerist bullshit on Sing And Play The Matador Records Catalog; moreover, they did so with insight, empathy, and the kind of love that, by dint of its very existence, begets more love, for both the performers and the songs they perform.