: Harmonies (song reviews)

Equus vs. Vertigo

August 29th, 2005

So last year when the new U2 single “Vertigo” came out, am I the only one who thought it was awfully similar to Blonde Redhead’s “Equus”? I mean, obviously U2 is a lot bigger of a band, but BR are not the most obscure band out there. And in fact, the two have a lot in common. Both bands are pretty talented, attention-hungry (you could also call them “sell-outs” I guess), fashionable, and I think both of them are really pretentious. But I also like them both: I have a surprising loyalty to Blonde Redhead and a strange soft spot for U2. Also, I thought that “Equus” was the clear standout on Blonde Redhead’s lackluster last album, and “Vertigo” was the definite highlight of the last U2 album. So there are some weird parallels here.

And I think that if Blonde Redhead had been asked to put “Equus” in an iPod commercial, they would’ve jumped at the opportunity. It might even have been kind of cool, in that odd underground-meets-mainstream way.

“Equus” · Blonde Redhead · Misery Is a Butterfly, 2004

Blonde Redhead have transformed so gradually that it is hard to remember that when I first heard them, around 1997-ish, they were a thrilling, screeching noise-rock band, like old Sonic Youth but with sexy Japanese and Italian accents. Their shift into spacey cabaret music was a bit unexpected. I found it really interesting at first, but less so over time, and when I finally heard their latest album, Misery Is a Butterfly, I had a hard time caring too much about it. As I listened for the first time, the album seemed pretty but pointless, all style and no substance. It was hard not to think about that giant Gap billboard with their faces that I’d seen in New York, or about the last time I’d watched them perform with too many piped-in backing tracks and too little rock energy. It was hard not to think that the band had turned into more of a fashion statement than anything else.

Blonde Redhead live photo
Blonde Redhead / photo by davduf

Only at the end of the album was there a real sign of life, a hopeful and relatively upbeat number that makes me think that the “new” Blonde Redhead has the potential to be as incredible as the older version. That maybe fake really can be just as good. &#8220Equus” seems to be what the band is striving for throughout the album, or at least it is what I wish they would strive for from now on. It’s slinky and seductive; it dances along quickly from verse to chorus to verse; it manages to fit in the band’s newfound love of circus-song organ parts during the bridge without ruining the rest of the song.

Kazu Makino has a great voice and she highlights it well in this song, with playful overdubs and harmonies and some random “na na na”s. Probably the highlight of the song comes near the end, as the background vocals kick in after the last verse and then an echoing guitar line floats over it, one measure behind, playing in rounds for about 10 seconds. You think: wow, they know what they are doing with this one. It is a well-constructed pop confection, as the critics say.

One of the problems with Misery as an album is that Makino and co-vocalist Amadeo Pace sing too clearly, revealing that they are not the world’s greatest lyricists. Blonde Redhead lyrics were a lot cooler back when they were indecipherable. But on “Equus” the lyrics sound pretty fun and appealing. I can’t tell if she is saying “Allow me to show you the way which I-I know you” or “…way which I adore you” but I think it is more likely the first one. Either way it is vague but pretty catchy. Presumably the lyrics are referring to the play or movie Equus, but they are nicely ambiguous and don’t seem to rely too much on the source material. When songs refer to literature or films, I prefer that they do so obliquely like this.

I read Equus (the play) a few years ago and I didn’t really get it — all dream imagery and paganism and sex and teenage confusion. Those are all things that make for fabulous rock and roll, though, and I’m willing to accept that “Equus” (the song) is an extended riff on those ideas. A pretty cool juxtaposition. So I think I will just close with a statement I’ve never made before: the song is better than the book.

“Vertigo” · U2 · How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004

So I mostly have pretty hip musical taste. Even my most questionable favorite bands (e.g., Queensrÿche or the Goo Goo Dolls) are pretty easy to defend given my sterling reputation for musical savvy. But somehow U2 brings out the worst in a lot of people, and there are friends of mine who just can’t believe that I really like U2. And yet I do. And you would too, if you could forget about the hype and the sanctimony, the $120 concert tickets and the silly costumes, and could just listen to the music. U2 know that they’re not cutting-edge, they’re just trying to make good rock music, and they’ve done it consistently for as long as I can remember.

U2’s The Edge / photo by Nathan Overton

They certainly have an outlandishly devout fanbase, though, which always turns off outsiders. You start looking up the lyrics to a hit song and you end up finding conspiracy theories about the hidden meanings of “unos, dos, tres, catorce.” So I am not gonna try to decipher and analyze the lyrics, that’s been done a million times apparently. (Note to U2 superfans: it’s just a rock song.)

What I can do is place “Vertigo” within the context of the indie-ish stuff I usually listen to and try to imagine myself as a hermit who had miraculously never listened to U2 before and had the impression that this song was by some properly bearded Brooklynites. Here is how a first listen might go:

  • OK, starts out with chunky guitar and a goofy Spanish countoff — ha, rad.
  • Nice hard rock riff going into the verse, then a bass-heavy verse with vague lyrics about jungles and hearts… okay, this is going somewhere… Is this the Strokes?
  • Way catchy chorus about a “place called vertigo” with more silly Spanish background shouting. Wow, sounds like a hit.
  • A second verse that eventually ends up with simple indie-style lead guitar layered over top, and lyrics about “Jesus round her neck swinging to the music.” Don’t tell me, this is Interpol, right?
  • Good breakdown, but the boring bridge section seems tossed in out of obligation… at least it is over quickly and painlessly. A bit amateur-sounding and heavy-handed with that “all of this can be yours” stuff.
  • Nicely-done closing choruses that talk about “teaching me how to kneel”… Maybe it’s a Foo Fighters song? The “yeah yeah yeah yeah” part is pretty Dave Grohl-y too.
  • Huh, it sure is over quickly. Man, this thing is great, though. Not very original — it’s about three or four years behind the times — but really nicely done. Who on earth produced this thing??

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I like this song. It is the first thing by U2 since Zooropa that shows that they have been listening to some of the good things going on in popular music and allowed it to influence their work. U2 are officially in “late career” stage by now, and good things rarely turn up at that point. It is nice just to hear them doing their best version of New York turn-of-the-millenium hipster-rock and coming up with something fun and catchy.

It really does sound a lot like “Equus” during the chorus, but I think, overall, it is slightly superior. Blonde Redhead are a much more daring and interesting band than U2, but they are not really any better just because they take risks. U2 have become the wise old veterans who know their own limitations; BR are still trying to prove themselves, unnecessarily, and sound a little tentative to me. I will be waiting for the next moves by each of these bands, and I bet that Blonde Redhead will keep on being more interesting, while U2 will keep cranking out better singles. Which sounds pretty okay to me.

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