Feature Image by Virginia McCarthy and Cap Blackard
Cover Girl is a bi-monthly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. As musicians throw around genres, tempos, styles, and intent, Nina Corcoran breaks down what makes them stand out. This week’s column looks at Warpaint’s groove-heavy cover of a David Bowie classic.
Less than a year after the death of David Bowie, there’s still so much to say. He revolutionized music, then he revolutionized it again, altering his persona and sound, prodding the walls of pop until people began to accept that the genre could offer something deeper than the pleasure of a learnable melody or sing-along chorus.
Through all of his phases, Bowie brought something to the table by challenging what we thought we already knew. He reigned at bringing darkness to pop, be it within his lyrics or in the tones of the instrumentation. By the time his Berlin era drew to a close in the late 1970s, Bowie turned towards straightforward pop and a form of New Romantic songwriting. This style permeates 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), an album of textural guitars and direct lyricism that saw contributions from Pete Townshend, Robert Fripp, Chuck Hammer, and more.
Scary Monsters spawned one of Bowie’s biggest hits, “Ashes to Ashes”, which became his second track to top the UK singles chart. Addressing Major Tom, the protagonist of 1969’s “Space Oddity”, Bowie explores a more dour tone than before, labeling the man as a drug addict who’s disillusioned with the world and himself. Like a gothic nursery rhyme, “Ashes to Ashes” continues to crawl into horror-like tropes while the song bobs about, maintaining a funky groove thanks to its bass-heavy melody. The music alone justifies its fame. But, when paired with the most expensive music video of that time, it launched into the public eye with unflinching force, introducing listeners to a different side of new wave that focused on introspective tendencies and the appeal of reclusiveness.
The ease with which Bowie dabbles in the accessible and the inaccessible is what makes him so appealing. His recordings extend a hand to listeners at the happiest moments of their life as well as the darkest, pushing pop to welcome those who never thought they were welcome before, perhaps because they were too busy toying with outsider alternatives.
As his death has made clear, Bowie impacted practically everyone, from artists whose music bears no similarities to his own to those who outright cover his songs. In short, he created pop music for misfits, paving the way for countless others to do the same.
With that in mind, Manimal Vinyl reached out to a slew of artists to create a David Bowie covers compilation. Released in 2010, We Were So Turned On: A Tribute to David Bowie raised money for War Child UK. Though it was originally meant to include covers by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, the organizers wrangled together an equally impressive tracklist over the course of two years that saw Duran Duran and Carla Bruni joined by artists like Devendra Banhart and Viv Albertine, as well as several acts that were new at the time but have since achieved greater recognition. Among these lesser-known acts were California four-piece Warpaint.
At the time of the album’s release, drummer Stella Mozgawa had just come aboard and Warpaint were finally finding their footing. Yet their cover of “Ashes to Ashes” articulates a level of talent more common in bands twice their age. (It’s true they formed in 2004, but Warpaint needed four years to hone their style for the Exquisite Corpse EP and, two years later, for their debut full-length, The Fool). In covering “Ashes to Ashes” for the compilation, they kneaded their own signature sound while selflessly paying tribute to an icon.
Warpaint’s cover offers subtle differences based on a shift in tone. Tender piano replaces the wiry synth of Bowie’s original. His cold, monotone delivery is replaced by the cushioned harmonies of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman. Mozgawa’s padded percussion and apparent technical skill brings an effortlessness to the cover, reducing the song’s punch so that it waves back and forth, a slow take that still gets lost in the mystery of Bowie’s words.
This isn’t a glaringly original work. There are no bold changes. Warpaint don’t pretend Bowie is something you can revamp and expect to surpass in the process. Instead, they hone in on the theme he presents and exhale, inflating that very aura until it becomes a giant, billowing blanket slowly descending on the listener.
By far the best part of Warpaint’s cover is their ability to draw attention to an already prominent bassline. Jenny Lee Lindberg wields her Rickenbacker with confidence and precision, the lows and highs accented with equal attention, a clean tone resting somewhere above the other instruments. Bowie structured “Ashes to Ashes” so that the funk-like bass could guide his words, but Lindberg toys with that idea even more. Her bass becomes the leader in a dance, clasping its hand around the vocal harmonies so that they twirl into a world of dizzying, enchanting, poisonous allure. By extending the instrumental outro, Warpaint ride the wave out until its very end, letting the bass repeat lines for others to play off it, a spacious ripple left in its trail that makes the whole song feel like a dream.
The spring of 2014 saw Warpaint revisit their version of “Ashes to Ashes” and, in the process, remember why they covered it in the first place. After debuting the cover at Boston Calling that summer, they played it at several other festivals, including Primavera Sound and Glastonbury, reintroducing it to fans who never knew the band covered the song to begin with and reworking their take in minor ways.
What’s better is that they still haven’t tried to outshine Bowie, who obviously can’t be reinvented. Does he encourage others to rework music? Of course. Does he embody the ability to change what seems to be set in stone? Absolutely. Warpaint know that, and their cover of “Ashes to Ashes” modernizes Bowie’s hit without challenging the original or losing any of its strength. One of the few ways to make a cover great is to keep its core themes and then accentuate its appeals, a means of revision that Warpaint execute impressively here. It’s an extension of greatness, a passing of talent from one generation to another, which is exactly what Bowie wanted — and what he’s still smiling about up in heaven right now.