[5 December 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It would be foolish to suggest that a single song kicked off the entire dreampop sound that flourished during the late 80s and early ‘90s, but when you hear Wire’s 1979 song “Outdoor Miner”, you can certainly understand how huge an influence it indeed was. When you hear the song today, all the characteristics of what would become prototypical dreampop are there: a pretty, lilting melody, gentle lead vocals, chiming guitars, background vocals that offset the lead vocals perfectly, and neopsychedelic lyrics that seem to make no sense, but sound perfect when heard in such a lovely song. To wit:
No blind spots in the leopard’s eyes
Can only help to jeopardize
The lives of lambs, the shepherd cries
An afterlife for a silverfish
Eternal dust less ticklish
Than the clean room, a houseguest’s wish
He lies on his side, is he trying to hide?
In fact it’s the earth, which he’s known since birth
Face worker, a serpentine miner
A roof falls, an underliner
Of leaf structure, the egg timer
One of the most-loved songs in the entire Wire catalog, “Outdoor Miner” has been covered by many artists, such as Lush, Luna, and Ted Leo, and Minneapolis record label Words on Music, ever the astute purveyors of quality dreampop/shoegazer music in America, are definitely aware of the song’s importance. Tribute albums to bands are so commonplace nowadays, that it’s hard to get excited about any of them, but a tribute album to just one particular song is as interesting as it is daring. The concept has been tried previously, most notably on the deliriously weird 2002 compilation Painted Black, a tribute to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, featuring post-rockers Acid Mothers Temple and laptop ace Christian Fennesz; even Wire themselves even released The Drill, a 1991 album featuring nine re-recordings of “Outdoor Miner”. While it doesn’t get anywhere near as strange as Painted Black, A Houseguest’s Wish: Translations of Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” is for the most part a highly enjoyable experience.
Containing no fewer than 19 versions of the same song, the album seems like it would get very repetitive very quickly, but the great majority of artists involved with the project (several of whom are part of Words on Music’s roster) deliver versions of the song that are creative enough to prevent monotony from setting in. Swervedriver singer/guitarist Adam Franklin steps away from his band’s trademark guitar drones, in favor of a quiet, acoustic rendition, while English artist Sharron Kraus takes it even further, delivering a hushed folk performance, featuring a plaintively-strummed banjo. Still keeping with the acoustic theme, Christian Kiefer performs a blues version that isn’t nearly as disastrous as the idea would seem, and For Stars singer Carlos Foster’s project Kick on the Floods contributes a Brian Wilson-style interpretation, featuring layers of gorgeous harmony vocals.
The more eclectic the arrangements get, though, the better the album gets. British band Fiel Garvie completely transforms the song into a trippy shoegazer/noise pop excursion, while Should employs both clarinet and Rhodes piano melodies in an instrumental performance. Orchestral pop artists above the orange trees’ beautifully melancholy performance slows down the song considerably, as does Timonium, whose male-female lead vocal duo recites the lyrics in a barely audible, whispered tone.
Of course, there are some artists who are better off performing the song as is, best exemplified by Typewriter, Canadian band Titania, and Flying Saucer Attack. Best of all, Words on Music scored a bit of a coup by including the 1991 recording by UK greats Lush, who tear though the song as if it was written especially for them, the dual vocals of Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson sounding perfectly suited for the song’s original arrangement.
There are a few bumps along the way, as The Meeting Places’ bland performance, German band Boy Division’s ska-punk cover, and Polar’s clunky, organ-driven version become tiresome, but over its hour-long running time, A Houseguest’s Wish manages to stay fresh. And if it does get repetitive from time to time, well, with a song as wonderful as “Outdoor Miner”, hearing it over and over again isn’t a bad thing at all.