In Brief: Trails and Ways’ sunny, Brazilian indie pop sound, as applied to covers of songs I’ve never heard of, displays admirable versatility as they translate different genres into their own musical (and sometimes literal) language.
I enjoyed Trails and Ways‘ thoroughly addictive Trilingual EP so much last year that I found myself eager to get my hands on anything that would expand their meager discography. Even when I didn’t understand everything going on in their Spanglish and Portuglish (?) lyrics, I loved how their sound was informed by their travels to far-flung places, particularly the sunny coastline of Brazil, which in my mind set them up as sort of the South American equivalent of what Vampire Weekend had done to merge West African music with indie pop. I’m still not clear on whether this Oakland-based foursome is working on a full-length album – if not, they should be. But they’ve released a few cover songs out into the wilds of the Internet over the last year or so, which up until recently were a bit hard to find outside of embedded video links on blogger sites. None of them were of songs I knew, given that they pulled from genres as diverse as indie hip-hop and Brazilian samba. But at this point, I’m game for just about anything these guys and girls are willing to try. With the amusingly nostalgic title Covers Tape, this little EP only last for four songs and about fourteen minutes – if I had it my way, I’d have tacked on their earlier cover of M83‘s “Midnight City” for good measure, but what’s present is still a delight to the ears.
First up, a track from Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange gets taken south of the equator, with its verses rewritten in Portuguese – according to the band, they actually took some liberties rather than directly translating it, to put their own spin on the story, and while I don’t have a clue what the new lyrics are saying, any opening’s got to be better than the original’s “Double D, big full breasts on my baby.” The English lyrics of the chorus remain intact, simply a list of places where the main character’s lover has turned up, waiting for a plain or train or whatever means of transportation might get her home safely. I have no idea whether the original story about her being used as a drug mule carries over into this one. The way that Keith Bower Brown and Emma Oppen split the lead vocals between them, as they do in a few of their original songs, gives this one more of a feeling of being a conversation between two lost individuals, rather than just a story a guy is telling about his girl. It seems that Trails and Ways appreciated, and managed to amplify, the catchiest qualities of this one, as their bright, harmonic guitar sound turns an already winning melody into a delicious flight of fancy.
2. Taj Mahal
By far the oldest song of the set, the group lovingly recreates Brazilian-born Jorge Ben Jor‘s highly danceable ode to… an Indian love story. That’s at least what the original Portuguese lyrics were about, but the band has turned their approach from the previous song on its head, giving it new English lyrics in the process. I think this time around it’s about the love between two men. However you interpret the subject matter, it’s an incredibly fun song, the kind of thing that I could have been fooled into thinking the band came up with on their own, given their love of 70s and 80s nostalgia. If the fluid bass line and disco-esque guitars and drums sound familiar, it’s probably because Rod Stewart bit off the original version of this song for his own hit “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” For my money, “Taj Mahal” has a much catchier chorus, even though it’s pretty much nonsense: “Taj-ee Mahaaaaaaal… da dey dey dey dey”, and so forth.
The song they’re covering here is not only so recent most people won’t have heard of it, it may even be by a band most folks haven’t heard of yet. Like Trails and Ways themselves, New York electronic duo Ghost Beach didn’t even have a full-length LP under their belt when this EP was released (that’s since been rectified with Blonde, which I may have to check out based on the strength of this song’s original version). The somewhat spastic mood of the original has been mellowed a bit, keeping the electronic rhythm but replacing the scratchy male vocals with Emma’s smoother tones (the rest of the band chimes in here and there on backing vocals, of course), and once again reworking some of the English lyrics into Portuguese. The chorus of “It’s a miracle/Even if it’s in my head/It’s a miracle/I’m in love again” comes across as carefree and optimistic, and this is the sort of song you’d expect to hear blasting from the stereo on the side of a burger shack as you ride your bike down the beach on a languid summer afternoon. (Fun fact: The lead singer of Ghost Beach is named Josh Ocean. This makes me wonder if a Billy Ocean cover is in the works.)
4. Sure Thing
Another modern R&B/soul type song gets reworked here, this time a smooth, romantic song originally recorded by Miguel. (Side note: Who uses such a common name as their stage name? How do they even market the guy in Latin America? “Hey, have you heard Mike’s new single?” “Mike who?!”) Once again, the double-tracked sound of the guitars is pure paradise, bringing great emphasis to the seductive melody of the original. While this is the only song to have both of its versions sung in English (and surprisingly so, given Miguel’s half-Mexican background and T&W’s love of Iberian languages), Keith still seems to chance up the analogies found in each verse, which still follow a general pattern of “You could be the X, I could be the Y”, in describing how two people are a perfect fit for each other. I haven’t listened closely enough to tell whether this is an improvement over some of the rather silly observations in the original version. But I prefer this one for the sexy “summer storm” mood provided by the sound of thunder and rain echoing behind it. The only thing that mars the song is the low, pitch-shifted vocal loop that repeats way too often – this already sounded goofy in Miguel’s version, but in this one it sounds downright creepy, as if the words “Ain’t nothing but a sure thing” are being delivered by a criminal demanding payment for a hostage. Sort of a mood killer, but this is still a downright delectable performance if you can look past that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Taj Mahal $1.75
Sure Thing $1.25
Emma Oppen: Lead vocals, bass
Keith Brower Brown: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards
Ian Quirk: Drums, backing vocals
Hannah Van Loon: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: