I had originally conceived of a long piece about Jazz vs. Classical / written vs. improvised music, but since I heard The Brave And The Bold by Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy yesterday, I changed my mind and will say a few things about this instead.
Now, friends and foes alike may know that some of the values I most treasure in music are a willingness to fight and overcome, as opposed to e.g. wallowing in sorrow and self pity. Will Oldham, a.k.a Bonnie "Twat" Billy has never made it a secret that he prefers the melancholy and the sad. This sad sucker once claimed, you know, that he was sad because he "was born". Giving up before you even start. That's the spirit.
Now, to above mentioned record. It is comprised of cover versions of songs by artists as seemingly diverse as Milton Nascimento and Devo. But to me, the two most striking covers are Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and The Minutemen's "It's Expected I'm Gone", and both attempts fail greatly.
Let us just quickly establish that the meaning of a given song is not merely its lyric, but the way this lyric is performed. It can be related to Roland Barthes' description of "The Grain of the Voice". By this he meant that the voice and its grain embodies everything real of which it spoke. If it spoke of pain, the voice was pain. If it spoke of hope, it was hope.
Now, "Thunder Road", like many of Springsteen's songs, is a song of hope and forward motion. One of it's most striking couplets is "Have a little faith / there's magic in the night". In Oldham's detached voice, there is no such hope to be found. Tortoise's playing slows down the tune immensely, and it loses momentum. "Thunder Mud" more than "Road".
One of the most striking lines in the Minutemen song is "No hope / see, that's what gives me guts", but there is no guts in either Oldham's voice nor the slow core of Tortoise.
Not only is there in my opinion a lack of concord between the lyrics of these songs and the "grain" of Oldham's voice which not really alters their respective meaning so much as distorts it. It's a pointless artifact, and if not pointless it definitely offers a completely different (and in my opinion wrong) impression of the songs and artists it covers.