What do you want in a cover? I remember debating this topic with a friend who claimed that a cover can still be a cover if the artist changes the melody and chords, leaving only the lyrics. I don’t mean to sound overly stubborn or conservative about this, but: no. Maybe it’s because I place too much emphasis on the music compared to the lyrics, but to me, a song is part melody, part chords, part words. You lose one part, you lose the song.
Wye Oak’s version of the Kinks’ “Strangers” is exactly what I want in a cover: an amplification (in this case, literally) of a song’s strengths, an extrapolation of what the original artist intended while adding new elements. Singer-guitarist Jenn Wasnick, drummer-keyboardist (you read that right) Andy Stack and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg absolutely nail the original song’s strengths, from that beautiful melody (which Wasnick uses for a glorious guitar solo) to the off-kilter time signature. They turn an intimate acoustic song into an electric epic without losing a thing.
This song was recorded for the A.V. Club’s “Undercover” series, in which band plays in the website’s offices. That a few people can produce this kind of performance by just showing up in a room is something that I find completely amazing. It’s why I keep listening to music.
I can never figure out if the Kinks are celebrating or mocking nostalgia. It’s probably a little of both, depending on the song. In “The Village Green Preservation Society,” the band is definitely making fun of British stuffiness (“God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards/Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?”). But I also think the song is an honest, if exaggerated, view of the Kinks’ role in popular culture. They sang about Britishness all the time, in a way that made clear that they loved where they came from, and also thought it was funny that people (including themselves) thought so damn much about it.
Then again, the Wikipedia page on the The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society makes it sound like Kinks frontman and main songwriter Ray Davies was playing it straight. I believe his love of Britain and its traditions is genuine, but his tongue was almost always in his cheek, and I can’t imagine that this record wasn’t intended with some irony.
In any case, this song is a great one. It must have sounded pretty antiquated when it was released in 1968 (on the same day as the White Album!), all tinkly pianos and lyrics about steam engines. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do well on the charts. It’s stuck around as a major influence–just listen to any Blur song from 1994 or so–and holds up after repeated listens. It’s a record about Britishness, to be sure, but also about memory and the dangers of holding on to the past. It’s sad, funny, and altogether amazing. And this song is where it starts.