“Total Control” – Emma Swift
Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift has transformed this new wave classic via the most delicate and deft mutation. The Motels tune still burns slowly, achingly. In place of the original’s rubbery, late-’70s itch Swift employs a torchy, old-style country setting, with exquisite pedal steel work and a slight but effective vocal twang.
We know we are in excellent hands from the opening notes: Swift creates an entirely new introduction for the song, composed of lovely, unresolved arpeggios, played on a silver-toned guitar. It couldn’t be more different than the dated, repetitive staccato of the original intro, which had its new-wave-y charms but always struck me as clunky. (It can be a fine line between a slow burn and lack of imagination.) And while there is likewise nothing wrong with Martha Davis’s vocals—okay they were a bit affected but that was her thing—Swift here really sings this baby, accessing all sorts of actual emotion in places where Davis was content to go for eccentricity.
That’s the thing about this cover that feels almost shockingly appealing: how deep and lived-in Swift makes a song that never previously seemed much more than a quirky curiosity. Some of this has to do with the subtle but superb arrangement; there does not appear to be one note in the background or foreground that isn’t being played for a purpose. Even something as seemingly minor as the decision to deliver the oddly climactic line “Stay in bed/Stay in sheets” with harmony vocals (Swift otherwise sings single-tracked the whole way through) becomes a moment rich with ineffable delight via some combination of know-how and hunch. In any case, I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.
Swift is a singer/songwriter from Sydney who spends half her year in Nashville. She also hosts an Americana-oriented radio show on the Australian station Double J. “Total Control” can be found on Swift’s debut release, a self-titled six-song EP, which you can listen to and/or purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks muchly to Cover Lay Down for the link. Joshua’s been running a genial covers-only music blog there for years and years; check it out at http://coverlaydown.com.