Berklee Musicians Reinvent U2, R.E.M.

"Under the Influence" released on student-run label Heavy Rotation Records

There are thousands of song covers spread across the Internet, and most of them are bad. Some are exact renditions which don’t try to add any value to the original song; some, too adventurous, lose the original meaning of the song altogether; some are terribly sung, played, and recorded. Covers are dangerous ground for aspiring musicians, and knowing the breadth of the existing mediocrity, Jeff Dorenfeld must have approached his new covers project, “Under the Influence,” with trepidation. Dorenfeld, the faculty adviser of the Berklee College of Music’s Heavy Rotation Records, spearheaded this covers album in which Berklee students and alumni cover the songs of popular alternative rock bands such as Gang of Four, Smashing Pumpkins, and R.E.M. The album is an impressive display of Berklee talent, as each artist completely restyles their two chosen songs without losing the ingenuity of the original compositions.

The idea for the project arose from an interaction between Dorenfeld and his son. “My son was listening to a lot of My Bloody Valentine, and he was saying how all these alternative bands influenced a lot of current popular artists,” Dorenfeld said. In turn, many ’80s bands, like the Pixies and Joy Division, have recently found greater audiences and seen record sales increase in part because of the bands they’ve influenced. Dorenfeld conceived the idea of selecting Berklee students to record two covers: one by an ’80s band and one by a popular modern artist who was influenced by that group. By putting ancestor and progeny side by side in a particular style, the similarities would hopefully become all the more noticeable. Dorenfeld called producer Paul Kolderie, acclaimed for his work with the Pixies, Radiohead, and Hole, to lead the way. “I don’t mind doing covers, as long as they’re approached in a fresh way,” Kolderie said.

Kolderie found his young counterparts in the studio to be creative, bold, and technically talented. The album begins with Berklee alum Julia Easterlin playing the Pixies’ “Hold My Body” and Radiohead’s “There There.” Whereas the Pixies’ version of the song is pulsing and grungy, Easterlin’s version has a bright organic bounce; it relies heavily on vocal rhythmic patterns and Easterlin’s expansive vocals. Her Radiohead cover, too, deviates heavily from the original, with shimmering percussive bells and hand drums. “There’s no way I can sing Radiohead the way Thom Yorke sings it and pull it off,” Easterlin said. “I wanted to take the song in my own direction and make it unsettling and ethereal.”

While Easterlin scales up her songs by adding intricate layers of harmony, David Pramik, covering Joy Division and U2, took the opposite approach. His much barer arrangements lean heavily on simple piano and guitar chords and his warm voice. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” released in 1987, is a soaring epic; Pramik’s version is forlorn and hymnal. “[The song] is very biblical and religious,” Pramik said. “I wanted to hear it much more intimately.” While many other artists on the album succeed through their dense arrangements, Pramik lets the melodies speak for themselves. Moreover, his stripped-down arrangements reveal a strong melodic link between Joy Division and U2, which is exactly what Dorenfeld hoped for.

“Under the Influence” makes for a very strange 48 minutes. The album hops from genre to genre without segues. Da’Rayia turns up the funk on energetic reinterpretations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gang of Four; she is followed by the Boston Boy’s bluegrass strum of Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Wanna Know If You Are Lonely,” an album highlight due to its laid back harmonies. The thrashing Berklee String Metal Ensemble immediately follows. But given all of the album’s incongruities, Dorenfield acknowledges that the album isn’t meant to be critiqued holistically. “We wanted to take from all different genres,” Dorenfeld said. “We understand that some tracks may not appeal to some people.”

The album may not be cohesive, but the project mostly succeeds because the covers are not just variations of existing compositions but wholly new artistic creations. The arrangements by Kolderie and the individual musicians are fresh and often startling, and the performances are superb. Moreover, the album has impressed at least one of the original artists. “Roger [Miller of Mission of Burma] said he liked the cover of their song,” Kolderie said. These Berklee musicians, as well as thousands of their peers, are working tirelessly in hopes of one day being able to admire covers of their own compositions.

—Staff writer Andrew Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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