MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO / “Better By The Pound”
When I first listened to Cookie I was both unimpressed and impressed. It’s not much of a pop album—although all of the hooks are good, Meshell doesn’t have that many hooks on the album and it’s very un-radio-friendly. But on the other hand, the mélange of musical sounds and poetic contributions (including seminal voices of the Harlem Renaissance) is a very, very impressive development in modern music. Who would have thought of mixing Countee Cullen and hip-hop, Claude McKay and funky bass riffs? Meshell, that’s who. Cookie is a serious moment in Negro musical history.
The killer for me was a song that sounded familiar but which I couldn’t place. In subsequent conversations, Mtume and I mused on the song and then Mtume figured it out. Meshell had done a cover of Funkadelic. (The title was a dead give-away but the song sounded so Meshell-ish that it never occurred to me that it was a cover.)
“Better By The Pound” is quintessential Funkadelic and Meshell’s version is easily the best ever cover of a Funkadelic song. Easily. Nobody else even comes close. And yet it sounds absolutely nothing like the original.
Meshell cut the tempo in half and made it less a dance number and more a funky head trip, a deep, meditative, introspective questioning of pleasure and destiny, will and wants. Once I listened to Meshell’s version as a cover, I discovered (and I was totally surprised) that even though it was twice as long in running time, it was nearly a word-for-word cover. No added frills.
In fact, if anything the power of the lyrics are heightened and the impact is doubled by slowing the song down. No doubt about it, Meshell can’t sing, but she can emote her ass off. This is Jimi Hendrix’ bass-playing daughter. Jimi was no great shakes as a singer, but most of his mumbles are memorable. Meshell’s seductive whisper has more impact than most people’s shrillest scream (or their most sensitive shout).
Although it’s true that it ain’t what you say, but rather the way that you say it, it is more true that when you do a good job of saying something deep, then you’ve really said something…or something like that!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
A new song that turns out to be old
Yeah, it’s a little disconcerting to find out that you’re really digging a “new” song that turns out to be an old song that you’ve heard countless times. If I wasn’t a big Funkadelic fan, maybe I wouldn’t have been so surprised, but I know “Better By The Pound.” Then here comes Meshell singing all the same words and I’m clueless. I guess I could’ve just read the CD booklet, but I treat reading the directions as a last resort. You know how I finally caught it? The chorus. The melody kind of jumped out at me and I knew I’d heard it before.
The thing about P-Funk is, they’re such clowns (on the surface, at least) that it’s easy to laugh at everything they say, even when it’s not funny. On the other hand, check the lyrics:
Pleasure is the motivation for the human race
Everything starts and ends with sex and appeal
Feeling good is the bait Satan uses to fish for you and me
Comfort is the poison, when it’s the spirit he wants to kill
There’s a tidal wave of mysticism
Surging through our jet-age generation
It’s all designed to take us to the sky
There’s such a need for us to feel nice and it’s getting better
We got to have it more than we ought to
The preacher keeps promising satisfaction
The ladies keep giving up the gratifaction
You know what? I’m feeling better by the pound...
Not only is that not funny, it’s some deep shit. But when I listen to the Funkadelic version, all I hear is the unlikeliness of the chorus: “feeling better” but “by the pound.” It’s a funny way to phrase such a comment and other than that nice uptempo percussion thing and the good melody, that’s all I really took note off. But then when Meshell got hold of it and sang those first lines (or talk/chant/murmured them or whatever it is she does), I heard exactly what she was saying. I was like, damn.
One thing though. Meshell does change one thing. It might not even be intentional, but where P-Funk says “Satan” uses feeling good to bait us, Meshell changes it to “they.” ”Feeling good is the bait they use to fish for you and me.” Then again, maybe it is intentional, because in the ad-libs at the end, Meshell says stuff like, “Ain’t got no reaction to the poli-tricks.” (Meaning, she's talking politics, not spirituality.) Anyway, it’s only one word, but blaming the problem on “the man” instead of on Satan makes the whole song sound more like prescient social critique than psuedo-religious psycho-babble. Not that I have anything against psuedo-religious psycho-babble.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, November 19th, 2006 at 1:37 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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