Sounds Like:

Dan Willis

A cover album, at the very least, should aim to avoid any outright abominations of its originals. I think we can all recall awful examples of techno remixes of our favorite pop songs. While they may provide amusing dance floor fodder for vapid, ecstasy-fueled hedonists, the sober listener, when confronted with such slack-jawed, lazy, plagiaristic drivel feels nothing but an overwhelming urge to vomit blood (I’m thinking of the cover album of Daft Punk’s “Discovery,” if anyone has heard it).
At best, a cover album offers artistic insight into the original, shedding new light on an old favorite. I take Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” as an example of what an artist can accomplish in a cover.
So it is with a curious, hopeful, yet slightly wary disposition that I come to this disc of 8-bit covers of assorted Kraftwerk songs. The CD, due for release on the Astralwerks label Feb. 6, indeed has a mighty standard to live up to. Kraftwerk’s influence in the sphere of popular music is immense. The earliest hip-hop DJs sampled their beats in the dance clubs of the late ’70s, an untold number of pop acts gained influence from their simplistic melodic ditties, and there isn’t an electronic artist around who doesn’t owe Kraftwerk a thank you note for their revolutionary work with synthesizers, sequencers and other electronic gadgets.
The 8-bit aesthetic offers a promising palate for interpreting Kraftwerk’s purely technological music. 8-bit’s lo-fi sounds coming primarily from early video game systems are constrainingly simple in their textures and colors, but they convey an inimitable sense of innocence combined with an inescapable “computerness” – an interesting set of tools for commenting on Kraftwerk’s vision of a world where ubiquitous technology transforms humans into “man-machines.”
The album lives up to its high standard on such tracks as “The Robots,” “Pocket Calculator,” and “It’s More Fun to Compute.” In each case, the cover embellishes and extends further in the direction towards which the original was pushing. “The Robots” progresses more towards the absurd Electroclash leanings of the original.
“Pocket Calculator” riffs on the campy, tongue-in-cheek dance-punk feeling of its Kraftwerk model. And “It’s More Fun to Compute” plunges headlong into the sort of brooding, dark, heavy industrial nihilism foreshadowed by its earlier counterpart.
However, “Showroom Dummies” is the unequivocal peak of the album. It sticks to the slightly eerie robotic minimalism of the original 1977 song, while the 8-bit textures lend even more man-or-automaton ambiguity than the original sounds. In a small stroke of genius, the song’s producer, Role Model, adds a countermelody during the chorus which dances in such efficient Kraftwerkian simplicity that it almost feels as if Kraftwerk themselves made a mistake by not thinking of it for the original.
The album lags in places where the cover artist seems to lose focus of the original spirit of the song. “Electric Cafe” seems content to tread over the same droll material, adding nothing substantive, leaving the music to stagnate from lack of direction. GwEm and Counter Reset, who cover “The Man-Machine,” rely on a healthy dose of ego to convey their musical power. But all their chest-pounding shout-outs distract from whatever they are trying to say in their simple and thin adaptation.
This disc is worth checking out, especially for Kraftwerk disciples and fans of all sorts of electronic music.