Strange Brew

I must admit that I have an affinity for uncanny experiences. Like the time I reprinted an old photo of my mother and found--in the new, blurry version--that her long hair appeared to grow straight out of the walls in the background of the picture. Or the night I was at a bar when I suddenly spied a girl who looked exactly like a younger me, whispering softly with a boy two tables away. (I didn't want to, but I had to look. It was so eerie that I couldn't tear myself away.)

Perhaps this is why cover songs--especially those performed by Minneapolis's the Shebrews on their release Off With Their Hearts (Grimsey)--give me the chills: Joining five original Shebrews songs, the covers are beautiful because they're both vaguely unsettling and strangely familiar. They leave you in a liminal state, torn between a near-identification of the original version and a nagging amnesia: You can sing along with the entire first verse and still remain baffled as to how you know the words. "Motorbike Girl," with its mod guitar riffs and Stephanie Winter's sprightly, little-girl vocals, echoes with alien luminosity. (The song was written and sung by the Would-Be-Goods' Jessica Griffin, who seemed to borrow the melody from the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy.")

The Shebrews' cover of "Strange Effect" twists Dave Berry's Sixties original--which was written by the Kinks' Ray Davies--from a playful love song into a sleeping-pill-laced confession. Over John Crozier's wavering surf guitar, Winter sings as if the record has been slowed from 45 to 33 rpm: "You've got a strange effect on me/And I like it." The song ends with a distant whistler keeping time with the melody.

But it is "Leave All Your Old Loves"--written by Pamela Birch of the Sixties girl group the Liverbirds--that sounds most haunting: Its shadowy pop melody bends with Winter's clearly articulated, British-lilted voice and Crozier's blush of guitar strums. The song's chorus--"And now all I can do/Is sit and dream of you/And hope that someday you'll/Leave all your old loves in the past"--initially sounds like the romantic refrain it was meant to be decades ago. But each time the lyrics repeat, they start to feel increasingly obsessive, like an urgent plea or a warning.

If you're getting déjà vu even thinking about the band itself, it's for a good reason. Winter has performed with groups like Zipperpuss and the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group; and Crozier has worked with the Hang Ups, the Spectors, Ninotchka, and Seacreature, and he also released a semi-solo project under the name Ninian Hawick in 1998. (On Ninian Hawick's Steep Steps, Crozier disassembled Sixties girl groups, Kinks songs, and disco music, put them through samplers, added the occasional bout of pleasing noise, and pieced them back together.)

But the band members' faces won't be as familiar: Winter and Crozier very rarely play live shows. For now, we'll have to be content to listen to Off With Their Hearts and watch the goosebumps form. It's got a strange effect on me, and I like it.

 
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