Thursday, June 20, 2002

'Song to the Siren': Robert Plant song review of the day (No. 7 of 10)

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Today's song is "Song to the Siren," the highlight from Tim Buckley's 1970 album, Starsailor. Plant missed that version of it the first time around; the first time he heard the song was the 1984 cover version by the U.K.'s This Mortal Coil. Plant was smitten.

Recalling some of his all-time favorite tracks for an article in the May 1990 issue of Q magazine, Plant said of "Song to the Siren": "I like the Tim Buckley original too, but I'll go with [This Mortal Coil's] version. It's so rewarding to hear it on U.S. college radio." Plant's still raving about the song this year, too. He said in a 2002 interview, "The haunting element of it, the lyrical content, it's so powerful."

For the last few years in his last two bands, Plant has performed the somber song as an encore, frequently closing shows with its peaceful yet intense textures. In the context of Dreamland, though, Plant sandwiches the song as the fifth track, between a bouncy original and a laid-back blues.

Buckley's album version and This Mortal Coil's attempt both approach the song in free form. The layered background sighs match each other. The electric guitar is less in the fore on the 1984 cover, with chords strummed once instead of arpeggiated over the vocal line. But the vocals on This Mortal Coil's version sound somewhat rushed, particularly toward the end.

Plant's new studio version opens with just acoustic guitar, definitely laying down a strict tempo to which Plant adheres. Plant's voice manages to escape all the labels with which he's been criticized: breathy, feathery, whiny, raspy, contrived. In a short break before the second verse, the sound of strings enters.

The arrangement through the verse remains slight but with a definite pulse rather than the free form of previous versions. By the end of the verse, a quiet electric guitar accompanies the arrangement.

A substantial instrumental break is added between the second and third verses, with cymbals being heard for the first time. A simple electric guitar solo energizes the break. The first half of the solo is all within five notes, and the second half seems to fade out before the final verse. Leading up to the track's high tide during the final verse is a light current of crashing cymbals.

Plant, whose singing has piled on a lot of influence from Meditteranean and Arabic singers, could have taken the opportunity to evoke some trills. The vocalist in This Mortal Coil relentlessly peppered the last line of each verse with trills. Showing restraint, Plant surprisingly limits his inflections in his six-minute version to the very last line, where the trills are effective.

I wonder if Plant has sat down and compared all three versions in a row. I did. And if he has, I wonder if he decided his takes the cake. I did.

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