Jun 202020

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

It’s the longest day of the year, so we have time to explore one of the longest songs we’ve ever celebrated in the long history of this website. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” clocks in at 23:31. It occupies all of side two of their 1971 album Meddle, and it occupies the minds of the many Floyd fans who consider it the band’s peak achievement.

Thanks to several decades of live recordings, a kind of connoisseurship has developed around the song in its different iterations. Devotees weigh the pros and cons of the early-to-mid-70s concert recordings that feature “Echoes,” and compare/contrast those with the shows from the band’s post-Roger Waters period, and how they all stack up against the original studio version.

Many have discovered “Echoes” via the documentary/concert film Live at Pompeii. The professionally-produced film captures the band performing “Echoes” and “One of the These Days” (another track from Meddle) when the songs were entirely fresh and the band had found its groove as a live band. Staged in an ancient Roman amphitheater with no audience on hand (supposedly a mocking response to films like Woodstock with their over-abundance of crowd shots), the band’s take on “Echoes” that day lacks vitality compared to other performances of the period. For all the film’s faults–like splitting “Echoes” into two parts–it’s still one of the better music documentaries we have, of any band of any kind, and “Echoes” is central to it.

The signature sound of “Echoes” has to be the “ping” that kicks it off: a single note played on grand piano and fed through a Leslie speaker for extra resonance and sustain. The note repeats every few seconds as if to ask the Floydian question, “Is there anybody out there?” It fades out after a few minutes, as keyboards and guitars build up and the music takes form. The pinging emerges again about 15 minutes later during a formless section of the song, only to get submerged again as a new musical form arises. The ping returns a final time during the song’s slow fade out.

By weaving in and out like this, the ping unifies a sprawling composition made of strikingly different subsections. The sequences include…

* a pleasing but musically conventional verse-chorus section.
* a hard-driving “funk” section with improvised keyboard and guitar solos,
* a formless ambient passage that is sometimes called “the whale section.”
* an extended outro featuring a choral effect and a conversation between grand piano and guitar.

Throughout the instrumental sections, the band drops in curious sound effects: whistles, the sound of wind, the cries of birds, and other effects harder to describe. It’s never clear if the sounds are organic–recordings from the EMI tape archive–or created by electronics. Then there’s white noise, and finally the auditory illusion known as a Shepard tone which brings “Echoes” to its vexing conclusion. (If the tone is steadily rising in pitch like that, how does it go on so long without becoming painfully high-pitched?)

What’s an artist to do with all that, when covering “Echoes”? Here are our three finalists to answer that. For even attempting this song, each of them can have a cigar.

Bruno Hrabovsky — Echoes (Pink Floyd cover)

Our pick for the “Good” slot is from classically-trained pianist Bruno Hrabovsky. His YouTube channel reveals talent and wide-ranging taste —from Beethoven to Black Sabbath, Villas-Lobos to Pearl Jam, he reinterprets one and all. His true passion, though, is for Pink Floyd, from the weirdness of the Syd Barrett days to the bombast of The Wall and beyond. The pianist states that “Echoes” is his favorite, and it shows: he has posted more than one interpretation of it, and has stated that he owes the world a more perfect version. No rush, Bruno: You are young and life is long. This version is just fine for now.

It’s clear that many fans appreciate Hrabovsky’s version (and similar takes) because it presents the heart of the song without the strange and dissonant bits of the original. That’s fair. (But it’s also fair to ask, how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?) Certainly it’s a pleasure to bask in a grand piano arrangement that Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright might have developed on his own, apart from the rest of the band. On that point, “Echoes” is credited to all four band members, but Hrabovsky celebrates the keyboardist’s contribution above all; Wright has stated that the song’s main chord progression is his. After Wright’s death, guitarist David Gilmour said he would not perform the song any longer without him.

Dean Ween (and friends) — Echoes (Pink Floyd cover)

Whereas the piano version by Bruno Hrabovsky highlights the mellow and melodic charms of “Echoes,” for Dean Ween the song is all about the propulsive groove, the sonic mischief, and the open space it sets apart for guitar mayhem. If the Ween version is better, it’s not twice as good, but it is twice as long. In fact, it’s closer to three times as long.

One part faithful recreation (the guitarist reports having grown up watching Live in Pompeii) and one part all-out jam, Ween’s remake allows for spontaneity within the confines of the song’s framework. Random precision is the phrase that comes to mind. The vocals may not be dialed in perfectly, but what makes this version special is the drive and momentum of the “funk” section—they ease off of recreating the original and start owning it. Ween replicates the seagull sounds that Gilmour got from an effects pedal mishap, but then goes off into uncharted territory. Demented dolphin sounds are also on offer in this section. The band sets their remake apart from the original with an extended outro section, interrupted by audience applause. In fact, it’s not clear where it ends, or if it ends at all.

The recording runs over 37 minutes, but come on, it’s the longest day of the year. Press “Play” already. Or save it for the Best version.

Rodrigo y Gabriela — Echoes (Pink Floyd cover)

So many live music videos are shot in a recording studio (or a bedroom trying hard to approximate one). Rodrigo and Gabriela recorded their version of “Echoes” in a yoga studio or meditation space; they state the song has a deep spiritual message for humanity.

If matching Buddha statues and prayer flags aren’t your thing, how about the handwritten sign posted between the two guitarists: “Trust the Process.” That’s the golden rule for artists of all faiths and philosophies, or should be. The couple embody that principle for 19 minutes and 31 seconds–a whole lotta trust. The thrill you felt when hearing “Echoes” for the first time, when you didn’t know where the song was going or what exactly you were listening to, or how to listen to it–that’s what they recapture here. Rodrigo and Gabriela make Ween (for all their wackiness) seem almost predictable.

How can two acoustic guitars do justice to the richness of the Pink Floyd original? Watch and learn. You think you’ll miss the various organs and pianos, the studio and tape effects, the thundering bass and drum kit, but you won’t. The guitar is a drum kit in Gabriela’s hands, and a passable bass, too. Flamenco-style guitar has never sounded so aggressive.

Part of trusting the process must be trusting one’s partner to listen and respond in kind. By now this trick is second nature to Rodrigo and Gabriela—-it’s like they have one nervous system. In the improv section they sync up completely and jam out. Rodrigo even switches to electric guitar for a minute. During the ambient section, he deploys a slide and a delay effect, while Gabriela conjures a soundscape by more organic means. When they steam ahead into the dramatic “build-up” passage, you wonder if the instruments will withstand the intensity.

What more is there to say after this performance, beyond “…and exhale.” Namaste, I guess.

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