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There's a new and fascinating collection of songs coming, envisioned and produced by Sam Cohen and Brian Burton (the latter whom you may know better as Danger Mouse). The 18-song record, Resistance Radio: The Man In The High Castle Album, is inspired by the original Amazon Studios series The Man In The High Castle. The show's premise, taken from a Philip K. Dick novel from 1962, imagines a world in which the allies lost World War II. In it, the United States is bifurcated, half-controlled by the Germans, half by the Japanese.
Bob Bowen of Amazon contacted Burton about putting together a collection of songs from the early '60s, but newly recorded — and envisioned — by artists today. The soundtrack includes Sharon Van Etten (you can listen to her cover of "The End of the World" here), Beck, Norah Jones, Angel Olsen, Kevin Morby, The Shins, Karen O and many others. On this +1 edition of All Songs Considered, I chatted with Brian Burton about the origins of the record, how the songs were chosen and recorded, and how happier sounds from long ago were repurposed for a darker reality.
It began in New York City with a deadline.
On connecting with collaborator Sam Cohen on the project:
"I said to him, 'Hey there's this television show. It takes place in 1962, so all the songs would be have to be before then, it would be a covers thing. It doesn't really sound good on paper, but if we could make it the way we want and get whoever we want to sing on it, maybe this would be worth doing. Let's try this out.' So before I committed to it, Sam and I went in the studio with some great musicians that he works with a lot and and we tried it out.
"We had to do the whole thing in a month, which was insane. This is the way people used to record stuff. You get really great players and you just knock it out. So we went in, and it sounded great."
On his interpretations of old songs for a fictional pirate radio station:
"I like darker, sadder music, but this was 1962 and there was a lot happier music. I wanted it to steer towards the darker side and, based on the subject matter of the show, it worked. You could do a mostly dark record because it was a dark time. It's resistance radio, a pirate radio station thing, so that's what helped us to pick the songs."
On the challenge of recreating period music:
"You get a little time machine and create it in studio, recording a certain way, which Sam Cohen is really, really good at. So you you just transport somebody back to that time and see what they would have sounded like singing then. It's kind of like doing a film. You can get the sets and the costumes, and then you put the actors in that position. And that's how a lot of people learn about those periods. It's not nearly as expensive as doing a film. But I thought it would be a challenge. When I listened back to some of the backing tracks, it just felt like you were there."
On working with the backing musicians and with James Mercer for "The Taste of Honey":
Sam and I would sit down and spend hours and hours listening to tons of versions of songs [and discuss] how we were going to do the arrangements. And then we spent Monday through Friday, and we cut another 15 songs - just the backing tracks with the same group of musicians. We had Jared Samuel playing all the piano and vibes and organs, and Sam Cohen was playing guitar. John Shaw did all the upright bass. Then we had two different drummers, Ray Rizzo and David Christian — these great, great drummers. It was just us meeting up every day doing three or four songs a day until we had 18 backing tracks, and then they took off. And then Sam and I then started reaching out little by little. The first person I reached out to was James Mercer. He and I were in Broken Bells together. So I sent him "The Taste of Honey," and he sent it back two days later. He was in Portland working on Shins stuff and he took time out and did his own interpretation of it. It sounds like James in certain places, but most people I played it for don't know it's James, which happens on a lot of these songs. The way he interpreted it just changes his vocals."
On working with Sharon Van Etten:
"Sam knew Sharon, they both live in Brooklyn. She was probably the second or third vocalist to record the track, but that was definitely the one. When I heard that vocal of hers on that track is when I knew the potential of this. She could have been a big vocalist in the '60s easily. If this is the style of music she wants to sing, she can do it."
On the pleasant surprises of letting musicians do things their way:
"This was a hard sell, asking people to do classic classic songs that have stood the test of time. That's not an easy gig. I just wanted to convince them that I'm not setting them up. You don't want somebody to do a not-as-good version of something that people know... that was the real discussion beforehand. It was like, 'Look, if we don't pull this song off, then we just won't use it. But this is an attempt. We're going to try to do this.' And we really did prepare. That's why we did so many songs. We did not plan on having 18 songs. But we recorded 18, and we used 18."
On Kevin Morby's cover of the classic doo-wop tune and the lost culture of churning out hits:
"'I Only Have Eyes for You' had been recorded a ton of times before The Flamingos made it into that. These songs were just vehicles for people or for groups, so it was very craft-oriented. The band that we worked with know their music so well and were such great musicians, as were the people back then, that they only had to hear the song few times. We're talking about playing back songs that are pretty famous, but there are a handful of songs on this album that nobody had heard before. So them listening to it, interpreting it... and the next thing you know, you have a recording an hour and a half later... It's just very, very different. Just the compartmentalizing of the songwriting by the musicians and then of the singers — you could see how people were just turning it out, just one after the other. And the good stuff sticks — you could use that song with a different group every few years, and it can make somebody else famous, and nobody would care."
On capturing that "old-timey" sound:
"When we mixed the album we used a lot of older equipment to put the songs through. And when were done, we pressed it onto vinyl, so we mastered it off of the vinyl. The version that you're hearing is coming off of a vinyl record, which takes a little bit of the shine off in a way that sounds more accurate to what we're looking for."