Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pass the dutchie on the left hand side

Weeds is an American television show about the life of a suburban 'mom' who, following the death of her husband, tries to bring in some extra money for her family as a marijuana dealer. The main character, Nancy Botwin, is played by Mary-Louise Parker (Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistlestop Cafe, Boys On The Side, Angels In America, The West Wing), and it has guest starred others such as Carrie Fisher, Mary-Kate Olsen and Snoop Dogg. It all takes places in a fictional suburb of Los Angeles, known as Agrestic (meaning rural, pertaining to fields or the country, and also lacking in sophistication, unpolished, uncouth - The show, now on its third season, was first aired in 2005 and won Best Performance By A TV Actress In A Musical Or Comedy at the Golden Globe awards in 2006.

But I am not really here to talk about the show itself...I am here to talk about its title music. The song is Little Boxes, which was written by folk singer-songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds in 1962. Inspired by the houses in Daly City, California, the song is all about tell-them-apart-if-you-can, chocolate box house, suburban living and its values and expectations of conformity. The song is best known through the performance by Pete Seeger.

In the first series of the show, the original song (video above) aired as the title music for each episode; however, by series' two and three, a different artist or band was being used for each separate episode. Apparently the impetus behind this was because series producers were initially unsure as to whether they would be able to use the original, and therefore had several artists record the song before deciding which one to use. It has now got to the stage where performers are requesting to be included...and the role-call holds some very big names!

There has been an orchestral and instrumental version (by Maestro Charles Barnett - Season 2, Episode 5), a Spanish version with a disco feel (Kinky - Season 3, Episode 3), a rap version (The Individuals - Season 3, Episode 7), and even one sung partly in Russian (Persephone's Bees - Season 3, Episode 12).

Here are my top five in order of appearance (the clickable links are to the video for each on YouTube):

1. Death Cab For Cutie - Season 2, Episode 2

Death Cab For Cutie are Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr and Chris Walla. They were formed in Bellingham, Washington in 1997 and took their name from a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song, which appeared on their 1967 album Gorilla and in The Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour. Their best known track is probably Transatlanticism, from the album of the same name - this song was used in the HBO show Six Feet Under, and several more have featured in The OC.

This version of Little Boxes is a pretty straightforward reading with a male vocal. The backing is catchy guitar-based, indie band pop, with some nice drumming. It feels very upbeat.

2. Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Season 2, Episode 4

The McGarrigle sisters, who are of Canadian and Irish origin, hail from the town of Saint Sauveur des Monts (where I had a pen pal as a child!) in Quebec. They record in both French and English and their songs are based around folky vocal harmonies and often unusual timings.
This version of the song is in French and is quite a sedate affair filled with their trademark harmonies and minimal, mostly string-based, backing instrumentation. You can find the whole song (3 minutes 38 seconds) on The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 - If I Had A Song.

3. Regina Spektor - Season 2, Episode 10

Can this woman do no wrong? Born in Moscow, Russia, moving to The Bronx, New York aged nine, Regina Spektor studied classical piano from an early age. She now makes quirky (typified by relatively unusual techniques such as the glottal stop) folk-influenced music, claiming to have written over 700 songs...although neglecting to write them all down!
You can listen to full songs at her website...go to, select 'music' and then 'launch radio player'. She is also, if you get the chance, excellent live.
This cover is very is kooky and not simply a note-for-note copy. The timing is individual and has a different personality to many of the other versions used, incorporating some changes to a minor key and, of course, Spektor's very pretty voice.

4. Angelique Kidjo - Season 3, Episode 2

Kidjo was born in Ouidah, Benin and grew up in the port village of Cotonou. In her early 20s she moved to Paris, due to the political conflicts in her home country, where she began performing. She is fluent in Fon, French, Yoruba and English (I haven't even heard of all of these languages!) and often uses traditional African vocal styles, such as the zilin technique of her native Benin, alongside jazzy stylings.
This episode's Little Boxes is possibly my favourite of the lot. The African influences are there for all to see, with Kidjo being backed by a group of singers making sounds more than singing the words of the song. Initially a capella, about half way through some backing music kicks in, which is very Caribbean-feeling, carnival-type music. Seriously, this sounds really good!

5. Joan Baez - Season 3, Episode 9

I'm sure Joan Baez needs little introduction...what a coup, getting her to sign up to this! Just in case...Baez is a Mexican-American folk singer and songwriter who, due to her father's job, grew up all over the US, Europe and Middle East (she was born on Staten Island). She is a soprano with a three octave vocal range and performed at 1969's Woodstock Festival. Baez is well known for singing songs with political and protest-based lyrics. On her live CD Ring Them Bells, reissued this year as a collectors edition, she is joined by many other big names, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who also appear in this Top 5.
This one is again fairly straightforward, but unmistakably Joan Baez. There is acoustic guitar backing and great use of the snare drum.

Also worth a listen (in my rather humble opinion) are:
  • Elvis Costello (The Man!) - Season 2, Episode 1
  • The Submarines - Season 2, Episode 8 (nice backing to this one)
  • Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice - Season 2, Episode 11
  • Randy Newman - Season 3, Episode 1
  • Man Man - Season 3, Episode 8

And I haven't even mentioned that others have included:

  • Engelbert Humperdinck (!) - Season 2, Episode 3
  • Donovan - Season 3, Episode 4
  • Billy Bob Thornton - Season 3, Episode 5
  • The Shins - Season 3, Episode 6
  • The Decemberists - Season 3, Episode 10

Is it 4.20 already?

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