Wig in a Box: Songs From and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch
ohn Cameron Mitchell’s "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" was a candy-colored pastiche of every sort of fringe lifestyle one could imagine; the semi-transsexual hero/heroine, with his/her truncated appendage, East Berlin heritage, and aspirations of Glam-Rock heroism had genuine mass appeal...if not to mainstream audiences, than at least to the sizeable Hipster quotient, who could identify with Hedwig’s sexual dysfunction and outsider status. Besides, the lurid value of the film was too much to fight against: It was camp, kitsch, et al.! Whatever (That shit bores me)–the important thing is that though I was initially reticent to relating so easily to a wigged sub-femme, by the end of the film I was held rapt with Hedwig’s attempt to reconcile her "two halves" with one another. "Hurrah!" I thought leaving the theater. "Hurrah for transsexuals!"
Now comes the "Hedwig" tribute record, which like most tribute records, only exists because of the brilliance of the source material. Like several other tribute records I’ve heard, the songs for "Hedwig" came out too recently, and are too distinct, to warrant reinterpretations from other artists. But at the same time, such artists! Yo La Tengo, Spoon, Frank Black, The Breeders, Sleater-Kinney! The record intrigues as much for the implications the players bring, as for the authentic swagger of Trask’s originals. And so, I’m left with an awkward criteria on which to review the record: Should the songs be reviewed within the context of the original compositions, the success to which each individual artist has re-imagined them, or how they stand next in comparison to each artist’s catalogue? Each tact, I’ve found, fails to pay the proper due to the songs themselves. That said, I’m going to try my hardest to be impartial to the versions presented here, while at the same time acknowledging the sound and context of the original versions.
In contrast to his weaker recent material, Frank Black’s "Sugar Daddy" provides the best example of what a good cover should do. The original’s twang-y, innuendo-laden country is left by the wayside here in favor of a manic rockabilly flavor. There couldn’t have been a more inspired choice than Black, who, in his efforts to approximate the insatiable lustiness of the original, trips over his words as he screams "If you’ve got some sugar for me, Sugar Daddy bring it home!" The cover pays homage to the flamboyant original, while winking at the paradigm of Black–big, scary man as he is–delivering them. The Breeders’ "Wicked Little Town (Hedwig Version)" provides a just counterpoint to Black’s song, with ghostly reverb and girlish harmonizing. The sparseness of the song succeeds in reiterating the poignancy of the original. Perhaps a Pixies reunion isn’t that bad of an idea.
Other successful recapitulations include Spoon’s version of "Tear Me Down," which further indicates that they’re stepping towards a sort of minimalist blue-eyed soul. Britt Daniel (Spoon’s principal songwriter) seems intent on introducing the elements of the song individually, so when they unify, the listener can appreciate the process of stacking them atop one another. The heretofore unlistenable choral group Polyphonic Spree offers a Dixie-band cover of the titular "Wig in a Box." The original was the most show-tune-esque of all Hedwig’s songs, complete with a sing-along breakdown at the bridge. Here, that sing-along–"Everybody! 1-2-3!"–is cleverly transposed so that the 20+ members of the group enter in at once to "tingle them some spines."
While the best songs on Wig in a Box revive the "joie de vivre" the originals created, the worst nearly sinks the whole album: That would be Bob Mould’s hideous "remix" of "Nailed," a track that wasn’t that great to begin with, and thus was only included on the Hedwig soundtrack . Only one thing could have amplified the tastelessness of lyrics like "I know a man who can suck his own dick...and a woman with big tits!": House music! The thudding beats and cliche synthesizers completely obscure the original’s near-tolerable aggro-rock. One shouldn’t be too surprised at the aural abortion Mould births on this record, after hearing him cover Stephin Merrit’s "He Didn’t" on The 6ths Hycancinths and Thistles. He is now the performer of two songs I can say are among the worst I’ve ever heard. I could mention other missteps on the record (the melodramatic strings at the intro of Cyndi Lauper’s "Midnight Radio," the listless new-wave of Imperial Teen’s "Freaks") but all pale in comparison to Mould’s gargantuan faux-pas.
The majority of the album is comprised of covers that don’t deviate enough from the source material to validate their existence: While Sleater-Kinney’s (with The B-52's Fred Schnieder delivering the iconic monologue) cartoonish variation on "The Angry Inch" is propulsive enough, if I want to hear what basically is a novelty song about a man getting his dick cut off, I’ll listen to the original. Likewise, Rufus Wainwright’s banal "The Origin of Love" sounds almost exactly like its predecessor, except with a sped up tempo that ruins its model’s dramatic build-up. Yo La Tengo’s "Exquisite Corpse" is basically the same, except with a Yoko Ono meltdown at the end that sounds as though she’s being electrocuted. And They Might Be Giants all too predictably turn out a version of "The Long Grift" that sounds like the same song but with extra nerdy vocals.
For a fan of the film or musical, the whole endeavor is rather enjoyable and besides Mould’s, none of the songs commit egregious insults to the originals. But I find myself returning to only one song of 16: that is Jonathan Richman’s "The Origin of Love," which he, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and rudimentary percussion, transforms into a Hawaiian-sounding melange of the original and his own cheerful catalogue. It’s a great song, even (and this is the reason why it is) in context.
I’ll now divulge a question that’s logged itself in my brain as I wrote this review: Should one trust the criticisms of a devoted fan over those of someone who hasn’t heard these songs before, hasn’t sung or danced to them, hasn’t yet donned a yellow wig–even a figurative one--and imagined themselves a refuge from the sexual and social territories a life in the United States implicates? I’ll say "No," even if I am reluctant to defer you to the slavishly devoted "Hed-Heads" who compulsively watch the musical, often in abominable variations on Hedwig’s gaudy dress. None of the songs here are particularly bad–but only a few of them are interesting; for a tribute to the most relevant Glam-rock spectacle in recent years, that might have been the worst outcome possible.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2003-11-17