For most artists, a covers collection is often little more than a stop gap or cash grab. For Flowers of Hell front man and creative lead Greg Jarvis, using other people’s emotions and words to tell a story is a monumental step.
Jarvis is a timbre-to-shapes synaesthette, and his compositions are usually extremely personal and somewhat absolute. There is little room for interpretation, simply because Jarvis sees things we can’t, and plays accordingly. While beautiful, the experience is often - ironically - black and white.
On Odes, an orchestral take on some of Greg’s biggest influences, Flowers of Hell reinterprets songs that define huge bands or eras. Each song — whether it be from seminal acts like The Velvet Underground, Joy Division and Fleetwood Mac, indie pioneers like Neutral Milk Hotel, or underground cult heroes like Klaatu — is treated with respect, but completely broken down to the skeleton before being rebuilt. It’s also the first time where audiences and Greg are starting from common ground.
Odes is steeped in the influence of the Velvets, and not surprisingly the high water mark of the LP is the polished rework of “Run Run Run.” For brief moments, Flowers of Hell use their strings and scrappy electric to match the intensity of the original, but the majority of the horn and piano driven four-minutes are smoother and directly contrast the grit of the seedy, NYC anthem.
It’s hard not to reach for your copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico when the smoky vocals and Velvets worthy rework of the timeless melody of “Mr. Tambourine Man” win you over, or nod approvingly when the band nails a sombre, spare take of “Over and Over”, but it’s the little moments on the deeper cuts that really show the skills of the sprawling collective.
Starting with an instrumental interlude from Neutral Milk might seems like an attempt to grab the attention of hipsters as Mangum’s return has made the band’s back catalog topical again, but it’s the backbone and reason of being for Odes. Jarvis wanted to recreate the 108 seconds from the point of view of trained players, not just a creative genius. The strings and horn are buffed until the scratches are gone and the results are magestic, pushing skyward in their sadness.
At every critical junction, the band makes the right choice. Removing the punchy melody of Stereolab’s “Super-Electric” and replacing it with a smoother, slow building orchestral arrangement is well executed and enjoyable, but the decision to use the last forty-five seconds to mirror the frantic conclusion of the original is what makes the cover so strong.
Even attempting to contain the transitions of “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”, a ’70s interplanetary sonic adventure from Toronto’s Klaatu, is somewhat ambitious (almost futile actually), but by playing it close to the chest Flowers of Hell come up with a perfect representation of Greg’s vision. The song was originally written to replicate an event (World Contact Day) that found the world trying to communicate with other species using nothing more than the power of thought. The act was one of blind faith, hoping (or even trusting) that even as they spoke without sound, the message could be received even if it was delivered from foreign languages.
Greg might not be trying to reach extra-terrestrial life forms, but using a more conventional playbook to package the beautiful shapes and colours only he sees is equally challenging and requires that same blind faith. Thankfully, the transmission was received.
MP3:: Flowers of Hell - Atmosphere