The new album Under Cover by Tangerine Dream is something I never thought I would see. As the title indicates, this is a set of cover songs from the venerable space rockers. I have to say that on the face of it, this idea first struck me as absurd. I mean really, Tangerine Dream doing “Hotel California?“ The concept had disaster written all over it. As a connoisseur of the perverse, I could not wait to hear it. Well, I was wrong. Under Cover is not at all the unintentionally hilarious set I thought it would be. As a matter of fact, the manner in which they have interpreted the 14 songs here is quite good, even brilliant at times.
For those who may not be familiar with Tangerine Dream, a little background might be in order. Although the group have been active for over 40 years now, I have always associated them with epic prog efforts such as Atem (1973) or Phaedra (1974). These albums were pioneering blasts of what came to be known as “space rock,” or Krautrock. The thought of them adapting such a bong-friendly sound to tunes by the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls or Chris Isaak seemed ridiculous. The first thing I had to accept was the fact that Tangerine Dream have changed with the times. The days of LP side-long epics are a thing of the past. Since I had not really listened to any of their albums since the late ‘70s, I had no idea what their current sound was like.
The genesis of Under Cover was a bet. As is explained in the liner notes, the group’s American promoter proposed that it would be a “surreal idea” if they were to do an album of “modern songs that many people know and love.” The challenge was that “TD definitely couldn’t and wouldn’t do it.” With such a provocative dare, the band decided to prove him wrong. Under Covers is the result of their efforts.
After a cursory glance at the titles, the first thing I wondered was if the songs were instrumentals, or if they had vocals. Back in the day, TD’s music was a very spacey, purely instrumental form of Krautrock. During what I consider to be their classic era, they were one of the greatest German synthesizer groups going. During that time, they were a trio, today they are a five-piece, with two female vocalists.
Having agreed to undertake the project, the first step was to choose the songs. Each member picked three, although due to time limitations, only 14 of these made it onto the CD. Guitarist Bernhard Beibl’s third choice is set to appear on a future project. The songs, and artists that were picked provide some fascinating insights into each musician’s personal taste.
Let’s begin with Edgar Froese, the founder of the group. Some people may disagree with the following assessment, but to me Froese is to TD as Paul McCartney was to Wings. The group is indisputably his baby. He chose not one but two David Bowie tunes, “Space Oddity,” and “Heroes.” His third is “Everybody Hurts” by REM.
The only other artist to be picked for two songs is Leonard Cohen. Vocalist Linda Spa opted for “Suzanne,” while Thorsten Quaeschning chose “Hallelujah.” While I was very surprised to see “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls and “Wicked Game” from Chris Isaak included, others made perfect sense. These include Pink Floyd‘s “Wish You Were Here,” Kraftwerk‘s “The Model,“ and The Beatles classic “Norwegian Wood.”
The key element that makes all of this material work so well are the arrangements. None of the songs are radically altered, which was something I sort of expected at first. Take Kraftwerk’s “The Model” for instance. Rather than going in a full-on electronica direction, the band uses flutes and Froese’s understated synthesizer to realize it. Another very pleasant surprise comes with the 1984 hit by Alphaville, “Forever Young.” Linda Spa’s flute is used again (along with the synths) to make this evergreen TD’s own.
“Norwegian Wood” was recorded live by the group in April 2010, at The Royal Albert Hall. This is one of my favorite tracks on the album. TD do a magnificent job with it, and the audience is totally with them, clapping along in time throughout. Biebl’s guitar playing is a thing of beauty as well.
“Wish You Were Here” is the closing track. The song is performed by Thorsten Quaeschning (vocals), Bernhard Beibl (guitar), and Froese (synthesizer). This is certainly one of Pink Floyd’s signature tunes, the title track of what I consider to be their finest album. The trio stick pretty close to the original, but manage to make it their own, thanks (again) to the inventive guitar playing of Biebl.
Taken as a whole, this collection came as a marvelous surprise to me. Not only are Tangerine Dream still at it after all this time, but they are making music as vital as ever. The days of 20-minute epic synthesizer journeys may be gone, but so is the cheap Columbian that went along with them.
With Under Cover, Tangerine Dream prove that they are very much up to the task of staying relevant. I must say that they proved all of my cynical expectations to be completely unfounded. Under Cover is a great, mellow set of music, and recommended.