The Section Quartet, out of Los Angeles, is not a typical string quartet. They use electric instruments, have performed at rock festival Coachella, and boast collaborations with artists as diverse as Devendra Banhart and Maroon 5. As they release their first full-length CD on Decca, an album of covers with tunes by artists ranging from David Bowie to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they claim to be “the loudest string quartet on the planet.”
Genre-to-genre covers are nothing new, but always present a variety of challenges. In general, they accomplish one of many things: they either reveal the flaws of the original, highlight the strengths of the original, or completely make the listener forget about the original because the cover is so innovative and engaging. No song on Fuzzbox ever quite achieves the last, and much of this album is easily forgotten. But hidden amidst many tracks of mediocrity, there are moments of true musical enjoyment to be found, like the dense middle of “Black Hole Sun” (originally by Soundgarden) or the biting energy of “No One Knows” (by Queens of the Stone Age).
The Section Quartet seems very determined to build their reputation as a rock quartet, not a string quartet. It’s always good to see innovators and barrier-breakers; pop and rock music can be translated from a rock setup to a classical one successfully and artfully. But in order for this transition to work effectively, the artists at hand must realize that the switch of a quartet from classical to rock must also be made very carefully: classical music (the genre string instruments are designed to play) and rock music (the genre the Section Quartet is using string instruments to play) are polar opposites.
The electric guitar was designed to be played loudly, fervently, and, when compared to a violin, at times carelessly. Classical musical is appealing because of broad dynamic switches, precise intonation, subtle emotional input, and complicated harmonic motion. On the other hand, rock music is generally appealing because of its energy, intensity, boldness. Not because of its compositional complexity. This is not to say that the two styles can’t be melded, and that is exactly what the Section Quartet is trying to accomplish. While they don’t succeed all of the time, they certainly reveal to us a number of important things through their attempt.
One of the most apparent observations gathered from this album is that a very well-written song will almost always be good, no matter who covers it or with what instruments. For example, “Paranoid Android”, originally by Radiohead, is one of this decade’s most brilliantly constructed pieces, and is one of the few tracks on Fuzzbox whose original energy and power is nearly matched by the Section Quartet’s cover version. Thom Yorke’s multi-layered melodies translate surprisingly well to the quartet’s sound, and the electronic effects of Radiohead are channeled by the quartet’s dramatic glissandos and spiccato bowing very creatively. On this track, better than any other, the group achieves a true contrast between the opposing tones of the angry versus plaintive sounds found in Radiohead’s original. Is this more of a testament to Radiohead’s songwriting capabilities or to the Section Quartet’s interpretive abilities? Probably a little bit of both. The result is the same: an affecting, interesting cover of a powerful original.
Likewise, “No One Knows” and “Time Is Running Out” (by Muse) both reflect the melodic beauty and intensity of their original counterparts. Eric Gorfain — founder, violinist, and arranger for the Section Quartet — did a good job translating the drums and bass of the originals to viola and cello, and the quartet’s rhythmic precision brings energy and life to these arrangements.
None of the covers on this disc are bad, it’s just that generally the originals are better, or at least better suited to the oringal’s intent. What makes Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” exciting is the image in the listener’s mind of Jimmy Page up there shredding, or Robert Plant singing his lungs out. These are sounds that cannot be emulated. The satisfaction we receive from “The Man Who Sold the World” comes from Bowie’s raw energy, or in the case of Nirvana’s cover of the same song, Kurt Cobain’s aching vulnerability. Simply put, these are effects that cannot be duplicated, not because of incompetence on the Section Quartet’s part, but because the originals are too impressive.
The central problem with this record is that the group never fully masters the rock or classical sound, and instead remains stuck in the middle without the best of either world. Perhaps the Section Quartet is too focused on being “the loudest string quartet on earth”, and in doing so forgets that strings can bring beauty, sorrow, or intensity to the musical table as well (or better) than any rock group, and basic elements of classical playing, such as a warm vibrato and perfect intonation, are often discarded in trying to create an edgier sound on this disc. “Such Great Heights” is a lovely piece of music, and the original composition by Ben Gibbard is dynamic and enchanting. The cover version here, arranged by Gorfain, is very near to the original, and pretty, but not quite up to the song’s potential. The Section Quartet players play the melody with little vibrato, very minute dynamic changes, and relatively little emotion. They seem to forget that the Postal Service and Iron & Wine’s versions of this song are not rock at all, but intimate, almost lyrical pieces. The human voice is in an incredibly subtle instrument, and without the subtlety of vocals the song lacks meaning. This meaning could have been replaced by truly sweeping swells from piano to forte, or a rich and warm vibrato, but instead the melody on top is somewhat static, and the harmonic motion underneath feels directionless. The meaning seems to be absent.
On the rock end of the spectrum, by using no original material the group seems to overlook the fact that at the heart of rock — and what really makes it a great art form — is a fierce, brazen originality and uniqueness. No matter how rare string instruments playing rock are, the fact remains that these arrangements are almost exactly the same as their originals. Even Jimmy Page’s guitar solo from “Heartbreaker” is copied note-for-note by violinist Gorfain. The solo is well-played; the problem is that a great solo must not just be technically impressive, but innovative as well. It must come from the mind of the soloist, not from paper or from a recording. This spirit of individuality is a central foundation of rock or alternative music, and a quality that the Quartet fails to achieve in choosing to play exclusively covers on this release.
The Section Quartet is a solid group of musicians with an honorable vision, and Fuzzbox is an interesting, and at times downright impressive, set of covers. The Quartet stated one of their purposes as a group: “to take the rock string quartet to the highest level.” They’re not there yet, but it will be exciting to see what they come up with next on their ascent to the top.