Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Esther Phillips' From a Whisper to a Scream, with a slant on her cover of Gil Scott-Heron's "Home is Where the Hatred Is." Listen to her version, his and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.
When I met Gil Scott-Heron he was wearing a T-shirt with a photo of his face on it. He was also wearing a silk robe and grey sweatpants. The shirt, which I believe was professionally manufactured but looked kind of bootleg, was the image from his 1971 LP, Pieces of a Man. I used to have a vinyl copy of that, but it was in crummy shape and as a casualty of some apartment move, it got lost. The most well known song on the LP, and my favorite, is “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” a song that lent a lot of complication to Scott-Heron’s then standard, good-humored race-based proto-rap. “Whitey on the Moon” might easily and funnily get across the point about the lack of heath care—or general care—for your sister Nell’s rat-bitten hand, but home is where the needle marks try to heal my broken heart is a much heavier method of delivery.
Scott-Heron began as a writer, dropping out of school to finish a novel. He did that, then wasn’t sure what he would do, and so he made a record. His career continued for a trillion albums, until being cut short by a number of things—disease, drugs, jail—and his lack of interest replaced his fervent purpose. Scott-Heron's long absence from recording was finally broken after I'm New Here, his many years in the making collaboration with XL label head Richard Russell, was released last month.
The first I heard of I’m New Here was a brief stream of three tracks from the album on a barren website thrown up as a teaser by XL. One of the songs, the title track, was unmistakably a cover of the Smog song “I’m New Here,” though it was left unlabeled. I was a bit confused, though mostly curious. Why in the world was Gil Scott-Heron covering Smog? There had to be a story there. Smog, otherwise known as Bill Callahan, is a longtime storyteller, based somewhere in between folk and rock, sometimes hinting at country and gospel. He’s a current Texas resident, someone quiet. He did not seem like the type of artist Gil Scott-Heron, who I then knew had spent some recent time in prison and a bit hung out on drugs, would have encountered in routine listening. I wondered about the connection publicly on this site. “It’s bizarre that this is happening,” I wrote. “God knows where he heard it.” Soon after, an answer appeared on Richard Russell’s Twitter account.
“How did Gil Scott-Heron come to cover a song by Smog ('I'm New Here')" Fair question. I will explain," wrote Russell. And in a series of 140 word bits, he did. "I played Gil the song because i thought he'd appreciate the lyric. Especially the line I'm hard to get to know and impossible to forget. It sounded like words Gil could have written, and he fancied doing a version. We sent it to Bill Callahan, who was shocked and happy I think. Gil finds the song funny, it is a very witty lyric, and he thought the idea of calling the album I'm New Here was quite humorous.” As much as anyone, he recognizes a good song, his own or otherwise.
That malleable backbone must be why Esther Phillips' version of “Home is Where the Hatred Is” so matches his original. Trumped up with horns and a voice like Miss Piggy-turned-soul singer, her version of his classic reinterprets the terror of his original into a confused flight. "It might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again" becomes not so much a definitive statement as a legitimate question. Might it not be? Home seems like a good idea.
Scott-Heron covered “I’m New Here” with similar dexterity. The original, a Northerner’s new acclimation to his new home of Texas, is cheeky, a fun poke at himself. It’s more “Whitey on the Moon” than “Hatred.” Scott-Heron flips that into garbled blues, accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar. It’s a completely different song than anything else on the record, which was produced by Richard Russell, and revolves around the basic principles of dubstep space drums, playground battle rap and your grandfather telling you smart shit he learned throughout his laugh and then coughing. It’s a brilliant record because it is so distinctly Gil Scott-Heron. The tracks are just a medium for his ideas, jokes, worries and conversation, an autobiography. Even in someone else’s song, he’s the sole owner. Which is apparently what Russell was hoping for.
“I am evangelical in my belief in the power of music. I love the studio. I want XL to be a platform for people to do insanely great things” he wrote on Twitter yesterday. Which is really, really nice. It’s also not hard to believe. When I spoke to him about making I’m New Here, I kept digging around for some scent of frustration between the two oddly matched men. Surely you must have been sour about his refusing to see you when you flew across the ocean? Nope Surely his incessant tardiness must have grown grating? No. Etc etc. Eventually tired of this line of questioning, Russell essentially told me to stop, that his job was to facilitate a genius’ genius. He compared the way Scott-Heron works to Tupac: enter the studio, record a magical moment, leave. It was the job of the technical nerd to complete the rest, Russell happy with his role as a sherpa.
Esther Phillips must have seen that same translucent gold in Scott-Heron’s songwriting. Scott-Heron the writer emerges more often than you’d imagine, his songs so often taking the roll of a narrator personally foreign to him. The authority in his voice, though, embodies them, a shape shifter more than an actor. On her version of “Home,” Phillips doesn’t sound like she’s singing her song. Kick it, quit it becomes a staccato repetition less than a mantra. The hard implications of a community of newfound users are lifted with the trumpet trill. Scott-Heron’s version’s beauty is in the sadness. That’s nowhere to be found in Phillips' version. But even in its weird transformation, it’s a worth compliment to the original. I wonder what Scott-Heron thought of the cover, what Russell thinks for that matter. I bet they like it, probably know its just as much hers as his. Or more likely they don’t care whose it is, just happy she did something good.