The brass/percussion ensemble blows up the Latin elements in No Doubt’s ballad.
No Doubt’s baleful breakup song “Don’t Speak” is one of those singles that just kind of got burned into your brain if you grew up in the ’90s with even passing exposure to MTV and mainstream radio. (Did anyone else completely forget how weird the video was?) Percussionist David Henzie-Skogen of Madison’s Youngblood Brass Band, who play October 11 at the Majestic and will be fresh off a tour of Europe, was a high-school senior when the song was saturating the airwaves in 1996, and it became something of an obvious choice and an outlier on the band’s recently released EP of six instrumental covers, simply titled Covers 1. Most of the selections on the EP showcase the band’s open-eared affinity for mixing R&B and hip-hop into a New Orleans brass band format: Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Janelle Monae’s “Electric Lady,” and a closing track, “Beats For Days Megamix,” that pulls together elements of rap tracks including Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” Run The Jewels’ “Run The Jewels,” and Missy Elliott’s “Can’t Stop.”
But I keep coming back to the “Don’t Speak” cover, because it offers a refreshing way to hear something familiar, which is maybe the best thing a cover can do. Starting off with guest percussionist Kyle Traska’s pandeiro (a Brazilian tambourine, more or less), this version uses the band’s 10-piece lineup of horns and percussion to expand on the traces of Latin jazz in the original song. Given the band’s rollicking, multi-layered percussion, the song overall feels a bit more joyous here, even with trombone player Nat McIntosh channeling its bitter minor-key vocal melody.
The brass section as a whole explores a bunch of melodic possibilities that push the song a little bit past its foundation of heartache and ska-band infighting. At one point the horns even get a dash of dubby reverb. Saxophone/bass clarinet player Tony Barba, also known for his adventurous solo work and playing in a host of other jazz projects, contributes a conversational, even exuberant, solo on tenor sax.
“Whereas most the tunes got a treatment that really diverged from the original, ‘Don’t Speak’ almost feels very true to the original, because the song itself really is a Latin song,” Henzie-Skogen says. “The chords, the tonality, the tempo, they’re all very Latin-ish, and that’s why I think that kind of Spanish/Flamenco-feeling acoustic guitar solo works so well in the original. We almost took it back to its harmonic roots by treating it just like a straight-up Latin tune.”
It’s pretty unusual to hear pronounced Latin elements in Youngblood Brass Band’s music, even though this is a band that likes to mix and match disparate sounds. If this makes the cover a stretch for the band, that’s also the case for most of the other material on the EP.
“‘Electric Lady’ is the only one that makes typical brass band sense: a relatively current R&B song turned into a New Orleans parade tune, so that one was kind of our nod to sticking with that tradition,” Henzie-Skogen says.
In fact, Youngblood only embarked on this whole covers-EP thing in the first place because the staff at a former label urged the band to play more covers. The label ended up not liking the songs the band picked, but Henzie-Skogen says he ended up really enjoying the process.
“In a way, doing covers is really liberating because you’re looking for the most creative choice, and the structure the song already gives you allows you to stretch out, in the same way that jazz standards have been the hallmark of individuality for improvising musicians, or why the sonnet remains such a lovely form,” he says. ‘It’s nice to have restrictions, and in those restrictions and structure sometimes the most freedom presents itself, or the most creativity.”