Finding new twists and turns in tired old pop tunes
With over 400 credits, John Fryer is one of the most prolific producers in the world of experimental music. He’s worked with a number of seminal groups like The Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. You might not know his name, but you probably know his work. Since 2016, Fryer has fronted a project called Black Needle Noise, often with the help of various collaborators—perhaps more of a collective than a “band.” In October 2020, Fryer and his cohorts released a covers album under the Black Needle Noise moniker, aptly titled These Mortal Covers.
The tracklist mostly consists of pop songs, some of which could be deemed corny (Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” The Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels”), or, at best, trite (“Losing My Religion,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”). People might expect the group to approach these tired old tunes with an ironic bent, but Fryer and the collective instead pay homage to them while managing to find new twists and turns. They know exactly how to make a good cover song: identify the subtler qualities of the original, and proceed to exploit the hell out of them.
There was always something haunting, maybe even melancholy, about “Wonderful World,” but collaborator Tom Berger takes it to the extreme, transforming the song into an apocalyptic funeral dirge. Casual listeners might not hear the alt-rock/grunge influence on Depeche Mode’s “Walking In My Shoes,” but Fryer’s grinding, dirtied-up guitars make it impossible to not headbang along.
Sometimes the creative liberties are more radical, like on The Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels.” It is stripped of all its cornball blues-rock pretense and filtered through the lens of ‘90s industrial rock—cold, stomping and drenched in reverb, with added humor from Anjela Piccard’s faux Southern drawl. The Waitresses’ novelty hit “I Know What Boys Like” morphs into a strip club anthem in the hands of Fryer and Betty X, and Fryer’s slinking rendition of “Bang Bang” delivers all the cathartic release Nancy Sinatra merely promised.
Then there’s T.S.O.L. ‘s “Black Magic,” a campy horror punk ditty taken to insane new heights by Fryer and Anjela Piccard. Their version doesn’t merely build on the original—it shamelessly turns everything up to 11 and surpasses it. Whereas the original trudged like a zombie from a crypt, this charges forward like a killer out for blood. First the percussion batters in people’s skulls, then, for good measure, the guitars steamroll people with a barrage of loose, grimey power chords. T.S.O.L.’s Joe Wood crooned like a Dollar Store Glenn Danzig, but Piccard sounds vicious and hellbent on ripping out listener’s esophagus. This is the best track on the record.
Other than the forgettable “Let This Be The Night” and the sonically interesting, yet excessively dour “Wonderful World,” there isn’t a bad track on These Mortal Covers. Black Needle Noise clearly know their arsenal of pop songs through and through, diving deep into each tune and making the most of the lesser-heard details they find. And besides, who else could make a Black Crowes song sound tolerable?