Squirrel Flower’s Caroline Polachek Cover is a Soaring Act of Translation

Image originally published in Rolling Stone (Angie Martoccio)

When Boston-based indie artist Squirrel Flower (aka Ella Williams) released her rendition of Caroline Polachek’s “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” it had been just two months since her headlining US tour was cancelled. Since then, the future of live music has been strained and uncertain. Artists whose livelihoods depend primarily on shows and associated merch sales will likely have to wait as far as 2021 to get back on stage, and to make matters worse, long-standing venues (including Williams’ local haunt, Great Scott in Allston) are facing closures at every corner. For folks that rely on music and the safe spaces, communities, and funds it sustains, the path forward seems hazy. There is no going back to normal — we have to find new ways of understanding music and how we live it. Which is, in many ways, what a cover song is.

Williams says this of her “So Hot” cover: “For the last show of my truncated tour in March, my band and I decided to play a cover of ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ after rehearsing it once during sound check (we are all huge Caroline Polachek fans). It was the last song I played live before quarantine. I got home from tour and immediately recorded it in my basement.”

I’ve seen Williams play maybe half a dozen times in college venues and house shows, and yet it is this cover that most faithfully captures the tangible, rippling energy of her live full-band performances. On the track, Williams trades Polachek’s glittery synths and syncopated bass for a steady beat and a set of warm, nearly liquid guitars, throwing her stirring voice over that instrumental like a blue veil. It’s glorious and molten and alive with color. When the drums crash and Williams’ voice sails out with the guitars and bass at 1:08 (“get a little lonely / get a little more close to me”), I picture that veil of her voice soaked in honey and molten steel, melting into itself and releasing all of its dye into the air. This cover makes me feel smoke and fire and heat. All of that feeling is rising, rising, trying to get as close as it can to the sun but never quite reaching it. There’s such longing here.

Polachek’s original lyrics tore at the frustrations of a long-distance relationship made close-but-not-close-enough through the digital curtain (“don’t send me photos, you’re making it worse / ’cause you’re so hot it’s hurting my feelings”), but delivered by Williams, they become heart-melting and downright haunting. She translates Polachek’s art pop sugar into indie rock honey, and in doing so, gives it a new explosive power, both mournful and triumphant. In a way, the song too is about translation — translating desire across distance and digital media, translating longing into something tangible and fleshed by melody.

New wave songwriter Nick Lowe once said: “when I find a cover song that I like, I’ll work away at it until I kind of believe that I wrote it.” Covering a song, especially a beloved one, is at its core an act of translation. As the artist, you take the lyrics, melodies, and rhythms of a song written by someone else and filter them through your own understanding of and relationship to that song. A good cover, like a good translation, is as reflective of the cover artist’s creative spark as it is the original songwriter’s. The best covers breathe new life into the song, illuminating it from within, like a white paper lantern pitched red by the flame lit inside it. It’s a kind of community-building too, a way to relate to one’s musical contemporaries and ancestors. Think Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Whitney Houston’s “I will Always Love You,” which twist the sounds of Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton into surprising and now-iconic forms. This is where the Squirrel Flower cover succeeds. It rewrites. It recontextualizes and reanimates and reimagines.

In a tweet, Caroline Polachek commends Williams, saying the cover “sounds less like a cover than the original does which is to say it sounds more like the original version than the original does…” It’s high praise, and it’s dead-on. Williams’ hazy, lush rendition digs at the folksiness of the songwriting lurking behind Polachek’s pop-flavored original. It’s the P.C. pop heartache of a digital dancefloor bop translated into the indie, nearly-country yearning of a basement studio record. A cover is such a strange thing. It’s a work of beauty and a work of translation. This one is a testament to two artists at the height of their songwriting powers, and it’s a sign of good things to come. Polachek has signed onto 2021’s (hopeful) Outside Lands roster. Williams has been playing live shows online throughout the quarantine. As long as musicians keep making art and spinning each other’s work into new and incredible shapes, music and its potential for building communities will have a future.

vietnamese american writer, poet, blogger. stevenduongwrites.com

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