Tuesday 9 January 2024


Covers can go one of two ways, broadly speaking. They can enhance the original piece of music, putting a personalised spin on what came before, imbuing it with a new character while retaining the enduring familiarity of the original. It's an ancient, oft-cited example, but take Jimi Hendrix's 'All Along The Watchtower' versus Bob Dylan's original. The former, a total vibe switch, works so well it may as well be the original. On the other side of the coin you have the not-so-good covers. The Cure's take on 'Purple Haze' is bandied around as one of the worst — understandably, but the groove is cool in itself, sounding like a hidden track on the Streets of Rage OST.

While VGM feels like a digression among all these dusty twentieth-century musical acts (yes, Streets of Rage is the same century, but come on), for the subject at hand it makes sense to lead in with that. Music made for videogames is huge, with some soundtracks widely known and hugely inspiring. How could they not be, with all the countless collective hours spent playing videogames, all their themes and melodies spending more time in your ears than real-world artists you may have chosen to listen to.

This videogame connection what makes this particular piece of music, a cover of Tatsuro Yamashita's 1982 album For You in its entirety using soundfonts from Super Mario 64 (1996), so instantly iconic. It was created using free music composition software MuseScore, and mastered in Cakewalk, by the mononymic JQHN, an illustrator, online entity and person dwelling in real world South Korea.

What is immediately striking about the cover is how well the sounds of SM64 fit, which either speaks to Yamashita's production style, or to the sound design expertise of Koji Kondo, or both. The strings glisten and jangle, the bass pummels along, drums pop and thud. The vox and lead instruments used for the vocals don't always hit — they fall slightly short of the mark in 'Hey Reporter!', for example, unable to match Yamashita's slurring, rockstar lilts — but they're filled with flair, a different flavour for each track imparting personality.

The question of just how aptly MIDI instrumentation can capture atmosphere or vibe came to mind particularly in 2015 when musician Father John Misty, aka Joshua Michael Tillman, released two versions of his album I Love You, Honeybear: one "normal", one MIDI (aided by composer and developer Casey Wescott). The latter was supposed to be an artistic gesture regarding Tillman's perception of diminished sound quality on streaming services (a hot topic at the time), appearing on made-up streaming service "SAP".

In a press releaese he called it “a new signal-to-audio process in which popular albums are 'sapped' of their performances, original vocal, atmosphere, and other distracting affectations so the consumer can decide quickly and efficiently whether they like the musical composition, based strictly on its formal attributes, enough to spend money on it.” Call it a joke, or a statement, but the MIDI version of the album went hard, and added a novel dimension to the otherwise Glen Cambell-esque folk devotional that typified the "actual" album.

But that's the past. JQHN's VGM-inflected cover of For You is no statement, but rather a marriage of two things: city pop and Nintendo 64-era Mario. The two compliment each other, defining atmospheres and creating new musical possibilities. Take the a capella interludes, for example. Small, few-seconds-long pieces of music they may be, but in their new MIDI guise they brim with looming intrigue, sounding far-off and otherworldly, neither from Yamashita nor Kondo. The soft, atmospheric nature of the SM64 soundfont work particularly well on the stripped-back, late-night lovesong 'Futari', while on next track 'Loveland Island' it sounds like a shortlisted theme for character selection on Mario Kart 64. The glistening tones match the sunny vibe of the album. So sunny was the album, in fact, that it became the progenitor of the commercial slogan in Japan “Natsu da! Umi da! ___ da! (It's summer! It's the sea! It's ___!"), Tatsuro first filling in the blank thanks to the resort feel of the album. 'Sparkle' and 'Love Talking (Honey It's You)' sound remarkably close to the original (the latter's bouncy vox solo is tantalising).

Most spooky of all, or perhaps by design, is 'Morning Glory'. Though the progression is slightly different, the song allegedly inspired Koji Kondo to create two pieces of music for two different Nintendo game series, one being the Water Land theme in Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988-91), the other the Fairy Fountain theme for Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1997). It can be further alleged that 'Morning Glory' itself took note from Maria Asahina's 1979 single 'Kokoro no Mama ni' (namely the verse; the intro is reminscent of 'Loveland Island').

Covers can be magical beasts. The result of careful design, the summoning of a previously existing musical spirit and working with it to create something new, covers are sometimes good, other times not great, and often interesting. This version of a classic album using the instrumentation of a classic game — in truth one of several created by JQHN last year — showcases wonderfully simple creative ingenuity, a musical pop art canvas utilising pre-existing decades-old sound objects.

JQHN Internet Presence ☟

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