Nell and the Flaming Lips do the smart thing by resisting the urge to ape an unassailable Cave classic

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      Ever wonder what gets someone thinking that they’ve got what it takes to make a perfect song even better?

      Occasionally someone will pull off the seemingly impossible. Remember Sonic Youth turning the Carpenters’ marvelously melancholy “Superstar” into an echo-drenched exercise in druggy experimentalism. Or Faith No More giving Black Sabbath’s sludgetastic “War Pigs” a razor-sharp metal-punk strafing. And Crash Vegas finding new layers of vulnerability and crystalline beauty in Neil Young’s essential “Pocahontas”.

      The smart thing about Nell and the Flaming Lips’ cover of “Red Right Hand” is the way two generations of artists aren’t out to top a giant. Since its release on Let Love In back in 1994, Nick Cave’s gloomy post-punk masterpiece has popped up everywhere from the Scream franchise and Peaky Blinders to The X-Files, Dumb and Dumber, and Hellboy.

      Artists who’ve covered it before Nell and the Flaming Lips include the Arctic Monkeys, Giant Sand, Iggy Pop, and Snoop Dogg. Yes, that’s right, the goddamn legendary Doggfather!! Think of that as one legend paying tribute to another. 

      Entirely by design, Nell and the Flaming Lips don’t try to out-gloom Cave on their “Red Right Hand”. There’s no death-dub bassline, grindhouse-organ stabs, or doom-thump drum fills. As for Nell Smith—a 13-year-old who calls Fernie, B.C. home—she’s already smart enough to understand that no one’s going to out-goth Cave on the microphone.

      Beginning with lighting that might be described as ‘70s-mortuary-blue, the video finds the Flaming Lips looking like they just escaped the Manson Family compound, with Nell a picture of studied cool. Some people never seem entirely comfortable holding a microphone. Nell seems like she was born to do this.

      The backstory of how a teenager from rural B.C. ended up collaborating with one of the most enduring bands from the early ’90s alt-rock boom is every bit as cool as one might hope.

      Born in the U.K., Nell first met the Flaming Lips at Sled Island at age 12. Picking her out of the crowd—in part because she was kind of unmissable in a parrot suit—singer Wayne Coyne invited her onstage and then eventually into the band's inner sanctum. Buying into punk’s anyone-can-do-it ethos, Nell started writing songs with an eye to recording them with the Lips as her backing band.

      Then COVID hit, in-person plans were put on hold, and Coyne suggested that she try taking a stab at the songs of Cave, sending her vocal takes to Oklahoma via email for the Flaming Lips to provide the music.

      Commenting on the collabo, Coyne—who’s famous as one of the nicest artists this side of Dave Grohl—says, “It’s always great to meet excited, young creative people. With Nell we could see she is on a journey and thought it would be fun to join her for a while and see if we could get things going. It was a great way to connect with her and help harness her cool attitude to making music.”

      For her part, Nell has chimed in with, “I still can’t really believe it. It was a really steep learning curve but Wayne was so encouraging when I was struggling with a few of the songs that I kept going. I hadn’t heard of Nick Cave but Wayne suggested that we should start with an album of his cover versions, and then look at recording some of my own songs later. It was cool to listen and learn about Nick Cave and pick the songs we wanted to record.”

      What we end up with are vocals that suggest—once she’s of legal drinking age—Nell will be right at home at the same end of the bar as Beth Gibbons, Cat Power, and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. Listen to the way she sticks the end of “Past the square, past the bridge/Past the mills, past the stacks”.

      As for the Lips—who lace “Red Right Hand” with equal parts Death Valley-country and sunshine-pop psych, all you need to do is fast forward to the 2:50 mark for a good idea of how into things Coyne and his bandmates are.

      Is Nell and the Flaming Lips’ take on a Cave live-set staple as great as the original? That’s for you to decide. Is it every bit as daring and different as that time Sonic Youth covered the Beatles “Within You Without You”? Absolutely. And sometimes that’s enough.

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