Thursday, June 4, 2015

Perfect (Cover) Songs - Killing Me Softly With His Song

killing me softly with his song

A song about music. A cover of an often covered song about a song. A singer sings about a singer. A love letter to the art itself, containing a sample of a sample, perfectly smooth, confident and heartfelt soulful near acapella singing over a simple beat, deep (deep!) and yet clear bass from the heart of the ghetto, some chatter and a bizarre count that somehow doesn't take you out of the moment but incredibly puts you deeper into it. It's an insane mixture of elements in The Fugees take on Lori Lieberman's "Killing Me Softly" that somehow combine to make a perfect cover that in my mind, stands out as the definitive version.

Most people, likely including Lauryn Hill, know this as a Roberta Flack song. No doubt that's the most noted version and clearly the one that most influenced The Fugees, and honestly every other version, since Flack made many changes to the orginal's structure. The original by Lieberman has more of a longing melancholy to it, where as Flack's and most other subsequent versions, especially The Fugees, has a certain hope to it. The killing is one we submit to willingly. 

From the opening, full acapella of Lauryn's "strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words," before her voice multiplies into a choir, the hairs on your neck begin to stand. For starters, that voice is shear perfection in every sense. It's not intimidatingly grand, only because her warmth comes through and invites you. She doesn't sing at you from on high, so the "sings like an angel" cliche wouldn't even be appropriate. She comes from wherever you come and sings somehow from inside you, lifting you with it. It's a voice that embodies what soul, R&B and hip hop is supposed to be about. And then, before you know it, there's this odd sitar sample. It's from Rotary Connection's "Memory Band" but, of course many of us know it from A Tribe Called Quest's "Benita Applebaum." So why? Why use the same sample? Or did they actually sample Tribe? That's what I think. Because immediately comes the MC chatter from Wycleff, Pras and Lauryn over that simple beat that suggests a block party of some kind. Using a known sample like that is no accident. It's tribute.

By the time we get to the next chorus we get "one time" and "two times" and it doesn't feel out of place at all. At least not anymore. Maybe the first time I heard it seemed a little strange. But soon, it got to the point I couldn't imagine this song without that, no matter who sings it. It's ingrained in my head now so that it's just part of the actual lyrics. This song is somehow live and intimate at the same time, like the best music is supposed to be. It's a ballad, but it's a celebration. It's full of paradoxes that elevate the entire piece to perfection that doesn't fade. Hear it now and it's not dated, but still carries a powerful nostalgia to it. After all, in 96, it was everywhere. Oh, and that's right, it reminds you of the previous versions too. It's a song that's carries history in every way.

So, a word about the bass line. There's a sound, a feel, that I hunt for in music, which I've written about before. It's probably what audiophiles would call the warmth of vinyl or vintage equipment in general. I don't know. It could be. It's a feeling I remember from listening to music when I was a kid, either from my parents' stereo or my cousins' or anybody's. This bass that was deep, but not distorted. Loud but not overpowering. You could feel it, but it didn't necessarily shake the house apart like modern subwoofers can. It was a sound you felt and told me this was serious music I was listening to. That feel is in that bass line, and it somehow comes through even on modern equipment. I am no audio engineer or anything similar, so I don't understand how that's possible, but it is. And that, to me, is the ultimate hook of this song.  This takes it to a level that somehow makes the quality of the song itself ooze with the love for music that the lyrics are describing. Sure, the song can be about someone listening to song that seems to describe exactly the heartbreak they are going through. But this version takes that and adds a layer that subliminally celebrates the power of that situation. It's telling us that because something like that can happen, music can unite strangers. And at the same time is paying tribute to the music that united The Fugees and those of us listening. Or maybe, it's just a badass song. Either way, it's perfect.


  1. I was working at a Camelot Records in 1996 when this started getting serious airplay (I dispute your 1993 datestamp). I was not listening to Top 40 stations at the time and when a 13 year old walked in and asked for "Killing Me Softly" and I said "wow, Roberta Flack. Good taste!" she was utterly confused and a little angry and we parted ways. Two days later I heard the song on the radio somewhere and was suitably impressed and hoped that little girl found her record at Sam Goody.

    1. You were right to dispute it since it's how I caught the typo. It was 96. Fixed. Thanks.