Concise Pink Pig Atlas: The Whole Cure in the Mirror

By Douglas Wolk

In 1996, the Cure did a promotional tour for their Wild Mood Swings album, and one of their first stops was an invitation-only taping for Modern Rock Live. A coworker of mine who more or less lived for the Cure finagled himself an invite, and he came in the next day with a huge grin on his face. They played an hour-long set, he explained, mostly songs from the new album. Then they left the stage, but came back ten minutes later and announced that they’d play some more for the people who’d stuck around. A half-dozen older hits followed. As the recording crew cleared out, the Cure left and returned again, to a still smaller audience. You’re our real fans, Robert Smith declared. He beckoned the diehards closer and serenaded them with a set of songs from the band’s earliest days.

The Cure have a reputation for being unusually attentive to their most passionate fans. For instance, they recently asked visitors to their official Web site to submit suggestions for songs they don’t play often enough; they got back more than 35,000 responses and incorporated eight of the top ten into their current repertoire. So it’s not surprising that they’re the object of one of the most dumbfounding acts of devotion ever directed at a rock band. Concise Pink Pig Atlas: The Whole Cure in the Mirror is a 14-CD set presented in a hand-bound 170-page book. Assembled by two Argentinean fans identified only as German and Flor, it features 192 bands from 25 countries covering 192 songs written or cowritten by Robert Smith. That’s everything on the Cure’s 11 studio albums, every B side and compilation track, every scrap of incidental music from art films, every song Smith wrote with the Banshees’ Steve Severin in the Glove, every Easy Cure demo…basically it’s everything, period. In fact, two of the songs have never been released anywhere else: you see, word got around that songs entitled “Just Say Yes” and “You’re So Happy (You Could Kill Me)” had been recorded during the Bloodflowers sessions, and the lyrics were posted on the Web site. But no one had heard them, so the final two acts on the set wrote their own music from scratch.

There have been other Cure tribute albums–Give Me the Cure, a collection of covers by D.C. indie-rock bands, has its moments–but Pink Pig isn’t a nod to the peaks of a fondly remembered old favorite. It’s a deep bow to personal heroes and their career as a whole. Any decent bar band can pull off “Boys Don’t Cry”; it takes a special kind of interpreter to find a way into “Uyea Sound,” an instrumental from the cassette-only benefit release Lost Wishes.

Which is not to say that Pink Pig is actually good very often. None of the 192 band names is at all familiar; this might well be the first time many of the participants have been heard playing music outside their immediate circle of friends. They’re amateurs in the truest sense: “We pretend not to be listeners for one time, but the interpreters of that all time beloved song,” German and Flor note in their foreword. (Their own contribution is, fittingly, “Out of This World,” from Bloodflowers: Smith as Prospero, breaking his magic wand and announcing that it’s time to go back to real life.) It does include some excellent moments of unintentional comedy–familiar songs presented in singing-in-the-shower voices with heavy foreign accents–but hearing an entire familiar album in earnest amateur renditions is mostly unnerving, like waking up to find everything in your apartment replaced by lopsided plaster models.

A few tracks are completely unbearable–mostly the ones by bands that try to replicate the original recordings. (You can get Smith’s guitar tone if you try, but a cheap facsimile is always worse than the real thing in every way.) Conversely, the most impressive contributions are the radical rearrangements and total reconceptualizations. Better-known songs are more likely to get such treatment: Instituto del Quemado makes a near-abstract collage of “The Caterpillar,” and Lumpy Froth tries to sell “Killing an Arab” as Weird Al comedy, complete with lead accordion and silly voices (“I’m alive! I’m deaaaaaaad!”). Pablo Dog’s weirdly gripping “Let’s Go to Bed” consists of little more than the out-of-tune, multitracked voice of Parisian fan Olivier Rigaud, who attempts to swing it like a hipster, snapping his fingers and dropping in snippets of organ and big-band brass. The sole attempt to bring the old Cure sound into the electronica age is a drum ‘n’ bass-inflected adaptation of “10:15 Saturday Night” by Delaware’s Silence the Eyes, and it’s not bad at all.

Most of the recordings on Pink Pig are obviously zero-budget undertakings, and some of the pure audio verite moments are some of the most transfixing. The mid-80s B side “A Japanese Dream” is sung a cappella by a Canadian girl who calls herself Dji; she’s not singing it in any particular key, but she obviously loves the living hell out of it. Lindsey Grodoski goes so far as to play the original recording of “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” on a CD player with a karaoke function and sing along with it. You can tell it’s a performance that’s been running nightly for years but has never had an audience before.

Pink Pig is especially useful for the perspective it provides on the Cure’s own records. Robert Smith has one of the least lovely voices that’s ever drawn a crowd–strained and nasal, riddled with mannerisms and tics–but hearing his songs sung by people who genuinely can’t sing makes it clear that he’s a master of phrasing and inflection who’s figured out how to make the best of his bizarre instrument. The Pink Pig singers who try to imitate him sound like dorks, but those who try too hard to get away from his phrasing leave a lot of his lyrics dangling awkwardly. The set also reveals that, surprisingly, the Cure’s most resilient songwriting comes from the middle of their career. The punk-era tunes of the first couple discs don’t lend themselves to much beyond soundalike guitar-band grinding. Pornography, the savage 1982 album beloved of the hardest of hardcore Cure fans, goes limp in other bands’ hands; the original’s strength is mostly in the delivery. The last couple albums don’t hold up too well either, though the most devoted fans do their best to breathe life into distracted bonus tracks from the Wish period.

But the songs from The Head on the Door and the experimental excess of their feverish, try-anything-once B sides give the fans more room for interpretation. And Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me comes out looking better in the mirror than any other album: the melodies are strong enough to survive amateur abuse, yet flexible enough to inspire inventive arrangements. “The Kiss” becomes a gothified Gregorian chant by a Parisian trio called Rachoune. As sung by Supermika, a man who can’t pronounce his Rs and a woman whose every high note sounds like a personal victory, “The Perfect Girl” becomes a Serge-and-Brigitte pop-reggae duet. And the most touching track in the whole set is “Why Can’t I Be You?,” for which E. Koven, a young woman from New Jersey, sings and plays violin and viola over a cheesy MIDI rendition of the song. She adds an extra couplet at the end in praise of Smith: “Everything you do has changed my life today / Everything you do is simply enchante.”

Only five hundred copies of Pink Pig were made. Most were preordered by the participants and were delivered last month to those who paid up; any unclaimed leftovers will be offered to other fans through Meanwhile, the Cure have announced that they’ll be throwing in the spiky wig after their current tour ends, and German and Flor have given copies of Pink Pig to everyone who’s ever been in the band as a sort of retirement present. It’s hard to imagine a sweeter gift. We love you, Pink Pig says. We love you. We love everything you have ever done. You taught us to ask the first question an artist has to ask: Why can’t I be you?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Cure photo by Nick Knight/ CD booklet with CDs.