Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” was a triumph of melancholia, but Big Joanie’s heavy, fuzzy rendition of the tune makes the original sound positively upbeat by comparison.
Solange’s single was so good — IndieLand dubbed it one of the 50 Best Songs of 2016 when it came out and, later, one of the 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far — in part because of the way she blended frank confessions about trying to get herself out of a funk with the poetry of “cranes in the sky,” these enormous metal blights obscuring what could be a beautiful day. The music, which she wrote with Raphael Saadiq, felt airy and light; the bass does acrobatics when she sings “I tried to dance it away” and a synthesizer trickles out vaguely Eastern-sounding motifs. When she sings the chorus, “It’s like cranes in the sky/Sometimes, I don’t want to feel those metal clouds,” a choir of female voices sweetly harmonize, “do-do-do-do-do.” You know she’s sad, but something about the music makes you feel she’ll eventually get through it.
The cover version by Big Joanie — a London-based trio of black feminists, whose 2018 debut LP, Sistahs, reflected influences that ranged from Joy Division to the Slits — almost feels like a different song. The words and melodies are the same, but the deep, echoing drums, dirge-like bass, and sparse, expressionistic guitar feel more dire than Solange’s version of the song, and they hook you in. The way Stephanie Phillips sings the opening couplet, “I tried to drink it away/I tried to put one in the air,” you know she tried to move past her depression, but you can also picture how hard it was for her just to try from the tone in her voice. The other women join her to accent words like “better” and “sadder,” but they never sing “do-do-do-do-do.” There is still some hope in the chorus — the background vocals on the chorus sound almost angelic — but the appeal here is the way the women have tapped into a deeper, more introverted mood and stayed there.
Their version, which will come out on a seven-inch on Friday, runs a minute longer than Solange’s. They take their time with the song and savor its mood. By the time the lead guitar ascends to float over the top of the song, like a metal cloud, it sounds like they’re finally on their way to feeling better. It’s not better than Solange’s; just a different reflection of the song that stuns differently. The way Big Joanie’s take ends with a splash of distorted bass, the melancholy feeling lingers.