The Clash’s “Straight From Hell” contains the same opening riffs from M.I.A.’s smash single, “Paper Planes.” This connection, rather than an affinity for M.I.A., sparked the Pale Young Gentlemen’s deconstructed, chamber pop cover of the hit song. Lead singer Mike Reisenauer’s tentative warble singing about being a “bonafide hustler” may seem a bit comedic, but this Madison, Wisconsin-based ensemble turns a song about taking people’s money into something dramatically different.
M.I.A.’s version takes a typical rap song and turns it on its head, incorporating jarring sound effects and clever turns of phrase that sparked a near-phenomenon. Her album, Kala, which features “Paper Planes,” was an excellent album, but for some reason never garnered the same about of popularity and radio play as the single, even with tracks like “Boyz” and “Bamboo Banga.” Even still, “Paper Planes” is an unconventional subject for a pop-rock group to cover.
The most famous sequence of the song is the chorus, which is three gunshots, the gun reloading, and a “ka-ching.” The Pale Young Gentlemen turn in a much milder approach to the imagery, substituting drums and bells for bullets. Add some strings, an acoustic guitar, and a melodic voice, and any sonic similarity to the original version ends. The end result is a lilting, simple tune that is nearly the exact opposite of what any M.I.A. song sounds like, and the Pale Young Gentlemen have crafted an interpretation that is quite beautiful, save for the subject matter. The use of string instruments are the turning point in the cover; “Paper Planes” seemingly becomes a Pale Young Gentlemen song, rather than it feeling like a watered-down remake.
As M.I.A. sings in the song, “we pack and deliver like UPS tucks,” the Pale Young Gentlemen do exactly the same with this winning and eclectic cover. The group also boasts two outstanding records. Most recently they released Black Forest (tra la la), and before that, their self-titled debut.