Feb 152019
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t happy. He’d learned that Warner Brothers intended to change the name of his album Sit Down Young Stranger, and he flew from Toronto to Los Angeles to ask them why. Stan Cornyn, head of merchandising, responded with his own question: “Gord, did you take algebra?”

“I took it, but I sure as hell never passed it,” Lightfoot confessed.

“Well, Gord, changing the name of the album is the difference between x and 8x.”

“Go ahead and change it,” said Lightfoot. Smart move on both their parts – as If You Could Read My Mind, the album went from 80,000 in sales to 650,000. Credit the now-title track, which peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts forty-eight years ago this month.
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Feb 132019
 
emel mathlouthi covers

Emel Mathlouthi knows her cover songs. The Tunisian singer-songwriter, who first gained fame when a viral protest song got her dubbed the “Voice of the Arab Spring” (she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony – take that, Grammys), told us about her five favorite covers last year. She also, on pretty short notice, pulled together a rare “All Along the Watchtower” cover that sounds nothing like all the other “All Along the Watchtower” covers for my book party (no joke, friends still mention her performance to me two years later). But her newest cover may be her best yet. Certainly her most unrecognizable.

She’s sort of covered Jeff Buckley before, performing a pretty straightforward interpretation of his “Hallelujah” cover early in her career. But that finger-picked ballad wouldn’t prepare listeners for what she’s done to Buckley’s lesser-known song “New Year’s Prayer,” also called “Fall in Light.” Dark and electronic and storming, her cover, rechristened “Fallen,” sounds like Nine Inch Nails or Portishead. Anyone but Jeff Buckley. Continue reading »

Feb 082019
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

party doll

“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.

Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).

The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.

But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.

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Feb 072019
 
chris thile wilco cover

Sorry, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Wilco’s best album is 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. One of their quietest records (except when guitarist Nels Cline lets loose), and less experimental than their much-acclaimed previous efforts, it gets nowhere near the love a handful of other records too. Even the band doesn’t seem to care that much; on their most recent tour, they performed songs from YHF, A Ghost Is Born, Being There, and the two newest records more often, according to Setlist.fm (Summerteeth would have beaten it too, except they play “Impossible Germany” every night). But the album sneaks up on you, and now occasionally appears on an underrated-masterpiece list. Continue reading »

Feb 052019
 
chuck deardorf blind faith cover

When jazz bassist and educator Chuck Deardorf was a young trombonist, he often found himself listening to the bass. “They get to play the whole time, and I thought, ‘wow they sound like they’re having a lot more fun than I am’,” he said explaining his instrument of choice in an interview on the arts website Centrum. “The bass just shapes the music so much. You have a lot of responsibility and freedom to really determine where the music goes.” Deardorf made this childhood vision a reality on his new cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” where he uses his bass to reinterpret the song’s vocal melody.

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Feb 052019
 

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

henry jamison covers

Vermont singer-songwriter Henry Jamison addresses a difficult subject on his new album Gloria Duplex: toxic masculinity. “When I was in college 10 years ago, we were just horrible,” he told the New York Times on the subject. “People in their 20s are examining these issues in a way that feels very natural.”

Jamison’s gift with melody makes these weighty topics levitate. Nick Drake meets The National on these twelve songs, with Jamison working with major-league collaborators including St. Vincent’s right-hand man Thomas Bartlett on production and Bon Iver collaborator Rob Moose of yMusic arranging the strings. Hear a taste on single “Boys”:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his talents, Jamison knows his musical history. It’s a rare musician at this point who doesn’t choose a single song anyone else has, but Jamison digs deep. No “Hallelujah” or “Hurt” here. He also continued confronting toxic masculinity at its worst, having to banish an R. Kelly cover we once also adored (not to worry, Henry’s substitute pick is great too). Let Henry introduce you to some new favorites below. Continue reading »