Nov 282015

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!


The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 saw New Orleans receiving 15 inches of rain in 18 hours, with parts of it under four feet of water. Forty-seven years later, Randy Newman released “Louisiana 1927,” a lament about the devastation the disaster caused and the government’s callous response. Thirty-one years after that, Hurricane Katrina struck, and the song took on a new life. It takes a remarkable writer to compose a song about the long-ago past that can be relevant in the far-ahead future, and that’s just what Randy Newman is.

As he celebrates his 72nd birthday today, Newman can look back on a career of critically praised albums, memorable film scores, a couple of fluke hits, twenty Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s the absolute master of the unreliable narrator, which allows him to explore the uncomfortable side of humanity with dark humor. Journalist Paul Zollo writes, “There is no other songwriter who has shown us bigotry, ignorance, and human weakness as convincingly as Randy Newman.” People who only know him as the guy who writes for Pixar movies and gets mocked by Family Guy need to take a closer look; fortunately, many cover artists have been all too happy to take that closer look for us.
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Nov 252015

joyTo all reports, Ewan MacColl was a difficult man. It’s perhaps hard to believe that a man who could write as sensitive a song as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (for Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half-sister and MacColl’s third wife), the song made into a cross-genre standard by Roberta Flack in 1972, could be so uniformly feared and vilified, yet still admired. I guess it’s the usual case of ignoring the man and embracing the music, and this man, who arguably invented the UK folk boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s, had little interest in embracing any of the young acolytes drawn to his flame – he called Bob Dylan’s work “tenth-rate drivel.”

Born James Miller in Manchester, his life was a series of reinventions, as he became a communist rabble-rouser in his teens, then a George Bernard Shaw-admired  playwright and, in his mid-30’s, self-acclaimed champion of a fiercely curated folk idiom, wherein such modern anachronisms as make-up for women (and possibly women in general) were decried and denied, while Dylan, Paul Simon, and others of those young acolytes were freely liberating the repertoire into their own.
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Nov 242015
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As a songwriter, Stephin Merritt doesn’t need any testaments to his prolificness or originality – the sheer scope of his sweeping, three-disc Magnetic Fields album, “69 Love Songs,” on top of the rest of his discography, is testament enough. And yet, other artists continuously remind us of the enormous scope and degree of his influence with covers from throughout his oeuvre. Recently, Bully and FIDLAR demonstrated this with a cheery take on “Absolutely Cuckoo,” the opener to the aforementioned triple-album. Continue reading »

Nov 232015
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If you haven’t heard of Natalie Prass yet, just wait until the end of the year “Best Albums” lists start rolling out. Prass’s self-titled debut, released early this year, is a gem. The lush backgrounds support her (usually) reserved delivery. She’s had many comparisons to Jenny Lewis (for whom she has previously sung backup) but Nick Drake references work as well. With that in mind, a cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Sound of Silence” seems an apt choice, but Prass flips the script with a stripped down funk cover of the folk classic. Continue reading »

Nov 202015

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

bob ramona

Bob Dylan scholars have determined that “To Ramona” is a song about Joan Baez; Dylan’s warning her that the folk protest movement will draw her in deep, but he recognizes that she doesn’t necessarily have a problem with that, and much as he loves and wants her, he has to let her think for herself, both for her sake and for his. That’s a pretty specific interpretation, yet the song resounds in the hearts of thousands, millions, as a love song they can relate to their own lives, in their own ways. It speaks to Dylan’s genius that he can draw the universal from the singular instead of the other way around.
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Nov 182015

Last year, the North Carolina band Lost in the Trees announced an indefinite hiatus (and it sounds like it’s permanent). But before they went their separate ways (well before in fact), they recorded a majestic cover of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing.” We’re proud to premiere it below. Continue reading »

Nov 132015

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!


When Led Zeppelin III was released 45 years ago, it seemed destined to disappoint both the fans who wanted “Whole Lotta More Love” and the critics who weren’t all that keen on the band to begin with. Oh, sure, “Immigrant Song” was an instant hard-rock classic, and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” was blues as slow and heavy as you could hope for, but this album’s heart and soul lay with its acoustic numbers on what was then called Side Two. This wouldn’t do – hadn’t these guys already set up camp in the heavy metal slums? How dare they pretend to be other than what they were?

Of course, time has proven Zeppelin the wiser. III proved them capable of expanding their palette, showing more sides and more shades than the wannabes who were only capable of following one set of Zep’s footprints. The critics have come around, taking note of the bucolic dimension Jimmy Page and Robert Plant brought to their songwriting after a recharging stay in a quiet cottage in Wales named Bron-Yr-Aur. And the fans? Well, Led Zeppelin was never going to lose their fans.
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Nov 122015
tim amukele

Nick Drake has been covered a lot. His music has a straightforward beauty to its melodies but contains enough complexity to be open to endless reinterpretation. Typically this shows up as a cut by a singer-songwriter or indie-folk group, but rarely as a jazzy R&B version. And let me be the first to say: we need more R&B Nick Drake covers. Continue reading »