Jul 162019
 

In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”

Pat Boone

Reasons abound for maligning Pat Boone’s career in popular music. The catalyst for his career was a string of covers of R&B tunes by black artists for whom the legacy of segregation never afforded the same amount of wealth. White artists made substantially more than their counterpart artists of color. Major record labels had larger distribution chains, promotional budgets, and stronger connections to radio and television networks to advantage their artists. By contrast, black musicians on “race records” benefited from none of these privileges. While artists like Little Richard, Big Joe Turner, and Fats Domino have enjoyed staying power and wide acclaim for being architects of rock music, in the early decades of that genre, white covers were commercially more successful. Added to this was the exploitative nature of covers on larger labels that made more money than the originals while paying out no royalties to the black originators. Boone was unapologetic that his career benefited from this exploitation.

It is also noteworthy that Boone’s performance and lyricism of some of rock’s first generation of are a case study in the sanitized tastes of the burgeoning white middle class in the 1950s. His smooth vocal delivery was reminiscent of crooners rather than the raspy, full-throated yowl of Little Richard. And the lyrical changes on “Tutti Frutti” were a nod to teenage infatuation stripped of any of the sexuality in Little Richard’s original.

Despite Boone representing the residuals of white privilege while Jim Crow reigned supreme, there is a note of appreciation to be made for Boone and contemporaries Elvis Presley and Bill Haley in helping to extend the reach of rock music to new audiences at a critical juncture in that genre’s history.
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Jul 152019
 
bob dylan neil young will the circle

In 1975, months before the Rolling Thunder Revue began, Bob Dylan joined Neil Young for a huge benefit concert in San Francisco. As if that wasn’t enough, three-fifths of The Band joined them too: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. The spontaneous supergroup performed ramshackle versions of a few Neil Young songs (“Lookin’ for a Love,” “Helpless,” “Are You Ready for the Country?”), a few Dylan songs (Bob’s first-ever live “I Want You” and a weirdly retitled “Knockin’ on Dragon’s Door”), and a few covers. The final song they performed was one of those covers, a raggedy but charming version of country standby “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” popularized in the 1930s by The Carter Family. Here’s a stream: Continue reading »

Jul 152019
 
miley cyrus metallica

Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” might be the closest thing the thrash-metal titans have to a soft-rock hit. The song was a shock to longtime fans upon its release on their self-titled 1991 album (aka The Black Album) because the arrangement included, gasp, strings. Written by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, “Nothing Else Matters” has become the band’s most covered track, according to secondhandsongs.com. The latest to tackle it is pop empress Miley Cyrus who sang a cover during her performance at the Glastonbury Festival on June 30. Continue reading »

Jul 122019
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Bad Shepherds

Confession time: it took a while for the Bad Shepherds’ Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methara to sink in. For one thing, there are rather too many novelty covers projects for comfort, from the initially inventive Hayseed Dixie to the downright bizarre Rockabye lullaby renditions. For another thing, bandleader Adrian “Ade” Edmondson is better known as a comic actor, from The Young Ones to Bottom, and is the husband of Jennifer “Absolutely Fabulous” Saunders. The whole affair smacked of novelty and nonsense, setting all my prejudices bristling. And so it remained, my ears deaf to compromise.

But I hadn’t realized a number of things. Firstly, Edmondson was both a genuine lover of both folk music and of the punk and new wave he interprets in that genre. Not such an odd combination as it sounds, broadly similar to my own tastes, we being of similar ages and backgrounds. But rather than combining with other hobby musicians, Edmondson hooked up with a giant in the tradition, Troy Donockley, an Englishman adept on the Irish uillean pipes, with a track record playing alongside prog-rockers The Enid, Celtic rockers Iona and with doyenne of the Northumbrian pipes, Kathryn Tickell. Since 2013 he has been a member of Finnish band Nightwish.

Whilst nominally a duo, they enlisted Andy Dinan on fiddle, a onetime all-Ireland fiddle champion, for this album and the subsequent 2009 tour, with the late Maartin Allcock, erstwhile of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull (both at once!), appearing on guitars when available. Edmondson played mandolin and sang, claiming to be a novice on both instruments. Rather than any straight ahead thrash, the arrangements were both sensitive to the originals, and respectful to the tradition, the insertion of many a traditional air going neither unnoticed nor uncredited. And neither was this any folk-rock lumpen jig and reel fest; the arrangements captured the heart and soul of the listener, rather than merely their feet.

Two further records appeared in 2010 and 2013, based largely on the accolades given the project, with votes as best live act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards in 2010, and the same for Spiral Earth, a website devoted to music festivals of all genres, in 2012. But it is this first recording that hits hardest the spot as a cover classic, the choices of songs being exemplary and the performances uplifting.
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Jul 102019
 

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!

Earlier this year, a young rapper named Lil Nas X found himself in an odd position. With rhymes about horses, tractors, cowboys, and Wrangler jeans, his song “Old Town Road” was blazing up the country charts. Then, suddenly, it was dropped from the list. Officials at Billboard claimed it was because the tune was not country enough. Some cried foul, some cried racism. Billy Ray Cyrus called it something else.

The country singer, who shook up Nashville himself with his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” labelled Lil Nas X a true country outlaw. Cyrus took to Twitter, saying: “When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘Take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club.”

With Lil Nax X’s blessing, Cyrus went into the studio to record some of the lyrics and an additional verse. Just like that, “Old Town Road (Remix)” was born. This time, they did not need the country charts. The song shot up to the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, where it has stayed for 13 weeks as of July 1. At age 57, Cyrus earned the first number one pop single of his career. But more importantly, the man known to many as Miley Cyrus’ dad has suddenly been blessed with cultural street cred. On June 23, the two performed the song at the BET Awards with the whole crowd singing and dancing along. It’s a type of cachet that has been eluding Cyrus since the “Achy Breaky” backlash of the early ‘90s.

I can’t help but feel somewhat vindicated by all this. You see, I have been a Billy Ray defender for decades. Yes, I know “Achy Breaky Heart” is corny and was overplayed to nth degree. But once you get beyond his many attempts to replicate his “Achy Breaky” success with equally cheesy sequels, he has many great songs that have held up well in the ensuing decades. Plus, Cyrus can really sing. His voice enables him to take on many subgenres of country, rock, pop, and now rap with equal ease.

As with any country singer, Cyrus has recorded a number of cover songs over the years, including two feminist anthems. Here’s a quick primer for those who dare to embrace Cyrus’ well-worn mullet.

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Jul 102019
 
thou nirvana cover

The last time we wrote about Thou, our headline read: “Thou Leads Doom Metal Cover of Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’.”

Sound familiar?

Two years later, the Louisiana metal quintet returns with another Nirvana cover, even more doom-y than the last. This time, they tackle “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” the song Nirvana learned from Leadbelly’s version (who called it “In the Pines”) and famously performed on MTV Unplugged. Even played on acoustic guitars, Nirvana’s version was plenty heavy, but Thou takes the word “heavy” to a whole other level. Over a thunderous nine minutes, they growl and roar over a wall of distorted guitars. This sort of death-metal vocal style (“Cookie monster” to its detractors) can turn off non-metalheads, but it proves a perfect fit for this song and this sound. Continue reading »