Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite holiday cover song?
Really more of an extended blues jam that incorporates elements of Christmas music (most notably “Silent Night”) than a true cover, “Holiday Marmalade” by Jorma Kaukonen is guaranteed to be playing when I am cooking during the holidays. So many holiday covers are either too schmaltzy, or too reverent, or are quirky for quirky’s sake. This one, though, is just a great rocker, with a crack band and some incredible guitar by the dependable Kaukonen. That it works in holiday themes is just a bonus. As a Jew who married into Christmas more than a quarter of a century ago, I am late to the Christmas music thing, but have become, for better or worse, deeply into the genre, scouring the web each year for new things to add to the holiday playlists on the separate iPod I bought for that purpose. “Holiday Marmalade” (better than “Jam,” I guess) is included on Christmas With Jorma Kaukonen, a collection of covers and originals that may be my favorite holiday album (it’s either that or the Roches’ We Three Kings.) For more of my thoughts about “Holiday Marmalade,” click here.
Christmas is far and away my favorite holiday, and I look forward to Thanksgiving Day for one reason more than any other: the start of Christmas music in my house. I have a strict policy of no holiday music before Thanksgiving, but it’s nonstop from that point on. I love it all, as long as it’s recognizably Christmas-y. From the classics like Bing, Johnny, Elvis, Kenny, Vince, Gloria, to modern takes by Coldplay, Bright Eyes, Telephoned and Sufjan Stevens. Picking just one to stand in as my favorite Christmas cover was the hardest cover question I could be asked. In the end I had to go with Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night.” It might seem dated or cheesy now, but when TSO’s holiday rock opera hit the airwaves back in 1996 I had never really heard a Christmas cover like it. As a teenager I was thrilled by a traditional church song on electric guitar, and whether you like TSO or not, you have to admit the guitar work is virtuosic. We had the whole album in heavy rotation at the Misch household that Christmas, and for years afterwards. 17 years later I still hear something new and exciting, while at the same time getting that same feeling of familiarity and tradition I love about the holidays.
I swear I picked this song for reasons beyond my juvenile joy in hearing Mark E. Smith and Co. put a solemn Christmas hymn through their musical meat grinder. What I really like about this cover, in fact, is how it tricks you. The Fall start things off with a loose but hooky groove that could easily drive one of their original songs. Smith then chimes in with his snotty-voiced reading Charles Wesley’s lyrics. If they had left it at that it would have been a fun, goofy novelty romp, like their fellow Peel Session cover of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
But they don’t leave it at that. Instead, when it comes time for the “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” chorus, all but the drums drop away and Brix Smith (I think) chimes in with vocals that wouldn’t be out of place in a small town church on Christmas Eve. She even sings her own harmony at one point. So, there you go. It rocks. It’s subversive. It’s also reverent.
Booker T. and the MG’s established the Memphis soul sound, both as the house band for the Stax label (backing up Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, and many more) and on the instrumental singles and albums they recorded on their own. As tremendous as their originals are (and are they ever), the band shone especially bright on their cover songs, giving groove to everything they touched. This was especially true on In the Christmas Spirit, their 1966 album of Christmas songs. Who’d have thought anything by Irving Berlin could be made to sound funky? Well, thanks to Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr., that’s exactly what “White Christmas” becomes.
The album opens with “Jingle Bells,” and it smokes like no other version. When I’m in the car listening to a Booker T. anthology and this comes on, I crank it up and rock out as best I can, even in mid-July – and what other holiday songs do you want to listen to in the summertime? This is one cover of “Jingle Bells” that neither smells nor laid an egg, and it’s a great showcase for one of the greatest American bands.
Holiday music can be pretty divisive. Some seek solace in the comforting memories of childhood, while others lash out in a misanthropic war against the season. I find myself firmly in the middle, especially soothed by lounge-y type standards while giving an approving nod to people who are fighting the good fight against the bad song.
Since I live in North Carolina, it’s only natural to choose Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “I Love the Winter Weather” as one of my favorite holiday cover songs. Written by Ted Shapiro in the ‘40s and made famous by Peggy Lee, “Winter” is a good fit for one of the most popular bands to come out of the Swing Revival period of the ‘90s. Whether you have a martini in hand or a bottle of Night Train, it all goes down better with this classic tune.
“We Three Kings” can be a bit ponderous. Ponderous as only a church hymn from 150 years ago could be. But it is a great vehicle for Mark Lanegan‘s deep voice, and despite what you might expect from an album titled Dark Mark Does Christmas, he actually manages to liven up the song a bit. It’s kept very simple, with just a guitar and voice, and it sounds simply lovely. Reverential without being boring.
It’s a tough task to declare a favorite holiday cover, as essentially all holiday songs are covers. That being the case, the criteria for a great holiday cover is (at least in my eyes) somewhat stricter. It can’t just be a great song – it has to have the feel of being a great cover. And yet, the mark of a great cover is that it doesn’t feel like a cover. You see the paradox here.
That said, everything is made clear with Barenaked Ladies & Sarah McLachlan‘s take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The track is something all its own, despite the song being written 180 years ago. There’s a gypsy-jazz feel to the cover, a folksiness, a timeless spirit that’s different from what we get in most holiday songs. It’s fun and spiritual and warms you like a hearth fire, and it’s not to be missed.
Josh T. Pearson‘s Last of the Country Gentlemen was one of the most beautiful, depressing albums of the past decade, all bleak soul-unburdening over 12-minute fingerpicking. The guy didn’t really seem the type for a Christmas EP, but the one he put out soon after stayed very much in character. Despite upbeat lyrics about new and glorious morns, “O Holy Night” already has a somewhat funereal melody, and over eight or so minutes (it varies, depending on what version you hear), he brings out the downer dirge, sounding like a guy worried this “savior” thing might be some big put-on.
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