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 a cover song that introduced you to an artist?
Sometime in the early 1990s, while rummaging through CD bins, I came across Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, an eclectic collection of cover songs highlighting the work of the 13th Floor Elevators frontman. Oddly, I wouldn’t get into Erickson’s work (or the details of his fascinating life captured in the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me) until much later. What did hit me right away was the raging-pop-with-handclaps reconstruction of “If You Have Ghosts” by John Wesley Harding and the Good Liars, and that led me to seek out his music.
JWH was the stage name of Wesley Stace, a humorous folk/pop/rock singer who initially was accused of ripping off the sound of Elvis Costello. It certainly didn’t help that the Good Liars were half of the Attractions plus sometime Costello guitarist Steve Donnelly. But truth be known, Stace is a collaborator, having played with members of the Decemberists, R.E.M., and Chuck Prophet, among others, and these collaborations have led to some of my favorite albums, particularly John Wesley Harding’s New Deal, a melancholy introspective pop-folk record, and what I feel is his masterpiece, Awake.
The album explodes with the creative genius of Stace, using lighters and match strikes as percussion for his song “Burn,” about our inclusive inevitable descent into Hell (“Make sure the house band’s playing ‘Light My Fire’”). Other highlights include “Window Seat,” about a boy who grows up completely on an airplane, and “Miss Fortune,” perhaps the most optimistic tale to come out of a botched back-alley abortion. This last song inspired him to write a full novel from it, and his fourth novel comes out this month.
When I was 15, all I wanted was great hair, a B in geometry, and to work at Empire Records.
Seventeen years later, none of those things have come to pass, but my love of Empire Records remains strong. I can quote the entire film verbatim, I actually know when Rex Manning Day is (it’s April 8) and I have, at this very moment, a copy of the soundtrack in my car.
The soundtrack is a quintessentially ’90s effort featuring tracks by the Cranberries, the Gin Blossoms, Cracker, and Lemonheads lead singer Evan Dando covering Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo.”
Big Star were musician’s musicians. There’s more than one fawning anecdote about musicians coming over all starry-eyed upon meeting the band, and the Replacements loved them so much, they wrote a fantastic, eponymous song about lead singer Alex Chilton.
“The Ballad of El Goodo” is a classic example of Big Star’s work. The song is a gorgeous, harmonically lush ode to an almost Emersonian sense of self-reliance and Dando transforms it from a power pop gem to a soft and hazy work of lo-fi introspection by replacing the country twang with a low murmur of muted acoustic guitars and subduing the soaring “everybody together now” chorus of the original.
When Dando croons, “They’ll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a row, but you know you don’t have to – you can just say no,” he’s singing about well-worn territory. The azure-eyed heartthrob of the alt-rock scene, Dando was no stranger to being zipped up, dressed down and made to stand in line alongside Kurt and Eddie and all the long-haired, blue-eyed boys of the grunge scene.
Had it not been for “The Ballad of El Goodo” and the beautiful little tattooed, gum-chewing freaks at Empire Records, I would have never delved deeper into Big Star’s catalog and discovered “Thirteen” – the prettiest ballad ever penned.
Seventeen years later, I still love Empire Records, and now I love Big Star too. And there ain’t no one going to turn me round.
It started with “Miracles,” the Jefferson Starship song that was a huge hit in 1975. My friend Chris and I explored music together, and from that album, we worked back through the Starship catalogue, then the Jefferson Airplane’s. We spent hours poring through the cutout bins at Korvettes. We started to read about the members’ side projects and learned about the spinoff band, Hot Tuna, that featured guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady. Eventually, one of us, or maybe both, bought a copy of the band’s self-titled debut. “Hesitation Blues” is side one, track one, and it is a cover of a traditional song that has been recorded and morphed many times over the years. I’ve heard a few versions, but none better than the Hot Tuna cover, which hooked me immediately. Jorma’s soulful, understated singing and intricate fingerpicking and Jack’s inventive bass lines create a remarkable whole—brilliant yet unpretentious.
The Airplane broke up before I was a concertgoer, and I never got to see the Starship (or wanted to see the awful version of Starship that built a city), but I’ve seen Hot Tuna a few times, once with Chris at the Palladium in, probably, 1976, then again, after a brief 30-year gap, with my family at the Beacon Theater in 2007, at the Tarrytown Music Hall in 2008 and the Clearwater Festival in 2014. I even waited outside the Music Hall in 2009 before a show that I didn’t have tickets for after seeing the tour bus pull in, so that I could shake Jorma’s hand. So, that introduction has led to a long-term relationship.
Okay, let me fess up to something right off the top: I was not familiar with the term “cover band” when I heard the Ben Folds Five song “Twin Falls” for the first time. I assumed Mr. Folds wrote this himself, even though it says clearly in the liner notes (which I read obsessively back in the days before digital music), “we’d have been happy to be a Built to Spill cover band.” I thought, “Well, I have no idea what that string of words means, but okay.” I loved the song, with its melodramatic retelling of a childhood love, the climax of which happens at age 17, which I happened to be at the time I bought the CD. Folds’ version still ranks as one of my all-time favorite songs. At some point, though, I heard Built to Spill and loved their loud, dueling guitars and whiny vocals. Eventually, something clicked and I remembered those liner notes; I searched for and found the original. I can’t help but unfairly compare it to the BFF version I listened to on repeat all those times, but both versions still take me back to that embarrassingly angsty time in my life.
Of all the songs or even genres that one might expect to epitomize or introduce Jackie Leven, late lamented bear of Celtic soul, his cover of “I Say a Little Prayer” is perhaps the last, even if “soul” suggests a link, which, to be fair, I’m not sure it does. But, there I was, an excited boy of 36, setting up tent at my first Glastonbury Festival in 1993, when it came booming out of my tinny transistor. Whoa, thought I, that’s a voice and a bit, remember that name! For I hadn’t been familiar with his earlier punker-than-punk incarnation as irascible lead for the positively dangerous New-Wavers Doll by Doll. Once I got back home I bought my first record of his and didn’t stop buying.
Remarkably prolific, he brought out at least one recording a year, often more, using any of many pseudonyms, until his untimely death in 2011. But why did he and how could he make such a good impression? The answer is in an imposing and generous baritone voice, reeking of passion and eking out on longing, inspired arrangements, often with his counter-pointed acoustic guitar mastery underpinning. And the tunes, the tunes….
So why haven’t you heard of him? Maybe you have, but I doubt it, as even his hard-core fanbase seldom could muster many more than a handful for his eagerly awaited live performances, earlier extravagant arrangements tossed aside for the voice, the guitar, and some of the best stories you are ever likely to hear. He did few other covers, only a duet “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” with David Thomas from Pere Ubu and a bizarre re-write of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, replacing the US placenames with those of Germany, where perhaps his biggest audience resided. So, if you don’t know him, listen to the clip, and be beguiled. Where next? Well, my personal favorite is his early Songs From the Argyll Cycle, Volume One, but any of his 27 releases will do.
I was introduced to Jonathan Coulton‘s cover of “Baby Got Back” on a Christmas mix tape back in 2005. I immediately began putting it on mixes for all my friends; I was a veritable Johnny Appleseed about the song. In fact, it took me months before I dared to check out any of Coulton’s originals, figuring there was no way he could top himself – or, more accurately, his version of someone else. Learning he’d done just that, with classics like “Code Monkey,” “I Feel Fantastic,” and “Tom Cruise Crazy,” wasn’t just a relief – it was an inspiration.
See, Jonathan was an early proponent of using the internet as a marketing tool, while the major labels saw the internet as the enemy. Result: he’s now making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year without a contract to any labels. He continues to sell his songs on his website, and he continues to make great covers, and I continue to be a Johnny Appleseed about him (though my favorite song to share these days is the NSFW “First of May”). Thanks, Jonathan, for making the introduction to your work so much fun, and also for making it a true introduction to your work.
I couldn’t help but think I’d already heard “Thirteen” somewhere. I didn’t know where, but I really thought I had. Looking back, it seems possible that I hadn’t really heard it before, that maybe there’s something about the music of Big Star that feels familiar, that the words and music just exists in the collective musical subconscious. Either way, when I heard Elliott Smith’s version on the soundtrack to the movie Thumbsucker (it later appeared on his posthumous collection New Moon), I knew there was a new band I needed to seek out, that an important piece of the Elliott Smith puzzle could be found there.
It’s a great cover for a lot of reasons. Elliott’s music is so often associated with sadness and self-deprecation, mentioning drug use and thoughts of suicide, and here he was playing “Thirteen,” this simple song about young love, about going to dances and listening to the Rolling Stones. There was something so perfectly sweet and sad and beautiful about the way he performed his cover, like he was able to perfectly capture the feeling of nostalgia and play it back with his voice and a guitar.
Later, listening to Big Star albums, I imagined what Elliott Smith had heard, what it was about the music, about front man Alex Chilton, that had spoken to him. It’s hard to explain properly, but I get it now. There’s something about Big Star that defies explanation, that causes objective discussion to break down completely. So these days, when I tell people to listen to Big Star and they come back to me saying, “They’re just a catchy rock band, why are they such a big deal?” I don’t have an answer for them. I just say, “Yeah, that’s really all they are. And isn’t it amazing?”
I consider myself a responsible music journalist. Any time I do a news write up for Cover Me, I do your standard Google-based research of the artist in question. Every now and then, I will find myself fascinated with a cover and then lose copious amounts of time researching a new favorite artist. One cover in particular that has done that for me is Mr. Little Jeans cover of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
Like everyone else and their mother, I was obsessed with Arcade Fire’s third studio album. There was something sacred about the way Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sang about tiny anxieties and day-to-day pains in a grandeur manner. The album is by no means untouchable, but if an artist decides to cover a track off of it, they better do a damn good job. Monica Birkenes, known by her moniker Mr. Little Jeans, does just that. Birkenes replaces the lavish instrumentation of the original with eery, hollow synth, perfectly mirroring the lyrics with her ethereal vocals. After listening to this cover a solid hundred times or so, I moved onto some of her EPs, waiting for more. In early 2014, she finally released her debut LP, Pocketknife, and it has been on heavy rotation for me ever since.
A couple years ago, Mia Dyson’s PR person sent us a cover she did of someone named Lori McKenna. I’d never heard either Dyson or McKenna so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit, but we try to listen to everything submitted at least once. The cover sounded good, but what jumped out most was the lyrics. I went to hear the original to see whether Dyson’s cover differed enough to be impressive.
It didn’t – but the original Dyson was aping was stunning.
“I Know You” was the lead track to McKenna’s 2007 album Unglamorous, which came out on Warner Nashville and is everything that might imply. It’s the sort of sound people who say they like “everything but country” mean – slick, polished, not rough or ragged at all. She toured that opening for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, which shows you how her label was trying to position her.
But like a proto-Kacey Musgraves, McKenna’s songwriting cut straight through the gloss. Her tales of down-and-out losers and working-class struggles felt honest, not pandering. By that point Dyson’s sound-alike cover was basically forgotten.
McKenna never became the country star Warner was trying to make her, and ended up with a publishing contract to write songs for other more popular singers. They’re lucky to have them.
Ask my friends and they’ll tell you there are two things I am an absolute sucker for: the first is anything piano related and the second, a girl who can sing.
Cœur de Pirate’s cover of “Wicked Games” effectively satisfies both criteria, and naturally led to an obscene obsession of the track for weeks to come. After I learned how to play Béatrice Martin’s haunting and sparse piano accompaniment, the tune managed to dig itself further into the hole I call cherished memories, following many alcohol-tinged nights by the piano side, high school friends leaning on my shoulders, all of us wailing in drunken chorus to the words of the Weeknd. Such evenings usually were ended by less mellow songs such as King of Leon’s “Use Somebody”, Muse’s “Feeling Good” and Coldplay’s “Death Will Never Conquer,” in the hopes of tuning down the evening angst factor.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to explore Cœur de Pirate further, and I wasn’t disappointed when I did. The Québécoise singer-songwriter has a great knack for soothing piano tunes and her minimal acoustic guitar strums, gentle string lines and tender voice further strengthen her appeal.
Béatrice Martin’s story is of equal interest: having begun her musical training at age three and enjoyed moderate success and acclaim with her solo career starting 2008, it wasn’t until a YouTube video featuring one of her songs went viral that she was propelled to an international audience.
While no song of hers has yet succeeded in surpassing my love for her sultry Weeknd cover, Cœur de Pirate definitely has its place as a reliable go-to artist for when I’m in the mood for something sparse and relaxing.
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