Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
When all the bien-pensant trendsetters diss the Eagles (and they do, they do), “Boys of Summer,” written post-Eagles 1.0 and pre-hell freezing over by Don Henley, their best singer and their best writer, is the song that leads my opening statement for the defense. I remember the first time I heard it; I’d long before grown weary of the old band, but this song astonished and delighted. The combination of sound and lyric served to kick me into a mythical time remembered, irrespective of impossibility, brown skins shining in what little sun made it into my drab surroundings, lifting me into celebration, looking back, yes, always looking back. (I recall actual Deadheads kicking up over the perceived lyrical put-down, but to me, hell, it was a reminder and a kick-start.)
It’s a difficult song to do well, as the original hits all the bases available. Second Hand Songs tells me at least twenty-three have tried, with YouTube adding several more risible attempts to the list. One was even a successful hit in Eurodisco land, as some may remember. Wanna hear that one again? Tough, it ain’t here tonight. But here are three others, in ascending order of quality.
The Custom Kings cover is good.
The Dartmouth Aires cover is better.
And the Show of Hands cover is best.
The Australian band the Custom Kings added this rendition to Triple J’s long-running radio show, “Like a Version,” another home of good cover versions, if not the graveyard of those providing. As the brushed drums and acoustic bass kick off, I’m hooked, even if the vocals are throwaway and in thrall to what sounds like a ukulele lead.
The Dartmouth Aires are a college a capella singing unit of 60-plus years history, thrown into a limelight by a TV singing show. Actually, I’m not so keen on this out front, the front line being a bit karaoke-y derivative. But, underneath this anodyne surface, a wash of choral vocals invoke a Wilsonesque hue that makes me long to hear the residual Beach Boys give it a go, with Brian Wilson and Al Jardine invited back again to where they belong.
Show of Hands are huge in UK folk. The combination of Steve Knightley, exemplary singer/songwriter, and uber-instrumentalist Phil Beer, latterly with Miranda Sykes on double bass, have been top of their game for a quarter century or more, with a healthy love of unexpected covers cropping up consistently within their repertoire. Indeed, they’ve produced two recordings devoted thereto, imaginatively entitled Covers (2000) and Covers 2 (2010). This version isn’t anything more than a simple acoustic take, but it’s lifted into excellence by Knightley’s stretched voice in the second stanza of each section, sufficient to have me, for one, weeping. (By the way, you may have heard Phil Beer play fiddle on this, from the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels.)
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