Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
“It’s an old expression,” Jesse Nolan explained in an interview with MTV. “Musicians used to say you caught a ghost if you gave a good performance. Like you were possessed.”
The spirit has certainly moved Caught a Ghost, the Los Angeles indie-electro-soul musical collective headed by Nolan. They give a 21st-century voice to the ghosts of Stax and Motown, welding them to ’90s hip-hop and electronica. Nolan, who plays most of the instruments in the studio and leads a whole stageful in Caught a Ghost’s highly-praised live shows (could be four, could be eight – “We just take whoever is available when we play”), describes himself as an “imperfectionist,” making sure the music is realer by not refining it to death.
At this writing, Caught a Ghost has only released one album, 2014’s Human Nature, with all songs written by Nolan. However, they’ve recorded quite a few covers that show up in soundtracks and commercials, and the new spin they give old favorites proves they not only know how to catch these ghosts, they know how to set them free. Hear for yourself.
MP3: Caught a Ghost – You Send Me (Sam Cooke cover)
Actress Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars, Dear White People, Creed) sang with Caught a Ghost for two years – “really as a hobby,” she says, but also helping to shape the band’s aesthetic. It was she who came up with the idea of covering Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” “It was one of the first things we did,” Nolan says. “She was like, I have an idea for a dark, brooding cover, and I knew exactly what to do with it.” He certainly did, matching Cooke’s silkiness with his own while trading the original’s pure warmth for a cool caress.
MP3: Caught a Ghost – Like a Virgin (Madonna cover)
The TV show Grey’s Anatomy commissioned this cover of “Like a Virgin” from Caught a Ghost. It’s a tall order to put another kind of spin on a Madonna song, particularly one from her ultra-iconic ’80s period. Nolan managed to make it feel shiny and new by staying away from the original song: “I just looked at the lyric,” he explained, adding, “that way I was able to take liberties with the melody.” The liberties he took helped erase the bouncy synth-y memories of Madonna’s song, making it touching for the very first time in a long time.
MP3: Caught a Ghost – Waterfalls (TLC cover)
Another suggestion of Thompson’s, “Waterfalls” began as a live cover of TLC’s signature tune, spurred by fun and nostalgia. When brought to the studio, the song’s cautionary lyrics came to the fore, sounding less light than the original but resonating just as deeply. There’s no sense of this cover being a cheap grab for sentiment; instead, it works as a tribute to a time (and, in Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, a woman) long gone.
MP3: Caught a Ghost – Hotline Bling (Drake cover)
Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video is closing in on three-quarters of a billion YouTube views, and yes, that’s billion with a B. It’s safe to say the song has woven its way deep into 21st century pop-cultural fabric, representing its decade the way the above three original songs represent theirs. Nolan echoes Drake’s isolation in his one-man recording, and the sense of solitude echoes through the song just as surely as his vocals do.
MP3: Caught a Ghost – Portions for Foxes (Rilo Kiley cover)
No bad news here. Caught a Ghost’s cover of “Portions for Foxes” adds the kiss of neo-soul that Rilo Kiley didn’t, and now the song carries a sense of swing to go with its power-pop joy.
MP3: Gavin Turek feat. Caught a Ghost – I Feel For You (Prince cover)
Here’s a bonus song, where Nolan takes a back seat to Gavin Turek, another member in good standing of LA’s indie-electro scene. Together, they cover “I Feel for You,” an early track by Prince, made famous by Chaka Khan’s cover. It’s light and joyous; you can hear the fun coming off the two of them in waves.
You can buy Caught a Ghost originals on Amazon.