Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Had hipsters been prevalent in 1994-5, Portishead’s “Sour Times” would have made a perfect hipster wedding song. It had something old (the band was steeped in spy soundtracks of the ’50s and ’60s), something new (they didn’t invent trip-hop, but they did introduce it to millions of Americans), something borrowed (they sampled Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident”), and something blue in Beth Gibbons’ sad vocals. “Nobody loves me, it’s true” she sings, then neatly dodges self-pity by adding “Not like you do.” Neo-noir as ’90s radio got, “Sour Times” was one of those songs that hooked listeners across the musical spectrum from the first seconds of the first listen.
Why hasn’t “Sour Times” gotten all that many covers over the years? I’d wager it’s partly because the verses are far more complex than the chorus, both in meaning and in their tongue-twisterly sound, and partly because Portishead hit the nail so directly on the head. This is one song where a cover demands that the artist put their own stamp on it if it’s to be memorable. Fortunately, there are a number of artists who have been willing to do just that…
Velvet Chain – Sour Times (Portishead cover)
Who’d have thought “Sour Times” could be a song to pogo to? LA’s Velvet Chain, that’s who; they mixed trip-hop with grungy pop to great effect on their cover. The band’s biggest claim to fame is their appearance on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This cover should be their second-biggest.
Bryn Christopher – Sour Times (Portishead cover)
Bryn Christopher has been called “the male Amy Winehouse,” and he’s opened for her, Adele, and Mary J. Blige. One listen to his cover of “Sour Times” and you can see what the fuss is about. His voice sounds so alive, sliding and swooping through the words he sings. Combine this with the quick-pulse drums, and you’ve got a song that would only wear a cloak so it could throw it off.
The Blank Theory – Sour Times (Portishead cover)
“Sour Times” takes surprisingly well to heavy metal. There are other quality versions in the genre (I recommend Confessor), but Chicago’s Blank Theory comes out on top. The power chords and roared vocals sound a lot more at home here than you’d think; perhaps it’s the song’s intensity that makes it so ripe for metal’s hard focus.
Brigitte Handley & the Dark Shadows – Sour Times (Portishead cover)
If metal seems an unlikely match for “Sour Times,” try rockabilly. Brigitte Handley and the Dark Shadows did, and the mix of moody guitar and a slap-happy walking bass makes this an unlikely favorite for a juke joint near you. Handley’s cool-ass vocal is the icing on the cake.
The Civil Wars – Sour Times (Portishead cover)
The Civil Wars were headed into some sour times of their own when they recorded this cover. That sure didn’t stop them from bringing the intensity – who knows, it may have even fueled it. The quiet/loud trading off and entwining of vocals recalls the Pixies; the potency of the acoustic instrumentation recalls Ray Lamontagne; the whole thing makes you lament the Civil Wars’ breaking up.