Hope Silverman

Hope Silverman of NYC grew up actually wishing she could work in a real live Record Store. The wish was manifested beginning with a long stint at CBGB's Record Canteen where Johnny Thunders called her "sweetheart", and then carried on through many colorful years at HMV and Virgin. Her retail journey culminated in running Rough Trade Shop in NYC. She currently works her music muscle by both kicking out the occasional record on her tiny label 80N7 and flexing hard at her nerdy music blog showcasing the under-appreciated, underrated and undiscovered in the glorious pop universe. https://pickinguprocks.com

Oct 122020
 

Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.

Blue Nile

It takes a certain amount of bravery to give yourself over to The Blue Nile. Listening to their songs of wistful rainswept regret and longing, outside the confines of home or a solitary space, suggests that you are 100% okay with crying in public. That you are fine with subjecting yourself to sounds that may cause you to seek temporary solitary shelter in a random doorway or bathroom stall, or slide down the wall of an elevator until you can pull yourself together. But as the bands devoted fanbase will tell you, it’s absolutely worth it.

The fact is, within the history of pop, there are very few bands capable of holding your hand as tightly and accompanying you down, down, down with as much beautiful empathy as The Blue Nile. I saw the band play at The Bottom Line in NYC in 1990 and have a vivid memory of crying as the band were performing their solemn ballad “Let’s Go Out Tonight.” It was silly and slightly embarrassing, but mostly, it was magical.
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Sep 212020
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Annie Lennox

It’s March of 1995, and by this point in time it has been firmly established that Annie Lennox doesn’t make bad albums. From her earliest days in The Tourists, through her incredible partnership with Dave Stewart in Eurythmics, to her glorious 1992 solo debut Diva, the quality level has been ridiculously high. Every album to the last has contained multiple soaringly wonderful evergreen pop classics, most of which are justifiably worshipped and treasured to this very day. But of course, if there’s one thing we know for certain about pop music, it’s that it’s a cruel, fickle beast, and critical favor can turn on a dime. And so, after a pretty consistent outpouring of acclaim, maybe it was inevitable that by 1995 the jar of journalistic goodwill was empty. Annie’s second solo album Medusa featured a perfectly sung and slickly produced selection of cover songs, and the time had finally come; the critics hated it.

While its brilliant, theatrical first single “No More I Love You’s” was a worldwide hit and the LP itself sold by the truckload, music journalists were pretty much across the board unimpressed (even here at Cover Me). One review in a big culture magazine at the time amusingly referred to the album as “a muff,” described Annie’s attempts at certain songs as “belly-flops,” and declared the overall sound to be “microwaved.”

So whose assessment of Medusa was “right,” the fans’ or the critics’? Well, truth be told, both. Put simply, it was an immaculately sung, pristinely produced, cleverly chosen selection of covers, with nary a rough edge to be seen. And while the overall sound could be characterized as chilly and/or mechanical in spots, it was still home to some pretty gloriously heartfelt and powerful song interpretations. Case in point: a broodingly beautiful take of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” as well as a grandly dramatic reading of Procol Harum’s epic “Whiter Shade of Pale.” And of course, the aforementioned “No More…” was a brilliant pop song by any standard.

But here’s the thing: Despite its renown, Medusa shouldn’t be looked at as the final word on Annie Lennox’s ability to reinvent and breathe new life into old songs. Over the years, she has proven herself to be an exceptionally gifted interpreter… and the majority of her finest cover work has come in the form of free-standing one-offs. With that in mind, let’s put Medusa to the side for a minute and turn a spotlight on the heart-clutchingly wonderful stuff around the edges, the live, the rare, and the underrated. Let’s venture into the depths of Annie’s truly exceptional cover canon, wherein lay a whole lotta treasures…
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Sep 092020
 

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.

Mathilde Santing

As a teen back  in the ’80s, I was completely, 100% besotted with the music magazines coming out of the UK. I loved the glossies like Smash Hits, No.1, and Record Mirror, as well as the weeklies, specifically NME and Melody Maker. I would read them cover to cover, simultaneously ogling the heartthrobs and making lists of what I wanted to buy based on the reviews (or, okay, someone’s haircut). It was through these endless piles of paper that I first got wind of The Associates, The Smiths, and Kate Bush, all of whom I ended up maniacally worshipping (and writing still-unanswered fan letters to). And of course, as there was no such thing as streaming at that point, the reviews in these mags were often the determining factor as to whether or not I would buy a record. My teen funds were meager, so there was often a lot riding on how convincing the review was. It was in one of these magazine reviews that I first stumbled upon Dutch singer Mathilde Santing.

Santing began her solo career in 1982 with the release of a self-titled album featuring an eclectic mix of standards, Rodgers and Hammerstein amongst them, and pop tracks by the likes of the Beach Boys and mad genius Todd Rundgren (hold that last thought, it will be important later!). As quietly adventurous as the track listing was, there was no question as to what the album’s real strength was — Mathilde Santing’s extraordinarily warm, elastic, gorgeous voice.

Santing’s next album, 1984’s Water Under the Bridge, marked something of a turning point in her career, though it wasn’t clear-cut at the time. Gone were the covers, replaced instead by original material of the jazzy, intermittently quirky, ’80s indie pop variety. While focusing on originals was the standard move for a young pop singer, the album turned out to be something of a swan song for Santing; it ended up being her last consisting solely of original material. With a handful of exceptions, from this point forward, it was all about the covers.

It was over a review of her next album that Santing first caught my eye and subsequently hooked me for the foreseeable future. While 1987’s Out of this Dream sported a small cluster of really fine originals, more than half the songs on the album were covers. Upon seeing the track list, I instantly recognized her as a kindred spirit, a total music nerd soul sister. There were songs by Squeeze and Tom Waits. There was a Dionne Warwick deep cut. The album opened with, yes, a Todd Rundgren track. It was a very “wait a second, I love these artists and songs too ” moment, and from that point on (though she didn’t know it), we were officially pop music nerd-bonded. I bought the record and was instantly impressed with her exquisite vocal performances, how she sang these majestic and melodic tunes with such reverence and passion. And maybe most thrillingly, it was unerringly cool to hear a girl so convincingly singing these songs written by boys.

To date, Santing has released 21 albums and counting (a mix of studio, live sets and compilations), and between those and her innumerable live performances, she’s covered upwards of 150 songs. She’s offered up stellar versions of tracks by everyone from ’80s pop auteurs and thinking girl faves like Scritti Politti and Aztec Camera to melodic maestros like Nilsson and Randy Newman, as well as those of evergreen legends like Joni Mitchell. It should be noted that she is especially fond of Todd Rundgren and is in league of her own as far as covering his catalog which is to say, in terms of quality Todd covers, no one on the planet does it better.

To this day I remain both awestruck and impressed by her song choices as well as just plain psyched that there’s another girl on the planet who is as infatuated with these specific artists, these one-man-band, post-pop weirdos and cult heroes with their very particular melodic sensibilities.

And now please enjoy this handful of highlights spotlighting some of the finest and coolest covers by master interpreter and unabashed pop fan Mathilde Santing.
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Sep 072020
 

What is there left to say about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours at this stage? It is a veritable blueprint of what a perfect pop album should sound like, and the drama surrounding it is as iconic as the record itself. Unsurprisingly, its most beloved track and the one that’s spawned the most cover attempts is  Stevie Nicks’ incandescent “Dreams”…which makes sense, for beyond its general evergreen perfection, it’s kind of foolproof, with strong enough bones to withstand even the most experimental cover attempts. But that fact makes it even more impressive when someone takes on one of the deeper cuts (though I suppose in the case of the ubiquitous Rumours, we should just refer to them as ‘non-singles’)…like the dark queen-Grande dame that is “Gold Dust Woman.”

Lindsey Buckingham once famously referred to “Gold Dust Woman” as “an evil song,” and his sinewy groove of a guitar line supports that notion tenfold. Sinister and ominous, equal parts pop song and exorcism, Stevie herself explained later it was “My symbolic look at somebody going through a bad relationship and doing a lot of drugs and trying just to make it, trying to live. That song was about a very heavy, very bad time in my life.”

Composer, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Julia Holter recorded her version of the song way back in 2012 (for a MOJO Magazine curated Fleetwood Mac tribute CD called Rumors Revisited). Up until last week the song had only been available as part of that compilation, but it’s now officially available through the streaming services. Holter added that she’d “always wanted to release it” and describes it as a “rough home recording with the raw energy of that time for me when I first started touring and playing my music outside of LA with a band.” It also happens to be one of the finest covers of the song ever recorded. Holter’s “Gold Dust Woman” is spare, hymnal and utterly spellbinding. There’s a quiet urgency to it, a chilliness that pulls it miles away from the smoky grittiness of the original, and it’s absolutely entrancing.

Aug 282020
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

James Taylor

James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is a perverse oddball of a song. On the one hand, it’s a comfortable, welcoming armchair, resoundingly easy on the ears with its sweet acoustic picking, memorable melody, and mellifluous vocal. On the other, it’s a harrowing tale of despair, loss and confusion with no real resolution. “Fire and Rain ” got as high as #3 on the Billboard pop chart in 1970, and though it didn’t hit the top spot, its success helped open the door for a veritable flood of like-minded soul-baring singer-songwriters, from Jackson Browne to Jim Croce and beyond.

The story behind “Fire and Rain” is a pretty well-trod one at this point. Each verse describes a particular period of Taylor’s late-’60s life story. The first verse addresses the suicide of an old friend, Susie Schnerr (referred to as “Suzanne” in the lyric), as does the last line of the chorus; “but I always thought that I’d see you again.” The second verse describes James’s own addiction to heroin. The third alludes to his time in a psychiatric hospital while being treated for depression; it includes a reference to the implosion of his band Flying Machine (which has frequently been misinterpreted as a reference to an actual plane crash).
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Aug 102020
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

Barry Manilow

Scene: mid-’70s, elementary school cafeteria, group of six girls at one table.

Girl 1, excitedly : Oh my God, did you see The Smothers Brothers last night (fyi-’70s variety show)???

Entire table gasps in joyful recognition…all except one girl aka me.

Girl 2: Barry Manilow is gorgeous!

Girl 3: Oh my God, I was kissing the TV!

All at table agree, he is gorgeous…except one girl who remains silent (me again).

Rapturous Barry conversation continues until lunch ends. I am befuddled and say nothing.

Oh, I’d seen the show, but I thought Barry was schmaltzy and goofy, the antithesis of a rock star. Paul McCartney was so much cooler. What were they seeing that I wasn’t?
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