Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

May 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!

When the indie band Grant Lee Buffalo burst on the scene in the early 1990s, they seemed destined for stardom. Emerging from a residency at L.A.’s Largo nightclub, the fresh young band got snatched up by a major label or two, and embarked on world tours with more seasoned pros–first R.E.M., and later Pearl Jam. Rolling Stone magazine pronounced the guy behind it all, Grant Lee Phillips, the male vocalist of the year in 1994, and Michael Stipe practically started a GLP fan club.

But instead of parlaying the attention into fame and fortune, Phillips grew disillusioned with the star-maker machinery, and the pressure to deliver instantly likable hits. His songs needed time to warm up, he said, like an old car or an old tube amp. By 2000 he had disbanded Grant Lee Buffalo and dissolved their Warner Records contract. He got to work as plain old Grant Lee Phillips. Allying himself with independent labels (Rounder, Yep Roc), he’s been recording and touring on smaller scales ever since. His work earns the critical adoration, and he doesn’t go through gyrations to transform his sound or his image. He has a knack for interesting side hustles, like composing for film and television, and acting, too. You might have seen him on seasons 1-7 of the Gilmore Girls, in the role of the wandering troubadour.

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May 122020
 

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s big day with cover tributes to his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Steve Winwood turns 72 today, so we have quite a few candles to light. The multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter has had so many different incarnations that surveying his career makes you dizzy. It’s not just that Winwood tried his hand at different genres, it’s that he helped define those genres. These things can happen when a gifted artist jumps in on the action early —Winwood was famous for his music by the age of 16—and then keeps evolving in ways that matter. Add to that some serious staying power, and you have an impressive career–one that is still going strong six decades in.

In fact, last year may have been Winwood’s best ever, in a funny way. DJ-producer Kygo remixed Whitney Houston’s cover of Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and released it digitally; the song now has about 350,000,000 hits on Spotify alone. More about that song later, but for now just imagine that a small number of Kygo’s followers are asking themselves, “Who wrote this?” What will they find, and like, once they go down the Winwood rabbit hole?
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May 112020
 

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.

It is a rare Beatles song that just doesn’t get much love. Or that almost anyone can cover and claim to have improved on the original. But these things are true of George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way,” from Magical Mystery Tour. The song has its defenders, but it gets a shrug from most listeners. Luckily, though, for each underdog song like this, there are plenty of cover versions that pull out of the original song way more possibilities than its naysayers could ever imagine. We have three “Blue Jay Way” covers here to demonstrate how this works.
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May 082020
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Royal Scam covers

Music Journalist: “What is the song ‘The Royal Scam’ about?”
Walter Becker: “About six-and-a-half minutes.”

Let’s get it out of the way: we have no answer to the question, What is ‘the royal scam,’ anyway? The music industry? The American dream? The pretense that Steely Dan was an actual band and not just two cynics named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen?

Only one thing is clear: Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam is a great album that lives in the shadow of the even greater album that followed it: AjaAja is certainly the band’s commercial peak, and it’s probably their artistic peak too. It seems to get all the attention. Therefore, we are bringing The Royal Scam out of the shadows today, and reviewing a masterful and varied set of songs as filtered through other artists’ imaginations. We’ll hear the glory, but through new ears.
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Apr 222020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Charles Mingus

I remember when interviewers used to ask him, despite the breadth of his legacy, how he fit into traditional categories that included European classical forms, bebop, Dixieland, gospel, Latin rhythms, and the blues—all genres of music he drew upon in his compositions and then transcended. He would look up and sigh: “Can’t you just call it Mingus music?” —Sue Mingus

Today is the day Charles Mingus Jr. would be turning 98 years old. Only two years left to prepare for the centennial! It should be epic: the mark he left on 20th century music was profound and lasting. He leaves behind this monumental legacy even though his life was cut short—he died at age 56 after a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Let’s celebrate Mingus with a look back at his musical legacy through some wildly different covers of his material. We’ll include several from the past couple of years, and one from an artist born well after Mingus had passed, proving that his spirit is still with us to this day.
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Apr 152020
 

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

David Gilmour

How does an obscure song from the mid-70s, “There’s No Way Out of Here,” receive several million hits on music streaming platforms? Like this: someone adds it to their Pink Floyd playlist or station. Which is entirely fair: the song nestles in quite comfortably between “Comfortably Numb” and “Money,” or any other Floyd standard you can name. Trademark David Gilmour vocal and guitar work? Check. Dire and heavy-handed lyrics? Yep, Roger that. Casual listeners naturally assume it’s a deep cut from The Wall, or Animals, or Wish You Were Here.

But of course it’s not Pink Floyd. Any die-hard Floyd fan will tell you the song is from David Gilmour’s overlooked self-titled solo debut from 1978. Some of those fans will further explain (whether or not you asked) that it’s about Gilmour’s feeling of entrapment with the machinery of major stardom. Or it’s Gilmour’s reflection on the fate of his friend Syd Barrett.

Wait, though: even the well-informed fans often overlook the basic facts: “There’s No Way Out of Here” is not a David Gilmour song either, and it’s not from ’78. The music and lyrics are by Ken Baker, whose band Unicorn recorded it in 1976 for their third album, Too Many Crooks.
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