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 182020
 

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.

Madonna's "Music"

Madonna’s eighth album Music (the one with the cowboy hat) turns 20 today. She worked on it while pregnant with her son Rocco (and yes, she was pregnant when the music video was recorded). Before its official release date, preliminary recordings of the album were leaked on Napster (remember those days?). Despite this, the album sold plenty of copies, reaching triple platinum status.

The title track, and first single, “Music” was inspired by Madonna’s experience at a Sting concert, watching the audience engage with Police classics. At this writing, it’s also Madonna’s last number one single, which I’m actually surprised by–what, not enough “Hung Up” or “4 Minutes” fans out there? Nevertheless, today we celebrate the song that encouraged us to “put a record on” (before Corinne Bailey Rae did) with three covers.
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Sep 142020
 

Dozens (hundreds?) of young artists fell for the 2015 song of the year, Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and posted their own version of the hit on social media. But only one of them found herself taking a call from Prince, who saw enough talent and originality in her post to want to hear more. That was just one early “lift-off” moment in the career of singer, song-writer, pianist, and Blue Note recording artist Kandace Springs.

The calls to collaborate kept coming, from artists in diverse genres, locations, and generations: Ghostface Killah, Daryl Hall, Black Violin, and David Sanborn in the U.S., Aqualung and Metropole Orkest in Europe. (We highlighted her Metropole Orkest hook-up in our Charles Mingus celebration back in April.) Springs’ vocal stylings are varied enough, and her roots are deep enough, to deal with all of it: her work reveals clear hip-hop, soul, and R&B influences, but classical music and straight-ahead jazz are her true loves. Her life-long hometown of Nashville may be synonymous with country music, but that’s one form Springs hasn’t taken on. Yet.
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Sep 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.

Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra"

You may know the Bay Area band Steve Miller Band for a variety of songs, from “Fly Like an Eagle” to “Take the Money and Run.” You may even call members “space cowboy” or “Maurice.” If you have dug into more trivia you may know that Paul McCartney even contributed to a song on their second album. But do you happen to have opinions about the title track from their twelfth album?

Not everyone is a big “Abracadabra” fan, but the song was a big hit for the Steve Miller Band, especially after the lull following the Book Of Dreams album (and yes, this is way past “The Joker”). When MTV was just getting started, this music video really shook things up too. Reportedly the woman featured prominently in it was the first “video vixen,” and this song was the first to use the “body pan” shot. So thanks for bringing objectification to MTV, I guess? Almost forty years later we see how others have interpreted the song.

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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 082020
 

Powerhouse singer and songwriter Neko Case turns the big Five-Oh today. Case has never been an artist to deny or put a spin on who she is, so well-intentioned remarks like “50 is the new 30” might not fly. We’ll keep it simple with a loving “Happy Birthday, Neko!”
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