Apr 152016
 

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!

Kelly Clarkson - Piece by Piece 2015 Press Art

Kelly Clarkson is a genuine pop idol – idol is the key word there. She found fame as the original winner of American Idol back in 2002, mostly on the strength of her amazing voice. Not content to simply rest on those laurels, she quickly put her TV show winner past behind her and sought out a bigger, different sound. Her second album, Breakaway, accomplished that; she netted the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album and sold over fifteen million copies. That’s not bad for an album used as a statement piece about taking control of her own career.

Clarkson has continued refining her sound. At times she’s flirted with rock, as she did with the My December album. She’s indulged in country music as well, duetting with Reba McEntire on several occasions, finally leading to their co-headlining 2 Worlds 2 Voices tour in 2008. No matter what she chooses to sing, Kelly brings that amazing voice. Rolling Stone‘s Arion Berger said that “her high notes are sweet and pillowy, her growl is bone-shaking and sexy, and her midrange is amazingly confident.” With that kind of instrument at her command, any song she chooses to sing is worth listening to.
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Apr 132016
 

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

jackson browne nico

“These Days” was written by an old soul of sixteen, Jackson Browne, several years before he released an album of his own. The melancholy ballad was originally released on the 1967 album Chelsea Girl (a reference to Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls) by the singer-songwriter, lyricist, composer, musician, fashion model, actress, and ’60s counterculture queen, Nico. It may have been Browne’s song, but Nico was the first to put a stamp on it, and her stamp was an indelible one.

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Apr 112016
 

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

MerleHaggard

Merle Haggard died on April 6th, his 79th birthday. On another April 6th, eleven years earlier, he celebrated his birthday in Chicago, opening the spring run of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.”

I don’t know what he did for most of that 66th birthday, but I do know how five minutes or so was spent. He was standing outside his tour bus, listening to a handful of Dylan obsessives sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I was one of them. Continue reading »

Apr 082016
 

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

Bowie

I felt I had to let some time pass and perspective broaden before posting this. The temptation had been to rush it out whilst reactions were still raw, the media awash with memories of an icon, but I stalled, maybe waiting for his death to all have been a big mistake, a stunt even. But it wasn’t, nor were the steady stream of deaths that have followed in his wake, 2016 seeming an end of the line for so many of my musical heroes.

I was a mere decade behind Bowie in age; he had been a constant in my life from ’69 and he still is, not necessarily at the forefront but always capable of wrenching away the limelight from whichsoever johnny-come-latelys were making my day. Not an uber fan; indeed, swathes of his prodigious output meant nothing to me at the time, only catching up well late in the game – I didn’t “get” the Berlin Trilogy until five years after the fact, and Diamond Dogs/Young Americans took four times longer. (Never did get Tin Machine, but hey, who did?) But even as recently as last summer, a driving holiday in Cornwall was nourished by Bowie, a playlist culled from the 102 tracks of his on my iPod. Paltry by some standards, yes, but several hours of enjoyment by me. With much in-car singing.

I remember the time when suddenly everybody first got Bowie, the days of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, early ’70s, but my dalliance had begun earlier. I recall hearing “Changes,” or should I say, “Ch-ch-ch-changes,” on the radio at home, sounding all awkwardness and angst, immediately marking my card. Inevitably when Ziggy came along, all those of my age and place on the autism spectrum disorder “preferred” Hunky Dory. And I did too, swiftly selling my copy of Ziggy as it was “too commercial.” Hey, give me a break – I was 15, and today, aeons later, I regret that. But I still prefer Hunky Dory, even the dodgy tracks everyone skips.
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Apr 012016
 

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

BillW

There’s talk that “Use Me,” from Bill Withers’ second album Still Bill, is about his relationship with his future wife (and, a year later, ex-wife), Hollywood actress Denise Nicholas. Withers denies this, saying he got the idea for the song before his first album, while he was still making toilets for $3 an hour. Most listeners didn’t care about its origin – they were too busy digging that funky clavinet, nodding along to lyrics that brush against masochistic tendencies while defiantly stating that one could be willing to take the bad with the good, because that good was so good. It sure felt good, especially the Live at Carnegie Hall version, so deep in the pocket that the clapping-along audience doesn’t want it to end, demanding (and getting) an immediate encore.
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Mar 302016
 

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.

Guns-N-Roses

Guns N’ Roses’s “November Rain” is a huge song. Its size doesn’t just come from its length (it’s almost nine minutes long, making it the longest single ever in the Billboard Top 10). It’s not its long gestational period, either (Tracii Guns says that Axl Rose already had a working version of it in 1983, back when he was still with the L.A. Guns). Nor is it only the cryptic video (Axl lost somebody, for sure, but otherwise who knows was was going on exactly?). “November Rain” is an epic because in addition to all these elements, it takes the listener on a journey, and it’s one we’ve all been on before.

When the song begins, we’re dropped into a relationship on the edge. It’s been on-again, off-again, and both parties are unsure of where they stand. Slash’s first two solos during this part of the song soar, making you feel like everything is going to work out for these two. The last verse reinforces this feeling. When Axl sings “Never mind the darkness, we still can find a way. And nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain”, we feel like this couple has turned the corner and is on the right path.

And then comes the apocalyptic coda. Instead of tenderness, we get intensity. Between the thunder of the piano and the snarl of the third guitar solo, it’s clear that we ended up getting two songs for the price of one. This is the story of a relationship on the rocks, surviving through its ups and downs; and then the bloody aftermath, when nothing is left but loneliness and the need to rage.

Because of all the territory the original spans, any cover of “November Rain” has fertile ground for interpretation. An artist could focus on any part of the myriad emotions crammed into the original and explore further. Here are three covers that did a particularly good job with this power ballad.
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