Jun 012020
 

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.

son house and friends

The biography of delta blues musician Son House reads like an old blues song, composed of familiar fabrics borrowed from others, a patchwork quilt of “bluesman” tropes. See if you’ve seen these patterns before:

  • He made his first recordings in 1930, quickly and under shabby conditions. They didn’t sell.
  • He became a street preacher, and rejected the blues as “the devil’s music.”
  • He served time in Mississippi’s Parchment Farm penitentiary (on charges related to a shootout in a juke joint).
  • He migrated north along the Mississippi to escape farm labor and to find an industrial job (working in an East St. Louis steel plant for a time).
  • Field recordings of his songs were captured by Alan Lomax in 1941 and ‘42, becoming part of the Library of Congress folk song collection. (Congress stopped funding folk song collection in 1942, not that this stopped Lomax.) Thereafter House became a railroad porter and quit music.
  • He was rediscovered by young white audiences in the early ’60s and lured back into a music career.
  • He played the Newport Folk Festival in ‘64, gigged around Europe and North America, and wrote new songs and issued new recordings until ill health sidelined him once again.

Although those early Son House recordings didn’t sell, they influenced younger players like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as did Son House himself, on a personal level. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another House protege of importance.

The Son House song we turn to today, “Death Letter,” doesn’t stem from his early days, but from his rediscovery period, specifically the 1965 sessions for Columbia. As often is true with folk music, the song’s actual history is a little murky. A couple of its verses appear on the 1930 song “My Black Mama, Part II.” The Lomax recordings from the ’40s also include snatches of the lyrics, but not the song itself. Then there’s the fact that Son House never established the definitive version; he performed the song extensively after his rediscovery, but rarely played the same set of verses.

Any artist who covers the song in his wake is left to draw from their favorite verses–or repeat the ones they know from the recording they happen to know. And of course they are free to bend the music itself to suit their mood. The three artists presented here don’t just change things up, they each make something distinctive from the commonplace blues progression that forms the song’s backbone.
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May 202020
 

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.

At Last I Am Free

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Chic? The pretty much guaranteed #1 answer is of course “Le Freak,” the 1978 stone cold classic anthem that has come to epitomize disco in its every manifestation; from the overall sound, to the sartorial style, to the era it happened in as a whole. There’s a good chance that the track following that on your mental turntable would be Chic’s other absolutely killer floor filler, the gorgeously soul stirring “I Want Your Love.” As it happens, both songs featured on Chic’s sophomore album C’est Chic, a ridiculously prescient piece of art that quickly established bandleaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards as indisputable musical masterminds as well as genius seers of production.

But underneath the pounding glamour and virtuosic Edwards bass-playing, Chic had a secret talent. While they could expertly turn out seminal late-night party anthems like nobody’s business, they were also capable of crafting the most incredible, evocative, lonely, 2 AM in the city ballads. Case in point: “At Last I Am Free,” from the aforementioned C’est Chic.
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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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Apr 162020
 

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.

We join a girl at a desperate point in her relationship with her ex(?)-boyfriend: “Set me free, why don’t cha babe? / Get out my life, why don’t cha babe?” She’s had enough and she’s pulling no punches on the subject of staying apart: “You don’t care a thing about me / You’re just usin’ me.” She’s doubtful, too, as to whether the two of them should have any contact at all: “How can we still be friends / When seein’ you only breaks my heart again? / And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.”

As signature tunes go, there aren’t many that deliver such a direct, stark, convincing demand for personal liberation as the Supremes’ huge 1966 hit, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland had originated a string of girl-group masterworks for Motown, including “Locking Up My Heart” (The Marvelettes), “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” (Martha and the Vandellas), and “Where Did Our Love Go” (The Supremes), by the time they came to write this one. With it, they unveiled a striking sense of realism. Adhering to a formulaic first-person narrative of a female protagonist having to deal with a no-good liar/cheat, they made a point of injecting the song with colloquial language and true-to-life expression, including a brief spoken-word section during the bridge. Lamont Dozier himself explained that they wanted to “make it believable, add some everyday talk, like the girl was really going through this predicament.”

Lead-singer Diana Ross sells the song with her typically cool and sassy vocal, which suggests a girl taking back control of her life as she faces up to the fact that her ex is, basically, a selfish asshole. She’s helped by the especially potent backing vocals of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (the latter of whom has a line all to herself!), as well as the reliably tight musicianship of the Funk Brothers, centering on Eddie Willis’ arresting Morse-code-style guitar part. She’s helped, also, by it being a simply massive tune that damns the torpedoes and goes full speed ahead. Little wonder that it was the Supremes’ eighth #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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Mar 172020
 

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.

jackson browne

Aloha!

1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High is, without a doubt, one of the greatest teen movies ever to exist. Both insanely funny and powerfully poignant, it bestowed the world of pop culture with gifts beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Jeff Spicoli “learnin’ about Cuba and havin’ some food.” Damone’s 5-Point Plan of guaranteed seduction (Point # 3: “Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be”). Terrifying taskmaster Mr. Hand. The well-deserved tribute to the intoxicating scent of dittos (ask your parents). It’s a movie that has transcended time in unimaginable ways.

It also drove home that when you are a teenager who can’t express your true feelings, rock ‘n’ roll can help you out. The Fast Times soundtrack is as crucial a part of the movie as the unforgettable characters within it. Case in point: Friday night at the shopping mall is packed with as much excited anticipation as New Year’s Eve in Times Square, thanks to the Go-Go’s’ “We Got the Beat” scoring the scene.

Yet as great as that moment is, no song captures the spirit of the film better than its de facto theme tune, Jackson Browne’s sublime “Somebody’s Baby.” Sweet, anxious, and consumed with infatuation, it was the biggest hit of Browne‘s career, hitting the pop Top 10 in the summer of 1982.
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Mar 032020
 

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.

Midnight Rider covers

In today’s musical environment, which more often than not comprises manufactured stars singing over-produced, Autotuned, formulaic pop tunes, it’s easy to forget that for many classic artists, fame came neither quickly nor easily. It’s almost a cliché to think about rock and rollers struggling through the most challenging and meager of circumstances, waiting for that elusive big break. For some artists, adversity is destructive; for Macon, Georgia’s Allman Brothers Band, it was formative. The band’s hardships drove them closer together, cementing their commitments to each other and to success. Their persistence paid off. They were awarded multiple gold and platinum albums, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and ranked #52 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

If you’re looking for a signature song that represents the legacy of these elder statesmen of Southern Rock, “Midnight Rider” is, arguably, the best choice. It was a concert mainstay since it was first recorded in 1970 and, according to Secondhand Songs, has been covered nearly twice as many times as “Whipping Post,” and over three times more often than “Ramblin’ Man.”

While many great versions of “Midnight Rider” are out there, many of them sound overly similar to each other. Dozens of solo acoustic covers and numerous country versions exist; far fewer take the song in a different direction. We’ve selected three of those departures here. Three distinct versions, each one adding its own little bit to the legacy of the Allman Brothers Band. Of these three outstanding versions…
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