Apr 082020
 

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!

Timbaland

Like his childhood friend Pharrell Williams, Timbaland is also a man of many talents. He is a performer in his own right and has helped launch and rebrand careers of others through his production prowess. As evidence of his dedication, when Timbaland was fourteen he was partially paralyzed for almost a year after an accidental shooting; undeterred, he learned to DJ left-handed. Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, Timbaland had a variety of childhood friends that would also rise to stardom. Along with Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, Timbaland was also friends with Pusha T and Malice from Clipse.

After the short-lived Surrounded By Idiots group formed with the boys from The Neptunes, Timbaland and Magoo branched off to be their own performing duo in the late ’90s while Timbaland’s solo production built in popularity. In the early ’00s, Timbaland started to focus more on being a producer before returning to working double duty by releasing his second solo album in 2007.

Timbaland is a master collaborator, performing alongside artists from a wide range of genres. I recently rediscovered his albums Shock Value and Shock Value II, and as each track played I was more and more surprised and then ultimately delighted by the blend of Timbaland’s signature sound with others’ eclectic styles. Reportedly, one of the collaborations that didn’t make the cut for Shock Value or its sequel was with the Jonas Brothers, and honestly, with their big comeback, I would like to see Timbaland revisit this idea.

Today we’ll focus on covers of Timbaland’s own performances, and tomorrow we will discover which hits Timbaland played a major role in as writer and producer.

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Apr 072020
 

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!

Pharrell

We got to hear new takes on songs that Pharrell Williams contributed background vocals to, featured in, or starred in yesterday, but now it is time to go behind the scenes.

The power producer duo of The Neptunes have tallied many awards from Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards for Best Producer of the Year in 2004 to Best Producer of the Decade in 2009 and twenty-four top 10 hits between the late ’90s and the ’00s. They have also been nominated for the upcoming 2020 spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

As consumers of their hits, we often don’t know who is behind the sound. I’m the first to admit that I had no idea any of these songs involved Pharrell Williams before I started looking into Williams’ production credits, and for every song featured on this list, there are many more equally popular hits that we don’t touch on. How many songs that conjure up a memory for you would not be the same without the talented Neptunes?

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Feb 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!

Much has been written about the rise and fall of the Dixie Chicks. They were riding high with hit after hit in the late ’90s and very early ’00s, but after one on-stage comment in 2003, everything changed. We almost take for granted how music and politics intertwine now without rocking the boat too much. When Taylor Swift took a stance on a Senate race in her home state, President Trump remarked: “Let’s say that I like Taylor’s music about 25% less now, OK?” and life went on. But twenty-ish years ago, when Natalie Maines said they were ashamed that then President George W. Bush was from Texas, the backlash was swift and severe.

However, it looks like the Dixie Chicks are finally ready for a comeback. After a European tour in 2016, a collaboration with Beyoncé in the same year, and a song with Taylor Swift on her latest album, the Dixie Chicks are focusing on their own new album, due this year. The album is being produced by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, whose list of writing and producing credits include Taylor Swift’s album Lover, Lorde’s Melodrama, and St. Vincent’s Masseduction. I’m ready for some “Don’t Take the Money” energy on this album, and with a title like Gaslighter (teased here), I’m hoping for an explosive, patriarchy smashing, good time. #sorrynotsorry to all of the Earls out there.

I’m all for covers of the Dixie Chicks, but we’ll save that for another post (ok, here is one to tide you over). For now, let’s take a listen to the Dixie Chicks’ interpretation of classics from country and soul standards to modern hits.

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Feb 122020
 

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!

Michael McDonald

When it comes to cover versions, blue-eyed soul man extraordinaire and erstwhile Doobie Brother Michael McDonald (who turns 68 years old today) has primarily focused on the beautiful, ineffably perfect Motown canon, recording two albums solely dedicated to the label, Motown and Motown Two. Both were enormously successful and reignited a career which had pretty much flatlined through the entirety of the nineties. After the success of those two albums, he decided to push the boat out a little further and so in 2008 released Soul Speak, an odd mix of old rock classics and Stevie Wonder tunes with a few new originals added in for good measure. It could best be likened to one of the Rod Stewart standards albums, but for cooler people (Sorry, Rod, but… yeah).

Conversation regarding McDonald’s performances on these three albums has been well-trod at this point, and while they undeniably feature some real highlights, facts are facts: some of McDonald’s best and most eclectic covers have been of the one-off variety. The selections below run the gamut from traditional reverence to joyfully weird and are all 100% McDonald.
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Jan 312020
 

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!

Donny Hathaway covers

At the conclusion of Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released version of “A Song for You,” there’s a particularly revealing and heartbreaking snippet of dialogue. “Marvin Gaye (was), great,” Amy emphatically states, “but Donny Hathaway like…he couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.” It’s heartbreaking to hear for myriad reasons, but it’s also, hands down, the most beautifully spot-on description of Donny Hathaway’s transcendent gift. He was in possession of an extraordinary voice that, like Aretha’s, could easily evoke tears in the most hardened of souls, even if the song itself was expressing a seemingly uplifting sentiment. He didn’t so much sing as simply feel out loud.

By the end of 1973, Donny Hathaway had recorded three solo studio albums, a duet album with Roberta Flack, and a movie soundtrack, as well as a live album widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever made. He’d become the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, money, overwhelming attention…and pressure, much of which was self-created. He was a musical perfectionist of the extreme, complex, and occasionally insufferable Brian Wilson variety, both in the studio and onstage. And he was surprisingly insecure about the quality of his voice (a fact we standard issue humans might find hard to comprehend), so much so that in the latter years of his career he’d taken to telling colleagues that if he did any more recording, he no longer wanted to sing but just wanted to play piano.

Donny had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1971, and as time progressed, sadly, so did the disease. He also suffered from depression. By 1974 his mental health issues had become so severe that studio work and live performances became increasingly difficult to arrange and follow through with. He did what he could, when he was able, but for all intents and purposes, his career as a singular headlining and touring artist was over. As a result, from 1974 to 1979, his recorded output was minimal, consisting of two tracks with Roberta Flack in 1979 and a dozen or so solo songs, the latter of which didn’t see light of day until the release of the 2013 Rhino box set Never My Love. He ultimately died by suicide on January 13th, 1979 in New York City.

Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers to ever walk the planet, and his excursions into the world of covers remain to this day a master class in how it’s done.
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Oct 032019
 

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!

Son Volt

Uncle Tupelo was a seminal alt-country band whose debut album No Depression sparked the roots/Americana magazine by the same name. In the ashes of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s relationship’s volatile demise in 1995, Farrar formed Son Volt. Today Americana purists hail Son Volt as the torchbearer of Uncle Tupelo’s legacy. But the band appears to be singing subterranean blues compared to Wilco’s stratospheric success.

They’ve been grinding it out in bars and nightclubs for nearly twenty-five years and have built a loyal cult following. Farrar has worn his politics on his sleeve more than Tweedy. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his scathing critique of the Donald Trump presidency in their newest album Union, released earlier this summer.

But at its core, Son Volt is a band that celebrates good roots music, one which samples widely to find songs that inform and reflect their sound. In light of their newest release, here is a sampling of cover songs that Son Volt has performed live. Son Volt most frequently plays Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar covers, but since Farrar is the frontman for Son Volt, it isn’t much fair to count those. It would be like The Heartbreakers performing “I Won’t Back Down” off of Tom Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever.
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