Jul 032020
 

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!

Leonard Cohen was known for being something of a perfectionist. “Hallelujah,” for example, was apparently whittled down from around 80 verses, while “Anthem” was the product of ten years’ arduous rewriting. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Cohen took the same considered approach on the rare occasion that he covered a song. Not the type of person to hastily record a cover to fill up space on an album, each one of Cohen’s covers appear to have been chosen and performed with a great deal of care.
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Jun 192020
 

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!

While The Isley Brothers are commonly filed under Soul or R&B, that categorization only partially reflects what they have delivered soundwise since the release of their first album way back in 1959. We all know how this works: basically, whatever genre your biggest hits fall into will then by default define who you are to the world forevermore. And because their most popular songs are of the soul shouter-disco/funk-quiet storm variety, they have been conveniently stuffed into the singular genre of Soul/R&B. But in the case of the Isleys, this cut-and-dried categorization is exceptionally misleading. Which is to say, while their ’60s hits “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) and “Shout Pts. & 2” remain their highest ranking tracks in terms of Spotify plays, they are hardly reflective of the true, signature Isley sound, a perfect melding of topical Rock & Soul that remains unmatched to this day. Make no mistake (and with all due respect to their former Motown label mates, The Temptations and The Four Tops), The Isley Brothers were a proper band. Like The Beatles or The Stones. A classic old school, turn the amp up to 11, self-contained, smokin’, genre-defying band.

This is just a roundabout way of saying  if you want to know what the Isleys are really about sonically and philosophically, it’s best to avoid the greatest hits playlists and head straight for the string of positively seminal studio albums the band released from 1971-1976. There were 6 in total over that time, beginning with Givin’ It Back and running on through to 1976’s Harvest For The World. It is there you will meet O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald, Ernie, Marvin and Chris Jasper, the real Isley Brothers.
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Jun 052020
 

Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.

joni mitchell in the 80s

The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. The new decade brought a seismic shift in pop sights and sounds that included the arrival of “The Second British Invasion” in the U.S., featuring the likes of Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Culture Club. This guy called Prince began his reign/rain, and Madonna Louise Ciccone launched her complete world takeover. And oh yeah, there was this other thing, a behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay. And so, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before all of a sudden sounded criminally dated. Continue reading »

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 042020
 
B.B. King Covers

B.B. King may have played more live gigs than anyone, ever. The precise numbers are hard to pin down, but the few figures that are available are staggering: in his prime, King was playing over 300 shows a year, and in even in his final years was performing close to 100 shows annually. B.B. was no slouch as a songsmith – the 1968 album Blues On Top Of Blues, for example, is penned entirely by King – but such a heavy touring schedule left little time for songwriting. As such, King often covered other people’s songs, spending hours aboard his tour bus listening to albums, searching for songs that could be given the B.B. King treatment.
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Apr 172020
 

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!

Chaka Khan cover songs

Back in 2008, Rolling Stone published a list ranking the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. While these lists can serve to validate a person’s taste or deservedly shine a light on the underrated, their main purpose is to generate conversation, which is to say they are built to angry up the blood (apparently, Buddy Holly is just a little better than Donny Hathaway and not quite as good as Jim Morrison). While Aretha Franklin was justifiably in the #1 spot, this particular list turned out to be problematic. For one thing, only 23 of the 100 singers listed were women… and within that rarefied group, there was a particularly glaring omission. The panel of 179 “experts” left out arguably one of the finest vocalists in modern day music history: Chaka Khan (and we’re not even going to go into The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s continued snubbing because, no).

Khan first made her mark singing lead for accomplished soul-slicksters Rufus throughout the ’70s, notching up an assortment of eternally beloved grooves, including the sinewy pop funk of “Tell Me Something Good” and the beauteously lovelorn “Sweet Thing.” Even spitting out of a cheap static-filled AM transistor radio, Khan’s voice enveloped you with its warmth, elasticity, and fire, a singularly passionate siren who sounded like no other.

By 1978 it had become clear that the gargantuan Khan voice and charisma couldn’t be contained within the confines of the group, and so began her storied solo career…sort of. After her first solo album was released, as a result of contractual obligations, she continued to work on and off with Rufus until the band finally broke up in 1983 (and within that time released three more solo albums and a collaborative jazz-standards collection). It was in 1984, upon the release of the single “I Feel For You” and its eponymous album, that Chaka went from being a plain old star to being a full-on superstar…which is who she’s been ever since, although that should probably be hyphenated with “legend” at this point.

While Chaka has had a hand in writing some straight-up classics in her career, she has mostly relied on outside songwriters, which has often dovetailed into doing covers. Her prodigious vocal gift means the old phone-book cliche applies (as in, she can sing anything), which has allowed her the freedom to make some eclectic and just plain cool choices. And oh yeah, she’s probably gonna steal your song from you forever… but it’s okay, because she’s gonna make it even better.

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