To many listeners, James Blake first announced himself via an amazing cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love.” He doesn’t do covers that often, but every time he does they are revelatory (see also: his version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”). Now he has done it once again with a sparse electronic version of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Sound of Silence.”
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In honor of Eric Idle’s 71st birthday tomorrow, let’s pay tribute to his most famous song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Idle, of course, is best known as a comic actor and writer and a member of the Python troupe and not as a songwriter. However, this surprisingly happy tune, with deceptively dark lyrics, sung by Idle and a group of fellow crucifixion victims at the end of the film, has become remarkably popular. It was a parody of the peppy songs often featured in Disney movies, but over time its ironic underpinnings have been ignored in favor of its upbeat chorus and jaunty whistling (suggested by Neil Innes, who wrote most of the music associated with the Pythons).
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
It’s hard to invent new praise for Stevie Wonder, but because today is his birthday I must rise to the occasion. The high priest of soul turns 61. That means it’s been exactly fifty years since Stevie Wonder first signed with Motown Records at age 11 and began to amass his more than 30 top ten US hits and 22 Grammy awards. As the ultimate luminary of soul music, Wonder’s influence has pervaded nearly every other genre. He is one of those few artists where anyone claiming he’s overrated is only embarrassing himself. This puts him on the same level as Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles, and above iconic but more disputable artists like Aerosmith, Prince, and Madonna.
I saw Randy Newman a few weeks back (review here) and it reminded me how underrated he is as a popular songwriter. Sure, the songs are all sung from the point of view racists, perverts, rich assholes and generally unlikeable people, but that just makes the more interesting than the “I love you, you don’t love me, boo hoo” school of tune creation. Luckily, musicians seem to share my reverence for the man more known for his Pixar ditties than serious compositions, and covers of his songs abound. So here’s his most famous album and, though there’s no “Short People” or “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” to be found, these tunes are all classics in their own right.
Kirsty MacColl – Sail Away
You probably know MacColl from her role as the potty-mouthed girlfriend on The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” She’s a lot less belligerent here. [Buy]
The Bobs – Lonely at the Top
I’d love to put a Frank Sinatra cover here, as the song was written for him, but unfortunately he turned it down on the grounds that his audience wouldn’t realize it was a joke. Sounds to me like he just needs a better audience. Anyway, in lieu of that, here’s some funky a capella, sounding like a brass swing band, without the band. [Buy]
Wanda Jackson – He Gives Us All His Love
Time for the religious material. Jackson took these lyrics to heart on a gospel album with the unsubtle title Praise the Lord. One wonders if she knew the original context of this song, on an album that all features “God’s Song” later where God sings, “Man means nothing, he means less to me than lowliest cactus flower.” I notice she didn’t cover that one. [Buy]
Fanny – Last Night I Had a Dream
Fanny isn’t the best choice to name your group, but there’s nothing awkward about his blasting soul, June Millington’s soul screams turning the quiet original up to eleven. [Buy]
Okkervil River – Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Newman has said this was his first off-beat song, written with a stranger character and a stranger plot. Its sing-song tune and animal circus narrative makes it a natural for kiddie albums and The Muppet Show (video), but there’s something a little darker under the surface I can’t quite put my finger on. [Buy]
Art Garfunkel – Old Man
Tough to find covers of this one with a far more popular Neil Young song of the same name. Garfunkel’s gorgeous take was worth the search, proving his voice was angelic with or without Paul by his side, and a master of tempo and pacing to boot. [Buy]
Wilco – Political Science
In New Year’s Eve ’04, Wilco played a late-night show at Madison Square Garden. After the ball dropped, they busted out a covers set that included some Judas Priest, Tom Petty, and this. The intro (not on the file, unfortunately) is priceless: “This next song is actually a foreign policy memo we found back stage. Must have been left here by the Republican National Convention. We took a little time tonight and we put it to music.” Some things haven’t changed. [Buy]
Bela Fleck – Burn On
From the Sail Away tribute album (available on iTunes), bluegrass master Béla Fleck lays down a guitar plucking instrumental that seems to sway in the breeze. [Buy]
Guster – Memo to My Son
Guster handles another obscurity on the aformentioned tribute album, giving it the old country-rock treatment. [Buy]
Michael Derning and Mia Arends – Dayton, Ohio – 1903
The folky Cover Art is the rare tribute disc to feature not one, but five Randy Newman covers (including “Simon Smith” and “Lonely at the Top” incidentally). A quiet acoustic duet changes the sound, but keeps the mood of the front-porch original. My question though, knowing Randy: Did something happen in Dayton in 1903, or is this a song to be taken at face value? [Buy]
Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule – You Can Leave Your Hat On
You know the Joe Cocker version, and probably the almost-the-same Tom Jones version too. But here’s acoustic blues, if Robert Johnson and Rosetta Tharpe did a stomping duet. [Buy]
Etta James – God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)
The other half of that religion two-pack mentioned early. James understated blues singing works far better than one would have good reason to expect on this little pessimistic, nihilistic ditty. [Buy]