On “Bastard Son,” one of the early recordings by John Wesley Harding, the singer, songwriter, novelist and overall renaissance man self-describes himself as the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a description that seems to be pretty much accurate. Whether you are listening to one of the albums released under his nom de plume or reading one of his novels under his given name Wesley Stace, the conclusion is the same. This is one talented guy.
With the exception of a small-minded baker in Colorado with a penchant for litigation, the wedding-service industry has mostly welcomed the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. because of the new business it brings. Same-sex couples strutting down the aisle in greater numbers presents another hot-button cultural issue: how to find the perfect song for that first dance? Despite the fact that pop music has been loosening its collar since Elvis first shook his pelvis, when it comes to gender roles, mainstream songs tend to be as heteronormative as a ‘50s sitcom, no matter how suggestive the lyrics may be.
To address this issue, and no doubt tap into a lucrative commercial market, MGM Resorts sponsored a six-track EP called Universal Love. The collection features reworked versions of popular love songs with altered pronouns to celebrate same-sex love. The company must be betting big as they tapped serious star power, namely Bob Dylan, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke (lead singer of Bloc Party), Valerie June, Benjamin Gibbard (lead vocalist of Death Cab for Cutie) and Kesha.
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Juliana Hatfield is an old hat at making an unlikely song her own. Earlier this year, she made both our Best Cover Songs of January and March roundups. A couple years before that, her version of “Needle in the Hay” was a high point of a Wes Anderson tribute album. A couple years before that, she released a terrific self-titled covers album of her own. I mean, how far back do we want to go here? Hell, she even made our Best Cover Songs of 1996 list! Suffice to say, she knows how to crush a great cover.
That’s why we were so excited to hear about Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, which comes out tomorrow. It more than lives up to our high expectations. Hatfield takes on hits like “Physical” alongside plenty of deep cuts that prove this is not some gimmick; she’s a genuine fan.
In the opening minute of Kurt Elling’s cover of Bob Dylan’s anthem “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” the jazz singer turns the lyrics into a spoken-word sermon. Without any accompaniment, he fully enunciates each line, then pauses, allowing time to process each haunting phrase of Dylan’s prose. He also reconfigures the order of the song, combining the first verse with the fourth, jumping from “I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,” straight to, “I met a young child beside a dead pony.”
That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
In 2011, Rebecca Black released “Friday” and put up the video on YouTube. A month later the Tosh.0 blog, then at the height of its influential powers, discovered it and posted it under the headline “Songwriting Isn’t For Everyone.” Result: the internet lost its hive mind. The video racked up millions of downturned thumbs. People attacked Black for her heavily auto-tuned voice, her poor dancing skills, and lyrics so inane even Justin Bieber couldn’t believe them.
But Black had supporters. Lady Gaga called her a genius. Simon Cowell of American Idol declared himself a fan, nothing that “the fact that it’s making people so angry is brilliant.” He went on to add, “Anyone who can create this much controversy within a week, I want to meet. I love people like that.”
Cowell certainly would love the author of “Friday,” and the Tosh.0 people certainly need to rethink their snarky headline. For, even as the Friday Fenomenon steamrolled America, word began trickling out that the man who wrote the song was far more than just another pretty voice. That’s right: Rebecca Black didn’t write “Friday.” Bob Dylan, the man behind the best song of all time according to Rolling Stone, crafted the lines about which seat on the school bus to select.
As an avant-garde jazz-influenced album, David Bowie’s final record Blackstar would seem damn-near uncoverable (unless you’re an avante-garde jazz band). But the songs keep getting covered, and by some surprising artists. Sting covered “Lazarus.” Nine Inch Nails covered “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Amanda Palmber and Anna Calvi covered the title track. (So did Car Seat Headrest and Hiatus Kaiyote’s Nai Palm, blending it with Radiohead, no less).
The latest comes from indie-rock vets Spoon, who tackled “I Can’t Give Anything Away” on The Strombo Show, a radio program that is quickly become Canada’s answer to other international cover-shows BBC Live Lounge and Triple J “Like a Version.” Britt Daniel’s understated vocals deliver the quiet melody and bigger chorus perfectly, but the secret star of this stripped-down version might be pianist Alex Fischel. Needless to say, it sounds quite different than Nine Inch Nails’ take on the tune.
And, while we’re at it, here’s a bunch of other Strombo Show covers from recent episodes too.