If you are a fan of Elton John and all of his many reinventions, this is the time of your life. It started in late 2017 when Elton along with Bernie Taupin sponsored a worldwide YouTube contest to reimage videos for three of Elton’s most popular songs, “Bennie and the Jets,” “Rocket Man,” and “Tiny Dancer,. It continued with his announcement that his upcoming three-year tour will be his last. Suffice to say, our eyes and ears will be treated to various projects with the volume turned up to “all Elton, all the time” for the foreseeable future.
We’ve heard a lot of “Jolene” covers over the years. It’s a country staple, of course, and it’s also earned its fair share of great genre-crossing versions, from the White Stripes’ roaring classic to 48 Cameras’ Lynch-ian spook song. But we’ve never heard a cover quite like this.
Death By Piano are a new Brooklyn duo who describe themselves as “electro-pop-noir,” which is a pretty good genre tag for this cover. Bathed in echoing synths, haunting percussion, and far-off background vocals, it reinvents a song you might have thought past reinvention. And the reason it doesn’t much sound like a “Jolene” cover is that, as it turns out, it wasn’t supposed to be.
Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers.
A little over a week ago, Paste Magazine held an amazing release party for my new book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. The event featured exclusive covers of songs from the book performed by some of our favorite musicians: Emel Mathlouthi (one of our Northside Fest finds this year), Eli Paperboy Reed, and Anthony D’Amato. Paste live-streamed the full thing from their New York studio, but if you missed it, now you can watch the clips online.
Mathlouthi and D’Amato both chose Bob Dylan songs – appropriately enough, as Dylan is the only songwriter who gets two chapters in my book. Mathlouthi did the rare “All Along the Watchtower” cover that owes little to Hendrix, her gorgeous voice soaring high above a churning guitar rhythm. And D’Amato picked the book’s final chapter, following in the footsteps of Adele, Garth Brooks, and Billy Joel by beautifully covering Bob’s modern-day standard “Make You Feel My Love.”
Today is the day! At long last, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time is in stores and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and many other places (including, hopefully, your local independent bookstore!).
A lot has happened since I first announced the book back in May. The New Yorker published an excerpt about Devo’s meeting with Mick Jagger. I was interviewed on SiriusXM about the Hendrix, Cash, Aretha, Pet Shop Boys, Elvis, and Creedence Clearwater Revival chapters. And most importantly for you reading this, I put together an exclusive bonus mix that blog fans can get when they buy the book (it says “pre-order,” but we’ll say “week-of-release order” counts too).
And I wanted to share one more thing, another blog exclusive: An audio companion to the book.
Though Dolly Parton originally wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” as a country song, Whitney Houston’s R&B-blast cover has become the gold standard (there’s a chapter about it in my new book about covers). It’s become a staple of American Idol contestants and overly ambitious karaoke singers. The bigger, the belt-ier, the better. No one can top Whitney, but everyone seems to try.
In a refreshing change, Efya takes the song in an entirely different direction. A star in her native Ghana, she actually also got her start in a televised talent show, but you wouldn’t know it from the subtlety and taste she shows here. Accompanied by only a keyboard and African “talking drum,” she strips the song way back in a new live recording for Okayafrica. By tweaking the melody and rhythm, she transform the song into something dark and mournful. When she finally does open up at the end, the vocal power feels totally earned.