Etta James passed this month, soon after releasing her final album The Dreamer (which we liked). Portugal. The Man remember the blues legend with a soulful cover of her classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which they posted to their Soundcloud.
It’s the end of the era of Etta and her more than fifty year stretch of hit singles, cross-genre awards and industry-shaking influence concludes with a dream. A dream that features Axl Rose… without being a nightmare!
With her most recent release, The Dreamer, Etta James announced her retirement from the music business. Her family recently disclosed that the 73-year-old suffers from leukemia, along with a number of other physical complications, and revealed her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2009. While her decision to end her career is no surprise, what does startle is the nature of the final album with which Etta chose to take her bow. A curious collection of covers in which a handful of true blue soul and R&B standards rock alongside the likes of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Although artsy Brooklyn denizen and Jealous Girlfriends frontwoman Holly Miranda hasn’t released any new original material since 2010’s The Magician’s Private Library, she has kept herself busy recording covers. Now she’s posted a large collection of both live and studio-recorded covers for your listening pleasure. Miranda has received critical praise from the likes of Kanye West and Scarlett Johansson, and it’s easy to see why.
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]