One stereotype about Christian musicians – and lord knows there are plenty – is that they’re too self-serious. When you’re singing about the healing power of Christ, yeah, that can be an easy trap to fall into. When the topic at hand is Desmond’s marketplace barrow, well, it’s a lot easier to get goofy.
Shuffle Sundays is a weekly feature in which we feature a cover chosen at random by my iTunes shuffle. The songs will usually be good, occasionally be bad, always be interesting. All songs will only be available for one week, so get them while you can. After you listen, discuss this week’s tune in the comments.
Quite a month for Christian music here at Cover Me. First we had a tongue-in-cheek DeGarmo and Key cover for our second Shuffle Sunday, then that inspired a full-on Christian rock post. Now two weeks later, the old iTunes shuffle picks another Christian music tune.
It’s off the best album of Christian covers there is though, so I’m not complaining. In that mega-Christian post you heard “God Will Lift Up Your Head” from Jars of Clay’s Redemption Songs. To record the disc the group spent time digging through lyrics to old hymns, revitalizing songs familiar (“It Is Well with My Soul”) and obscure (“Hiding Place”) with new tunes and arrangements.
The entire album spotlights the group’s acoustic-rock strut. They’d seem relegated to your local LiteFM station if they weren’t so powerful. Singer Dan Hasseltine enriches each old-time tune with an evocative power that brings these old songs of praise straight into the 21st century. One of the album’s stand-out tracks is “Jesus, I Lift My Eyes” by Anne Steele.
Anne Steele was a prolific poet and hymn-writer in 18th-century Britain. During the course of her life she wrote over 100 hymns, taught by her pastor father to praise the Lord with her every breath. Poet Amos Wells wrote in 1914 that she was “the first woman writer whose hymns came to be largely used in hymn-books, and she is the greatest Baptist hymn-writer.” Read more about her here.
Steele was bedridden for the last nine years of her life. When she passed in 1778, her tombstone was inscribed
Silent the lyre, and dumb the tuneful tongue
That sung on earth her Great Redeemer’s praise
But now in Heaven she joins the angels’ song
In more harmonious, more exalted lays
“Jesus, I Lift My Eyes” is a simple praise song imbued with a poet’s touch. Whatever you believe, it’s hard to remain unmoved by words like “Here oh my soul, thy trust repose / If Jesus is forever mine / Not death itself, that last of foes / Can break a union so divine.”
Jars of Clay imbues these powerful lyrics with a quiet persuasiveness, gently rolling along with subtle swirls of organ and an insistent kick-drum thump. The group’s renowned harmonizing is in full swing on the building gospel chorus, lifting your soul as they lift their eyes.
Jars of Clay – Jesus, I Lift My Eyes (Anne Steele)
What do you think? Discuss this song in the comments section below.
Our Shuffle Sunday pick a few weeks ago reminded me of a theme I’d been planning to work up for a while. See, for my senior thesis I researched the phenomenon of Christian rock, otherwise known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). I examined the fan base, seeing who they are and why they buy what they buy. During the course of this I was exposed to quite a bit of Christian music, and learned that musically, it’s like any other genre: 90% of it is terrible, the other 10% not bad. Lyrically it spans the gamut from the in-your-face (Larry Norman, Newsboys) to “Jesus is my girlfriend” non-specificity (Amy Grant, Switchfoot).
Here’s some of the not bad, CCM artists covering other CCM artists (mostly). To dispel a few popularly-held beliefs: Creed is not CCM and neither is Evanescence. These are Christians who rock (horribly), but were never part of the CCM community. Know who was though? Sufjan Stevens. So don’t be so quick to roll your eyes. Go below to learn and if you want to check out that thesis, it’s here.
DC Talk – I Wish We’d All Been Ready (Larry Norman)
This was CCM’s first hit, a tune from 1969 by the “Godfather of Christian rock,” the man who the term “Jesus freak” was coined to refer to. The movement started when evangelicals brought a bunch of California hippies into the church. They abandoned free love and drugs, but didn’t want to abandon rock and roll. DC Talk are the biggest Christian hitmakers of the ‘90s – their song “Jesus Freak” is arguable the best CCM song ever – so it’s fitting they pay tribute to their forefather. Even if the lyrics are…well, you’ll see. [Buy]
Relient K – Between You and Me (DC Talk)
DC Talk’s 1995 album Jesus Freak heralded the second coming of Christian music. It sold two million copies to Christians and non-Christians alive, proving that whether one agreed with the message or not this was music to jump to. Relient K currently blur that same line, alternating Christian rock festivals with Warped tour appearances. [Buy]
Jars of Clay – God Will Lift Up Your Head (Trad.)
The more I listen to Jars of Clay, the more I begin to think they may be the best CCM group out there. Great musicians, greater songwriters, and phenomenal interpreters. For their album Redemption Songs they put new music to a dozen old hymns, making them both poppy and emotionally inspirational. [Buy]
Lost and Found – Scars and Stripes (Tim Graf)
The duo that invented speedwood – like speed metal, played on acoustic instruments – tackles a peer’s tune on a b-sides disc released only to fan club members. It’s more complicated lyrically than a lot of CCM tunes, which makes it more interesting. [Buy]
Third Day – Saved (Bob Dylan)
Many readers will know Dylan had a born-again phase, releasing three Christian albums. Needless to say, it’s an obvious source for in-the-know bands like Third Day to tackle. And did I mention Dylan’s coming out with a Christmas album in October? Maybe he hasn’t left the faith after all. [Buy]
Sanctified Glory Mountain Revival Family – Guilty By Association (Steve Taylor)
Ever since the controversy over his tongue-in-cheek hit “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good” – he blows it up because he’s an ice cream man worried about losing customers – Taylor has been a bit of an outlaw in the world of CCM. Here he’s just as sarcastic as ever, criticizing Christians who think listening to secular music will send you straight to hell. [Buy]
Geoff Moore & The Distance – Why Should the Devil (Have All the Good Music)? (Larry Norman)
This song title could be called the mantra of Christian rock. It’s the quote commonly used to justify a genre that some Christians still object too (check out this site – it’s pretty funny). Well, he clearly doesn’t – this song rocks. [Buy]
Audio Adrenaline – Gloria (U2)
U2 is another band of Christians who rock, but enough of their songs are Biblically informed that there’s a whole Christian rock tribute album to them. Fun fact: many Christian radio stations will only play CCM covers of U2 songs, but not the originals. [Buy]
The Swirling Eddies – Alcatraz (Al Denson)
We heard their DeGarmo and Key cover a couple weeks ago, and this track comes off the same lovingly mocking album that takes the silliest classic CCM tunes and makes them even sillier. Ironically, it also makes them better. [Buy]
Philmore – Living On a Prayer (Bon Jovi)
Bon Jovi is in no way a Christian group, so it’s interesting to see a song you never thought of as religious repurposed. All of a sudden the title has a totally different meaning. [Buy]
I’ve heard a lot of covers, but every now and then a song comes along so bizarre I think, no way anyone could cover that. In every case, I turn out to be wrong. It seems musicians can take even the strangest, most idiosyncratic music and remake it in their own image. Let me present…the (not quite) uncoverable.
Neil Cowley Trio – Revolution 9 (The Beatles)
The ultimate in uncoverable (well, after Metal Machine Music…which, incidentally, an orchestra covered). The original is just random noise with some idiot saying “number nine” incessantly. When MOJO wanted to put together covers of all tracks on the White Album, I would have thought they’d given up upon remembering ol’ #9. But no, they persevered, and came up with a funky jazz cover that, unlike the original, doesn’t sound like ass. [Buy]
Alan Licht – Lonesome Valley (Trad.)
The tag says “Trad,” but there’s a lot more to the story. Licht, of avant-garde free-jazz groups like Lovechild and The Blue Humans, describes the history of this track: “Run On’s David Newgarden had played me a CD of hollerin’ contests from North Carolina, so I went about coming up with chord progressions to play behind the recordings of the weird a cappella, howling melodies.” Hollerin’ is a lost art of yelling, communicating messages in wordless yelps. It’s bizarre stuff, and can be explained better here. [Buy]
James Eric – Untitled #1 (Vaka) (Sigur Rós)
The music of angels, Sigur Rós has a sound all their own. Airy, spacey songs that float by sung either in Icelandic or a made-up language (for most of us there’s little difference), their music is entrancing, enticing, and as idiosyncratic as can be. Shockingly, however, there are a few Sigur covers out there, all quite good. I chose this one because (spoiler alert) you can expect to see more of Mr. Eric here in the very near future. [Buy]
Vienna Teng – Idioteque (Radiohead)
Radiohead is a commonly covered band, but some songs lend themselves better to covers than others. The original for this “tune” features such an idiosyncratic drum loop one wonders how to reinvent it. Teng hints at the pattern, but brings out the melody as a folksy tune with (gasp) harmonies! [Buy]
Violent Femmes – Step Right Up (Tom Waits)
Quite a few Tom songs could fit in this uncoverable category, but this tuneless huckster bark goes right up there. Tom’s six-minute infomercial for dozens of questionable products, “Step Right Up” find the Femmes adding in some more free-jazz background and bizarre vocal contortions to sell you their shit. Don’t be caught with your drawers down! [Buy]
Patti Smith – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
“What’s this doing here?” you’re wondering. “It’s one of the most easy-to-cover rock songs there is because of that damn riff.” It’s true; the riff puts it just after “Smoke on the Water” as a popular hook to inspire teens everywhere to pick up an axe. The vocals come second; you know the riff, you can play the song. Smith does the unthinkable though, putting out a version of the tune without the riff! The fact there even is a song without the riff is the real shock, much less that it’s such a good one. [Buy]
Mersault – Westward Ho (Moondog)
There are some unusual stories in music, but it doesn’t get much more bizarre than Moondog. Where to begin? For one, he was a homeless guy. Who only wore homemade clothes. That he designed to look like the Norse god Thor. Including a horned helmet. The strangest thing of all though, was that this “Viking of 6th Avenue” produced gorgeous off-kilter melodies, largely using his own invented instruments. Needless to say, not an artist you’d expect to find a lot of covers of, especially of a song that only has one line. [Buy]
Jars of Clay – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars)
Ina little mini-theme here, this is the second recording of a homeless guy. Bryars heard a recording of an anonymous tramp singing a two-line testimonial to his face, and turned it into one of the most gorgeous pieces I’ve ever heard, adding strings, brass and, later, Tom Waits to come up with 74 minutes of sweeping beauty, all built around the tramp’s sixteen words. Well-regarded Christian rock group Jars of Clay took those few lines and added their acoustic harmonies to bring the simple melody to a new generation. [Buy]
The Antlers – When You Sleep (My Bloody Valentine)
Influential though they are, My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze noisescapes seem so idiosyncratic one wonders how anyone could translate them. Pickin’ on MBV: The Bluegrass Tribute seems a stretch. The Antlers get it right though, keeping the waves of reverb right up front. [Buy]
Bruce Springsteen – Dream Baby Dream (Suicide)
When Springsteen abruptly began closing his 2005 solo concerts with this obscure cover, fan reaction was understandably mixed. The song only has two lines, repeated over an over to an organ loop for as long as thirteen minutes. Hypnotic and haunting, Bruce probably just couldn’t get the melody out of his head, and neither will you. [Buy]
It’s a big week here at Cover Me: our one-year birthday. Not only that, but today is yours truly’s birthday (though I’m older than one). So though it’s been a rough week for cover bloggers, with bowhowdy getting his files taken down and Fong getting a cease-and-desist letter, let’s celebrate these two birthdays with some tunes. I was going to do a theme on birthdays or celebrations, but thought, this is a special week that deserves special treatment. So for the first time ever, I’m saying to hell with a theme. I’m going to post what I want. Many of these are among my favorite covers ever; others are just some I’m into right now. Enjoy all of ‘em, and here’s to another good year of music!
Billy Stewart – Summertime (Gershwin Brothers)
If you held a gun to my head (please don’t) and made me choose my favorite cover ever, I’d probably mutter something about this one. The song’s an old classic, a beautiful song, but one I often find rather dreary. As people drone on and on, you wonder if they enjoy the summertime so much, why do they sound so depressed? Not the case with Stewart, who bebops his way through shrieks, scat vocals, and false endings to blast the sound of summer right into your eardrums. And this version has Bob Dylan introing the song too – bonus! [Buy]
Jamelia – Numb (Linkin Park)
I originally discovered this tune on the sadly-defunct Copy, Right, the blog that pioneered the cover tune before any other. This song was huge for a while, and then quickly forgotten as a relic of our angsty middle school years. Jamelia breathes a second life in it, keeping the energy but bringing out a tune buried deep in the faux-anger of the original. [Buy]
We Are Scientists – Sie Hat Was Vermisst (Bela B.)
Love them though I do, in many way We Are Scientists is a predictable brand, jaunty rock with pop hooks in the vein of Franz Ferdinand. On their cover choices, however, they take elaborate risks, having improbably successes with everything from Boyz II Men to Sigur Rós. The most risky must be this, an obscure song by a solo album of the popular German punk group Die Ärzte. How these scientists even discovered this tune is a mystery itself, but you don’t need to understand the words to hear the dark tension. [Buy]
Jars of Clay – All My Tears (Julie Miller)
Now here’s something a little more uplifting, a gospel tune by these Christian rockers that, if you believe this stuff, might bring tears itself. [Buy]
R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen)
My favorite Leonard Cohen song, I posted Kid Harpoon’s riotous cover in this blog’s infancy (this post, though the link’s dead), but this one is a slow-builder, taking six minutes to pound away at your resistance. It sounds so much like an R.E.M. song I’m wondering if Cohen plagiarized. [Buy]
Patti Smith – Gloria (Van Morrison)
Smith adds enough of her own words that it’s practically an original, but her version’s true heart still lies in its punk take on Van the Man. Hers is a sneer for the ages, a sound of its time and above it that sound fresh and vibrant today. [Buy]
Elliott Murphy – Blind Willie McTell (Bob Dylan)
Live covers are a risky business. When an artist goes to the effort to record a cover on an album, it usually shows that they have something new to bring to it. In a live show, however, people can play whatever the hell they want. Of Montreal’s much-talked about take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” must have been a blast for everyone there, but for those of us that missed it, it just sounds like another boring cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Exceptions like this make live covers worth seeking out yet. One of my favorite Dylan covers ever, this acoustic duet features fabulous fretwork that perfectly matches Murphy and his unnamed companion’s crescendoing voices. [Buy]
Sharif – Disturbia (Rihanna)
Sure, saying this is one of my favorite covers of all time may be a bit of a stretch, but like many I haven’t been able to get this tune out of my head for weeks. I posted a cover of it last week. Here’s another. [Buy]
Everything But The Girl – Downtown Train (Tom Waits)
Rod Stewart’s version makes you vomit. This one may make you weep. [Buy]
Bruce Springsteen – Detroit Medley (Mitch Ryder, et al.)
Let’s bring in the new year of blogging on a hard-rocking note. Springsteen is unmatched at 50’s covers, and this live favorite never fails to get me dancing. Good golly, miss Molly! [Buy]
Birds might seem a pretty lame topic for a post, but it turns out there are quite a few good songs about our fine feathered friends. And a lot of band ones too. First person to request Freebird, I swear to god…
The Ramones – Surfin’ Bird (The Trashmen)
The Trashmen’s lone claim to fame could be argued as the first punk-rock song. So, an obvious choice for the Ramones to make even more punk (by singing it out of tune). Crank up the distortion, try even harder to break the drum kit, and sing the same nonsencical lyrics…nice.
Uncle Earl – Canary In a Coalmine (The Police)
Sometimes a group just picks the perfect song to cover. The Police version sounds like the awkward reinterpretation after hearing this bluegrass folk version. Sting clearly wrote for the wrong genre with this one, with maybe his best lyrics ever: “You say you want to spend the winter in Firenze / You’re so afraid to catch a dose of influenza.” This recording is live from earlier this year, but hopefully they’ll release a studio version too.
Patti Smith – When Doves Cry (Prince)
Recorded for her 2002 hits compilation Land, one of the master of the cover keeps just enough of the tune and dance-rock while whining out the over-the-top angry-lover lyrics over some nice fuzz guitar.
Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band – Rockin’ Robin (Bobby Day)
Everyone knows Michael Jackson’s hit single, his second solo song ever, but here the lame flute is gone in favor of accordion, and lots of it! And as everyone knows, nothing goes better with squeezebox than saxophone (what??) so there’s a wailed out solo as icing on the cake. Thanks to Cover Freak for this discovery.
Duncan Sheik – Songbird (Fleetwood Mac)
Sheik takes Christine McVie’s classic off Rumours and sings it over a thick bed of strings without, impressively enough, sounding lame. Sounds like a track from a 40’s Cary Grant musical.
Bruce Springsteen – Pretty Flamingo (Manfred Mann)
Given that Manfred Mann had about half their hits with Bruce songs, it was mighty kind of the Boss to reply the covering favor. And, of course, he makes it epic, throwing in rambling anecdotes about the pool hall and never-ending sing-a-longs. Never officially recorded it as far as I know, but this version is from the legendary Hammersmith shows of ’75.
Willie Nelson – Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen)
Nelson’s country twang can be quite grating, but it offsets the beautiful melody and arrangement here perfectly, keeping it down to Earth with some emotive singing and, hooray, more accordion.
Dartmouth Aires – The Cuckoo (Taj Mahal/Trad.)
A very poppy update of the classic folk ballad, I can’t exactly figure out the origins of this great arrangement. They give Taj credit, but it sure doesn’t sound much like his version to my ears. Anyone know more?
Element 101 – I’m Like a Bird (Nelly Furtado)
This may be one of my least favorite songs ever. Without Nelly’s nasal vibrato, it’s somewhat better here. Somewhat. If you like punk covers of pop songs though, check it out.
Jars of Clay – I’ll Fly Away (Albert E Brumley)
The gospel staple gets a slightly updated take, with help from other Christian rocker. Still plenty of soaring vocals, inspirational message, and all that.