Jun 052020
 

Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.

joni mitchell in the 80s

The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. The new decade brought a seismic shift in pop sights and sounds that included the arrival of “The Second British Invasion” in the U.S., featuring the likes of Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Culture Club. This guy called Prince began his reign/rain, and Madonna Louise Ciccone launched her complete world takeover. And oh yeah, there was this other thing, a behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay. And so, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before all of a sudden sounded criminally dated. Continue reading »

May 192020
 
quarantine covers
Amy Helm – Twilight (The Band cover)

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May 142020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Sinatra later albums

Frank Sinatra hailed from an era where singers were singers and songwriters were songwriters, and rarely the twain did meet. Great American Songbook standards penned by the likes of Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, and Cole Porter were tailored to Sinatra’s specifications by master arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May, and brought to life by Sinatra’s formidable interpretive skill. “I’m a real stickler for perfection, in my work and most other people’s work too,” Sinatra said of his approach in 1956. “I find myself picking whatever I do apart, which I do believe is quite healthy.” Continue reading »

Apr 172020
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Chaka Khan cover songs

Back in 2008, Rolling Stone published a list ranking the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. While these lists can serve to validate a person’s taste or deservedly shine a light on the underrated, their main purpose is to generate conversation, which is to say they are built to angry up the blood (apparently, Buddy Holly is just a little better than Donny Hathaway and not quite as good as Jim Morrison). While Aretha Franklin was justifiably in the #1 spot, this particular list turned out to be problematic. For one thing, only 23 of the 100 singers listed were women… and within that rarefied group, there was a particularly glaring omission. The panel of 179 “experts” left out arguably one of the finest vocalists in modern day music history: Chaka Khan (and we’re not even going to go into The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s continued snubbing because, no).

Khan first made her mark singing lead for accomplished soul-slicksters Rufus throughout the ’70s, notching up an assortment of eternally beloved grooves, including the sinewy pop funk of “Tell Me Something Good” and the beauteously lovelorn “Sweet Thing.” Even spitting out of a cheap static-filled AM transistor radio, Khan’s voice enveloped you with its warmth, elasticity, and fire, a singularly passionate siren who sounded like no other.

By 1978 it had become clear that the gargantuan Khan voice and charisma couldn’t be contained within the confines of the group, and so began her storied solo career…sort of. After her first solo album was released, as a result of contractual obligations, she continued to work on and off with Rufus until the band finally broke up in 1983 (and within that time released three more solo albums and a collaborative jazz-standards collection). It was in 1984, upon the release of the single “I Feel For You” and its eponymous album, that Chaka went from being a plain old star to being a full-on superstar…which is who she’s been ever since, although that should probably be hyphenated with “legend” at this point.

While Chaka has had a hand in writing some straight-up classics in her career, she has mostly relied on outside songwriters, which has often dovetailed into doing covers. Her prodigious vocal gift means the old phone-book cliche applies (as in, she can sing anything), which has allowed her the freedom to make some eclectic and just plain cool choices. And oh yeah, she’s probably gonna steal your song from you forever… but it’s okay, because she’s gonna make it even better.

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Mar 232020
 

In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”

Dylan is Bob Dylan‘s first break-up album. Out of print for decades before eventually being issued on CD in 2013, the LP was a result of Bob’s defection from Columbia Records to the fledgling Asylum Records in early 1973. While the split ultimately proved to be a temporary separation, it appeared at the time to be a permanent divorce.

The resulting album is often framed as an act of revenge on Columbia’s part, a collection of poor-quality outtakes specifically designed to reduce Dylan’s stock with record buyers. However, this theory doesn’t add up. Columbia still owned Bob’s valuable back catalogue, which they presumably intended to continue profiting from, and releasing an intentionally substandard Dylan album would have been counterproductive. What was probably going on, as Jon Landau suggested in his review for Rolling Stone, was that Dylan would have been the first in a series of “new” Bob Dylan albums comprised of outtakes from previous Columbia sessions. Decca Records was concurrently doing the same thing with their trove of unreleased recordings by The Rolling Stones.

But why these recordings? The track selection on Dylan is perplexing, especially since Columbia already possessed much of the material that would later surface on the successful Bootleg Series. A likely explanation is that whoever compiled the album (possibly Mark Spector, who assembled an abandoned early version) was under pressure to get the record out before Dylan’s first release for Asylum – which was being recorded at that very moment – and therefore had no choice but to simply grab some of the most recent tapes off the top of the pile. The tapes in question, as it happened, were from the sessions for Dylan’s 1970 albums Self Portrait and New Morning.

Columbia’s ploy worked. Dylan reached No.17 on the Billboard chart and was certified gold, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. Were the critics right? Let’s take another look.
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Mar 032020
 
big yellow taxi covers

In 2009, the Village Voice ranked The 50 Worst Songs of the 2000s. Sitting pretty at #1 (or maybe that’s sitting ugly in this case) was the Counting Crows’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” The hilariously petty writeup is worth reading for lines like this: “You know the line about how they ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot?’ Like how they replaced something beautiful with something cold and heartless and commercial? That’s you. You’re the parking lot, motherfucker. You drove your shitty steamroller over something everyone loved…” Continue reading »