Sep 092020
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Mathilde Santing

As a teen back  in the ’80s, I was completely, 100% besotted with the music magazines coming out of the UK. I loved the glossies like Smash Hits, No.1, and Record Mirror, as well as the weeklies, specifically NME and Melody Maker. I would read them cover to cover, simultaneously ogling the heartthrobs and making lists of what I wanted to buy based on the reviews (or, okay, someone’s haircut). It was through these endless piles of paper that I first got wind of The Associates, The Smiths, and Kate Bush, all of whom I ended up maniacally worshipping (and writing still-unanswered fan letters to). And of course, as there was no such thing as streaming at that point, the reviews in these mags were often the determining factor as to whether or not I would buy a record. My teen funds were meager, so there was often a lot riding on how convincing the review was. It was in one of these magazine reviews that I first stumbled upon Dutch singer Mathilde Santing.

Santing began her solo career in 1982 with the release of a self-titled album featuring an eclectic mix of standards, Rodgers and Hammerstein amongst them, and pop tracks by the likes of the Beach Boys and mad genius Todd Rundgren (hold that last thought, it will be important later!). As quietly adventurous as the track listing was, there was no question as to what the album’s real strength was — Mathilde Santing’s extraordinarily warm, elastic, gorgeous voice.

Santing’s next album, 1984’s Water Under the Bridge, marked something of a turning point in her career, though it wasn’t clear-cut at the time. Gone were the covers, replaced instead by original material of the jazzy, intermittently quirky, ’80s indie pop variety. While focusing on originals was the standard move for a young pop singer, the album turned out to be something of a swan song for Santing; it ended up being her last consisting solely of original material. With a handful of exceptions, from this point forward, it was all about the covers.

It was over a review of her next album that Santing first caught my eye and subsequently hooked me for the foreseeable future. While 1987’s Out of this Dream sported a small cluster of really fine originals, more than half the songs on the album were covers. Upon seeing the track list, I instantly recognized her as a kindred spirit, a total music nerd soul sister. There were songs by Squeeze and Tom Waits. There was a Dionne Warwick deep cut. The album opened with, yes, a Todd Rundgren track. It was a very “wait a second, I love these artists and songs too ” moment, and from that point on (though she didn’t know it), we were officially pop music nerd-bonded. I bought the record and was instantly impressed with her exquisite vocal performances, how she sang these majestic and melodic tunes with such reverence and passion. And maybe most thrillingly, it was unerringly cool to hear a girl so convincingly singing these songs written by boys.

To date, Santing has released 21 albums and counting (a mix of studio, live sets and compilations), and between those and her innumerable live performances, she’s covered upwards of 150 songs. She’s offered up stellar versions of tracks by everyone from ’80s pop auteurs and thinking girl faves like Scritti Politti and Aztec Camera to melodic maestros like Nilsson and Randy Newman, as well as those of evergreen legends like Joni Mitchell. It should be noted that she is especially fond of Todd Rundgren and is in league of her own as far as covering his catalog which is to say, in terms of quality Todd covers, no one on the planet does it better.

To this day I remain both awestruck and impressed by her song choices as well as just plain psyched that there’s another girl on the planet who is as infatuated with these specific artists, these one-man-band, post-pop weirdos and cult heroes with their very particular melodic sensibilities.

And now please enjoy this handful of highlights spotlighting some of the finest and coolest covers by master interpreter and unabashed pop fan Mathilde Santing.
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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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