Despite being busy preparing for the release of their fourth studio album, Dear Miss Lonely Hearts, in the next couple of weeks, Long Beach rockers Cold War Kids have made time to have a little fun with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ “Opium Tea.”
When people look back in 2011 in music a decade from now, one name will come to mind: Adele. In our little world of cover songs, she dominated. Everyone covered Adele this year. It’s not just that we saw more covers of “Rolling in the Deep” than any other song; they beat out second place (probably “Pumped Up Kicks”) by like a factor of five! We generally try to look for larger cover trends in these annual wrap-ups, but it’s hard to remember anything else from this year except the year-long onslaught of Adele covers hitting our mailbox.
There’s only one “Rolling in the Deep” cover in this year’s list though. The rest are all over the place. Some of the artists listed built their covers with lush soundscapes, thick beats, and intricate string work. Others just took guitars or pianos and bowled us over with the emotion in their voices. There may not be much of an overarching “Year in Covers” narrative, but that means there’s a cover or two for everyone. From feel-good takes on rap songs to kill-yourself versions of pop songs, this year’s list features flips, flops, and genre switcheroos of all sorts. A good cover should be informed by the source material but stand on its own, and we’ll be unrolling the 50 finest examples of songs doing just that all week. Start with #50-41 on the next page and check back daily as we count down to the best cover of 2011.
Lissie’s new covers EP Covered Up with Flowers hit iTunes today (everywhere next week). It includes her buzzed-about covers of Kid Cudi, Lady Gaga, and Metallica along with two new tunes, covers of Joe South’s “Games People Play” and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “The Ship Song” (recently covered by Amanda Palmer).
Quickies rounds up new can’t-miss covers. Download ‘em below.
• Doom-y electropop gal Chelsea Wolfe turns everything she touches to spooky. From her music, an affinity to Nick Cave could pretty much be assumed. She makes the connection explicit in this extra-dark cover of a Bad Seeds gem.
MP3: Chelsea Wolfe – I Let Love In (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cover)
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
The second of this week’s birthday twofer follows yesterday’s Leonard Cohen feature. There, we heard Nick Cave cover “Avalanche” with the Bad Seeds. Today, Mr. Cave takes a load off while others pay tribute to him. It’s his 54th birthday and, judging by the vital fury of his last few albums, we suspect he’s just getting started.
Johnny Cash. He was many things in life and remains many things in legacy. One of the most important figures in the history of country music; a devoutly religious rebel; a black-clad troubadour; a classical paradox of a man. Throughout his career, he was defined by songs that were, all at once, violent and mournful, steady in sound and chaotic in spirit.
Cash walked the line (pun intended) of a brilliant and tumultuous time for country music and for popular music in general – the line between standards and covers, between singers and songwriters and singer-songwriters; between rebellion and redemption. The very concept of covers emerged from the dawn of the singer-songwriters, the folks whose songs were first and foremost associated with them. Gone, in most arenas of popular music, were the songs that every artist would take on to earn their chops and pay their respects.
Country music was one of the few genres where standards held strong alongside original material and covers remained the norm, alongside blues and folk and other such tradition-based music. As the years pass, though, traditions change and musicians are faced with new challenges and questions. Does an artist keep on recording songs written by their contemporaries? Do they take on new music from musicians generations younger than them? Do they stick to the themes and styles that their reputations were built on in the first place? Many artists trembled at the challenge, many faltered; but Johnny Cash, with his American Recordings series, had one answer to all of these questions: yes.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers served as Cash’s backing band on Unchained (American II), and Petty had this to say (from an Uncut interview) of the eclecticism that came to define the American series:
It was incredible. He was an interesting artist because he’s pictured as a country artist, but he wasn’t necessarily completely in that bag, you know. I always thought of him as a folk artist. Because he knew so much about folk music. And the country that he performed wasn’t really much like any other country that you’d heard. It was an unusual thing, his bag was pretty wide.
Released over the course of just over fifteen years, including two albums released posthumously, the American series remains a landmark not only in Cash’s career and in the history of country music, but in all popular music. All at once, it was old and new, traditional and revolutionary.
For those who aren’t altogether familiar with Cash’s music (or at least his American-era music), the distinguishing track of the series would seem to be American IV’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” While there is an inescapable accuracy to the assessment, it’s a limiting view and one that could likely cause folks to miss out on the enormous variety of the series.
While “Hurt” isn’t representative of the entire series of albums, it does indeed serve as a mark of distinction. As a whole, the albums reflect on many themes – remorse and violent anger; hopelessness and hope; loss and love and longing; fear and faith. Between the canonical series and Unearthed‘s four discs of outtakes, Cash covered everything ranging from the Beatles to Bob Marley, from Simon and Garfunkel to Neil Young to Biblical hymns and timeless ballads. With the covers in the vein of “Hurt,” however, Cash attacks his classic themes in entirely new ways. He retains his distinctive sound, both vocally and instrumentally, but he lets that sound sink its teeth deep into a different kind of source material.
Cash treats the American series with something of a slow-burning approach. As it is, “Hurt” seems like a radical cover four albums into the series, but the progression to American IV and beyond it shows the greatness of Cash’s covers to be as much a matter of timing and context as anything else. This is not a statement to diminish the covers, but rather to diminish the distinction between a Cash cover and a Cash classic. There is none.
Cash’s takes on newer music (new being relative to the vast span of his career and to the genres he takes on), fitting and transformative as they may be, are not wholly representative of the American series. They capture an aspect of his work’s progression, his consistent ability to do new things after half a century of making music, but they are not alone in doing so. He approaches the work of his contemporaries and his more direct heirs with the same care and the same familiarity as he brings to the more dramatic changes.
Quickies rounds up new can’t-miss covers. Download ‘em below.
• The Wooden Birds’ new single Two Matchsticks contains a couple bonus covers. They take two very disparate sources – Hall & Oates and Kenny Rogers – to an indie-folk-pop middle ground. Download “Maneater” below, then get “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” here.
MP3: The Wooden Birds – Maneater (Hall & Oates cover)
“I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had disaster. I would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ’90s and it didn’t work. The public didn’t like it.” -Bruce Springsteen, discussing his tumultuous relationship with his father.
As Springsteen notes, music fans eye perpetual cheer with skepticism. All pep and no grit will turn off jaded music fans faster than Auto-Tune. The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library (no comment on the band name) faced this problem on their new album Volume One and came up with a smart solution: cover Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It doesn’t get less happy than Nick Cave!