Feb 082013

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.

Susanne Mohle and Pete Klein are Night Bird, a jazz-inflected Deutschland duo who take popular songs and transform them into tunes that fit right into any smoky basement with a cover charge. It’s not an uncommon approach, but the end results are a lot rarer – quality performances that don’t leave you pining for the original hits by the original artists.

When you’re performing a well-known cover song by an artist in another genre, you need something special to distinguish you from the people who performed it first. Night Bird have two things – wholly new arrangements, and Mohle’s exquisite voice, moving up where the original moved down, all about the caress and the cuddle. You can’t not be swept away by what these two do with their source material.

Night Bird – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2 cover)

Take “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” for instance. Mohle doesn’t have Bono’s soaring bellow (not many do), but what she and Klein do give the song a different propulsion, a different kind of urgency, more contemplative and just as steadfast.

Night Bird – Mercedes Benz (Janis Joplin cover)

Janis Joplin recorded “Mercedes Benz” three days before she died, accompanied by nothing more than a metronome. Night Bird speed up the tempo, add a few instruments, and prove that they love Janis enough to buy the next round.

Night Bird – Winter Wonderland (Traditional cover)

“Winter Wonderland” never mentions the word Christmas, but you’d be hard pressed to find a radio station that plays it after the 25th of December. Here’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there are still six weeks left of winter, no matter what any groundhog says. On the other hand, if you’re going to have more cold temperatures and accumulation of the white stuff, you might as well make it sensual.

Night Bird – Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed cover)

The sax line is a little different, but just as evocative of New York after hours as Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was. Granted, it evokes Times Square after the clean-up and not before, but New York is big enough that it can be summoned up any number of ways; Night Bird’s way is an excellent one and more than welcome.

Night Bird – The Book of Love (The Magnetic Fields cover)

69 Love Songs, the instant classic by the Magnetic Fields, has entered its teens, and while all 69 songs have at least one listener who can claim it to be the album’s best, “The Book of Love” has emerged as its standard. Stephin Merritt’s original vocal – memorably described by NME as sounding “like Leonard Cohen drowning in mud” – becomes a dim memory once you hear Mohle’s version. Fortunately, while her vocal may be an improvement, she knows how to keep Merritt’s voice in the song – there’s wryness here, but the end result is eloquent, moving, and truly romantic.

You can find more Night Bird on iTunes and Amazon, and also read more about them on their website – that is, if your German isn’t too rusty.

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