Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“I Want You Back” was such a perfectly written song it would have been a hit no matter who did it first (Gladys Knight & the Pips were early candidates, as was Diana Ross), but the world lucked out by discovering it through the Jackson 5. Michael Jackson, still a couple years away from his teens, delivered a vocal Dave Marsh called “just beyond belief, nuanced and knowing but at the same time, young and innocent.” Backed by a musical track that combined the sounds of Motown and Sly & the Family Stone with a double dose of sunshine, Michael and his brothers were never going to miss the target, but who knew their arrow would embed itself so deeply in the bull’s-eye?
Nearly four and a half decades after it was written, “I Want You Back” hasn’t lost one iota of its joy, and any criticisms of Michael or his music fade to nothing when confronted with these three flawless minutes. It’s attracted it share of covers, of course, and some of them have performed the small miracle of being memorable in their own way, not the Jackson 5’s.
David Ruffin – I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
David Ruffin had gone solo from the Temptations and recorded a full album that was ready to go in 1971, but wound up being shelved until the 21st century, when the doors to the vaults of Motown reluctantly swung open. Among the unburied: Ruffin’s take on “I Want You Back,” which gave the song more mettle and proved that even without so much buoyancy, it could still soar high.
Graham Parker – I Want You Back (Alive) (Jackson 5 cover)
Graham Parker had just released Squeezing Out Sparks, and he and his band the Rumour were criss-crossing the country acting out that title with a series of fiery, dynamic shows. Live Sparks recreated the whole album and added a couple extra tracks for good measure, one of which was “I Want You Back” (the additional “(Alive)” is so appropriate). Parker dresses the song in a skinny tie and sweaty blazer, then injects it with sheer force of will; you’d be foolish to turn your back on the end result.
Lake Street Dive – I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Lake Street Dive are a Boston-based jazz band that knows how to be smooth and catchy at the same time. Their 2012 EP Fun Machine has six songs, five of them covers; their take on “I Want You Back” turns it into a song that Julie London never knew she always wanted to sing.
Shione Yukawa – I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Shione Yukawa may not be a household name in the States, but she’s big in Japan, where she’s a singer and actress. Her album Sweet Children O’Mine is a collection of cover songs originally done by artists in the Western World. “I Want You Back” is a remake in the truest sense, and what it loses in soul, it gains in spirit.
The Civil Wars – I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
The Civil Wars announced earlier this month that they had recorded a second album, release date to be determined. This comes as no small relief, after last fall’s announcement of “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” between Joy Williams and John Paul White made theirs the most appropriately named duo since She and Him. It also gives new piquancy to their cover of “I Want You Back,” a bonus track on their Barton Hollow debut. It’s fortunate they recorded it before the title had any irony; it certainly had none to the Civil Wars fans who have been feeling this way for months.
Great as the music is, hearing Michael alone is a revelation.