They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Happy Birthday to Harriet Wheeler, lead-singer and co-songwriter for the 90s alternative band, The Sundays. Wheeler’s angelic voice and understated presence always seemed like the perfect vehicle for the band’s sometimes devilish lyrics.
Part of what makes Wheeler so compelling as a writer and vocalist was that she mixed the whimsical and smirking lyrics with a darker sense of something being broken. “The only thing I ever really wanted to say was wrong, was wrong, was wrong,” she proclaims on their biggest hit, “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” This was music akin to The Smiths in its jadedness; even their jangly guitar work sounded like Johnny Marr. (Not that The Sundays were derivative: try to imagine Morrissey covering “Wild Horses” — The Sundays did, and made it a hit.) It’s also true that The Sundays could do light-hearted and chirpy as well as anyone—listen to their late-’90s chart-topper, “Summertime.”
Wheeler’s unpretentious and modest demeanor, both on stage and in their videos, contrasted with many female-fronted projects of the 90s, who tended to dramatize their personas (often with fantastic results, as in the case of Bjork or Sinead O’Connor, but not always). The Sundays wanted none of that. Their independent streak also meant they released new material on their own terms and timetables–a mixed blessing for their fans, perhaps, who soon grew starved for more music.
Prolific The Sundays were not. They produced only three albums in their ten year run—more of a walk than a run, really. “It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday to Saturday,” Wheeler sang self-mockingly on their first album. Perfectionism was another hindrance, and Wheeler (with partner David Gavurin) wrote about that kind of paralysis too.
The press-shy couple never announced anything about disbanding or taking a hiatus. But as the years passed with no new material forthcoming, the title of their last album began to sound like an ominous hint: Static and Silence. Was that where the story ended?
Hard to say with this reclusive band. The world will have to wait and see. In the meantime, there’s three timeless albums to replay, and lots of good covers to remember them by.
The Sundays — Wild Horses (Rolling Stones cover)
This song surely falls in the classic category—bluegrass bands, reggae outfits, and arena rockers play it. Even the Stones still do it. The Sundays’ remake may be the one cover in the “dream pop” category.
The band didn’t release “Wild Horses” as an album track at first, but as the B-side to “Goodbye,” the first single off their sophomore release, Blind. The A-side performed respectably, but it was the cover that really took off. The band added it to the US version of Blind, and soon “Wild Horses” featured on TV and film soundtracks. The Sundays’ rendition competes with the bands two biggest hits, “Summertime” and “Here’s Where the Story Ends” in terms of popularity.
Sarah Jarosz — Can’t Be Sure (The Sundays cover)
Sarah Jarosz takes on the debut single from The Sundays, backed by stellar instrumentalists like Noam Pikelny and Chris Thile. Jarosz is a hotshot picker herself, but Thile seems to have stolen her octave mandolin for this number. She pours it all into the vocals, proving equal to Wheeler’s delicate yet soaring original. Can’t be sure you can find a better cover of this song.
Jasmine Thorpe — Here’s Where the Story Ends (The Sundays cover)
Could this vocalist become the next Sarah Jarosz? Well, how could that possible, when she herself says she’s Harriet Wheeler? In truth, we don’t need her to be anyone other than who she is: the gifted Jasmine Thorpe. I wouldn’t change a thing about this performance, with the possible exception of her father’s socks. Her ad-lib at the end is on target: “I think that went rather well.”
These two have another cover of The Sundays, and equally charming remakes of Blondie, Led Zeppelin, and other artists from well before Jasmine’s time. She also does some covers of those a generation closer to her age, like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. It’s always good spunky music from these two, and good old British eccentricity at its finest (in the case of Danny, Jasmine’s dad).
Tin Tin Out — Here’s Where the Story Ends (The Sundays cover)
About the time The Sundays were touring their last tour in support of their final album, Tin Tin Out was riding high in the charts with their remake of The Sundays’ earliest hit. They introduced a nice string section to the arrangement, but it was the driving percussion element that most likely connected with club-goers of the period.
Ben Myers — When I’m Thinking About You (The Sundays cover)
The Sundays had been in retirement (if that’s what we are calling it) for over 15 years when Ben Myers discovered them. His voice is supple and soulful, and his guitar-work is clean and crisp. He takes on a tender song with easy confidence. It’s a tricky song too, in which Wheeler ranges from high register to bottom-end tones in the same measure. Myers approaches it in a less dynamic way, but delivers the emotion nonetheless. The lyrics refer to the pleasure that comes when nobody’s trying too hard. Ben Myers understands that feeling.
Jenny Owen Youngs — Monochrome (The Sundays cover)
Here’s another artist too young to be operating out of nostalgia when covering The Sundays: Jenny Owen Youngs (of whom we’ve written about before). Like the song selected by Ben Myers, “Monochrome” is a tricky song to cover, given the vocal calisthenics needed to do it anything like the original. Wheeler wasn’t one to show off; her songs just demanded a voice that could climb. Her voice could soar effortlessly without drawing attention to itself, and the same can be said for Jenny Owen Youngs. She has strong originals, too. And in terms of covers she shows wide-ranging taste. You can hear Youngs covering Nelly and a Johnny Cash song or two in her engaging way, as well as other artists.
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