Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite instrumental cover?
My feelings about Bob Seger’s music lie somewhere between casual and indifferent. He has released a grand total of two songs I have ever liked and voluntarily spent time listening to: “Night Moves” and “Mainstreet.” Though if I’m being honest, “listening” may be too generous a description to ascribe here; while I liked the tunes of each, I wasn’t remotely invested in their lyrical content. For 40 years I’d assumed “Night Moves” was a slang name for a souped-up car and thought Seger was singing about how he was “working on A Night Moves, tryin’ to make some front page DRIVING news,” the song title presumably referring to the beloved car he did his street-racing in. I never paid any mind to the verses and couldn’t have recited one if I’d tried. All I knew was the chorus…or so I thought. A couple of years ago I was informed by a benevolent co-worker that I’d been both hearing and interpreting the chorus of “Night Moves” incorrectly. Turns out the lyric was “working on OUR night moves, tryin’ to make some front page DRIVE-IN news.” The song was not a romantic remembrance about a beloved car but was in fact an All-American ode to screwing absolutely everywhere (the back seat, the alley, “the trusty woods”). Everyone laughed at me. “You thought “Night Moves” was the name of a car? Hahaha!!!” I totally did, and a damn good one too. To save face, I vowed that the next vehicle I owned, be it a car, bike or pogo stick, would be christened “Night Moves” out of pure spite. Hey, I had my pride.
The other Seger track I fancied was “Mainstreet.” I listened even less closely to this song than I did to “Night Moves.” The main thing I liked about it was the gorgeous and unforgettable guitar line that followed the chorus. That’s all I noticed when it played, I never paid any mind to the words until after the “Night Moves” incident. It was only then I bothered to take a peek at the lyrics and saw that it was about Bob lusting after a girl who danced at a club. “Unlike all the other ladies, she looked so young and sweet” he sang. It didn’t enhance the listening experience, in fact it’s eye-rolling obviousness made me like the song even less. Still, now that I knew the words, I was prepared in case anyone ever called me out about Bob Seger again.
Turns out the universe had been watching all this Seger-related confusion and had had enough. It was only a few months after my “Night Moves” humiliation that the great spirit decided to intervene and dropped something into my Soundcloud feed so shockingly customized to my needs that I remain awed by it to this day. It was an instrumental cover of “Mainstreet” by fabulous shoegaze-dreampop soundscape-makers, Starblood. It’s miraculous appearance was a direct message from the universe, one that said, “Here, my child, now you can enjoy one of your two favorite Bob Seger songs lyric-free forever and no one will ever, ever hurt you again.” The cover is an ambient beauty, a synthy, swoony, spaced-out tribute that sounds like it wandered off an obscure ’80s teen movie soundtrack (then walked straight into my heart). I love it. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times (no, seriously). The universe just knew. Yup, on the surface, Starblood’s “Mainstreet” might just seem like a pleasant, inconsequential cover of a hoary old rock song, but for me, now and forever, it’s always gonna be magic.
We all know that The Vitamin String Quartet has released “Bad Guy” on Bridgerton, but have you heard of Eklipse?! They are a dark/goth string quartet based out of Germany, who are currently being marketed as “the sexiest string quartet” ever. The percussive effect that this cover has made it stand out from the rest.
The original song is already sinister enough as it is, but Eklipse takes it a step further, with dark timbres and impeccable orchestration. They even add in a little pitch bend for the word “duh.”
By the time we think we get to the end, we get hit with the breakdown. With its imposingly lilting strings and dramatic pedal notes, it sounds like something that could have come straight out of a hell scene in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The best way this cover had be described is dark, haunting, and epic.
If you’ve paid attention, even briefly, to music or pop culture in the last 60-odd years, you are probably familiar with the Rodgers & Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. As of this writing, Secondhandsongs.com lists a whopping 611 covers, a number that increases every time I check the site. That doesn’t even begin to include all of the performances in high school and community theaters or by music students of all stripes. It’s also considered a Christmas song and has landed on countless holiday records. Julie Andrews can be credited with that as well. According to Billboard.com, before immortalizing “My Favorite Things” in the 1966 film, she performed the song on a 1961 Christmas TV special. So, yeah, the song’s got some history.
For me, there’s one cover that stands out: the 14-minute version by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. It’s a musical tour de force featuring several jazz superstars including McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums.
The opening feels like a bolt of lightning as the piano, bass and cymbals all hit the opening notes. The rhythm section quickly establishes a mid-tempo, swinging groove. Coltrane’s sax comes in next, introducing the melody and the verses. In the middle of the track, Tyner takes over, playing a song within a song, and providing his own extended solo. Then Coltrane comes back for another round of soloing, pushing the boundaries of his instrument with countless twists and turns. The whole arrangement is held together by Jones and bassist Davis, who never waver from their tight rhythms for the entire recording. Near the end Coltrane plays the bridge, “When the dog bites,” almost as if to wake you out of a dream. It’s the Great American Songbook as only Coltrane could do it.
When I hear the Bad Plus cover “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” I stop what I’m doing and pay complete attention. It flows through many moods, from melancholic to manic, all of them intense. Each listen feels like the first listen: I get caught off-guard again by some unexpected cymbal business, or a Monk-like displacement of a melody note–details that wink. And all over again I get swept up in the swirling currents and riptides of the performance, wondering where it’s all going to lead.
You can find the studio recording on the band’s Prog album, but my favorite version is this somewhat lengthier live take. Not only is it beautifully performed, it is beautifully captured.
Did you know jazz harp was a thing? I didn’t before I listened to Dorothy Ashby, and now I think there should be more of it. Buried away in the middle of her discography was this brilliant gem of a cover of Glen Campbell’s country classic. The beat is infectious, the harp soars as the rest of the orchestra add to the groove, and the track still sounds fresh as vibrant today as it did when it was released in 1969. If this was on streaming services, the listen count would be made up of me smashing it on repeat.
Stanley Jordan is undoubtedly the most talented musician that I am friendly with. Stanley was a year ahead of me in college and was a jazz DJ at WPRB, where I sometimes followed him on the air. Even then, it was clear that he was prodigiously talented, and we were all in awe of his playing, not to mention the fact that he was, and is, a nice and interesting guy. (And it was great getting to see him at my 40th college reunion back in May.)
Stanley’s musical claim to fame is his mastery of the “tapping” technique, in which he uses both hands to tap the strings, allowing himself to play multiple lines at the same time, so it often sounds like more than one guitar is playing. I’ll never forget recording him in the WPRB studios for a show and having to do multiple takes to satisfy his perfectionism, despite the fact that each one blew my mind.
After wowing critics in 1984 when he made a surprise unscheduled appearance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York, Stanley released his major label debut album, Magic Touch, on the venerable Blue Note label, and his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Lady In My Life” actually got MTV airplay, which I found very exciting. But I’m not going to write about that (I already did that here and here). Instead, I wanted to write about his cover of “Eleanor Rigby” by a little-known quartet from Liverpool, a cover which I’ve never really been able to get out of my head.
The song is not only a showcase for Stanley’s incredible technique and dexterity, it highlights his ability to inhabit the song and make a rock standard his own. Although his version hints at the sadness of the original, it quickly morphs into something more fun and jaunty. While Stanley
never completely abandons the song’s melody, he allows himself to veer off occasionally for some improvisation and interpolation. It’s the song that he chose to play when he appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman back in 1985, and he’s continued to play it throughout his career. If you believe Setlist.fm, it is his most played cover (but that site doesn’t have all of his setlists, so I think that’s kind of suspect), and that’s likely to change, since he’s been touring a “Jordan Plays Jimi” show. (Spoiler alert–he plays Jimi quite well.)
I have never kept it secret that “Hey Joe,” in my opinion (and held not that humbly), is the high water mark of rock and roll music. And thence, in translation of reggae, zydeco, soul and bluegrass. I don’t really care who wrote it, or when, but when the deceptive simplicity, or simple deceit, if you prefer, of the opening chords, played on whatsoever, kick in, you can guarantee my radar will have instantly latched on and has got me grinning like a loon. I don’t think I am alone. And jazz, for all the stand offish cool and complication, is not exempt. There have been a few jazz covers, mostly instrumental, which is handy for this piece. Some, it is true, make too much of a meal of it, adding too much noodle and not enough hot sauce, but Brad and his boys deliver the goods nothing short of perfect. Recognizable from the first few notes, a knowing wink in the eye of the pianist as he teases out the tune, the bass and drums delectable. I can forgive the Larry Grenardier bass solo, as it doesn’t alter the overall propulsive swell of the drums and piano. The drums are a constant interest too, Jeff Ballard never resorting to cliché or autopilot. So when, eventually and inevitably, the (essential) ascending/descending bass line, here on piano, comes in, you are congratulating both the band and yourself for your good taste.
Need I add that Mehldau has a fine track record of his own compositions, as well as of variegated covers, working in jazz and neo-classical. If you are not, shame on you, already aware, you could do worse than the 2011 album this track features on, ‘Where Do You Start’, which also includes also material by Nick Drake, Sonny Rollins and Sufjan Stevens.
In the timely words of the meme-able Usher: “watch this!” This instrumental cover is for when you still need that “peace up, A-town down” energy but want to keep it safe for work or classy for your dinner party guests. The strings still bring the confident club energy, and the beat still does its job punctuating the inevitable dance moves that the song will encourage. About a minute and a half in there is a little Bridgerton-esque interlude, perhaps a nod to the Ludacris rap part that is a bit tricky to emulate in this form. Then we’re back to the main groove that will leave you screaming “Yeah!”
If I told you that one of my favorite instrumental covers of a song with vocals is The Smith’s “Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” performed by The Dream Academy–who you might only know as the one-hit-wonder that released “Life In A Northern Town”–that would be one thing. If I told you that you’ve probably have heard it before, maybe several times, you might be skeptical.
But you almost certainly have.
I will admit it’s not a great cover. I recognized it right away when I saw it first run in the movie theater. It’s a sappy version of Morrissey’s maudlin tune that would probably be more suited for an elevator. But this sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where our heroes venture into the Art Institute of Chicago, is John Hughes’ love letter to art, highlighting Kandinsky and Pollock and an illuminating vision of Seurat. It brilliantly captures how we expect to feel about art and how we feel when we see it. It reminds us that on any day, we can choose to be enlightened.
It never left me. A couple of years later, I packed up my car and drove down the former treacherous two-lane highway from Charleston, South Carolina to the hot and humid home of the Savannah College of Art & Design.
In Jonathan Richman’s wonderful song “When Harpo Played His Harp,” he talks about how everything went still when Harpo Marx sat down to play. The antic clown would disappear, his face would grow serious, and beautiful glissandos would fill the air. He had a real magic to his playing. Maybe it was due to his making everyone laugh so much their guard was down, but I think he touched people’s hearts no matter what the circumstances.
Thankfully, many clips of his playing survive, some of them nearly a hundred years old now. Here’s just one of them, from his appearance on I Love Lucy, playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and turning the national pastime’s theme song into a beautiful hymn. At the end, Lucy’s friend Ethel and her frenemy Caroline Appleby both come close to swooning, and you get the sense that neither Vivian Vance nor Doris Singleton was acting in that moment.
For this first of two killer “Lagniappe Sessions” of covers for American Drunkard, instrumental acoustic guitar wizard William Tyler explained his love for Blue Oyster Cult and their 1972 album cut “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”
Buck Dharma is probably my favorite all time rock guitarist, and whenever I want to mess with people a little who aren’t familiar with the mightiness of BOC, I put on their first album and let it roll without explaining who it is. All credit for this cover goes to Mr. James Mcnew [Yo La Tengo] who played me the album about four years ago on tour and got me hooked.
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