Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
It seems a shame that people today know Randy Newman better known for Toy Story than for the rest of his career, but I guess that is a legacy few would mind having. Anyway, I doubt his accountant is complaining. Of course, Newman has a wealth of uberfans, who will crawl out of the woodwork at any such treason, proclaiming as to the width and wonder of his canon and his voice (both his writing voice and his distinctive drawl of a croak, each a different kind of acquired taste).
“Baltimore” is a perfect example of a Newman song that comes at a topic in an unconventional way. It’s not a love song to the city; indeed, Newman appreciated from the start that it might court some controversy. I have never been, but, between him and Bobby Bare, the picture painted of the Maryland city does not attract. From his 1977 album Little Criminals, backed by members of the Eagles, he near-decimates the postindustrial wreck of a city, counterbalancing the barbs with an actually quite delightful, if simple, melody. And his own vocal delivery isn’t half as bad as my memory suggested. Quite good, actually. Very good, even.
Good enough, certainly, to attract the ears of many of his contemporaries; according to the bible of cover versions, www.secondhandsongs.com, there have been upward of 20 versions since, and counting. Let’s find the five best.
Billy MacKenzie – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
And you thought Newman’s voice was divisive–Billy MacKenzie has possibly one of the widest chasms between those who can abide his tones and those who can’t. The late Scottish singer had a range that, by any standards, was remarkable. On his cover of “Baltimore” he is extraordinarily restrained, providing the song with almost a gentle croon. Tucked away on a B-side, there is a delicacy here, absent from most of his output, the kitchen sink of howls and ululations kept warm for, presumably, the intended hit on the flip. (A pretty full-on “Wild Is The Wind,” seeing as you ask.) The strings complement his voice perfectly. No longer part of the Associates, is this a direction he could have followed, had his mental health been more resilient?
Lianne La Havas – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
From a Nina Simone tribute album, 2014’s Round Nina, La Havas, a Brit of mixed Cypriot and Jamaican heritage, adds some sultry R’n’B vibe to the song, her slurred vocal giving a touch of grime. Frankly, the rest of the album is a bit of a drag. They aimed it at the lighter end of the jazz market, and, thus, featured the likes of Gregory Porter. But she can sing, as evidenced by her own solo output. As with MacKenzie, I doubt she knew any much more about Baltimore the city, and so can inhabit “Baltimore” the song as a vehicle for the voice, rather than a treat for the mind to decipher. Strings again feature prominently, perhaps indicting the Newman MO. Reviewers have compared her to Jill Scott and to Erykah Badu, showing she can’t be doing that much wrong.
Jazmine Sullivan – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
There are a few reggae versions of “Baltimore,” this one edging out the perhaps better known one by Third World. Jazmine Sullivan isn’t even a reggae singer per se, being a pretty successful R’n’B singer who has gained a number of gold discs without my ever even hearing of her. She has good pipes, and refrains from the overdose of melisma so many of her contemporaries seem intent on reflexively adding to the mix, as if by default. This comes from another tribute album. Another tribute album to Nina Simone, no less, Nina Revisited, and another that contains the estimable pleasures of Gregory Porter. (For those who enjoy a bit of cross-referencing, this album also has Lauryn Hill covering “Wild Is the Wind,” the flip of Billy MacKenzie’s “Baltimore,” above. A penny is dropping slowly that it was probably Ms. Simone that prompted his choice of both those songs.
Nils Lofgren – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
Lo and behold, here’s another “Baltimore” with a distinct hint of bluebeat. Lofgren imbues the song with some wonderful white boy west coast reggae tropes, his voice straining at the seams, as he emotes his (is it?) disgust or despair for the city. His guitar and organ duel with Doug Riley in the middle eight is tremendous, and the catchy kookiness of this version underlines my belief that Lofgren, always the bridesmaid to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, is a worthy talent in his own right and deserving of more acclaim than he traditionally receives. The album this hails from, 1999’s Nils, is full of similarly upbeat songs and gets sympathetic work from producer Bob Ezrin.
Nina Simone – Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
Time for a confession, in the form of a question: Am I the only person in the world who had never heard Nina Simone’s cover of “Baltimore”? That should have me handing in my cover song credentials right away. I mean, I like Nina and I have a few of hers, plus a Nina tribute album (the Meshell Ndegeocello one, which doesn’t contain “Baltimore”). Anyhoo, d’oh and mea culpa, but now that I’ve finally heard it, I can say with full authority: ain’t it great? Sung without frills, the reggae backbeat stark and simple, it knocks Newman’s out the window, explaining quite how this song should have so many different performers queuing up to give it some. It’s a masterclass in delivery, and Simone seems to know it, just quietly and confidently nailing it. Much like, to be fair, most of the material she inhabited throughout her long career.