Jun 162023

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Burt Bacharach

Many if not most of Burt Bacharach’s big hits were first released by other artists, usually Dionne Warwick. One big exception was “Trains and Boats and Planes,” a tale of transcontinental love which Bacharach thought was “too country” for Warwick; Bacharach and his writing partner Hal David had written the song for Gene Pitney to sing. Pitney, however, had other ideas; he rejected it and told Bacharach, “It’s not one of your better ones.”

Never one to sulk when insult was added to injury, Bacharach went to London and recorded the song with an orchestra. No lead vocalist, Bacharach assigned the lyrics to the Breakaways, a girl group who also sang backing vocals on Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Their cool, detached voices suited the impassive song perfectly, but the bridge (“You are from another part of the world…”) proved to be too tricky, and Bacharach covered for them by making it an instrumental passage.

Today the song has earned its reputation as one of Bacharach’s better ones, Pitney notwithstanding. His version was a hit, and so was Warwick’s well-nigh-inevitable cover. The dozens of other covers that followed proved the song was strong enough to thrive under any approach, either with or without the bridge. Here are five of them.

Astrud Gilberto – Trains and Boats and Planes (Burt Bacharach cover)

Best known for her version of “The Girl From Ipanema” with Stan Getz (who took a whack at “Trains” himself), Astrud Gilberto moved mountains with her hesitant, open-hearted voice. She performed “Trains and Boats and Planes” on her 1969 album I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do, and if that title sounds resigned, it doesn’t reflect Gilberto’s work. Rest in peace to an inadvertent legend.

Treebound Story – Trains and Boats and Planes (Burt Bacharach cover)

Droves of melodic guitar indiepop bands caught the imagination of Britain in the mid-late 1980s. So many droves, in fact, that some of the bands managed to vanish with only a few brilliant traces. Consider Treebound Story, together long enough to release four EPs (guitarist Richard Hawley would later find a measure of fame in the band Longpigs). To the best of my knowledge, “Trains and Boats and Planes” is the only cover they recorded, and it’s a lost gem.

Dwight Yoakam – Trains and Boats and Planes (Burt Bacharach cover)

Country & western proved to be as appropriate a vehicle for “Trains and Boats and Planes” as Bacharach and David imagined it to be. The Everly Brothers recorded a fine version, for example. Still, it had worn pop clothes for so long that it came as some surprise when Dwight Yoakam covered it on 2003’s Population Me. Yoakam pulled the song far from its breezy wardrobe, with banjo and mandolin riding herd over the lanes and roads and plains of the American Southwest.

Jim O’Rourke – Trains and Boats and Planes (Burt Bacharach cover)

Jim O’Rourke called his 2010 album All Kinds of People ~ Love Burt Bacharach. If Jim O’Rourke meant that title to show the wide variety of artists that Bacharach could influence, he nailed it. O’Rourke plays most of the instruments on the album and sings lead on three tracks. For “Trains and Boats and Planes,” he starts out with a very pretty keyboard/drums accompaniment. Then, just before the bridge, the drums fall away and the piano drifts away from any melody. Then the bridge lyrics come in, but sung to the melody of the verses. None of this is dissonant; the music is too soft and warm for that. It’s a real treat of a reexamination.

Junn – Trains and Boats and Planes (Burt Bacharach cover)

Anu Junnonen, a.k.a. Junn, released a cover of “Trains and Boats and Planes” back in January; if memory will serve, it will be one of my nominees for Best Covers of 2023. The instrumentation is delicate as a flower and opens up just as beautifully. Her voice has all the longing conveyed in the lyrics, and the strength to rise above it. It’s the very definition of an otherworldly performance.

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  2 Responses to “Five Good Covers: “Trains and Boats and Planes” (Burt Bacharach)”

Comments (2)
  1. Uncertain if you are being arch, but Richard Hawley has found considerably greater fame as himself. ;-)

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