Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Starting a new year from the old has often the effect of bestowing clarity on the observer, a post-festive pause in the storm, allowing evaluation of the present and a filter to the past, seeking a better way forward. That’s the idea, anyway, and anyone wondering about New Year’s resolutions (assuming anyone still does) needs the ability to clear their eyes and brush away any blurring of intent.
That’s where Johnny Nash comes in. On “I Can See Clearly Now,” Nash writes lucidly about that movement, should you stumble upon it. To me the song always seemed to be a song of hope, one designed to welcome positive thoughts for the way ahead, enticing them to become actions.
“I Can See Clearly Now” spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard chart and soon certified gold, doing well also in markets of the UK, Australia and South Africa, ironically all areas where the record buying population was largely white. Nash, an American by birth and upbringing, was one of the first non-Jamaican artists to break a wider recognition of Reggae. Indeed, the prime aim of his mid-60s move to Kingston had been to broker a wider acceptance of the musical styles of the West Indies. Ironically, his success arguably led to a later fade from the spotlight, as the artists who were making the songs he championed, in the style he had possibly softened up an audience for, no longer needed introduction, with the likes of Bob Marley (who wrote or co-wrote four of the songs on I Can See Clearly Now) now able to stand on the world stage in their own right.
Nash died, aged 80, in 2020, but had benefitted from a resurgence in interest, as films and TV bought up the rights for “I Can See Clearly Now,” most notably through Jimmy Cliff’s version from the 1993 film Cool Runnings. It is a song of hope and, as such, it never fails to lift my mood.
Hothouse Flowers – I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
If the original “I Can See Clearly Now” had a sense of vocation, Hothouse Flowers, from Ireland, endow it with the full priesthood. The band were a throwback, almost an anachronism, at the time, worlds away from the carefully groomed appearance and the calmly precise electronic instrumentation of most of their peers. They turned the song into a majestic and stately anthem, swimming with the gospel hues of the piano lead and the girlie chorus. The swirling manes of the band, predominantly singer Liam Ó Maonlaí and guitarist Fiachna Ó Braonáin, all shot in soft focus, add to the religious feel of a revival group, with the strong hints of a pre-Christian paganism thrown in for good measure. As it speeds up and builds, with the brass braying in, it becomes ever more triumphant. Wonderfully, give or take a few pauses for rest and recovery, the Hothouse Flowers play on, with Ó Maonlaí’s current appearance, if anything, even more hirsute and hubristic than thirty years previous.
Pauline Black – I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
Pauline Black first caught attention during the Two-Tone ska movement, emanating from the post-industrial English Midlands around Coventry. As front woman for The Selecter, as well as being a charismatic and forceful presence on stage, she was, and remains, a sharp and intelligent commentator on current affairs. Her version of “I Can See Clearly Now” came out in 1983, as the flip of a solo single, and adds not only the brisker backbeat of ska, but also a cornucopia of other Caribbean tropes, with synthesized steel drums. While neither side of the single dented the charts, it has lived on as a regular on ska compilation albums. Of course, the Selecter still exist and play, a popular draw at festivals, still featuring Black, along with two other original members: co-vocalist Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson and drummer Charley “Aitch” Bembridge.
The Deighton Family – I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
Well, this is different, isn’t it? A bizarre concoction of styles and influences, the Deighton Family’s “I Can See Clearly Now” straddles any number of attempts at classification. You’ve got the classical trimmings of the flute jousting with the wheezy accordion and ploughboy vocal, each at odds with the remnants of bluebeat in the rhythm section, not to mention an electric guitar straying in from somewhere else altogether. Lord knows, it shouldn’t work, but it does, even if it takes a listen or two for you to believe me. The Deighton Family were never destined to be mainstream, however much the traditional folk background of Dave Deighton was deigned to ring through. His Indonesian wife guaranteed some much wider ranging influences, with their five children, each with their own individual tastes, all seeping into a heady mix of folk, Celtic, Cajun, bluegrass, rock, and everything else around. It is conceivable this song, from their third album, may prompt a distant reminder of this sort of sound mélange, as no less than NPR made their earlier Acoustic Music to Suit Most Occasions their 1989 album of the year.
Doyle Bramhall – I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
Now, if you think this quintet of covers a frenzy of mad Brits (and Irish), let me put you at ease. “I Can See Clearly Now” has also struck many a transatlantic chord, as demonstrated here by venerable bluesman Doyle Bramhall. (No, not Doyle Bramhall II, the Texas guitarist, bandleader and producer; that’s his son.) Entirely responsible for instilling a sense of the blues into his son, he was a stalwart drummer on the Texas blues circuit for decades, a bandmate and contemporary of the Vaughan brothers, Stevie Ray and Jimmy, playing for each of them at some stage. It’s true that his son’s burgeoning reputation helped his own latter-day career; this rendition comes from a 1994 album, Bird Nest On The Ground, his solo debut, and it occupies a fairly spare chug, with echoes of “Jumping Jack Flash” in the arrangement. It’s actually quite refreshing, with Bramhall supplying the vocals as well as the drums.
Holly Cole Trio – I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
Heading upwards a fair few longitudes, it is in Canada we next arrive, for this exquisite jazzier take, the double bass providing some joyous propulsion, as Holly Cole’s aching tones bleed out the lyric. It proved to be a bit of a 1993 hit in Canada, winning a Juno for best video. By the time the piano comes chiming in chunkily, and the strings, there is an aspirational sense to the words, promising the blue skies ahead, even if the specter of gray is still lingering. Cole does good cover, and we have often featured her. With sixteen releases to her credit, Cole seems to have gone a bit quiet since the turn of the decade; it’s my hope that she still has some recording ahead of her.