The title track of the Grateful Dead’s 1977 album Terrapin Station is arguably the group’s most intricate studio creation. Clocking in at 16 minutes, the song blends elements of folk, prog rock, baroque music and jazz, along with extensive percussion tracks and a classical symphonic and chorale finale. The multi-part odyssey features a level of studio precision that the band could never replicate on stage, which may explain why they never played the track in its entirety in concert.
I have always considered myself a casual Phish fan. Though I owned multiple CDs, including the six-disk box set Hampton Comes Alive, I only saw them play live once. I am not an authority on Phish history, such as the best live versions “Tweezer.” Still, I have always wondered on some level why their music inspires such derision from detractors. They’ve been a hardworking band for decades. Even though they’ve never scored a conventional hit, the group has a batch of solid original songs.
While listening to the new Phish tribute album Cluster Flies, I had an epiphany about why they have such a tough time attracting outside listeners. The band and its collaborators are great at writing catchy, interesting and thought-provoking songs. They’re just not that good at coming up with song titles. This may also explain why despite decades of listening, I have trouble keeping their song names straight in my head.
Cluster Flies was released by the website JamBase as a fundraiser for the site during the pandemic. It contains covers of all the tracks from Phish’s 2000 album Farmhouse, several songs from a bonus edition, and a few deeper cuts. Seven of the 12 songs from Farmhouse have one-word titles, with names like “Twist,” “Bug,” “Dirt,” “Piper,” “Sleep.” One can find multiple examples throughout Phish’s catalog: “Waste,” “Fee,” or “Free,” to name but a few. With names like these, the band undersells its greatest asset, making their music inaccessible for the uninitiated. Alas, I’m sure that’s just the way Phish fans like it. Fortunately, the songs, both on Farmhouse and Cluster Flies, show far more creativity than their titles.
A few months ago, the writers at Cover Me engaged in an online discussion about what would be their ideal dream cover, i.e. a cover song that did not happen, but should have. For my part, I have always wished that Johnny Cash would have recorded a cover of Metallica’s “One” during his late career phase. In my head, I can hear the Man in Black singing the words “Hold my breath as I wish for death” in a slow brooding tone as someone plucks the bass notes on rickety acoustic guitar. I have no doubt it would have been monumental, equal to his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Ah well, never happened. (His cover of U2’s song of the same name, while decent, does not count.)
Whenever you hear an artist covering a blues standard, you can guess that the song’s origin might be murky. Such is the case with “Crawling Kingsnake” (sometimes stylized as “Crawlin’ King Snake”). While the metaphor is fairly obvious, the track’s history is not.
The Black Keys released a new version of “Crawling Kingsnake” as a single in advance of their upcoming blues-themed covers album Delta Kream. In numerous articles about the cover, the track is credited to the great bluesman John Lee Hooker. But, according to Gérard Herzhaft in the Encyclopedia of the Blues, the song “is very likely an old Delta blues [song] from the twenties. Recorded for the first time by Big Joe Williams on 27 March 1941, it is the obscure Tony Hollins who obtained some success out of it in Chicago. John Lee Hooker made it one of his favorite titles, and there are many covers.”
Though the Beach Boys recorded and released eight studio albums in the ‘70s, the endless sessions produced few classics. The quality of the music was dragged down by drug use, infighting and Brian Wilson’s crushing mental illness. These days, the albums play more like historical time-pieces than essential listening.
Revisiting TLC’s 1995 smash hit “Waterfalls” is like stepping into a time machine. Once inside you come face to face with many of the societal fears that defined the ‘90s. The song and video address both the drug war and AIDS crisis head on. The lyrics delve into a whirlwind of topics from faith, love, sex and death, all packaged together with a pastoral refrain and a hypnotic R&B slow jam.