Hope Silverman

Hope Silverman of NYC grew up actually wishing she could work in a real live Record Store. The wish was manifested beginning with a long stint at CBGB's Record Canteen where Johnny Thunders called her "sweetheart", and then carried on through many colorful years at HMV and Virgin. Her retail journey culminated in running Rough Trade Shop in NYC. She currently works her music muscle by both kicking out the occasional record on her tiny label 80N7 and flexing hard at her nerdy music blog showcasing the under-appreciated, underrated and undiscovered in the glorious pop universe. https://pickinguprocks.com

Apr 012022
 

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.

Boston

Yes, you read that right, Arena Rock. Okay, class, settle down.

The term “Arena Rock” is both a straightforward musical description and an insult. On the one hand, it is a genre name used to describe the radio-friendly, coliseum-filling rock sound that began infiltrating the pop charts in the mid-70s and ultimately came to dominate the next decades’ FM radio playlists. On the other, it is a pointed putdown, meant to suggest supreme bombast, disgusting commerciality, and the worst kind of mass appeal.

Of course, as the name implies, many, many people love Arena Rock. The play counts across the streaming services for legendary perpetrators like Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner are staggering. Songs like “More Than A Feeling” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” have racked up millions upon millions of plays, and in the case of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” billions. And it’s not just your Dad or your Uncle Joey–or, okay, me sometimes–hitting play on songs like these. Based on these numbers, it appears it’s freakin’ everyone. Billions!

Before we go any further, let’s note that Arena Rock is not the only term for this particular genre. If you are a picky nerd like me, you might be more inclined to refer to them as “AOR,” the excellently memorable acronym for “Album-Oriented Rock.” Because while that term originally defined a particular radio format, by the early ’80s it had come to represent a very specific sound and style of music, i.e. the precise sort the aforementioned bands were making. I admit to preferring “AOR” over Arena Rock because it’s a little less broad and is marginally cooler. Also, it has an over-confident and ridiculous superhero quality to it, which is entirely appropriate given what it represents. But hell, call it whatever makes you comfortable: Arena Rock, AOR, Classic Rock, even Dad Rock, they all apply. Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it.

Arena Rock songs take place within a mythical universe where every living being is in high school and the only time that matters is “tonight.” It is not Arena Rock’s job to enlighten or serve up valuable life lessons. Its primary purpose is to celebrate being horny and/or high, bitch about how boring this town is, and ineloquently remind people that they need to rock every hour, of every day. Of course, like life itself, it’ll occasionally get sad ‘n’ dark and there will be expressions of doomed love (“you’re tearin’ me apart”). And sometimes it’ll brag about or blame its imaginary partner in crime, the devil. But no matter where it roams, it never loses sight of its primary goal, which is to rock you tonight Cleveland-Philly-NYC.

The Arena Rock sound is typified by fat, infectious guitar and/or synth riffs, king-size choruses, and colossal hooks, served up in the most over-the-top manner possible (especially when the song is a ballad). These songs are the kind of songs that exude enough melodic and emotional bigness that they can fill every corner of whatever space they happen to be playing in, no matter how cavernous or unglamorous. Neither coy nor intellectual (“You’re not shy, you’ve been around”), they are embarrassingly straightforward about how they feel (“I’ll show you sweet delight”) and are designed to attack and consume the dumbest, most defenseless, and least discerning musical nerve-receptors of the human brain (“Stroke me”). They are the sonic equivalent of sucking down a Big Gulp™ in a 7-11 parking lot on a hot day in 1981. Arena Rock songs are all about living in the moment and “feelin’ satisfied.”

Yes, I know–what about the clothes? When playing live back in the day, Arena Rock bands were not only expected to bring it musically but to raise the roof in a sartorial sense as well. Bearded guys in silk kimonos. Jumpsuits open to the navel. And hair, lots and lots of glorious hair. True confession: I spent more time as a kid pondering Boston drummer Sib Hashian’s afro in the band photo on the back cover of their 1976 debut album than I ever did admiring the front with its iconic upside-down guitar logo. That was just a painting. Sib’s ‘fro was real. (See pic above.)

From its absolute, unwavering earnestness and perpetual “heart-on” to its fashion sense and excessive light show, Arena Rock is unequivocally, and certifiably bonkers.

Seriously though, do you know what the number one craziest thing about Arena Rock is? It is the fact that its virtues and flaws are exactly the same. The pros and cons reside in a single column. What makes it ridiculous is also what makes it awesome.

If you dislike Arena Rock or AOR, I don’t expect any of the wickedly cool covers I am about to share to change your mind. But I do hope, at the very least, they trigger a bit of newfound respect for the original songs themselves. And who knows, maybe after hearing these covers you’ll be inspired to throw a friendly head bob Arena Rock’s way the next time you pass it in the high school hallway of your soul, just to say “hey, we’re cool,” even if you have no plans to hang out with it regularly.

And now in the words of Loverboy’s all-knowing singer-sage, Mike “it’s a bandana, not a headband” Reno, Come on baby, let’s go!
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Jan 142022
 

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.

Carla Thomas

Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.

I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.

In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.

This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:

1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)

2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)

For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.

My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.

Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).

As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).

I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s on you (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.

As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops

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Oct 272021
 

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

Todd Rundgren

Despite his being one of the honorees, Todd Rundgren will not be attending the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland. He already has plans that evening–namely, playing his own headlining show a few hours away in Cincinnati. But that isn’t the only reason he won’t be there. Truth be told, Todd doesn’t think too highly of the Hall, telling Ultimate Classic Rock that it is “an industry invention” and that “true halls of fame are for retirees and dead people, because your legacy has been established. I’m too busy working to worry about my legacy — and plan to continue working until whenever.”

But he is well aware that Hall inductions are a meaningful thing to the majority of artists who get the nod, going on to say that he’d “striven since the nomination to just not say anything. Because I don’t want to rain on anybody else’s parade. A lot of artists take this seriously. Just because I don’t, doesn’t mean I should try and spoil it for them. I would just like it to elapse without any kind of bad vibes or anything being a result of it. I’d just like it to happen and be over with.”

The fact that Todd doesn’t care about his induction doesn’t change the fact that he is a melodic wizard genius. A spectacularly soulful weirdo. An eloquently empathetic pop poet who wants to keep pushing forward for as long as he is able. It’s okay if he’s not into basking in his legacy or in need of official validation of his achievements right now. He’s still got work to do.
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Sep 242021
 

“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.

Sailing

Christopher Cross’s soft rock classic “Sailing” isn’t quite what it seems to be on its shimmery surface. For one thing, though it was technically related to actual sojourns on the water Cross took in his younger days, it wasn’t strictly about sailing. Back in 1995, in the midst of a manic (understatement) interview on The Howard Stern Show, of all places, he broke it down.

Cross said his standard explanation of the song’s inspiration ’til then was that it was about the transportive power of art. The song’s most famous line,”the canvas can do miracles” referred not to a boat sail, but to an actual painting (I admit that for years I thought he meant a freakin’ sail, don’t tell anyone). But when he thought about it later, he realized it was about combination of escaping a stressful home situation (his father’s alcoholism and subsequent emotional distance) as well as his gratefulness to a particular friend who would take him out sailing and as a result became something of a surrogate dad to Cross.

And so “Sailing” is not just for sailors but is in fact for all of us wistful humans, eloquently expressing musical thanks to everyone’s blessed escape hatches and guardian angels. “Sailing” is in fact a state of mind. I spent a fair amount of time with this thing as well as the album it came from, titled, uh, Christopher Cross, in my sad teenage bedroom back in the day. so I was warmed to hear Cross’s latter-day analysis. And surely I’m not the only living being who has succumbed to its mellow, melancholic charm and still voluntarily listens to it on a semi-regular basis forty-odd years later (yeah, okay, work with me here people).
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Aug 192021
 
Joy Oladokun

To some, the Who’s 1978 evergreen anthem “Who Are You?” was the first single off their last album to feature gonzo but sensitive drummer Keith Moon. To others, it is the theme song to the can’t stop-won’t stop running TV show CSI. Either way, it’s an unforgettable piece of rock ear candy that ain’t going away any time soon. The song was partially inspired by a night of hardcore alcohol imbibing Pete Townshend had “enjoyed” with his new friends Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, culminating in his falling into a drunken sleep in a doorway and being roused by a police officer. For the record, the binge had been inspired by a terrible meeting Pete had earlier that same day with the infamous managerial monster Allen Klein. By the third verse, though, the earthly bitterness is forsaken to make way for a remembrance of bucolic beauty. The song’s latterly lyrics describe an epiphanic walk through a forest that Pete took in 1971 at the North Carolina retreat of his late spiritual mentor Meher Baba.

Despite that specificity of inspiration, fabulous Nashville-based singer songwriter Joy Oladokun somehow reshapes “Who Are You?” into something new and even more emotionally profound. Her cover is a shimmering, sinewy, spacey psalm full of seriously sweet shredding. Oh, the “who the f-ck are you” line is still present, but with the gorgeous voice of Oladokun, it comes over less as a boy’s frustrated plea for help than an assertive, empowered, ass-kicking declaration of existence. And that last note she hits is absolutely smokin’ hot.

Aug 132021
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

everything but the girl covers

Confession: I was not happy when Everything But the Girl traded in their jangly, moody, melodic guitar pop to “go electronic” in the mid-’90s. While I wouldn’t equate it to what Dylan purists apparently felt when he infamously decided to “go electric” back in the ’60s, my eternally ’80s teen self thought it sucked and felt downright betrayed. EBTG had been one of my absolute favorite bands, and here they were forsaking their nerdy identity to go hang with the cool kids, leaving behind the introspective and geeky brethren and sistren who loved them.

The song that changed it all, “Missing,” began its life innocently enough. It was just another perfectly constructed, poetic and winsome track on an album that was chock-full of them, 1994’s Amplified Heart. This original version was released as a single, but only got as high as #69 on the UK pop chart. Then, in 1995, this crazy thing happened. The duo gave the track to DJ-Producer Todd Terry to remix for club play. But calling it a “remix” is underselling what it really was: a resurrection. Terry expertly sculpted “Missing” into an sleek, housed-up, heartbreaking dance anthem for the ages. It sold millions of copies all over the planet and has since become a permanent fixture on every “Best Songs of the ’90s” playlist in existence.

The success of “Missing” paved the way for the duo’s stylistic shift from earthy acoustic sounds to cooler electronic ones. The duo debuted the updated sound on their very next album, 1996’s Walking Wounded; its heartbreaking charms were undeniable, and all it took was one listen for me to fall back into the fold of hardcore EBTG fandom, never to depart again. Tracey (Thorn) and Ben (Watt) were still EBTG, after all, and the songs were as regal, poetic, and beautiful as they had ever been, even in this new and different guise (inside joke there for you EBTG nerds), a guise they maintained until they decided to close the book on the EBTG partnership in 2000 and just focus on their respective solo endeavors.

Now the reason I bring all this history this up is to note that pretty much all of the covers they did were recorded before this famous stylistic change; hence, their sound harkens back to the jangly days. Fact is, they pretty much stopped doing covers once they started exploring the electronic/dance side of things. So by default, the best EBTG covers all happened during the era we’ll call EBTG b.c. (before clubland), as opposed to the latter-day incarnation, EBTG a.d. (after dance).

In keeping with the longstanding tradition of all pop music ever, the most popular EBTG covers aren’t necessarily the best ones. Their cute ‘n’ groovy version of Cole Porter standard “Night And Day” and jaunty run-through Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York City” are nice, as is their duet on Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train.” But if you want to hear EBTG at their interpretative best, swivel the chair around from the openly cool, famed and critically acclaimed and cast an ear toward the unabashedly POP heartbreakers–Mom favorites and oddball deep cuts. Let’s get driving…
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