Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Mar 152021
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

A sentence that begins “If you like ‘How Soon is Now’ then you will also like…” is a sentence that will not end well. It sets itself up for failure because the song has no real counterpart, no next of kin—not within the Smiths’ catalog, and not within any music collection anywhere. The song’s uniqueness gives cover artists an uphill climb. Maybe this explains why the world is not exactly swamped with “How Soon is Now” renditions that are worth repeating. But we did find a few exceptions, and we will now look at three of them. Or we will soon.
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Mar 082021
 

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

“Wichita Lineman” is a certified classic, a fixture in the great American songbook, full stop. But it is also a work in progress. In a way.

The truth is that Jimmy Webb had every intention of writing a middle section and another verse about his solitary lineman. But Glen Campbell got hold of an early draft, and then recorded his version before Webb even knew about it. Who knows if Webb might have ruined a good thing with further revision; what’s certain is that “Wichita Lineman” is a shining example of the Less is More principle, and we owe Campbell a lot for rushing it out.

Campbell also gets some credit for the song’s creation. A year before “Wichita Lineman” dropped, Campbell scored a major hit with another Jimmy Webb gem, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” So the singer suggested the writer come up with “another song about a place.” Webb resisted the idea initially, but his poetic imagination was more receptive. Inspired by a long drive through the arid flatness of Oklahoma and the sight of a worker on a telephone pole, Webb hatched the song idea, and presented a draft of “Wichita Lineman.” It moved the homesick Campbell to tears, and that was enough for him. It was enough for everyone else, too.

Campbell got his Wrecking Crew buddies together in the studio, and added a baritone guitar solo to create an instrumental section. That, and some string arrangements, added meat to the bones of the song, and off it went. Webb knew nothing about the recording, and assumed Campbell had lost interest. When Webb found out Campbell had cut the track, he told Campbell it wasn’t done yet. Campbell replied, “Well, it’s done now!”

The song launched into the upper reaches of the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Soon it was in the hands of a few hundred artists attempting their version, including some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists of its time and ours. The Glen Campbell version may remain the definitive one, but there’s quite a few musicians who nailed it too.
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Feb 222021
 

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!

Bill Frisell covers

We’ve highlighted several of guitarist Bill Frisell’s covers in the past—songs by Madonna, Lou Reed, John Lennon, and more. But it’s time Frisell gets a post of his own. He’s been abundantly prolific for several decades now, and in recent years his output rate has only accelerated. He turns 70 next month, and may get Grammied again, this time for last year’s Americana album, a collaboration with Grégoire Maret and Romain Collin, with its covers of Bon Iver, Jimmy Webb, and Mark Knopler. In this post we’ll survey the whole Frisell catalog, not just the recent achievements, with a focus on songs in the rock/pop/country genres.
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Feb 052021
 

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!

Taj Mahal covers

Like the centuries-old architectural marvel in India that he took as his stage name, musician and composer Taj Mahal seems to live beyond the reach of time. There’s been an “old soul” vibe about him, an ageless quality, since he debuted in the mid-sixties. Taj may not be the sole survivor of his generation, but you won’t find a more soulful survivor who is still in the game.

His artistic longevity is all the more impressive because Taj has never had the chart-topping hit, or a cultish following, or the other advantages that make it easier for a performer to sustain a career. Yet here he is, almost 80, still throwing down, resonating with a new crop of musicians.
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Jan 102021
 

They Say It’s Your Birthday  celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Today we celebrate the 73rd birthday of a man who has been writing songs about growing old for nearly half a century, Donald Fagen. Fagen is one half of the songwriting duo that calls itself Steely Dan, and he is the band’s reluctant frontman. (The other half of the partnership, Walter Becker, passed away in 2017.)
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Oct 092020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

John Lennon (of the Beatles, the Quarrymen, the Dirty Mac, and the Plastic Ono Band, among others) was born on this day. He shares the birthday, oddly enough, with his youngest son, Sean. (Happy 45th, Sean!)

One way to celebrate the day is to sing the Beatles’ “Birthday” song (keeping in mind that Lennon considered the song, which he co-wrote, “a piece of garbage”). Another is to listen to his music with renewed appreciation. If we do that, we’re gonna have a good time, just like the song says.

John would be turning 80 today, an auspicious number: He lived for 40 years, and has been gone for 40 years (as of December). Forty years here, forty years gone: those are Biblical numbers. And how funny that this 40/40 business should happen in the year 2020.

John loved numbers and numerology, so it’s ok to fixate on this stuff for a minute. The number nine in particular held Lennon’s interest, the day of the month he was born on. Some of his song titles allude to the obsession: “One After 909,” “Revolution 9,” “#9 Dream” (which reached #9 on the charts). So guess how many covers we’ve lined up today?
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