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.

Jan 112022
 

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.

Anyone who followed Tom Waits’ career through the ’70s probably didn’t like the odds of Waits staying relevant–or even staying alive–into the ’80s. In his personal life Waits courted ruin, and artistically he was stuck. His beatnik schtick was played out; the booze-hound tropes were tired. Waits had become the sort of lost soul he’d always pretended to be in his act. When his Elektra/Asylum label dropped him in 1982, the setback looked to be self-inflicted–a sad but unsurprising turn in a once-promising career.

Then Waits re-emerged in 1983 and unveiled Swordfishtrombones. The chaotic gem of an album that Elektra/Asylum couldn’t deal with changed everything. Its surreal title and curious photography told you in an instant that Waits had a brand new bag.

Still, the new Waits was the same as the old Waits in some ways. His voice was still ravaged, the piano still needed tuning. His lyrics dealt with the usual fixations in the same old vocabulary: car parts and pawn shops and a greasy breakfast. Waits world. But musically and conceptually, Waits was stepping out–far out. “Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly,” he said. “There’s a place where all these things overlap.”

Waits now took his characters into outlandish emotional extremes; weird raw cinematic sounds evoked their fevered ruminations. He adopted bothersome instruments no one else else wanted: marimbas, calliopes, glass harmonicas; bagpipes, banjos, and brake drums. Musical orphans. All the while his peers were getting busy with MIDI (born 1983) and synth-pop possibilities–even Neil Young, with Trans. Not Waits.

The follow-up album dropped two years later: Rain Dogs. The project doubled down on the eccentricity and experimentalism, revealing Swordfishtrombones as an opening move in a larger game. Rain Dogs may stand as peak Waits; it is certainly the crowning centerpiece of the trilogy that concluded with Franks Wild Years in 1987. Right in the center of the centerpiece is where you find “Hang Down Your Head.”

The song is not a standout track on the album–not in terms of popularity or creativity. It competes for attention with eighteen (!) other tracks, all of which are keepers, many of which are more developed both lyrically and musically than “Hang Down Your Head.” It’s the album’s most conventional and safe song (probably why Island selected it for the first single). Its only cutting edge is the stabbing guitar-work of Marc Ribot.

But “Hang Down Your Head” does stand out in this way: it’s the only song on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones not solely written by Tom Waits. The credits go to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Kathleen is the inspiration for Waits’ “Jersey Girl” (one of Waits’ best sellers, thanks in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s cover) and for “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The couple would go on to co-write many more songs on the albums to follow, but “Hang Down Your Head” is their first effort.

Waits himself credits Brennan for his ’80s resurgence, considers her the catalyst for his brave new approach to sound and songcraft. It’s curious that their first song together is not about starting over, but about loss, the train that takes you away from the unrequited love, the end of the affair.

In terms of covers, the musical world has somewhat overlooked “Hang Down Your Head.” But our three choices leap out from the pack, and we rank them as follows…
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Nov 102021
 

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!

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston into its ranks last month for Musical Excellence, the other inductees seemed to get all the attention. That’s fair (after all, Preston passed away back in 2006), but it’s also in keeping with Preston’s long and sometimes overshadowed career. Despite writing hit records that blended soul, gospel, funk, and R&B with rock, he tends to be pegged not as a star, but as a stellar session player supporting the actual stars.

That’s valid, too. From the ‘50s through to the early 2000s, Preston does seem to have played with all the greats, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles to Sly Stone; in the rock world, he partnered with the Beatles and the Stones, The Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few. But we will lean on Billy’s original songs, and on Billy as leader, in our collection of Preston covers.
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Oct 022021
 
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
gillian welch covers

Happy Birthday to Gillian Welch! She deserves an extra slice of cake this year, her 54th, because the past twelve months have been so surprisingly busy.

For one thing, she won a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category this year, for her all-covers collection All the Good Timesmade with her ever-present partner David Rawlings. (We reviewed the album here.) The couple also collaborated with Barry Gibb, the Bee Gee with a taste for the kind of Americana and country music that Welch and Rawlings have helped to popularize. But most importantly, the duo spent the year releasing the 48-song, three volume Lost Songs project, rare bits of good news in those hard and uncertain times. Continue reading »

Aug 142021
 

Layla RevisitedWhen Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs turned 50 last year, a box set anniversary reissue materialized. The classic album by Derek & the Dominos (aka Eric Clapton and band, plus Duane Allman) was given its due with state-of-the-art remixes and other assorted love tokens—a 12-by-12-inch book, certificates of authentication, discs full of outtakes (Clapton and Allman action figures sold separately, I guess). This summer Layla enjoys another, more vivid celebration: Layla Revisited, a live concert recording by the formidable Tedeschi Trucks Band, with guests Trey Anastasio and Doyle Bramhall II. It’s a lively and focused performance, as the soulful and high-powered ensemble romp through the full Layla album in original song order, in a single live show (with one small exception recorded in studio).

These releases are all pretty impressive for an album that was initially met with mixed reviews, tepid sales, and some measure of confusion about the artist, this mysterious Derek. The label execs wanted an “Eric Clapton” album, of course, but by then he’d had it with the spotlight. (After a short tour in support of the album, he dissolved the band and withdrew into a long, dark seclusion.) No one knew the Dominos, either, though the band had formed the core of All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s first post-Beatles effort. Harrison’s project came out the same month as Layla and attracted all the attention and praise that Layla missed out on.

A feeling of fate surrounds Layla Revisited. Derek Trucks is named after Clapton after all (or after his pseudonym, anyway), and is the nephew of Butch Trucks, founding drummer of the Allman Brothers Band. Derek quickly emerged as an exceptional guitarist in the Duane Allman mold, and eventually led the Allman Brothers Band in its final decade. He has also shared the stage a number of times with Clapton (they played “Layla” together, naturally). One more simple twist of fate: the stellar singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi–Trucks’ life partner–was born on the very day the original Layla came out. So, yes, there’s a lot to celebrate here, and a lot of history to revisit.
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Aug 062021
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Wish You Were Here covers

Few bands have lost their star and their leader, the writer and singer of their songs, and only then rocketed to stratospheric levels of success. But that’s the main thrust of the Pink Floyd saga. Those two themes—of tragic loss and outsized stardom, absence and success—are at the heart of their 1975 Wish You Were Here album. The “You” in the title refers to Syd Barrett, who led the band until his disintegration in the late ’60s. At the same time, “You” refers to anyone you ever loved and lost, which is part of why the album and its title track are so enduring.

Wish You Were Here had the thankless task of following The Dark Side of the Moon, the success of which is hard to overstate. In its wake, Floyd guitarist David Gilmour called Dark Side “a benevolent noose hanging behind us.” Many a Floyd aficionado loves Wish You Were Here more than its predecessor (even some Pink Floyd members count it as their best), but among the general populace nothing eclipses Dark Side. Just glance at the landscape of cover versions: Dark Side has sprouted all manner of tributes and reinterpretations—some of which have taken on lives of their own, with anniversary reissues and the like—while Wish You Were Here remains practically virgin territory for other musicians to explore.
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Jun 182021
 

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!

Shawn Colvin covers

We shine the spotlight on an artist who has won acclaim for her own songwriting—including a song of the year and record of the year Grammy—but who has been overlooked as an interpretive artist. Cover Me readers, let’s show Shawn Colvin some love. She has released not one but four albums of covers (if you count the Holiday song collection and the collection of children’s lullabies). And those are just the start: we can also look at covers she has inserted onto albums otherwise devoted to her own material, and listen to her guest appearances on other artists’ cover projects.
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