May 242024
 

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

Powderfinger

I just kind of stopped all over.
–The final sentence of
After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson

Writing a first-person singular postmortem is the sort of project writers take on as a challenge. How to tell a tale when the teller is no longer with us? Where are they talking from? Do they know more than they did? It’s a gimmick, but like all gimmicks it has enough winners to keep people trying it.

Songwriters have taken up the challenge repeatedly, and the best of them – “Long Black Veil,” “El Paso,” “I Come and Stand at Every Door” – have met the challenge with style and grace. Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” is absolutely one of the best of them. The song’s death scene is as brief and vivid as the death itself – “Then I saw black, and my face splash in the sky” stays with you forever after you understand it.

One reason for that: it’s one of the few definite things about the song. Fans have long debated where and when it takes place, and what the song is “really” about. Neil himself rarely lets anyone peek behind the curtain, but did reveal in a 1995 Spin interview that “You may not see the anger, or the angst, or whatever in me lay behind a song like ‘Powderfinger.’ But I’ve seen things in my life that I’ll never forget—and I see them every day. And I see strength that I can’t understand, and weaknesses that I can’t deal with.”
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May 212024
 

Long Distance LoveWell, how about that! On the same day as a still-going Little Feat put out a blues cover album, Sam’s Place (review incoming), so too choose Sweet Relief to put out Long Distance Love, a star-studded charity tribute to their late founder and lynchpin, Lowell George. Star-studded? Well, let’s say the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin and Ben Harper are all present and accounted for, with George’s own daughter, Inara George, also putting in an appearance.

Lowell George was a slide guitar maestro, a singer/songwriter with a penchant for complex swampland boogie, polyrhythmic shuffles to delight both brain and bootheels. He formed Little Feat back in 1969, after a short spell with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. A set of well-received albums followed, until 1979, when George (a) dissolved the band, (b) released his solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, and (c) died of a massive heart attack at the age of 34. It took eight years before the relicts of what had assuredly been his band reconvened, and they remain a vital presence, with George’s songs still the ones the fans mainly come to hear. These are the songs that return to the spotlight on Long Distance Love, and the four and a half decades since Lowell’s voice was stilled have done nothing to dampen their vibe.
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May 172024
 

Talking Heads TributeThe quote attributed to Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground’s first album inspiring everyone who bought it to form a band applies differently to Talking Heads. If you were already starting your band in your parents’ garage or the art school lounge, surrounded (in either case) by the fog of weed, you would surely dream about being Talking Heads.

During a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, Talking Heads retained and maintained artistic integrity, but sold enough records to establish and keep themselves in the public consciousness and charts. We can all name their biggest songs. They got to work with the business’s best, including Eno and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and create critically acclaimed masterpieces. If you needed to draft in legends from Funkadelic or Nigerian music to get the sound right, you could.

It was not all work. There was the opportunity to hang out, and get high with, the coolest people in the world. Mick Jagger might have been a little too high to interact fully with, but Sid Vicious was unexpectedly sympathetic, and John Martyn was expectedly an asshole. At least you knew personally. Later on, cool young people would be desperate to hang out with you. If you are Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth you would get to do all this with your soulmate and the love of your life. (All of this is well documented in Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love. Recommended.)

The lead singer might be a little, shall we say, self-absorbed. Of course, for an average band, between a third and a fifth of you are planning to be the lead singer, so you would regard your behaviour as an acceptable price for accommodating your genius. The rest of you, as talented and driven as you are, might have to suck it up a little. Your Wikipedia entry is much shorter than that of the lead. You can contemplate the injustice of it all as you take your ocean-going yacht down to your Bahamas holiday home and studio.

You can have side projects when the band is on hiatus. This might allow you to participate in an Oscar-winning soundtrack, or produce your biggest-ever hit records. You can be sought-after producers, further increasing your time in the Caribbean and your musical legacy. And at a certain point in your career you make the greatest concert movie of all time.

Stop Making Sense, directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, was released in 1984 when the band was at its creative, harmonious best. It is a work of art on several fronts, from the curation of the music from an emerging chrysalis to barnstorming romps, to the building of the set and band. It featured the iconic and meme-worthy “big suit,” which cemented the recording and band in the public consciousness. Forty years after its release, the film company A24 has polished up Stop Making Sense for a new generation, and now they’re celebrating further with the release of a new tribute album, Everybody’s Getting Involved. The range of moods, genres and languages on the album are a real testament to the influence that Talking Heads have.
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May 082024
 
Cover Songs Steve Albini

Steve Albini died today. In addition to being a musician in his own right, he was a legendary engineer (he refused to be credited as “producer”) who recorded Nirvana’s In Utero, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and many others. He recorded hundreds of albums, for bands big and small, right up through his passing.

There are a million ways to honor him, but, for now, I thought I’d share some covers that he produced recorded. Not for his own bands like Big Black and Shellac—we may have a separate post devoted to that—but for other people’s.

The first couple covers are iconic, mainstays of “The Best Covers of All Time” type lists. The rest are more obscure. But they all have the Albini touch—which, as he would be the first to point out, was a light one. These lean towards the alt-rock and punk, with some weird-folk excursions, but ultimately as an engineer he worked to help the bands get the sounds they wanted. Including when they wanted to do covers. Continue reading »

Apr 262024
 

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

pet shop boys covers

No one does a cover like the Pet Shop Boys. Their “I Started a Joke” ranked high on our Bee Gees list. Their “Always On My Mind” ranked number-one on our Best Covers of 1987 list. When we eventually do a U2 covers list, I imagine “Where the Streets Have No Name” will be a contender for the top slot there too.

But today we’re not talking about covers by the Pet Shop Boys. We’re talking about covers of the Pet Shop Boys. Because, for as many songs as Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have covered, they’ve been covered even more.

Which makes sense. As experimental and innovative as the pair are sonically, they also write incredibly solid pop tunes. Songs that don’t require their clever electronic production or droll delivery to be great. Songs that can work as acoustic ballads or hip-hop ragers or black-metal explosions—examples of all of which are below. The big songs get covered a ton (“It’s a Sin” and “West End Girls” are the heaviest hitters), but the album cuts get reimagined some too. They drop their latest album Nonetheless today. We wouldn’t be surprised if cuts off that start getting covered soon too.

So we’ll leave you to your own devices to explore our list below. We promise you wouldn’t be bored.

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Apr 192024
 

The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou ReedLou Reed was quite the fella. Initially a proto-Brill Building popsmith for Pickwick Records, he morphed into a leather and shades VU biker and glam-rock trans offender. And FX metal feedback noisenik, and elder statesman socio-political commentator, before closing his recording career with a soundtrack for meditation and mindfulness. Indeed, just about anything and everything, for nearly five decades, all while being a notoriously spiky literary curmudgeon, bane of any journalist trying to capture his essence. It took music, not words, to do that, and with The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou Reed, it’s officially been done.
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