Aug 052022
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Respectfully Yours

At last, via Bandcamp, it is once again possible to get hold of Ian McNabb’s 2016 album Respectfully Yours. For a while it seemed well nigh untraceable, with neither McNabb nor his manager able to lay a hand on or a link for a copy as little as a year or so ago. The original release was in hard copy only, and only at live shows or direct from the artist’s website. No downloading malarkey in those days, which now threatens to become the only way for many releases to meet the light of day. I’ll pretend it was my request last year that had McNabb put this up for re-evaluation, but I suspect it was more the harsh economics of lockdown logistics, pumping all hands to deck in the pursuit of making ends meet. Be that as it may, Respectfully Yours is a welcome presence, virtual or otherwise.
Continue reading »

Aug 032022
 

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.

“Willie O’ Winsbury” is all about gender-fluidity, and it’s about the rejection of all things patriarchal. But it didn’t come out of some woke college campus; it’s a Scottish ballad that goes back to 1775, if not earlier. Some argue that the events it describes took place in the 13th century.

For those keeping score, “Willie O’ Winsbury” is Child Ballad #100. The Child ballads were not for children: the name comes from FC Child, the 19th century song-catcher who compiled hundreds of English and Scottish ballads from past centuries.

Even in the most modernized version of the song, its old-fashioned language isn’t easy to parse. You can listen carefully (like I did) and still miss the juicier implications and its revolutionary flavor (like I did, until I heard Scottish comedian Stewart Lee discuss it). Normally it’s best to let lyrics speak for themselves, but in this case I will write some notes in the margins:

  • The first shocker is not that the king’s unmarried daughter Janet became pregnant when he was away, or that the king rather brutally inspected her body in court in order to confirm this. The shocker is that she slept with Willie, a peasant. In feudal Europe you didn’t do this.
  • The next surprise is not that the king decides to hang Willie, but that upon seeing the strapping young man brought before the court the king’s heart melts. He admits he’d sleep with this hottie, too, if he (the king) were a woman. This king is kinky enough to realize his daughter was doing the right and natural thing after all.
  • The king invites Willie to marry his daughter and offers to make him a lord of the land. A pretty sweet deal, especially for someone being fitted for a noose.
  • Plot twist: Willie declines the offer. Oh, he’ll marry the king’s daughter all right, but it’s purely out of love, and he rejects anything to do with the king’s wealth or power. That’s the implication, anyway. The couple rejects the social order for a natural order. (Either their heads are full of early Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, or they are too horny to think straight.)
  • When the couple gallops off into the sunset, the song’s narrator implies (in not so many words) that the couple have more wealth in the form of individual liberty than any knight or lord could claim.

Of course, all this is merely one reading of one version of a popular ballad. Variants of the song exist under various titles, with this verse or that inserted, deleted, or altered. In some versions, Willie is a man of wealth in peasant disguise.

So much for the story. The tune itself–the melody and chord progression–is also worth appreciating. How the chord sequence fails to resolve harmonically at any point, but circles back on itself like a staircase in an Escher print. It never seems to lose momentum. (Well, at least not in the arrangements I like.)

And speaking of arrangements I like…
Continue reading »

Jul 272022
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

When it comes to instrumental covers of popular music, my go-to is the edgier jazz artists–you probably know the ones I mean. They are lovable troublemakers, but sometimes their jarring ways, all the virtuoso-signaling, is not what the mood calls for. More and more I appreciate instrumentalists who play the melody straight, who embrace the original arrangement of the song and work within its comforting confines.

The trick is that a more modest and direct approach can wash the color out of a song–it becomes the music you hear when the bank puts you on hold. A good cover has a proper edge to it: there’s embellishment and surprise in it, a searching quality, a point of view–all the things missing from the music that elevators listen to during their work hours. For me, the Michael Udelson Trio brings all the good aspects to their jazzy treatments, and leaves behind the undesirable bits.

The band has so far released two recordings, both of them cover albums: Irrational Numbers and Minor Infractions (2015 and 2016). (During the COVID lockdown period, the trio got together virtually to share some new material with fans–so maybe there’s more albums coming in the future.) This next part I find mystifying: these two albums and the songs on them have a vanishingly small number of views/plays. (Probably most of those plays are mine.) The trio’s most popular track on Spotify is their take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” It has 17,000 plays. For every other Udelson track, Spotify displays a blank instead a number in the “Plays” column–which why the phrase “vanishingly small” seems apt. It’s fair to ask how that 17,000 figure compares to any jazz piano version of “Paranoid Android.” Here’s a point of comparison: Brad Mehldau’s cover has nearly 5,000,000 plays.

Few seem to know or care about MUT–not even its own members, as we’ll see shortly. So who are these guys, and where their fans at?
Continue reading »

Jul 252022
 

Melt AwayHaving released two Christmas albums, it is only fitting that She & Him move on to tackle summer. And what says summer more brightly than the Beach Boys? Even thinking about the band makes me (smiley) smile and look for garish Hawaiian shirts in my wardrobe. And of course, the Beach Boys wouldn’t have been the Beach Boys, whatever Mike Love might think, if it wasn’t for the genius of Brian Wilson, the last Wilson brother standing. Hence, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson. All the songs here have at least some input from Brian Wilson, largely the melodies, with lyrics also on occasion. (Mr. Love would want me to say he co-wrote many of them, I am sure, so I will.)

She & Him, then, a curious mélange. M. Ward, the somewhat-cerebral-seeming singer-songwriter from the Pacific Northwest, and Zooey Deschanel, the manic pixie dream girl in many a Hollywood comedy. The combination smacks of vanity project. Actually far from, with Ms. Deschanel responsible for the bulk of their own material, at least as far as the songwriting credits go. Taking most of the lead vocals, Deschanel plays guitar and ukulele (don’t panic), whilst Ward is content to supply a subsidiary presence, responsible for additional vocals, guitar and keyboards, as well as production duties. Which, in anything involving the songs of Brian Wilson, is going to be no small feat.
Continue reading »

Jul 222022
 

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

white stripes covers

The always prolific Jack White releases his second album of 2022 today. So it felt time to look back at his most iconic musical project: Goober & the Peas.

Okay, okay – we’re of course talking about The White Stripes. Though by this point Jack’s released more solo and side-project music than the Stripes’ entire six-album discography, his and Meg’s music still gets covered far more than the rest. Part of that is because that band had actual hits; I doubt there’s anything on his new album that’s gonna do “Seven Nation Army” numbers. But part of it also reflects the stripped-down nature of that band’s work. With just two pieces, combining rudimentary guitar riffs from Jack and cavewoman drumming from Meg, the band’s output leaves plenty of open space to welcome in other interpretations.

So no surprise our list below includes a wide variety of genres, from orchestral bowers to soul belters, bluegrass pickers to reggae toasters. By the band’s end, the Stripes were bringing in genres beyond their beloved blues and garage-rock (see the cabaret of “The Nurse” or mariachi of their Patti Page cover “Conquest”), but these artists take their songs even further afield. They dig deeper into the catalog than you might expect too. The most-common song on our list won’t surprise you (all together now: dunnn, dun-DUN-dun, dun, dunnn, dunnnnnn), but just how obscure some of the others are might, hits and deep cuts from their first album to their last. Fall in love with a cover, below.

NEXT PAGE →

Jul 202022
 

Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

cover of instrumental

Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).

Today’s question pairs up with our previous Q&A about favorite instrumental covers: What’s your favorite cover of an instrumental?
Continue reading »