Oct 012020
 

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

Everything in Its Right Place coversIt’s 20 years today since Radiohead first perplexed us with the lyrical mantras, “Everything in its right place,” “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and, of course, “There are two colors in my head.” It’s a significant anniversary, as who could forget the first time they heard track 1 of Kid A?

“Everything in Its Right Place” was, in the absence of a single to promote the fourth Radiohead album, the initial indication that the most revered British rock band of the ’90s had not only downgraded coherent lyrics, but also guitars, traditional song structures, crescendos, and anything, really, that might sound good in the car with the windows down. Now they were hellbent on something altogether different. Something introspective, hypnotic, and electronic. Something composer Steve Reich and cover artists from Frightened Rabbit to Robert Glasper would demonstrate to be not so much rock, as minimalism, indie-folk, and jazz.

The song has traveled a rocky road to classic status as a result of its unclassifiable nature, while spawning in the region of 25 cross-genre reinterpretations. To the multitudes previously won over by “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” and the whole angsty, proggy majesty of 1997’s OK Computer, it was a shock. To adherents of the band’s earlier, surging, arena-friendly hits like “High and Dry,” “Just,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and particularly “Creep,” it was a kick in the teeth. For while there was nothing new in witnessing a rock group go nuts from the pressure of huge commercial success and fame, as had Nirvana on the brutal In Utero opener “Serve the Servants” in 1993, none had appeared to cast off their fairweather friends by dropping practically all of their most powerful musical weapons. None had sought to express what they really felt by taking up synthesizers, adopting a strange time signature, and singing about sucking lemons.

“Everything” alone divided the critics in 2000, who quite reasonably assumed it to be a Thom Yorke affair rather than a group project, with the singer indulging a new love for digital technology in collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich. It’s a “weirdly hymnal dreamscape of ambient keys,” said one reviewer (a good thing, I think). Another asked, “Whose crackling old keyboards were those?” (bad). Then there was the accusation that it was a “messy and inconsequential doodle” (definitely bad). But once the furor died down, it was obvious that Yorke and co. had set a new bar with the song, having instilled it with plenty of meaning and significance, thank you very much.
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Sep 012020
 

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

Bette Davis Eyes cover

Yesterday we learned that Kim Carnes was not the first to sing about Bette Davis’s eyes. Jackie DeShannon kicked off the admiration six years earlier. Despite this, Carnes’s version is the one we typically think of with its distinctive synth opener and its punctuating claps throughout.

These five covers keep the Bette Davis fan club going and bring their own approach to the Carnes version. Some combine similar elements; others go a completely different route. All are good, so let’s “turn the music on you” and listen to (more) covers of “Bette Davis Eyes.”
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Aug 282020
 

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

James Taylor

James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is a perverse oddball of a song. On the one hand, it’s a comfortable, welcoming armchair, resoundingly easy on the ears with its sweet acoustic picking, memorable melody, and mellifluous vocal. On the other, it’s a harrowing tale of despair, loss and confusion with no real resolution. “Fire and Rain ” got as high as #3 on the Billboard pop chart in 1970, and though it didn’t hit the top spot, its success helped open the door for a veritable flood of like-minded soul-baring singer-songwriters, from Jackson Browne to Jim Croce and beyond.

The story behind “Fire and Rain” is a pretty well-trod one at this point. Each verse describes a particular period of Taylor’s late-’60s life story. The first verse addresses the suicide of an old friend, Susie Schnerr (referred to as “Suzanne” in the lyric), as does the last line of the chorus; “but I always thought that I’d see you again.” The second verse describes James’s own addiction to heroin. The third alludes to his time in a psychiatric hospital while being treated for depression; it includes a reference to the implosion of his band Flying Machine (which has frequently been misinterpreted as a reference to an actual plane crash).
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Aug 172020
 

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

When Doves Cry

Purple Rain, the movie and the soundtrack starring Prince as “The Kid,” are iconic, but at the time of its release Prince wasn’t the household name that he is now. He had released five other albums, but it wasn’t until his fifth album, 1999, that he started to gain serious traction.

Then came Purple Rain. The album was number one on the Billboard 200 for almost half a year, Prince won an Academy Award for the score, and Prince was the first singer to have the top album, single, and film at the same time in the US. In 2019, the movie, based at least in part on Prince’s own life, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The soundtrack had many hits, including its lead single, “When Doves Cry.” This was Prince’s first song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and it even went platinum before the requirements were lowered. Prince directed his own music video for the song, complete with a dove-studded dramatic opening, but it was controversial at the time due to its “sexual nature.”

Unsurprisingly, this song is one of Prince’s most covered songs. Let’s hear how other artists take on this classic.

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Aug 132020
 

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

While “House of the Rising Sun” may conjure up the sound of Eric Burdon’s deep powerful howls over a haunting interplay of guitar and organ, The Animals did not write the hit that made them major players during the British Invasion of the ‘60s – and arguably the first band to score a “folk-rock hit,” according to music critic Dave Marsh.

The origins of “House of the Rising Sun” are a mystery and even the subject of a book called Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song by Ted Anthony. The earliest known publication of the song’s lyrics are from a 1925 column called, “Old Songs That Men Have Sung,” in Adventure magazine. The earliest recorded version – titled “Rising Sun Blues” – is from 1933 by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster – Ashley had said he learned the song from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.

Another often contested mystery is the house at the center of the song. Some believe it’s an old women’s prison on the outskirts of New Orleans (where the words “rising sun” were etched in stone above the entrance), others believe it’s an all men’s hotel in the French Quarter that burned down in 1822 at 535-537 Conti St. (there is some evidence of a hotel called Rising Sun existing at this address), and some believe it’s an old brothel. Then there are theories of it actually originating in England or France. Of course it’s possible this house never actually existed at all.

Every recorded version of the song is a cover. But to include The Animals version in a list of covers seems a little too obvious. Their version inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, ranked number 122 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. The Animals have gotten their due.

Now on to five (other) good covers of “House of the Rising Sun.”
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Jul 172020
 

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

Wheatus

From the first moment I heard “Teenage Dirtbag,” upon its release in 2000, it felt like it was everywhere. Hearing it rattle the walls as it emanated from the massive sound system at Virgin Megastore in Times Square (where I was working back then) would always trigger the same two contradictory thoughts: “not again,” followed rapidly by “…I love this “. Tune-wise, it seemed like the hyperactive and insecure younger sibling of  Nada Surf’s 1996 sarcastic classic “Popular,” all catchy, candy-coated and gigantically chorus’d. But lyrically, well, that’s where the sonic kinship ended.

Ricky KassoEven if you didn’t grow up on Long Island in the ’80s, if you are a true-crime aficionado of a certain age (a horrific classification but here we are), you are likely to be familiar with the case of Ricky Kasso, who murdered Gary Lauwers (both 17) in June of 1984. And if you did grow up there like Wheatus’s Brendan B.Brown (and myself), the whole story is firmly and forever embedded in your psyche, especially if you were a kid or teen at the time. It was both tragic and terrifying.

It wasn’t long before the press found a sensationalistic angle to latch onto regarding the crime and the scapegoating began. When Kasso was arrested for the murder, he was famously photographed wearing an AC/DC shirt replete with a bloody logo and a green cartoon devil. And that little detail, coupled with rumors of the crime being part of a satanic sacrifice ritual, provided all the ammunition needed for those in authority–i.e. parents, teachers and police–to go into irrational overdrive. As naively fantastical as sounds, from that point on, if you actively listened to metal, if you wore tees featuring the bands you loved like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath, you were heretofore regarded as one of the devil’s loyal soldiers. While this mistrust of metalheads was patently ridiculous, an absurd piece of residual damage based on a single news photo, it really happened. And it was this very notion that led Brendan B. Brown to pen “Teenage Dirtbag”.
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