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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Jul 082021
 

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.

If It Makes You Happy

What makes a group “super” is a little relative. Who can really say what past musical experience is “enough” to make a new collaboration level up to the term? Take local music scenes for example. Hometown heroes might bounce between bands, creating the opportunity for what I’ll call local supergroups. Maybe they aren’t super to everyone, but they are super to their neighbors and loyal fans.

Let’s hear more under the radar supergroups who are united by Sheryl Crow’s 1996 hit, “If It Makes You Happy,” of all things. It was a self-care mantra for the world-weary before “self-care” was a common phrase that became a double-edged sword. “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

Which cover comes out on top?

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Apr 052021
 

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.

Le Freak Chic

“All that pressure got you down / Has your head been spinning all around?” How did Chic know?! “Le Freak” was the band’s first number one hit, and it became a best seller for Chic’s label. Since its release in 1978, the song’s significance has been solidified. In 2018 the Library of Congress preserved the track in the National Recording Registry. However, Chic is still waiting on the elusive Rock and Roll Hall of Fame spot; they’ve been nominated over ten times!

Prominent Chic member Nile Rodgers went on to play a key role in the music careers of many others. He wrote big hits for Sister Sledge (“We are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”) and Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”), and he produced albums for David Bowie (Let’s Dance) and Madonna (Like a Virgin). More recently, he co-wrote and played guitar on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and you may have heard him on Keith Urban’s latest album. Chic as a whole even released a new album in 2018 featuring artists like Lady Gaga and Elton John.

But for now, let’s see who helps us throwback to the early days of Chic with covers of “Le Freak.”
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Mar 262021
 

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.

Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba

“Screaming Infidelities” has two birthdays – one in March 2000, for its presence on Dashboard Confessional’s debut album The Swiss Army Romance, and one in March 2001, as the lead single off of Dashboard Confessional’s second album, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. This song is usually thought of as Dashboard Confessional’s big break. “Stolen” was still just a twinkle in Chris Carrabba’s eye at this point.

Whichever way you look at it, the song is celebrating an important milestone this month, either turning the big 2-0 or finally being able to legally drink a beer while hearing the saddest songs (“and sit alone and wonder,” of course). The song struck a nerve twenty-ish years ago, and I’m willing to bet it still strikes a nerve today, not so much “taking its wear.” Others try to reach that same level of feeling in their versions. Of these…

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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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Dec 112020
 

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.

Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” is not as widely known as it should be, considering the musical legends who’ve stepped up to cover it: Roky Erickson, Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon. These artists were drawn to the raw emotion of this seemingly most simple of doo-wop songs, as well as its hypnotic quality, and its juvenile, rock ‘n’ roll spirit. They were drawn, in other words, to its peculiar mix of ’50s-style ingredients that made for one of the most exciting, unpredictable, and, yes, eerie tracks to emerge from that post-Buddy, pre-Beatles period of ’59 to ’62.

At least 13 other artists have attempted to reinterpret “Angel Baby” since it entered the US Billboard Hot 100 on December 12, 1960. David Lynch also, no doubt, took notice, as did the creators of creepy 2018 Netflix drama Dirty John, who exploited the track for an unsettling montage (in series 1: episode 3) of Eric Bana as a seductive confidence trickster. Certainly the way the sweet innocence of the song is embedded in a badly recorded and slightly off-kilter sound helps account for both its eeriness and its otherworldliness. But how did the song come by such an atmosphere, and what was its initial appeal?
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