Jun 052020
 

Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.

joni mitchell in the 80s

The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. The new decade brought a seismic shift in pop sights and sounds that included the arrival of “The Second British Invasion” in the U.S., featuring the likes of Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Culture Club. This guy called Prince began his reign/rain, and Madonna Louise Ciccone launched her complete world takeover. And oh yeah, there was this other thing, a behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay. And so, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before all of a sudden sounded criminally dated. Continue reading »

May 212020
 

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 indie band Grant Lee Buffalo burst on the scene in the early 1990s, they seemed destined for stardom. Emerging from a residency at L.A.’s Largo nightclub, the fresh young band got snatched up by a major label or two, and embarked on world tours with more seasoned pros–first R.E.M., and later Pearl Jam. Rolling Stone magazine pronounced the guy behind it all, Grant Lee Phillips, the male vocalist of the year in 1994, and Michael Stipe practically started a GLP fan club.

But instead of parlaying the attention into fame and fortune, Phillips grew disillusioned with the star-maker machinery, and the pressure to deliver instantly likable hits. His songs needed time to warm up, he said, like an old car or an old tube amp. By 2000 he had disbanded Grant Lee Buffalo and dissolved their Warner Records contract. He got to work as plain old Grant Lee Phillips. Allying himself with independent labels (Rounder, Yep Roc), he’s been recording and touring on smaller scales ever since. His work earns the critical adoration, and he doesn’t go through gyrations to transform his sound or his image. He has a knack for interesting side hustles, like composing for film and television, and acting, too. You might have seen him on seasons 1-7 of the Gilmore Girls, in the role of the wandering troubadour.

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May 042020
 
B.B. King Covers

B.B. King may have played more live gigs than anyone, ever. The precise numbers are hard to pin down, but the few figures that are available are staggering: in his prime, King was playing over 300 shows a year, and in even in his final years was performing close to 100 shows annually. B.B. was no slouch as a songsmith – the 1968 album Blues On Top Of Blues, for example, is penned entirely by King – but such a heavy touring schedule left little time for songwriting. As such, King often covered other people’s songs, spending hours aboard his tour bus listening to albums, searching for songs that could be given the B.B. King treatment.
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Apr 172020
 

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!

Chaka Khan cover songs

Back in 2008, Rolling Stone published a list ranking the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. While these lists can serve to validate a person’s taste or deservedly shine a light on the underrated, their main purpose is to generate conversation, which is to say they are built to angry up the blood (apparently, Buddy Holly is just a little better than Donny Hathaway and not quite as good as Jim Morrison). While Aretha Franklin was justifiably in the #1 spot, this particular list turned out to be problematic. For one thing, only 23 of the 100 singers listed were women… and within that rarefied group, there was a particularly glaring omission. The panel of 179 “experts” left out arguably one of the finest vocalists in modern day music history: Chaka Khan (and we’re not even going to go into The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s continued snubbing because, no).

Khan first made her mark singing lead for accomplished soul-slicksters Rufus throughout the ’70s, notching up an assortment of eternally beloved grooves, including the sinewy pop funk of “Tell Me Something Good” and the beauteously lovelorn “Sweet Thing.” Even spitting out of a cheap static-filled AM transistor radio, Khan’s voice enveloped you with its warmth, elasticity, and fire, a singularly passionate siren who sounded like no other.

By 1978 it had become clear that the gargantuan Khan voice and charisma couldn’t be contained within the confines of the group, and so began her storied solo career…sort of. After her first solo album was released, as a result of contractual obligations, she continued to work on and off with Rufus until the band finally broke up in 1983 (and within that time released three more solo albums and a collaborative jazz-standards collection). It was in 1984, upon the release of the single “I Feel For You” and its eponymous album, that Chaka went from being a plain old star to being a full-on superstar…which is who she’s been ever since, although that should probably be hyphenated with “legend” at this point.

While Chaka has had a hand in writing some straight-up classics in her career, she has mostly relied on outside songwriters, which has often dovetailed into doing covers. Her prodigious vocal gift means the old phone-book cliche applies (as in, she can sing anything), which has allowed her the freedom to make some eclectic and just plain cool choices. And oh yeah, she’s probably gonna steal your song from you forever… but it’s okay, because she’s gonna make it even better.

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Apr 092020
 

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!

Yesterday we heard covers of songs where Timbaland is front and center. Today we learn which of our favorite tunes were co-written and molded by Timbaland’s signature production style. Again, there are too many hits to enumerate all of the songs he was involved in here, but feel free to explore further and trace Timbaland’s fingerprint through songs from the ’90s to the present.

Timbaland has been recognized for his behind the scenes work including three years’ worth of Songwriter of the Year awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, a Producer of the Year award from the BET Hip Hop Awards, and nominations for two of the five spots for Album of the Year in 2004.

We’ll see that Timbaland was extremely influential in launching new artists onto the music scene and helping pre-established artists change course in their musical style. Tomorrow we’ll see how Pharrell Williams and Timbaland worked together to create the ultimate re-branding…

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Apr 082020
 

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!

Timbaland

Like his childhood friend Pharrell Williams, Timbaland is also a man of many talents. He is a performer in his own right and has helped launch and rebrand careers of others through his production prowess. As evidence of his dedication, when Timbaland was fourteen he was partially paralyzed for almost a year after an accidental shooting; undeterred, he learned to DJ left-handed. Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, Timbaland had a variety of childhood friends that would also rise to stardom. Along with Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, Timbaland was also friends with Pusha T and Malice from Clipse.

After the short-lived Surrounded By Idiots group formed with the boys from The Neptunes, Timbaland and Magoo branched off to be their own performing duo in the late ’90s while Timbaland’s solo production built in popularity. In the early ’00s, Timbaland started to focus more on being a producer before returning to working double duty by releasing his second solo album in 2007.

Timbaland is a master collaborator, performing alongside artists from a wide range of genres. I recently rediscovered his albums Shock Value and Shock Value II, and as each track played I was more and more surprised and then ultimately delighted by the blend of Timbaland’s signature sound with others’ eclectic styles. Reportedly, one of the collaborations that didn’t make the cut for Shock Value or its sequel was with the Jonas Brothers, and honestly, with their big comeback, I would like to see Timbaland revisit this idea.

Today we’ll focus on covers of Timbaland’s own performances, and tomorrow we will discover which hits Timbaland played a major role in as writer and producer.

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