Jun 152022
 

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!

Hmmm–“In the Spotlight” could well be the giveaway, being exactly where at least half of this odd couple seems, more than anything else, to want to be. Odd couple? Well, back in the day, I daresay that the idea of Robert Fripp, the complex guitar wrangler of King Crimson fame, besuited and besitted always, having a lengthy and lasting marriage with Toyah Willcox, the punk-pop princess of Birmingham with the look-at-me dramatics, was not one of life’s great certainties.

I confess to being quite delighted by the couple’s first forays into Sunday Lunchtime COVID-19 entertainment, as much for the bizarre hoops Mrs. Fripp could put her permanently-bemused husband through, in the sake of raising the spirits of those who stumbled onto these little vignettes of, apparently, their life.

According to Willcox, the purpose of these weekly vids was primarily to lift Fripp out of the black dog that permeated him as lockdown locked down, depriving him of both an outlet for and an income for his art. So, on 5th April 2020, those idly browsing the net became party to the extraordinary image of the couple, dressed to the nines, having a bop to Bill Haley’s vintage hit, “Rock Around the Clock.” And looking to be having a whale of a time.
Continue reading »

Apr 152022
 

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!

Ukrainians

This post is not about the Ukrainians forced by circumstance onto the world’s stage. All our hearts bleed both for them and their country, subject to the cruelest and vilest of misjudgments, victims of Putin seeking to leave his mark. But it is closely related, being about the Ukrainians, the Leeds, UK-based band, who have been touting their postpunk take on the folk music of the mother country of founder/guitarist Pete Solowka for nigh on thirty years. And a whole lot more than just the folk music of Ukraine, as covers of their musical cohorts and influences, performed in a Cossack/Slavic style, all stentorian voices and balalaikas, also feature large in their repertoire.

Originally, and sometimes contemporaneously, Solowka has been a member of the Wedding Present, and it was that band that sparked the idea into ignition. When venerable and iconic DJ John Peel asked them to perform a session on his long running evening radio show, the Wedding Present decided to perform in the Solowka family language. They played “Hopa,” a traditional song the guitarist had been brought up listening to and singing along with.

Given the favorable reception, and with Solowka’s own grasp of the language not being up to it, they seconded in the presence of Len Liggins–or, to give him his full name, the legendary Len Liggins, a Russian (and Ukrainian) scholar, fluent in each language and a dab on the fiddle besides. This too went down well with the listeners, bar one Roman Romeynes, just possibly not his real name, a musician from another Leeds band, who jested they were taking the proverbial and bastardizing the tradition. So who better to then enroll, this offshoot now having a life of its own, spinning free from the Wedding Present. (The band had sacked Solowka; he said this was due to the greater acclaim given this experiment than the parent band.)

That groundbreaking 1989 Peel session, and the later sessions that followed, all eventually became available in recorded form, with 1991 seeing the debut release by the now-official band, with both band and release being named The Ukrainians. When Romeynes left shortly afterwards, the band consolidated as a more regular unit, leaving the Wedding Present linkage shattered behind them.

They initially found an appropriate home on the maverick and left field record label Cooking Vinyl, home also of Jackie Leven and Oysterband. After making a further pair or so of albums with that label, they started their own label Zirka, through Proper. They have been relatively prolific, with three further studio albums of (largely) original material, two live recordings, a covers compendium (which we reviewed here), and a glut of EP and singles. These have encompassed further covers, including of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic songs drawn from sources as unlikely as varied. All transcribed into their well-worn mix of fiddle, accordion and balalaikas, accompanied by crashing bass, resounding guitars and pounding drums.

Perhaps classifiable as a niche taste at home, they have become superstars in the eastern European diaspora, not least Ukraine itself. Under the cataclysmic events of the the past six or so weeks, the band have decided they cannot stand idly by, and have launched a tour, all monies going in support of the refugee crisis.

Ukrainians Benefit

Let’s look at some of their covers….
Continue reading »

Mar 042022
 

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!

Garland Jeffreys

For an artist who never cracked the top 50 in the U.S., Garland Jeffreys has left quite a footprint. A friend of Lou Reed’s when they were students at Syracuse University, Jeffreys went on to perform on John Cale’s solo debut Vintage Violence before striking out on his own. His mix of rock, folk, soul, reggae, and more made him hard to pigeonhole, but the people who knew, knew. Rolling Stone named him the Best New Artist of 1977, a year that saw debuts from the Clash, the Jam, Talking Heads, Television, and more. Far from prolific – he released five albums between 1983 and 2013 – Jeffreys still secured a devoted following, especially in Europe. Though he no longer tours, he continues to write, maintains an active Twitter presence, and a documentary is in the works to raise awareness of this rare giant of the past half-century-plus.
Continue reading »

Feb 112022
 
be good tanyas covers

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!

The three women in the Be Good Tanyas–Trish Klein, Samantha Parton, and Frazey Ford–are all Canadians, but Americana is stamped on their musical passports. The band formed in 1999 in Vancouver, B.C., the heart of Cascadia, and soon released some of the best Appalachian-influenced music of the past two decades. Like kindred spirit Gillian Welch, the Tanyas made the old-timey sound new.

While gospel spirituals and hobo songs fired their imaginations at the outset, the Tanyas didn’t only look backwards to traditional sources. They looked across to their peers–Geoff Berner and JT Nero are two contemporary artists they’ve covered–and to the work of their parents’ generation (Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young). They even covered Prince, a musician pretty far from the folk/country music provinces (see our write-up of their Prince cover here). The Tanyas also wrote compelling original material, songs absorbed by urban concerns while sounding rural in origin, songs both light-hearted and dark-minded in turn.

Along with their feathery vocal harmonies, the key ingredients of the Tanyas sound are mellow mandolin, gritty banjo, and acoustic guitar. Fiddles and harmonicas make an occasional appearance, and a cornet slipped in through a side door at least once. Bass and drums they leave to hired hands, but not as after-thoughts: the band’s rhythmic groove is integral to their unique slant on traditional material, lets them make a distinctive statement on classics like “Rain and Snow.”

One complaint about their music is that there’s not more of it. Chalk it up, in part, to bad luck and medical emergencies, and partly to “creative differences.” But then again, we can be thankful that each of the Tanyas have explored their own solo projects, and this has helped keep the Tanyas albums so pure in essence. Frazey Ford recorded an album with Al Green’s former band (it’s more soul-influenced than country-influenced); Trish Klein formed Po’ Girl with Allison Russell; and Sam Parton, long side-lined with serious medical challenges, found a way to record and tour with Jolie Holland. (Holland co-founded the Tanyas in 1999, but departed during the making of their first record, Blue Horse.) All these extracurricular projects are worth seeking out.

The Tanyas may be over as a group, but it’s a good bet that covers of their originals will continue to emerge, and that their own covers will continue to find new listeners.
Continue reading »

Nov 192021
 

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!

John Mellencamp

I wanted to put this in the Under the Radar category. Then it hit me: whose radar could John Mellencamp possibly be under? It’s true, but, equally, his spotlight has always veered from mass appeal towards the niche, albeit to different niche audiences at different times, encompassing different genres and different tastes. How much traction, for instance, is there between the effervescent Johnny Cougar in his sequined satins, and the grizzled dustbowl road warrior of only a few years later, let alone the renaissance man of musician, artist and actor he is seen as now? Today’s answer: Precious little, yet more than you may think.
Continue reading »

Nov 102021
 

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 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston into its ranks last month for Musical Excellence, the other inductees seemed to get all the attention. That’s fair (after all, Preston passed away back in 2006), but it’s also in keeping with Preston’s long and sometimes overshadowed career. Despite writing hit records that blended soul, gospel, funk, and R&B with rock, he tends to be pegged not as a star, but as a stellar session player supporting the actual stars.

That’s valid, too. From the ‘50s through to the early 2000s, Preston does seem to have played with all the greats, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles to Sly Stone; in the rock world, he partnered with the Beatles and the Stones, The Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few. But we will lean on Billy’s original songs, and on Billy as leader, in our collection of Preston covers.
Continue reading »