Sep 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!

Annie Lennox

It’s March of 1995, and by this point in time it has been firmly established that Annie Lennox doesn’t make bad albums. From her earliest days in The Tourists, through her incredible partnership with Dave Stewart in Eurythmics, to her glorious 1992 solo debut Diva, the quality level has been ridiculously high. Every album to the last has contained multiple soaringly wonderful evergreen pop classics, most of which are justifiably worshipped and treasured to this very day. But of course, if there’s one thing we know for certain about pop music, it’s that it’s a cruel, fickle beast, and critical favor can turn on a dime. And so, after a pretty consistent outpouring of acclaim, maybe it was inevitable that by 1995 the jar of journalistic goodwill was empty. Annie’s second solo album Medusa featured a perfectly sung and slickly produced selection of cover songs, and the time had finally come; the critics hated it.

While its brilliant, theatrical first single “No More I Love You’s” was a worldwide hit and the LP itself sold by the truckload, music journalists were pretty much across the board unimpressed (even here at Cover Me). One review in a big culture magazine at the time amusingly referred to the album as “a muff,” described Annie’s attempts at certain songs as “belly-flops,” and declared the overall sound to be “microwaved.”

So whose assessment of Medusa was “right,” the fans’ or the critics’? Well, truth be told, both. Put simply, it was an immaculately sung, pristinely produced, cleverly chosen selection of covers, with nary a rough edge to be seen. And while the overall sound could be characterized as chilly and/or mechanical in spots, it was still home to some pretty gloriously heartfelt and powerful song interpretations. Case in point: a broodingly beautiful take of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” as well as a grandly dramatic reading of Procol Harum’s epic “Whiter Shade of Pale.” And of course, the aforementioned “No More…” was a brilliant pop song by any standard.

But here’s the thing: Despite its renown, Medusa shouldn’t be looked at as the final word on Annie Lennox’s ability to reinvent and breathe new life into old songs. Over the years, she has proven herself to be an exceptionally gifted interpreter… and the majority of her finest cover work has come in the form of free-standing one-offs. With that in mind, let’s put Medusa to the side for a minute and turn a spotlight on the heart-clutchingly wonderful stuff around the edges, the live, the rare, and the underrated. Let’s venture into the depths of Annie’s truly exceptional cover canon, wherein lay a whole lotta treasures…
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Jul 282020
 

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!

Mark Lanegan covers

How many Mark Lanegans there are, I guess, depends largely on where you heard him first. For some it will have been the angry grunge of Screaming Trees; for others, the desert stoners of Queens of the Stone Age, or even the badass bromance of the Gutter Twins. Or they may, like me, have arrived from an altogether opposite direction, the low-fi acoustic of his duo work with Isobel Campbell, doe-voiced folkstrel and onetime cellist from Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian. Other outliers will have been drawn in by the gospelectronica, if you will, of Soulsavers. Plus there will have been all those, suddenly marveling at his soundtrack tones, stamping over any number of films or boxsets.

But, once heard, that voice sticks. Memorably once described as being like a three-day stubble, it imprints, demanding both attention and immersion. And if the directions take you outa your usual safety genres, too bad; you go, you follow, opening new vistas on the way. Oh, and if you haven’t yet discovered Mark Lanegan, what are you waiting for?
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Jul 032020
 

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!

Leonard Cohen was known for being something of a perfectionist. “Hallelujah,” for example, was apparently whittled down from around 80 verses, while “Anthem” was the product of ten years’ arduous rewriting. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Cohen took the same considered approach on the rare occasion that he covered a song. Not the type of person to hastily record a cover to fill up space on an album, each one of Cohen’s covers appear to have been chosen and performed with a great deal of care.
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Jun 192020
 

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!

While The Isley Brothers are commonly filed under Soul or R&B, that categorization only partially reflects what they have delivered soundwise since the release of their first album way back in 1959. We all know how this works: basically, whatever genre your biggest hits fall into will then by default define who you are to the world forevermore. And because their most popular songs are of the soul shouter-disco/funk-quiet storm variety, they have been conveniently stuffed into the singular genre of Soul/R&B. But in the case of the Isleys, this cut-and-dried categorization is exceptionally misleading. Which is to say, while their ’60s hits “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) and “Shout Pts. & 2” remain their highest ranking tracks in terms of Spotify plays, they are hardly reflective of the true, signature Isley sound, a perfect melding of topical Rock & Soul that remains unmatched to this day. Make no mistake (and with all due respect to their former Motown label mates, The Temptations and The Four Tops), The Isley Brothers were a proper band. Like The Beatles or The Stones. A classic old school, turn the amp up to 11, self-contained, smokin’, genre-defying band.

This is just a roundabout way of saying  if you want to know what the Isleys are really about sonically and philosophically, it’s best to avoid the greatest hits playlists and head straight for the string of positively seminal studio albums the band released from 1971-1976. There were 6 in total over that time, beginning with Givin’ It Back and running on through to 1976’s Harvest For The World. It is there you will meet O’Kelly, Rudolph, Ronald, Ernie, Marvin and Chris Jasper, the real Isley Brothers.
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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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