Sep 152023

Van Morrison, very sadly, is no longer Van The Man. More Van the Curmudgeon. But curmudgeon doesn’t rhyme. However, Van the Also-Ran does. A bit harsh? Maybe. Though a procession of erratic (and, in the case of Latest Record Project: Volume 1, irascible) albums, probably since 2016’s Keep Me Singing, hardly offer a robust defense.

Oh, but when he was The Man, he was good. Real good. In his ’70s pomp Van Morrison was on a whole other wavelength (if you will). High on that amorphous thing we call soul, he made us high too on the likes of Moondance, Tupelo Honey and Veedon Fleece. And then there was Into the Music, a collection that accommodated the instantly irresistible “Bright Side of the Road” and “Full Force Gale,” as well as the deeper dives “And the Healing Has Begun” and “It’s All in the Game.”
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Aug 112023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Saint Etienne Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Prior to Saint Etienne, a bevy of notable names stepped up to cover Neil Young‘s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” with varying degrees of success. Elkie “Pearl’s a Singer” Brooks wrung out the simple—almost childlike—lyrics of the classic 1970 ballad on a moribund disco version of 1978. Stephen Stills rediscovered its 3/4 time and added a self-written verse on a schmaltzy non-hit version of 1984. Psychic TV made an agreeably acid-tinged waltz out of it (yes, one of those) in 1989.

However, it was the UK trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Moira Lambert, going by the name of a French soccer team, who made the song the basis of a massively influential post-house sound in 1990. That’ll be the great cover you’re looking for. And that’ll be the great cover that launched Saint Etienne’s long and remarkable career in samples, beats, and basslines.

But just how an old folk-rock number by a nasal-voiced Canadian hippie made the journey to cutting-edge electronic pop in the days of UK rave is a question worth asking. Continue reading »

Aug 082023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

A confession: I am an avowed Lankumite. Is that even a thing? Well, if it isn’t, it should be. Anyway, Lankum, the folk-music group from Dublin, are doing radical things with traditional Irish (and, more broadly, Celtic) song. They’ve taken the genre from the middle of the road, where it’s been content to exist in an almost homogenous state of stupefaction, and dragged it back into the ditch (yep, you’ve probably read that analogy before). Now, don’t get me wrong; there is a jaw-dropping virtuosity among the current constituency of players–but, well, that’s the problem. It’s all too impeccably rendered. There is little or no grit. Not only do Lankum drag it back into the ditch, they drag it through the mud of edgy contemporary influences to forge something as modern as it is ancient.

Three albums in and the promise of each has delivered in spades. Mojo magazine described Between the Earth and Sky as “powerfully strange” (in a good way), while The Independent newspaper in the UK lauded Lankum for offering “an object lesson in how to perform old songs in new ways, without losing the essential sense of continuity that gives traditional music its timeless appeal.” Their followup, The Livelong Day, is every more delightfully disquieting – the track “Katie Cruel” especially so – and finds the band firmly staking the territory claimed on their debut before they establish their own country altogether on False Lankum.

The real revelation, among many, is “The Wild Rover” (from Between the Earth and Sky), a horror movie dirge that subverts the popular embrace of the song as a drinking anthem and plunges it into a miasma of alcoholic regret.
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Jul 282023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Christy Moore

“Danny Boy” is a song guaranteed to wring a tear from the misty eyes of most Irish natives, including this one (though, admittedly, there have occasionally been tears of rage shed in this parish over some versions – Cher, anyone?). Such lacrimation is particularly effusive among Irish emigres – again, including this writer – usually at the end of a long night in some foreign hostelry when faraway hills appear exponentially greener and more fertile than they once were. My compatriots and I are nothing if not shameless wool gatherers when there’s drink involved. Mind you, we’re also susceptible to putting our fists up on the slightest pretext. And if you want to take issue with that latter characterization, we can always settle it outside.

Of course, the delicious irony is that “Danny Boy,” for all that it’s something of an unofficial Irish anthem, was penned by, ahem, an Englishman. And so, a potted history.
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Jul 052023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Progressive rock band Yes was at the top of its game in 1974 when their keyboardist Rick Wakeman abruptly departed. The band invited an obscure pioneer of electronic music, Vangelis, to replace him. Vangelis shunned the offer, preferring to stay home and compose film scores. Or maybe certain members of Yes shunned Vangelis–accounts differ. In either case, the synth maven hit it off with Yes co-founder, singer, and lyricist Jon Anderson. They collaborated intermittently in the following years, finally forming Jon and Vangelis in 1980.

By the time the second Jon and Vangelis album dropped in 1981–The Friends of Mr Cairo–their individual fortunes had reversed. Vangelis was having a breakout year. He had a smash hit in “Chariots of Fire,” a selection from his sweeping, grandiose full-length score for the film of the same name. The song swept through popular culture, and the film itself went on to win Academy awards for Best Picture and Best Music. By then Vangelis was already at work on the Blade Runner soundtrack. If he noticed that the new Jon and Vangelis album barely sold, and the release of its single “State of Independence” fell flat, it probably didn’t worry him.
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Jun 272023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Nina Simone Just Like A Woman

Today’s One Great Cover post is a guest post written by Graley Herren, and is excerpted from his post “Just Like Nina Simone’s Blues” on his Substack Shadow Chasing with his permission. We’re grateful for the opportunity to present it here.

When Bob Dylan was named the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, he delivered a thoughtful acceptance speech in which he reflected upon his musical inspirations, including “The High Priestess of Soul”:

Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player, and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken, and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist I loved and admired.

The admiration was mutual, though it was tempered by Simone’s acute awareness of Dylan’s comparatively privileged access to the star-making machinery of American pop culture. In a 1966 interview, Simone lamented,

I have no faith that the greatest talent in this country will get any recognition while they’re alive. Perhaps Bob Dylan, but me, and Billie [Holiday] before me, and [John] Coltrane—in the jazz circles, yes, but not the general public. I don’t believe that the talent that would be considered artistic in this country is going to get any recognition, and that includes me.

Simone numbered Dylan among “the greatest talent in this country,” but her main point was to decry the biased inequity with which respect for such talent was granted or denied.

That said, Simone paid Dylan the highest compliment one musician can give another by performing several of his songs, and doing so with profound sensitivity. Late in life, her esteem for Dylan was unequivocal. In Princess Noire, biographer Nadine Cohodas points out that Simone kept a picture of Dylan on the wall of her French home in Bouc-Bel-Air, hanging next to a photo of Little Richard. Her friend Precious Williams visited there in 1999, and as she was leaving Simone told her, “Please tell my public that there aren’t many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It’s down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra, except Frank’s already dead.”

Simone and Dylan’s musical paths intersected most directly when she covered five of his songs during a five-year span: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” on Let It All Out (1966); “I Shall Be Released,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on To Love Somebody (1969); and “Just Like a Woman” on Here Comes the Sun (1971). All of these performances are noteworthy, but for this post I want to focus on “Just Like a Woman” as a comparative case study in the artistry of Simone and Dylan.
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