Mar 102023

Rarely Covered looks at who’s mining the darkest, dustiest corners of iconic catalogs.

So it’s early 1963 and you’re a British pop act in need of a new hit record. Maybe you’ve recorded a Goffin and King number already, and you’ve noted that the Shadows and their guitar instrumentals are on the wane. Maybe you want to tap into the new craze for beat music sweeping the ballrooms, clubs, and town halls of the nation, that melodic hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and skiffle. Or maybe you’re established in a beat group and just want to keep serving up those driving rhythms the best way you can.

So what do you do? Well, you might cover a song by a besuited Liverpool fourpiece enjoying huge chart success and popularity off the back of a distinctive self-penned number called “Please Please Me.” Especially if the guy who manages them, Brian Epstein, also manages you, and/or you’re traveling up and down the country with them on a tour bus. You can keep your hands off “I Saw Her Standing There,” though. That’s promised to someone.

Jump to early 2023, and, assuming you did make a deal with the Liverpool group, you’ve made history as one of the first artists ever to have covered the Beatles. Before “I Want To Hold Your Hand” happened, and before the big guns like Joe Cocker got involved, along with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and, of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks. The fact is you’ve covered a song that only about 23 other artists have ever covered, as opposed to, say, 573. Plus you did it in the historic initial year of Beatlemania!

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Mar 102023
lizzo's du hast cover

Giant pop stars performing unexpected covers live in concert are a dime a dozen. They’re no doubt a blast for fans in the room, but often fail to translate on video. That’s particularly true of those regionally-pandering covers like “Hey we’re in Seattle, let’s do ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.'” Lizzo’s recent cover of Rammstein’s “Du Hast” is an exception.

She performed it a couple times on her recent German tour. The first time in Hamburg, she just sang a couple lines in between songs. That’s exactly the sort of pop-star cover that delivers clickbait-y headlines, but isn’t really worth watching (if you want to anyway, it’s here).

But then a week later in Berlin, she upped the ante. This time, her whole band had actually learned the song – as had her backing dancers, who delivered a little choreographed headbanging. As always, though, the star of The Lizzo Show is Lizzo, joyously belting a few passes at the chorus (she presumably doesn’t actually speak German to handle the whole thing) while jumping around and having a blast. It’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t work if you weren’t in the room, but absolutely does. Give your day a jolt of Rammstein-flavored joy below.

Mar 092023

“‘Cello Song” is one of the more distinct cuts on Nick Drake‘s debut album Five Leaves Left. Shockingly, it features a prominent cello part, in addition to congas, augmenting Drake’s guitar and voice. For the rest of the album, Drake is accompanied usually by a string section or a bass instead. It’s one of his more frequently covered songs, perhaps because of its distinctness within his catalogue or perhaps because it’s just very pretty.

Irish rock band Fontaines D.C., who we last saw on Cover Me with a version of U2’s “One,” have decided to mostly omit the cello from their version of “‘Cello Song.” That’s hardly a surprise given their post-punk-influenced sound, but it still makes the title a little funny. (Perhaps Nick Drake should have properly named his song.) They’ve recorded their version as part of the upcoming tribute to Drake, The Endless Coloured Days.

There is some feedback or other ambient noise at the very beginning, before the drums kick in, that vaguely resembles a cello, but it’s there only for a moment. And then the drums kick in and you know this is not your typical Nick Drake cover. The (electric) guitars are angular and vaguely twangy. And the vibe is much more early ’80s than late ’60s.

But then Grian Chatten starts humming the refrain melody, as Drake does in the original, and things calm down considerably. When Chatten starts singing the actual lyrics, around the 1:40 minute, the song actually starts to resemble the original a little bit, with an acoustic guitar roughly approximating Drake’s own guitar part. The drums kick back in for the hummed refrain but otherwise, the feel is more of a rocked up, vaguely hazy version of the original, rather than a complete rethinking. A cello, or perhaps a viola, does eventually come in at the very end.

So the intro actually is a bit of a misdirection, setting us up for a radical revision but then revealing a reasonably faithful version of the song, albeit with more drums and way more electric guitar. Check it out below:

Mar 092023

I Don't Know a Thing About LoveWith a work ethic that dwarfs musicians a third of his age, good ol’ Willie keeps pumping ’em out, praise be. When listening to him sounding impossibly youthful on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, his tribute to famed songwriter/contemporary/buddy Harlan Howard, it is impossible to believe Nelson turns 90 at the end of next month. These songs are staples by now, avoiding any purely Nashville C&W silo, so he and (largely) his regular crew, can imbue these songs with some outlaw life, verve and, where necessary, pathos.

It is over 20 years since Harlan Howard died, aged 74, in 2002. Despite that, his songs have remained timeless, seeming to avoid being locked into any of the stylistic cliches of the last century. Striking lucky only a year or two after he began to write, he swiftly scored a couple of major country chart hits, with massive crossover success of the second of those, one you’ll know, his best known song, “Heartaches By The Number,” which Guy Mitchell took to the top of the pop charts in 1959. Unrestricting himself to Nashville, he wasn’t even averse to dabbling in R’n’B, penning “The Chokin’ Kind,” a hit for Joe Simon in 1969. Howard summed up his writing style with the legendarily pithy phrase, since adopted as the yardstick of a good country song, “three chords and the truth.”

I Don’t Know a Thing About Love bounces out the corral convincingly with “Tiger By The Tail,” all chunky guitar twangs and Nelson sounding like he’s having a hoot. Howard cowrote this song (and many others) with Buck Owens, and it gave Owens his biggest hit. It was inspired by the Esso/Exxon tagline of the day, around putting a tiger in your tank. Nelson here certainly sounds as if he has one in his. That aforementioned Joe Simon hit follows, with Nelson slowing it down, stripping out the funk, finding a classic truck stop weepie in the remains. Those of us who can never wait for the inevitable appearance of Mickey Raphael’s mournful harp on any Nelson record need wait no longer, as Raphael blows a corker on this one, ahead a typically stuttering solo from Trigger. (Trigger? Google it, in the context of Willie Nelson.)

Heartaches always a stock in trade for Howard, “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)” could almost be a rerun for the better known song, itself not included, perhaps as Nelson covered it before, if back in 1965, on Country Music Favorites, Willie Nelson Style. A pity, as that was not Nelson’s finest moment, arguably before he hit his stride. Nevertheless, this lighter song gets a good seeing-to that doesn’t disappoint. Mike Johnson’s steel is especially good. As is the piano, provided by Jim “Moose” Brown, for another tears-in-your-beer number, “Life Turned Her That Way,” another short doozy of a harmonica interlude from Raphael, bookending with more whining steel. The title track may be the weakest song in the set; it’s pleasant enough, but Nelson can do this sort of thing in his sleep, it sounding he here he was on automatic pilot.

Thankfully, that is retrieved by a sterling version of Howards’s other best-known song, “Streets Of Baltimore,” popularized to more modern audiences by Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam. Lyrically it could be the flip of “Life Turned Her That Way,” taken from the view of the embittered husband rather than those with a kindlier view. The band play it like the best Texas bar band in the world, and hey, maybe they are. “Busted” here manages to find a middle road between the best-known other versions of this song, capturing Johnny Cash’s swagger with Ray Charles’ soul, with Raphael puffing and blowing like an old bluesman. Moose’s organ is great, too.

“She Called Me Baby” captures a glossy retro feel, in waltz time, with lots of echo on the steel and the guitars. That’s lots of echo, and I feel the 50’s Western swing mood deliberate. It is certainly better than the gloopy strings when Charlie Rich covered it and had a hit. (It would have been interesting had there been an effort to look at it in the style of Candi Staton, who also had a hit with it, changing the sex of the protagonist!) “Too Many Rivers” returns to the template elsewhere, with Nelson in as fine vocal fettle as anywhere on this project, he presenting the words convincingly and believably. Trigger gets to show his chops again. Finally, and to close this engaging album comes “Beautiful Annabel Lee,” a sweet song of thwarted childhood love, steel and harp the fuel that feeds this one. A bit soppy, but since when was this sort of music not?

Nelson could possibly put anything out at this stage of his career, and have it praised by default. To be fair, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love stands up on its own legs, irrespective, as does indeed his last album. And for that matter the one before that. So, it is true you do have to have a fair bit of love for country, and it may not quite steer sufficient into Americana crossover territory for some, but that is their problem. Any lover of Nelson and any covers lover should have a field day here.

I Don’t Know a Thing About Love Track Listing:

1. Tiger By The Tail (Buck Owens cover)
2. The Chokin’ Kind (Waylon Jennings cover)
3. Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache) (Buck Owens cover)
4. Life Turned Her That Way (Little Jimmie Dickens cover)
5. I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (Conway Twitty cover)
6. Streets Of Baltimore (Bobby Bare cover)
7. Busted (Johnny Cash with the Carter Family cover)
8. She Called Me Baby (Harlan Howard cover)
9. Too Many Rivers (Claude Gray cover)
10. Beautiful Annabel Lee (Burl Ives cover)

Mar 082023

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

The Church With One Bell
By 1998, John Martyn had lost the teen-idol good looks and the equally angelic voice of his debut recordings. He’d been through a few bumps along the way as well, distressingly, walking proof of what happens when you don’t “just say no.” Let’s just say his appetite for a self-destructive intake was prodigious; when his website describes him as a “maverick,” often you can paraphrase that into “drunken bum.” The irony is, at the time of his demise in 2009, he was several months sober and about to embark on new work. I have difficulty when character is allowed to impact on appreciation, with individuals being disappeared on account their attitudes. After all, across the centuries of artistic endeavor, to paraphrase Ian Dury, “there ain’t half been some clever bastards,” with the emphasis on the latter word as other than a term of affection or illegitimacy. Sure, there is a line to be drawn, but, I ain’t drawing it here.

Most folk know only the early stuff, with “May You Never” the frontrunner amongst the songs known to civilians, even if only from the versions of others, like Eric Clapton or Rod Stewart. I freely confess it was only as he became more ragged and less reliable that I took to him, and to his later work. In fact, it wasn’t until the Glasgow Walker album that I plucked up enough interest to fully engage, any residual folk singer in him long since buried. Now he planted his feet very much more in a smoky jazz club dive ambience, where his superlatively slurred delivery matched the swirls of brass, often embracing elements of the then-new trip-hop movement.

It was around about this time that he put out The Church With One Bell, his only collection of covers, sourced across an enormous range of styles and influences. How often would Portishead and Billie Holiday find themselves as bedfellows? His 20th studio release, it was actually put together in 1998, so two years ahead Glasgow Walker, and was made with long term associates Spencer Cozens (keyboards), John Giblin (bass) and Arran Ahmun (percussion). Remarkably, or not, depending on your opinions as to whether the sometime murkiness of sound is deliberate or not, it took barely a week to conceive, choose and put together. And the church on the cover? Martyn’s. The deal was, apparently, that his fee was the purchase, for him, of the same church as pictured, along with its solitary bell, as he liked the look of it. Fair enough?! Whether the company recouped is left unsaid, the record only attaining a peak position of 51 on the chart of the day. Irrespective, it has remained a core favorite amongst his following and deserves a place in this ongoing series.
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Mar 062023

Singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas has been an underrated, reliable presence in the pages of Cover Me for over a decade. Most recently, she’s been on a kick of some noteworthy, and unexpected, cover picks, like Bjork and Mariah Carey. There’s wry humor in her approach, at least in terms of song choice — taking left-field or especially poppy picks down a peg from the stratosphere, mellowing things out. But the effect has felt consistently authentic and heartfelt, and remains so on her latest cover: a version of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.”

When I first encountered Thomas and her music, it was in close collaboration with Sufjan Stevens. The pair have worked together frequently through the years, perhaps most surprisingly around Stevens’s 2010 record, The Age of Adz. That record, one of Stevens’ first moves away from acoustic material, felt like a total glitchy aberration (meant in the best way possible). Thomas’s solo work remains a bit less radical than Adz, but it’s in this liminal sonic space that her cover of “Eternal Flame” resides: part electronic rip in the continuum, part gentle folksy reel. The track, featuring collaborators William Fitzsimmons and Denison Witmer, is featured in an EP series that Thomas is calling Lullabies for Parents. That title feels like the most fitting description possible for what Thomas has made here: dark, heavy and drowsy, supremely dreamy.

Check out more Rosie Thomas covers here.
Check out more covers by The Bangles here.