Jan 142022
 

Cat PowerAt this stage of her career, Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, is as arguably well known for her cover versions as her own songs. Covers is her third dedicated album thereto (we’ve looked at the first two before), with a scattering more across the rest of her other output. When other artists reach their third such collection, whispers carry that this may be a sign of fading inspiration. If Marshall’s covers were just a stack of facsimile copies, cut’n’pasted from the usual culprits, possibly that worry could carry some weight for her as well. But Marshall has long since stopped having to defend her love of remorphing and remolding the songs of others, oft citing that being her approach, anyway and as well, to her own songs. It is only recordings that are ever frozen in time and space, and most performers with any lasting legacy are constantly rewriting and revising, a view we heartily here endorse. And, as if to underline that, one of the “covers” here is of one of her old songs, “Hate,” here newly named as “Unhate.”

So what do we get here? Twelve songs, from this century to just over halfway through the last, from artists some celebrated and some surprising, taking no heed of genre or expectation in the songs chosen. So Frank Ocean sits alongside Nick Cave, Shane McGowan with Lana del Rey, with Billie Holiday and Kitty Wells (Kitty Wells, fer chrissakes!) for good measure. Plus, as if deliberately to contradict my earlier comment, there is even a cover of Jackson Browne’s surely by now overly frequently presented “These Days.”
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Mar 052021
 

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

Siouxsie Through the Looking Glass

By 1987 the angular sounds of Siouxsie and the Banshees had mellowed enough for them to be regulars in the British charts and on the accompanying TV shows. The striking appearance of icy she-wolf Siouxsie had always contributed much to their success, her atonal approach to melody both idiosyncratic and chillingly effective, the only remnant from their first appearances, wherein the grasp of rudimentary technique was echoed by the lack of any instrumental prowess. Which only goes to prove the worth of their perseverance with the punk ethos: in any other time the band wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Fresh from touring Tinderbox, an album that had cemented their reputation, the band spent the downtime back in the studio, producing the covers album they had always wanted to do. No stopgap contractual filler, this; Through the Looking Glass was squeezed in ahead of any expectation. Of course, the band had already shown their cover capabilities, with the delightfully uber-psychedelic version of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” a brave move in a time when admitting a Beatles affinity (in public, at least) might be considered poor form.

The initial choice of songs came largely from the early ’70s, a time when the old order was beginning to look pregnable, with new styles beginning to emerge, biting at the ankles of the towering giants of an increasingly bloated music industry. Bands such as Kraftwerk were showing how much (and how little) could be done with cheap electronic keyboards; Roxy Music were blurring and blending styles and genres into a sci-fi retrodelia; Television were proving outriders for the earlier and more cerebral NY take on punk. Add in the bizarre world of Sparks, quirky oddballs in their homeland, who were beginning to find acceptance in the UK. Then mix well with some of the more favored sons of the sixties: the Doors, Iggy from the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. Here were where Siouxsie and company went panning for gold. With a song from The Jungle Book thrown in for good measure. And perhaps the oddest version yet of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” for dessert.
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Nov 022020
 
best cover songs october 2020
Andrew Bird – Andalucia (John Cale cover)

Props to any musician who chooses some non-obvious tunes for their Christmas album. Even Joni Mitchell’s “River” has so often been served as the “surprise” holiday song by now that it feels pretty played out. Andrew Bird covers a few standards on his upcoming Hark! – “Oh Holy Night,” “White Christmas” (though weirdly not the hymn that gave the album its name) – but makes room for some seasonally-appropriate fare John Prine, Handsome Family, and, on the first single, John Cale. Continue reading »

Sep 142020
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Dozens (hundreds?) of young artists fell for the 2015 song of the year, Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and posted their own version of the hit on social media. But only one of them found herself taking a call from Prince, who saw enough talent and originality in her post to want to hear more. That was just one early “lift-off” moment in the career of singer, song-writer, pianist, and Blue Note recording artist Kandace Springs.

The calls to collaborate kept coming, from artists in diverse genres, locations, and generations: Ghostface Killah, Daryl Hall, Black Violin, and David Sanborn in the U.S., Aqualung and Metropole Orkest in Europe. (We highlighted her Metropole Orkest hook-up in our Charles Mingus celebration back in April.) Springs’ vocal stylings are varied enough, and her roots are deep enough, to deal with all of it: her work reveals clear hip-hop, soul, and R&B influences, but classical music and straight-ahead jazz are her true loves. Her life-long hometown of Nashville may be synonymous with country music, but that’s one form Springs hasn’t taken on. Yet.
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Aug 312020
 
best cover songs august 2020
Alex Kapranos & Clara Luciani – Summer Wine (Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra cover)

Clara Luciani is Nancy Sinatra and Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos is Lee Hazlewood on this charming cover. Kapranos wrote, “When the lockdown started, we decided to record [‘Summer Wine’] — more for ourselves than anything else. We wanted to create the atmosphere of an imaginary world away from the confinement we were experiencing. Not that we were unhappy, but the imagination is the greatest medium for escape and adventure… After the lockdown eased off, we got together to film the video with our friends Adrien, Leo, Fiona and Hugo. I love the ideas they had, which suit the mood of the song and reflect our… well, our love of karaoke!” Continue reading »

Aug 292020
 

Blackbirds LaVettejenn champion the blue albumIt is hard to believe Bettye LaVette is 74… actually, scratch that: it is only too easy, what with her raggedly powerful voice etched deep with the experience of hard knocks. In what she laughingly now calls her 5th career, the fact she is here at all demonstrates the quiet determination and self belief that has seen her drag herself up onto her uppers, clawing her way into the limelight some decades after she was carelessly and callously dumped by the industry she had dedicated her life to. And still does, as her new album Blackbirds demonstrates.

Like many, I first heard of her in the noughties, on the background of a disc of shelved recordings making its way to Gilles Petard, a French soul music aficionado who re-released those 1973 tapes, Child of the Seventies, as Souvenirs a full 23 years later. Avid ears liked what they heard and she was off. Many of those ears to appreciate that LaVette had had her first hit single in 1963, and was a running mate alongside all the soul greats–Aretha, Otis, Marvin–if less willing to play the party line, preferring her own counsel.

Since then, LaVette has produced a regular stream of releases. Not a major songwriter, she has always styled her work as re-interpretation, specializing in the rock and pop acts of the ’60s through ’80s, rather than the Motown and Stax staples you might expect of her. The term cover version is arguably insulting of her talent; she refuses to simply echo the originals, blitzing both Laurel Canyon hippiesque and British Invasion bombast into a raw R’n’B screw-you. Her last album, 2018’s Things Have Changed, consisted entirely of Bob Dylan covers. She has scooped up awards and kept active to the astonishment of many of her initial peers: her 2012 book, A Woman Like Me, is a roller coaster read, outlining her unchanged approach to life then and now. Your mother would probably not like her.

Her new release Blackbirds is slightly different, taking a wider perspective and is to celebrate the songs of, largely, her peers, black women singers with something to say and who made damn sure they did. (Black birds, yes?) So she covers the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Leonard Cohen’s longtime writing partner and backing singer, Sharon Robinson. Tipping a more overtly jazz and blues hat than her usual rock’n’soul style, there is also a timely take on Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit.” Plus a slightly surprising closing track. Backed by a slick quartet, led by album producer Steve Jordan on drums, the overall feel is of a single set piece, the backing as tight as LaVette’s voice is loosely compelling.
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