Jan 142022
 
Carla Thomas

Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.

I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.

In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.

This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:

1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)

2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)

For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.

My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.

Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).

As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).

I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s on you (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.

As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops

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Oct 272021
 

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

Carole King tribute

For a time in the 1970s, Tapestry was the album to have under your arm, especially if you wanted, or needed, to show off some serious and sensitive right-on dude vibes with, um, the ladies. In those far off and distant days, as well as being, for real, a stellar album, transforming the shy Brill Building hit song machine into a credible songwriter of some rather more finesse than had been earlier appreciated, Carole King became, in an instant, a feminist icon, appealing across the range of an increasingly politicized gender awareness. While this may have neither been her aim or intention, the timing was perfect, the world ready and aching for singer-songwriters able to intelligently bare their emotions over some gentle laid back Laurel Canyon arrangements.

But let’s not forget quite how impressive the King legacy had been, prior to Tapestry. She wrote, or co-wrote, often with first husband, Gerry Goffin, 118 Billboard hits, making her the prime successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century. Songs that have become standards, songs with a longevity that have you remembering the words immediately, after decades, prompted by a single note. Songs like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Goin’ Back,” and many many more, with versions aplenty in any genre you might wish to pick, if usually prime pop fodder in their initial iterations, with King herself far from the spotlight. (OK, she had also had a crack at performing, in 1962, with her gauche and affecting “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” which was a hit, but the world then preferred her songs performed by sassy girl groups and tight-shirted medallion men crooners.)

Divorcing Goffin in 1968, and wearying of the world of processing chart hits for others, King moved to L.A., to Laurel Canyon, arriving much the same time as a bevy of like-minded individuals, Her goal: to revive her own career as a performer, having put it on hold earlier thanks to the undoubted success of being a go-to writer. With neighbors like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, this was to be a fertile breeding ground for King. With an earlier album disappointing the charts, in cahoots with Taylor and much of his backing band, Tapestry slowly came together, coming out in 1971, with one of its songs already a massive hit. James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was huge, and Taylor made sure all knew who had written it, many perhaps surprised that it was the same writer of all those 60s chart-toppers. The fact that King chose also to include a couple of those early songs, reworked and reenvisioned, amongst the newer material gave the ideal crossover between her old audience and a massive new audience. Tapestry stormed to the number one slot of the album charts, staying there for upward of three, nearly four, months. The two lead singles each hit the top of their respective chart. Acclaimed by all, and grabbing four Grammys in 1972, it has notched up 25 million sales and counting, remaining on the chart for an astonishing 313 weeks, a record only surpassed by Pink Floyds’s Dark Side of the Moon.

So, then, what of Tapestry Revisited? Coming nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1995, the idea was to recreate Tapestry with a roster of the great and good of the day. However, rather than remembering the idea and the ambience of the original, with its mood of getting it together in the country, here it was if the older and earlier King was being celebrated, as the artists chosen came, largely, from the pool of pop royalty rather than from singer-songwriters plowing any similar farrow at that time. So we get the Bee Gees, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, he then at the peak of his satin and sashes ridiculousness. But, fair play, if the job required was to draw a new attention to the songs and their writer, this it would certainly be capable of doing.

Although Tapestry Revisited went gold, it peaked at #53 and few would put it above the original. But it has its moments.
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Mar 012021
 
best cover songs february 2021
Black Country, New Road – Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)

If you’re expecting the “Time to Pretend” you knew and loved a decade ago, think again. UK post-punkers Black Country, New Road, one of the buzziest bands of the new year, deconstruct the song entirely. It starts pretty sane, then gradually veers off the tracks into chaos. By the end there’s a free-jazz sax solo leading a wall of noise only barely identifiable as this, or any, song. Continue reading »

Sep 302020
 
cover songs september 2020
Amigo the Devil – Before He Cheats (Carrie Underwood cover)

When we last heard Amigo the Devil, he was stripping down a Tom Jones song to create a haunting murder ballad. Now he does the same to another highly polished pop song – but a much more recent one. “[The original is] this very confidence-boosting, really good-feeling, power-infusing song,” Amigo’s Danny Kiranos told Rolling Stone. “I was curious what it would sound like if you took away the positive nature of it and kept the lyrics, essentially the emotions they are portraying.” Continue reading »

Jan 312020
 

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!

Donny Hathaway covers

At the conclusion of Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released version of “A Song for You,” there’s a particularly revealing and heartbreaking snippet of dialogue. “Marvin Gaye (was), great,” Amy emphatically states, “but Donny Hathaway like…he couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.” It’s heartbreaking to hear for myriad reasons, but it’s also, hands down, the most beautifully spot-on description of Donny Hathaway’s transcendent gift. He was in possession of an extraordinary voice that, like Aretha’s, could easily evoke tears in the most hardened of souls, even if the song itself was expressing a seemingly uplifting sentiment. He didn’t so much sing as simply feel out loud.

By the end of 1973, Donny Hathaway had recorded three solo studio albums, a duet album with Roberta Flack, and a movie soundtrack, as well as a live album widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever made. He’d become the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, money, overwhelming attention…and pressure, much of which was self-created. He was a musical perfectionist of the extreme, complex, and occasionally insufferable Brian Wilson variety, both in the studio and onstage. And he was surprisingly insecure about the quality of his voice (a fact we standard issue humans might find hard to comprehend), so much so that in the latter years of his career he’d taken to telling colleagues that if he did any more recording, he no longer wanted to sing but just wanted to play piano.

Donny had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1971, and as time progressed, sadly, so did the disease. He also suffered from depression. By 1974 his mental health issues had become so severe that studio work and live performances became increasingly difficult to arrange and follow through with. He did what he could, when he was able, but for all intents and purposes, his career as a singular headlining and touring artist was over. As a result, from 1974 to 1979, his recorded output was minimal, consisting of two tracks with Roberta Flack in 1979 and a dozen or so solo songs, the latter of which didn’t see light of day until the release of the 2013 Rhino box set Never My Love. He ultimately died by suicide on January 13th, 1979 in New York City.

Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers to ever walk the planet, and his excursions into the world of covers remain to this day a master class in how it’s done.
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Sep 162019
 
daniel johnston youve got a friend

In the wake of Daniel Johnston’s tragic passing, a powerful new recording has just surfaced on Twitter: an experimental seven-minute cover of Carole King’s classic “You’ve Got a Friend,” recorded with a full band in Austin in 1996. The song was intended for an album called If that never got released after Johnston’s label dropped him. As Vulture reported earlier this year, the album’s producer Brian Beattie continues to fight two decades later to let it see the light of day. Johnston apparently considered it the first part of a Beattie trilogy, which also included 2001’s Rejected Unknown and 2006’s Lost and Found, which Beattie culled from the same mid-’90s sessions. Continue reading »