At a recent show in Gothenburg, Sweden, English pop superstars Coldplay led the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ 1997 hit, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Played during the last quarter of their set, between an acoustic version of “In my Place” and the track “Humankind” from their most recent album, lead singer Chris Martin begins by playing around on the piano to arrive at the iconic melody line.
Though not their biggest hit in terms of sales or charts, “Clocks” is certainly one of Coldplay‘s most iconic songs. This is in part due to to the insistent piano riff, which made the song stand out among the other big hits of 2003. But also: it has been sampled bunch of times since, including by many hip hop and R&B artists.
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.
When it comes to instrumental covers of popular music, my go-to is the edgier jazz artists–you probably know the ones I mean. They are lovable troublemakers, but sometimes their jarring ways, all the virtuoso-signaling, is not what the mood calls for. More and more I appreciate instrumentalists who play the melody straight, who embrace the original arrangement of the song and work within its comforting confines.
The trick is that a more modest and direct approach can wash the color out of a song–it becomes the music you hear when the bank puts you on hold. A good cover has a proper edge to it: there’s embellishment and surprise in it, a searching quality, a point of view–all the things missing from the music that elevators listen to during their work hours. For me, the Michael Udelson Trio brings all the good aspects to their jazzy treatments, and leaves behind the undesirable bits.
The band has so far released two recordings, both of them cover albums: Irrational Numbers and Minor Infractions (2015 and 2016). (During the COVID lockdown period, the trio got together virtually to share some new material with fans–so maybe there’s more albums coming in the future.) This next part I find mystifying: these two albums and the songs on them have a vanishingly small number of views/plays. (Probably most of those plays are mine.) The trio’s most popular track on Spotify is their take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” It has 17,000 plays. For every other Udelson track, Spotify displays a blank instead a number in the “Plays” column–which why the phrase “vanishingly small” seems apt. It’s fair to ask how that 17,000 figure compares to any jazz piano version of “Paranoid Android.” Here’s a point of comparison: Brad Mehldau’s cover has nearly 5,000,000 plays.
Few seem to know or care about MUT–not even its own members, as we’ll see shortly. So who are these guys, and where their fans at?
Avhath – Cool / Levitating / Don’t Start Now (Dua Lipa covers)
What’s better than one Indonesian black-metal Dua Lipa cover? Three Indonesian black-metal Dua Lipa covers! Not that you’d ever know these were Dua Lipa songs unless you were listening really closely to the lyrics (and could manage to make them out).
The Band of Heathens – El Paso City (Marty Robbins cover)
During lockdown, Band of Heathens hosted a regular livestream variety show called Good Time Supper Club. One segment, “Remote Transmissions,” featured them covering a new song every episode – over 50 in all. They’re collecting some of the best on a forthcoming album of the same name: Remote Transmissions. “Making records is always about cataloging any point in time. We wanted to celebrate the unique collaborative aspect of the show,” guitarist Ed Jurdi told American Songwriter. “What better way to document the last year than with these songs?” First up is this take on a Marty Robbins country classic.
Barbaro – Believe (Cher cover)
Progressive bluegrass quartet Barbaro takes on a few obvious inspirations on their new EP Under the Covers. Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind,” makes sense. Wilco’s “Jesus Etc,” sure. But the other two tunes venture a little further afield. Sheryl Crow’s pop hit “If It Makes You Happy” makes for a jaunty fiddle and banjo number, as does, surprisingly, Cher’s “Believe.”
Andrew VanWyngarden – Dance Monkey (Tones and I cover)
One of the biggest one-hit wonders of the last few years, pop singer Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” emerged out of seeming nowhere to top charts across the world last year. In her home country of Australia, it is the longest chart-topper ever, breaking a record held by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”! Despite its ubiquity, however, major covers have been sparse (perhaps because many people find the song, you know, annoying). Never one to shy away from putting off his audience, though, MGMT frontman Andrew VanWyngarden gave it a trippy psychedelic-folk cover as part of a radio station fundraising challenge.