Sep 282018
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

I’ve been watching early episodes of Saturday Night Live recently. On the fifth episode ever – back when it bore the shorter title Saturday Night – the host was comedian Robert Klein. Two musical guests joined him: Loudon Wainwright III and ABBA.

Wainwright’s performance plays it straight, just him and his guitar on stage. With ABBA, though, the show undermines the Swedish quartet from the start. They have to perform “S.O.S.” on a sinking Titanic set, competing for screen time with Klein and some SNL writers pretending to drown in vintage dining-lounge attire. Even when the camera lands on ABBA, it waves and swoops to indicate they’re going down with the ship too.

The second performance, “Waterloo,” does them even dirtier. Before the first verse even ends, these words pop up on the screen: “Right now ABBA is lip-syncing. It’s not their fault. The tracks didn’t arrive from Sweden.” The band appears to have no idea they are being thus undermined, even as the audience titters. I’ve watched the entire first season now, and haven’t seen any other musical performer treated this way. (The individual videos sadly aren’t anywhere embeddable, but the full episode is on Hulu).

This SNL appearance neatly embodies the ABBA dichotomy. On the one hand, they were such huge stars that the show simply had to book them. On the other, they seemed so irredeemably uncool that the show felt obliged to mock them so it didn’t lose its cultural cachet. And forty-plus years on from that performance, we treat them the same way. We’ll sing and dance along to their songs – particularly after a drink or two – but only the most ardent poptimist would put ABBA anywhere but the “guilty pleasure” category.

True, the productions may be dated, and the outfits ridiculous, but at their core the songs are rock-solid. Songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes aided by band manager Stig Anderson, penned songs that still rise above the cheese-tacular performances. And there’s no better evidence than in the thousands of genre-spanning covers. Everyone from Richard Thompson to Portishead has covered these songs – and not with a wink and a nudge either, but honestly finding timeless lyrics and melodies beneath ABBA’s very of-its-time presentation.

Cher did it too, releasing her ABBA tribute album today to piggyback on the second Mamma Mia! movie’s success (commercial success, that is, as the reviews were not kind – a true ABBA divide, there). So in honor of that, we decided to pick out the best ABBA covers ever. No, none of Cher’s make the list. But thirty other artists do. Continue reading »

Jul 092018
 
erasure atomic

Long-running British synth-pop duo Erasure completed their “World” trilogy of albums with last month’s release of World Be Live. The 24-track live album was recorded earlier this year in London, where the band was touring in support of the outfit’s seventeenth studio album, 2017’s World Be Gone.

With a deep catalog of originals and hits stretching over three decades, singer Andy Bell and founder/keyboardist Vince Clarke have plenty of crowd-pleasing material from which to choose. So choosing the Blondie song “Atomic” as the sole cover performed on the current tour says a lot about Bell’s admitted affection for the iconic 80s new wave band. Continue reading »

Apr 072017
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Phil Spector had co-written a smash, and now that he was about to produce it, he had to get the right singer. Someone whose voice could blast through the thickest Wall of Sound he ever constructed. Fortunately, he had just the voice – he’d signed Ike and Tina Turner for the express purpose of having Tina record this one song.

While Ike was paid twenty thousand dollars to stay away from the studio, Tina worked. She was singing a non-R&B song for the first time in her professional life, and where Ike was always asking her to scream, Phil told her to stick to the melody. The sessions were grueling, causing Tina literal pain; after trying and trying to get it right, her blouse soaked with sweat, she said, “Okay, Phil, one more time,” then ripped off her blouse and let out an incendiary vocal that floored everybody. “It was like the whole room exploded,” her manager said.
Continue reading »

Apr 292016
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

everybody's got to learn sometime covers

The Korgis really were an extraordinary group. With a name derived from the name of ubiquitous ’80s synthesizer makers Korg, they evolved out of the eccentric and often unclassifiable ’70s UK band Stackridge, at a time when fashion demanded shorter and hookier songs, shorter hair, skinny ties, and shiny suits, i.e. the ’80s. Stackridge were resolutely unfashionable and nominally prog, although their music could be an odd amalgam of twiddly instrumentals, folk, psychedelia and music hall. Their instrumentation could include anything from flutes and fiddles to dustbin lids, and bear tribute to the days when record companies had money to invest in the sometimes vainglorious pursuit of a hit, allowing a band to mature over several albums, rather than today’s one strike and you’re out.
Continue reading »

Apr 092012
 

Record Store Day is approaching on April 21st. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, it’s a day when independent record stores celebrate music, which seems like what they do any day they are open for business, but on this special day, record stores will promote exclusive events, like djs spinning, parades, giveaways (Amoeba in Los Angeles is hosting a contest for a free turntable and a box of vinyl), and limited releases. In the spirit of Record Store Day, Xiu Xiu, and tourmate Dirty Beaches, have recorded a split 7” on Polyvinyl, featuring Xiu Xiu playing Erasure’s “Always” and Dirty Beaches covering Françoise Hardy’s “Tu Ne Dis Rien.”

If you’re familiar with English synthpop bands, perhaps Erasure rings a bell. Their 1994 hit, or at least moderate hit in America within dance clubs, “Always,” is about wanting to always be with someone in harmony, set to a generic snythpop beat and occasional robot sounds. Xiu Xiu doesn’t mess too much with that besides adding some of their signature indecipherable sounds and frantic vocal cadence.

On the other side of the 7” is Dirty Beaches, a one-man band, run by Alex Zhang. The original “Tu Ne Dis Rien,” released in 1964, is delicate and demure, like Hardy. She almost whispers the lyrics, and with the simple beat, and dreamlike vocals of background singers, the song is light and playful. As a cover, Dirty Beaches sings in French, but his version is much more menacing. The beat is still simple, but the electronics make it sound more like a march, and anything but playful. (via Pitchfork)

Listen to more Dirty Beaches here and more Xiu Xiu here.

Jun 012011
 

This past March, Cover Me trekked to Austin for South by Southwest 2011 and returned with several new discoveries. One of the finest was Josh T. Pearson. The ex-Lift to Experience frontman stunned us at a backyard BBQ with his heartbreaking country originals and one cover, of Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon.” At the time, that was the only cover he performed. Two months later, we have three more that will blow you away. Continue reading »