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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Nov 182021
 
Lake Street Dive Hall & Oates

Lake Street Dive‘s annual Halloween cover videos have grown increasingly elaborate with each passing year. Past covers have included “Bohemian Rhapsody” and last year’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” played outdoors in Brooklyn as a full-on recreation of the Beatles’ rooftop concert. That video’s homespun goofiness offered a bit of welcome respite in the throes of deep COVID (and the 2020 election season), with a stellar performance that gave the band a chance to channel their pop forebears while also putting their own signature stamp on the classic tune. For Halloween 2021, Lake Street Dive continued the trend of outsized musical stunts with a hammy cover of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams (Come True).” Continue reading »

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 »

Dec 042020
 

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

She's Gone covers

“She’s Gone” by Daryl Hall & John Oates was born old school. Even though the sign over the door of what was primarily known as “Soul” has long been replaced with the marginally more modern and wider sonic net of “R & B,” “She’s Gone” remains proud, righteous and straight up SOUL to its core. It’s an unabashed, beauteous love letter to the glorious Motown sounds that preceded it a decade before its creation, all harmony, hook, and heartache. It is forever immune from descriptive modernization.

John Oates’s explanation of the song’s genesis in his fine, funny 2017 memoir Change of Seasons was surprisingly comic, given the song’s theme of loss. It’s based on a very brief fling he’d had with a woman he’d encountered on an arctic night in an NYC diner at 3 a.m., who was wearing a pink tutu and cowboy boots (like you do). They dated for a few weeks until she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared, exerting the ultimate romantic gesture of cruelty by standing him up on New Year’s Eve. He says when he realized “she was going to be a no-show on that night of nights,” he thought, “If she’s not coming tonight… then she’s gone.” With that, a chorus was born. John shared the story and his melodic snippet with Daryl the next day, who then sat down at his black Wurtlizer and fleshed out the legendary intro and verses… and voila, “Everybody’s high on consolation,” forever and ever amen.

John knew the song was special. After they’d recorded it, he made this unbelievably prescient observation in his journal:

3/2/73, She’s Gone–I’m putting it down in writing. This is the one. I believe in this one.

Continue reading »

Oct 052020
 
best tribute albums

Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now. Continue reading »