Alicia Bognnano spearheads Bully, an alt-indie project that originally started out as a rock band. In her cover of the Jackson Browne original “These Days” performed at SiriusXM, she cultivates a chill-mournful magnetic sound.
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Last week we kicked off our new One Hit Wonders series with ten covers of big 1950s hits, and today we continue it with 20 covers of 1960s smashes.
Some classic songs getting covered in here, in some cases by artists that should have had many more hits just as big. So it goes in pop music. We’ll probably never be able to do a The 40 Best Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Covers Ever list, though, so we celebrate them here with a few fun reimaginings of their early 1960 chart-topper “Stay.”
Is there a more evocative term than sibling harmony? And we are here talking about singing, rather than the standard well-rehearsed tales of dysfunctional derring-do betwixt embattled brothers, that usually renders the phrase, at best, ironic. No, this is that sweet spot, blood on blood, wherein the gene pool confers a mystic closeness between voices: think Everly, Louvin, McGarrigle. There are a lot, many falling loosely into country genres.
As do these guys, Adam and David Moss, who go a step further and are identical twins. Illinois natives, they grew up with their Dad’s record collection, singing along and honing the precision between their voices. Sure, Don and Phil figured large in that collection, it not long before comparisons were being made. With a couple of well-received albums and an EP under their belts, and tours supporting the likes of Sarah Jarosz, now seemed as good as any to drop a slew of covers (well, two months ago, actually – apologies for the delay).
A quick glance at the list of song might raise slight concern; do we really need yet another “These Days,” for one? Well, you know, maybe we do. Really. Let’s investigate.
Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
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…
At 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.”
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
“We dreamed of all the crazy places we never been. Like California.” So sings/speaks Bill Kirchen in the classic Commander Cody song “Mama Hated Diesels,” aptly summing up the lure of the Golden State. And, with due hats tipped to Tennessee and to New York State, is there any other that has drawn in so many songwriter acolytes to the flame it has provided, and for so long? Which, by way of introduction, is where Dave Alvin headed with West of the West, a glorious potpourri of songs from the 5th largest economy in the world, pulled together, chosen and sung by the erstwhile Blaster and X man.