Nov 042022
 

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

dolly parton covers

Dolly Parton is a singer and a songwriter. I mention that obvious truth because these days it tends to get overshadowed by her other titles: Icon. Inspiration. National Treasure. The Only Human Being Alive Everyone Agrees On (Radiolab produced an entire nine-part radio series based on that premise). And she is all those things, but first and foremost she’s a working 9-to-5 musician who has been perfecting her craft for seven decades.

Parton says she wrote her first song as a five year-old in 1952. She hasn’t stopped writing songs since. She one estimated she’s amassed 10,000. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the verifiable numbers speak for themselves: 52 studio albums, 25 Number One songs, 100 million records sold worldwide. Just as important a tribute to her gifts, though, are how often her songs get covered. Not just the obvious ones, the “Jolene”s and “I Will Always Love You”s (though plenty of those, lord knows), but the album cuts, the singles that didn’t top the charts, and the songs she didn’t write herself but made into Dolly Parton songs anyway.

Some of the below covers sound a little bit like Dolly’s own music. Most do not. She considers herself straight country, not, as she made clear when first nominated for the Rock Hall earlier this year, rock and roll. But, in this list, she is rock and roll. And folk and pop and hip-hop and soul and a whole host of other genres. Dolly Parton may indeed be the only human being everyone agrees on. What a way to make a living.

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Sep 242022
 

Things Happen That WayLet’s start with a quick nod to the elephant in the room. Dr. John’s Things Happen That Way isn’t a cover album per se, given there are a number of Mac Rebennack originals on this posthumous release. But given the dude has released his 32nd studio album after having been gone these past two years, we’re of a mind to forgive that. Plus, with the otherwise wealth of covers included, heck, of course we had to review it. And for extra kudos, it is a splendid and unexpected joy, delving into the more country flavors of the N’Awlins voodoo meister.

It seems Mr. Mac was always a bit keen on classic country music. He talked about wanting to make this album long before he actually got to. Now, this here country music is none of your Americana or alt-country; this is the real deal, country that demands to be followed by “and Western.” Between 2017 and 2019, Rebennack and guitarist/producer Shane Theriot met up and made it happen. They enlisted several old buddies along the way, cutting tracks until Rebennack’s heart disease finally caught up with him.

However, with his demise, so too, it seemed, died the final say in what songs and which versions would be allowed to appear, this right now transferring to his estate. So what we get isn’t quite what Dr. John had concluded in his lifetime. Mastering took place later, with some of the versions tweaked to further fulfil, says his daughter, her father’s wishes. He re-recorded “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” perhaps his best known song, with additional vocals from Rickie Lee Jones. They ditched this in favor of one with Lukas Nelson and his band. Which isn’t a bad thing, but both mayhap would have been better?

Anyhoo, with no further ado, what’s Things Happen That Way like?
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Aug 252022
 

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

Elvis Costello Covers

When Elvis Costello first appeared on the scene, the press fell over themselves not only to praise him, but to pigeonhole him. He was a punk. He was a new waver. He was a nerd, what with his glasses and gawky suits (Dave Marsh memorably said that “Elvis Costello looks like Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP Oil Treatment”). Most commonly, he was lumped in with Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel, and others as an Angry Young Man. “I’m not angry,” Costello protested on My Aim Is True, and everyone nodded and smiled and patted his head.

Costello wasn’t interested in living on that particular cul-de-sac. He began expanding his musical palette, making more complex songs with more complex rhymes. He delved into other genres, starting with country & western (to the dismay of both Costello fans and C&W fans, and to the pleasant surprise of music fans) and moving on to blues, jazz, orchestral, classical pop, and more. As he became a greater student, he became a greater teacher, giving credit in word and action to his influences, penning a well-received autobiography, and hosting the talk/music show Spectacle, where he interviewed and played with his peers. He continues to record – his most recent album, The Boy Named If, was released earlier this year – and has settled into the role of elder statesman that his talent earned him long ago.

Costello turns one year elder today, his 68th birthday. We’re celebrating with a collection of the fifty best Elvis Costello covers we could get our hands on. They reflect his wide range of styles, revel in his literacy, plumb his depths. Most of all, they reveal his heart, showing over and over again how his love of song can lift, wrench, open up the people who listen to him and to his music. We hope you find this list as worthy of celebration as Elvis Costello is.

– Patrick Robbins, Features Editor

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Aug 012022
 
best cover songs of july 2022
Brett Eldredge – Cold Heart (Elton John, Dua Lipa cover)

Against all odds for a rocker of his generation, Elton John had a genuine hit with a single he released just last year, at age 74: “Cold Heart.” It topped the chart in the UK – his first song to do so in 16 years. It did nearly as well in the States, reaching number 7 and topping a number of secondary charts. Having current pop hitmaker Dua Lipa on board no doubt helped, as did releasing it as a remix by Pnau (“Hot Dance/Electronic Songs” was one of those secondary U.S. charts). It also fairly shameless incorporates bits of earlier hit singles “Rocket Man” and “Sacrifice” as well as deeper Elton cuts “Kiss the Bride” and “Where’s the Shoorah?” In country star Brett Eldridge’s live cover, though, it all blends together seamlessly. Continue reading »

Apr 292022
 
best cover songs april 2022
Aimee Mann – Brooklyn (Steely Dan cover)

If you missed the whole brouhaha when Steely Dan dropped Aimee Mann as their opening act, it’s too long to recap here. To skip to the end, Mann tweeted, “All is forgiven if Donald [Fagan] just tells me what Brooklyn is about.” And he did! So, at a recent show at City Winery, she covered it. All does indeed appear to be forgiven. Continue reading »

Mar 172022
 

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

I can’t judge the person who thinks that “Every Breath You Take” is a song of pure devotion, or that “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. I can’t judge, because for years I insisted “Dirty Old Town” was a traditional Irish ballad. We all make mistakes.

The truth is that “Dirty Old Town” has nothing to do with Ireland, and it’s not all that old. Ewan MacColl wrote the song in 1948 about the northern England industrial town of Salford, where the songwriter was born and raised. He came up with the song as a quick fix for a play he had written about Salford—he needed a bit of filler to facilitate a costume change. A humble beginning for a song about MacColl’s own beyond-humble beginnings.

Despite his place of birth, MacColl long claimed to be Scottish. As an upcoming dramatist, he allied himself with the Scottish literary renaissance then taking place. His Scottish parents christened him James Henry Miller, but he renamed himself in honor of a nineteenth century Scottish poet.

So how did the song’s connection with Ireland take hold? It’s mainly because popular Irish trad folk band the Dubliners recorded a version in 1968. At that point the Dubliners had played and recorded traditional Irish material almost entirely. Presented in this context, it’s no wonder the song about northern England passed as Irish.

But it’s also a matter of timing: the Dubliners’ version came out the same year that “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland—the bombings, riots, protests, and paramilitary campaigns that would last for 30 years. The violence in the song’s climax—“I’m going to make a good sharp axe […] I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree”—could not help but resonate with the political and sectarian resentments erupting in Belfast and beyond. For Ewan MacCall, an avowed Marxist, the song’s anger had to do with the brutal labor conditions in the industrial north (axe = communism, tree = capitalism, at least according to some interpretations), but this is a classic case of a song transcending its own origin story.

MacColl had another passion and pursuit: he was a key architect of the post-war folk-song revival—a sort of Celtic Alan Lomax. In fact Lomax—the champion song hunter from Texas, the man whose field recordings brought to light Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and hundreds more—joined forces with MacColl when the American decamped to the U.K. and Spain during the 1950s. MacColl along with Lomax had everything to do with the blossoming of folk music clubs and folk recording labels on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, it was MacColl’s efforts to give folk traditions legitimacy and popularity that created the very cultural conditions in which songs like “Dirty Old Town” could thrive.

Here’s our selection of covers, the big influential ones and the overlooked ones both.

Frank Black–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

Pixies founder and frontman Frank Black (aka Black Francis) hails from Boston, probably the most Irish city in North America. But the city we need to talk about here is Nashville. Black’s cover is so infused with southern soul music and country music influences, you might think for a second it’s Clint Black, not Frank Black. This rendition is from 2006’s Fast Man Raider Man, an album Black recorded with a bevy of Tennessee studio legends (Steve Cropper among them) and younger country notables like Marty Brown (in a vocal duet with Black). It’s a variant that shrugs off the usual associations we make with the song and with the ex-Pixie himself. After Black and Brown trade verses, the volume swells and they sail away on a wave of shouty harmonies. They bring a sharp edge back into the song, especially the part about the axe.

Steve Earle and Bap Kennedy–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

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For a native of San Antonio, Texas, Steve Earle has formed impressive connections to Ireland and Irish music. The Pogues guested on his first album. His mid-career hit “The Galway Girl” is accepted in Ireland as an Irish standard—which might remind you of another non-Irish writer of a song adopted by Ireland.

This track comes out of Earle’s collaboration with Belfast-born Bap Kennedy. Despite Kennedy’s partnerships with high-profiler like Van Morrison and Mark Knopler, the singer-songwriter flew below most people’s radar. He led a band called Energy Orchard, and released a few solo albums before passing away in 2016 at age 54. This track is particularly obscure: it is an unlisted bonus cut on Kennedy’s solo debut (produced by Steve Earle and released on Earle’s label). In fact it’s really an Easter egg, coming on after something like 25 minutes of silence on the album’s last track.

Earle later covered “Dirty Old Town” on a MacColl tribute album, but this duet with Bap Kennedy has the correct level of rough, with Jerry Douglas on dobro providing the smooth.

Bettye LaVette–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

As we’ve noted on a few occasions in the past, Bettye LaVette is a singer known to take command of a song in anyway she sees fit. If the lyric needs some rewriting, a rewriting it gets.

“Dirty Old Town” is a song that has always lent itself to renewal. Its first line originally ended with the phrase “by the Gasworks croft.” Interpreters usually change “croft” to another one-syllable word—“glow,” “door,” “walk,” “wall”—because “croft” is obscure. The original lyrics also referred to “the Salford wind,” until altered to “smoky wind.” These modest retrofits helped modernize the song and make it more relatable.

When LaVette sings “Dirty Old Town,” it’s Detroit she’s singing about. MacColl starts with the gasworks, LaVette with the Graystone—the famous dance hall that was Detroit’s citadel of jazz and Motown music. In MacColl’s original, “cats are prowling,” but in LaVette’s version “cops are prowling.” The violence that occurs in LaVette’s version may be racially motivated, but LaVette unites with MacColl in bearing witness to brutality in its varying forms. LaVette also celebrates her city, and in the climatic verse she throws us a curve she expresses pride in the fact that Detroit resisted the axe that tried to chop it down. She’s a soul survivor herself, and in her hometown’s defiance sees a reflection of her own story.

The Pogues–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

If the “Definitive Version” medal doesn’t go to The Dubliners for their cover, the award must go to The Pogues. After all, it’s got the proper lineage – the songwriter’s daughter Kirsty MacColl herself was affiliated with the Pogues (though her stint came some time after the “Dirty Old Town” recording).

Frontman Shane MacGowan pretty much presented like a bloke fresh off a shift at the gasworks–he sounded like one, too. That’s part of the charm of the Pogues’ cover. In a parallel to Ewan MacColl’s bio, the Englishman MacGowan came to identify strongly with his Irish immigrant parents’ background. After his punk incarnation, MacGowan reinvented himself musically with an Irish roots concept. Pogues-style “Dirty Old Town” borrows from the Dubliners version and from the original version. The band gives it an instrumental verse, and they do a change key on the verse, too, which boosts the song’s energy most rousingly. No wonder their cover re-ignited interest in the song.

The Dubliners–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

We close with a (not the) definite version of the song. (It’s a split decision with The Pogues—and the split is along generational lines.) Usually we talk about cover versions bringing a fresh new angle or sound to an older, somewhat stale initial take. The Dubliners version of “Dirty Old Town” somehow feels older than MacColl’s 1952 original, more trad than the original, which after all had an early modern jazz feel to it, complete with clarinet solo.

If The Dubliners thought The Pogues somehow piggy-backed on their work or stole their thunder, they sure didn’t show any resentment about it. The two bands teamed up numerous times afterwards; they appeared on each other’s albums, and sometimes shared the same stage at the same time (with Joe Strummer joining in on at least one occasion, in case the stage wasn’t crowded enough). Both bands probably loved crossing generational divides in addition to nationalistic ones. They were all of them rakes, rebels, and rovers.