Aug 032022
 

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.

“Willie O’ Winsbury” is all about gender-fluidity, and it’s about the rejection of all things patriarchal. But it didn’t come out of some woke college campus; it’s a Scottish ballad that goes back to 1775, if not earlier. Some argue that the events it describes took place in the 13th century.

For those keeping score, “Willie O’ Winsbury” is Child Ballad #100. The Child ballads were not for children: the name comes from FC Child, the 19th century song-catcher who compiled hundreds of English and Scottish ballads from past centuries.

Even in the most modernized version of the song, its old-fashioned language isn’t easy to parse. You can listen carefully (like I did) and still miss the juicier implications and its revolutionary flavor (like I did, until I heard Scottish comedian Stewart Lee discuss it). Normally it’s best to let lyrics speak for themselves, but in this case I will write some notes in the margins:

  • The first shocker is not that the king’s unmarried daughter Janet became pregnant when he was away, or that the king rather brutally inspected her body in court in order to confirm this. The shocker is that she slept with Willie, a peasant. In feudal Europe you didn’t do this.
  • The next surprise is not that the king decides to hang Willie, but that upon seeing the strapping young man brought before the court the king’s heart melts. He admits he’d sleep with this hottie, too, if he (the king) were a woman. This king is kinky enough to realize his daughter was doing the right and natural thing after all.
  • The king invites Willie to marry his daughter and offers to make him a lord of the land. A pretty sweet deal, especially for someone being fitted for a noose.
  • Plot twist: Willie declines the offer. Oh, he’ll marry the king’s daughter all right, but it’s purely out of love, and he rejects anything to do with the king’s wealth or power. That’s the implication, anyway. The couple rejects the social order for a natural order. (Either their heads are full of early Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, or they are too horny to think straight.)
  • When the couple gallops off into the sunset, the song’s narrator implies (in not so many words) that the couple have more wealth in the form of individual liberty than any knight or lord could claim.

Of course, all this is merely one reading of one version of a popular ballad. Variants of the song exist under various titles, with this verse or that inserted, deleted, or altered. In some versions, Willie is a man of wealth in peasant disguise.

So much for the story. The tune itself–the melody and chord progression–is also worth appreciating. How the chord sequence fails to resolve harmonically at any point, but circles back on itself like a staircase in an Escher print. It never seems to lose momentum. (Well, at least not in the arrangements I like.)

And speaking of arrangements I like…
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Jun 232021
 
country westerns

Despite the name, Nashville trio Country Westerns aren’t pure old-school C&W. They work a heavy dose garage-rock grit in with their country, as seen on their new cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death.” Produced by recent Bonnie “Prince” Billy collaborator Matt Sweeney, the cover helms their new mostly-covers EP Country Westerns, released last week on Fat Possum. Continue reading »

May 192021
 
bob dylan comments about cover songs

Bob Dylan has never exactly been a loquacious interviewee. From the ’60s, when he would spend interviews mocking the press, to the ’10s, where he rarely bothers giving interviews at all, comments from Bob on any given subject are usually relatively few and far between. But I was curious, as we prepare to launch our 100 Best Bob Dylan Covers Ever list on Monday, what Dylan covers has the man himself remarked upon? Continue reading »

Sep 292020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Judy Dyble

Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Judy Dyble occupies a unique place in music history. Dyble, who passed away in July at the age of 71, played a role in the origin stories of two long-running British musical institutions. She was a founding member of the folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention, and she sang with a band called Giles, Giles and Fripp; they would go on to morph into the legendary prog-rock group King Crimson.

Dyble’s music career spanned five decades. Whether it’s on her early recordings from the ‘60s or her albums from the 2010s, the quiet power of her voice resonates like a haunting echo from the past, carrying nearly every song she sang. Throughout her life and career, she performed many excellent cover songs, proving herself as a powerful interpreter of other artists’ music.
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May 162020
 

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

britney spears covers

Last year, Rob Sheffield called 1999 “the year music exploded, the year when nothing made any damn sense, the year fans had to throw out any old-school rules for how pop worked.” If that’s true, then 2000 was the year when those new trends became the accepted norm. Back in January, we looked at covers of one of the year’s defining phenomenons – boy bands – and this month was tackle another: Britney, a pop supernova so massive she didn’t need a last name.

Her sophomore album Oops!… I Did It Again came out 20 years ago today, setting the record for the highest debut-week album sales by a female artist (it held for 15 years, until Adele’s 25). Though Spears was primarily a singles artist, her albums sold so much that even the deep cuts wormed their way into millions of teenage brains. When we compiled this list, I was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t just the half-dozen biggest hits being covered. Those songs got covered plenty, and still do (our number-four best cover of 2019 was a “Baby One More Time” – not a bad lifespan for a song written by a Swede whose grasp of English was a little rough), but musicians also dig into the album tracks and the singles that flopped.

Spears has shifted into the Vegas-residency stage of her career in recent years (not to mention Instagram star and cause-celebre hashtag). But even if she doesn’t have any more world-conquering hits in her, other artists are keeping her songs alive. Of the thousands of covers out there, here are the 25 best.

The list begins on Page 2.

Feb 192020
 

Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

song at your funeral

Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).

Today’s question, from staffer Jordan Becker: What’s a great cover of a cover?
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