Jan 142022
 

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.

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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Oct 272021
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Carole King tribute

For a time in the 1970s, Tapestry was the album to have under your arm, especially if you wanted, or needed, to show off some serious and sensitive right-on dude vibes with, um, the ladies. In those far off and distant days, as well as being, for real, a stellar album, transforming the shy Brill Building hit song machine into a credible songwriter of some rather more finesse than had been earlier appreciated, Carole King became, in an instant, a feminist icon, appealing across the range of an increasingly politicized gender awareness. While this may have neither been her aim or intention, the timing was perfect, the world ready and aching for singer-songwriters able to intelligently bare their emotions over some gentle laid back Laurel Canyon arrangements.

But let’s not forget quite how impressive the King legacy had been, prior to Tapestry. She wrote, or co-wrote, often with first husband, Gerry Goffin, 118 Billboard hits, making her the prime successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century. Songs that have become standards, songs with a longevity that have you remembering the words immediately, after decades, prompted by a single note. Songs like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Goin’ Back,” and many many more, with versions aplenty in any genre you might wish to pick, if usually prime pop fodder in their initial iterations, with King herself far from the spotlight. (OK, she had also had a crack at performing, in 1962, with her gauche and affecting “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” which was a hit, but the world then preferred her songs performed by sassy girl groups and tight-shirted medallion men crooners.)

Divorcing Goffin in 1968, and wearying of the world of processing chart hits for others, King moved to L.A., to Laurel Canyon, arriving much the same time as a bevy of like-minded individuals, Her goal: to revive her own career as a performer, having put it on hold earlier thanks to the undoubted success of being a go-to writer. With neighbors like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, this was to be a fertile breeding ground for King. With an earlier album disappointing the charts, in cahoots with Taylor and much of his backing band, Tapestry slowly came together, coming out in 1971, with one of its songs already a massive hit. James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was huge, and Taylor made sure all knew who had written it, many perhaps surprised that it was the same writer of all those 60s chart-toppers. The fact that King chose also to include a couple of those early songs, reworked and reenvisioned, amongst the newer material gave the ideal crossover between her old audience and a massive new audience. Tapestry stormed to the number one slot of the album charts, staying there for upward of three, nearly four, months. The two lead singles each hit the top of their respective chart. Acclaimed by all, and grabbing four Grammys in 1972, it has notched up 25 million sales and counting, remaining on the chart for an astonishing 313 weeks, a record only surpassed by Pink Floyds’s Dark Side of the Moon.

So, then, what of Tapestry Revisited? Coming nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1995, the idea was to recreate Tapestry with a roster of the great and good of the day. However, rather than remembering the idea and the ambience of the original, with its mood of getting it together in the country, here it was if the older and earlier King was being celebrated, as the artists chosen came, largely, from the pool of pop royalty rather than from singer-songwriters plowing any similar farrow at that time. So we get the Bee Gees, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, he then at the peak of his satin and sashes ridiculousness. But, fair play, if the job required was to draw a new attention to the songs and their writer, this it would certainly be capable of doing.

Although Tapestry Revisited went gold, it peaked at #53 and few would put it above the original. But it has its moments.
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Aug 132021
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

everything but the girl covers

Confession: I was not happy when Everything But the Girl traded in their jangly, moody, melodic guitar pop to “go electronic” in the mid-’90s. While I wouldn’t equate it to what Dylan purists apparently felt when he infamously decided to “go electric” back in the ’60s, my eternally ’80s teen self thought it sucked and felt downright betrayed. EBTG had been one of my absolute favorite bands, and here they were forsaking their nerdy identity to go hang with the cool kids, leaving behind the introspective and geeky brethren and sistren who loved them.

The song that changed it all, “Missing,” began its life innocently enough. It was just another perfectly constructed, poetic and winsome track on an album that was chock-full of them, 1994’s Amplified Heart. This original version was released as a single, but only got as high as #69 on the UK pop chart. Then, in 1995, this crazy thing happened. The duo gave the track to DJ-Producer Todd Terry to remix for club play. But calling it a “remix” is underselling what it really was: a resurrection. Terry expertly sculpted “Missing” into an sleek, housed-up, heartbreaking dance anthem for the ages. It sold millions of copies all over the planet and has since become a permanent fixture on every “Best Songs of the ’90s” playlist in existence.

The success of “Missing” paved the way for the duo’s stylistic shift from earthy acoustic sounds to cooler electronic ones. The duo debuted the updated sound on their very next album, 1996’s Walking Wounded; its heartbreaking charms were undeniable, and all it took was one listen for me to fall back into the fold of hardcore EBTG fandom, never to depart again. Tracey (Thorn) and Ben (Watt) were still EBTG, after all, and the songs were as regal, poetic, and beautiful as they had ever been, even in this new and different guise (inside joke there for you EBTG nerds), a guise they maintained until they decided to close the book on the EBTG partnership in 2000 and just focus on their respective solo endeavors.

Now the reason I bring all this history this up is to note that pretty much all of the covers they did were recorded before this famous stylistic change; hence, their sound harkens back to the jangly days. Fact is, they pretty much stopped doing covers once they started exploring the electronic/dance side of things. So by default, the best EBTG covers all happened during the era we’ll call EBTG b.c. (before clubland), as opposed to the latter-day incarnation, EBTG a.d. (after dance).

In keeping with the longstanding tradition of all pop music ever, the most popular EBTG covers aren’t necessarily the best ones. Their cute ‘n’ groovy version of Cole Porter standard “Night And Day” and jaunty run-through Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York City” are nice, as is their duet on Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train.” But if you want to hear EBTG at their interpretative best, swivel the chair around from the openly cool, famed and critically acclaimed and cast an ear toward the unabashedly POP heartbreakers–Mom favorites and oddball deep cuts. Let’s get driving…
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Jul 142021
 

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

How Long

Having a band more successful than your own court your bass player and attempt to entice him with money so he will join their ranks is not a universal human experience.

You know what is?

Being cheated on.

Welcome to the most beautifully ambiguous, arguably homoerotic slab of pub-soul ever to rise to the top of the pop charts: Ace’s infectious evergreen 1974 megahit “How Long.” The song was written by lead singer and keyboardist Paul Carrack, best known for his impressively productive stints in Squeeze and Mike & the Mechanics (as well as for his supremely soulful voice). He’s explained endlessly that “How Long” is about the attempted recruitment of Ace bassist Terry “Tex” Comer by a more successful band. But the song’s lyrics about parting ways are juuust the right amount of vague to allow for lots of romantic projection. Which is to say, to Carrack the song may be about Tex, but to the rest of us it mostly sounds like the heartbroken and bitter lament of a jealous, duped, and about-to-be-dumped lover.
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Jul 012019
 

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

best elton john covers

The first big film to to emerge in the post-Bohemian Rhapsody biopic boom is Rocketman. Compared to the Queen movie, critics like Rocketman better (somewhat), fact-checkers call it more accurate (somewhat), and LGBT advocates praise it for more honestly addressing the star’s sexuality (somewhat). Also – and hopefully this is unrelated – it has fared worse at the box office. Again, somewhat worse; it’s done fine, but does not seem to be the smash Bohemian Rhapsody was.

Unlike Queen, though, Elton John didn’t really need a mega-blockbuster to return to the public eye. He never left (after all, it’s hard to look away from clothes that sparkly). The farewell tour he launched last year will take him through 2020, and 2018 also saw two tribute albums featuring megawatt performers: from Lady Gaga to Ed Sheeran on the pop one, Miranda Lambert to Willie Nelson on the country one. For Elton, the Rocketman biopic is just the latest tribute in a career full of them.

And nowhere has tribute been paid more often than in the world of cover songs. From his second, self-titled album onward (no one covers songs off his 1969 debut), Elton’s songs have been covered constantly. Hell, Three Dog Night released their cover of that second album’s “Your Song” a month before John’s original even came out. Though artists inevitably gravitate towards the huge hits, John’s songbook boasts a long tail, with even some relative deep cuts generating classic covers. So this month we count down the thirty best Elton John covers ever.

Best so far, at least. At the rate he earns tributes, it won’t be long before the next batch lands.

Oct 112018
 
amy helm mandolin wind

Rod Stewart, one of the most prolific cover song performers around, is also an underrated songwriter. While his first two solo albums after departing The Faces included several cover songs – sterling versions of Dylan’s “Only A Hobo” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” – his superior self-penned tunes including “Gasoline Alley” from his second proper release, and the beautiful “Mandolin Wind” from Every Picture Tells a Story are the songs that really cemented his legacy. Continue reading »