Apr 072021
 

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

I Can't Help Myself

“Sugarpie, honeybunch” must be the most gloriously unselfconscious opening shot of almost any song I can think of, epitomizing the sheer unstoppable surge of soppiness true love can invoke in even the red bloodiest of macho men. Tagged to a monster of a melody that takes wings from the start, “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops couldn’t be a stronger declaration of fact; when you hear it, you just know that no-shrinking-violet Levi Stubbs really can’t help himself. It is so well constructed a song: the words, the melody, the never-better arrangement and the transcendent vocals, all add up to Motown at its mid-60s pinnacle. And the credits clearly don’t need any prompting–it could be nobody other than Holland-Dozier-Holland, oozing out of every pore of the vinyl, always vinyl, always 45 rpm.

Brothers Brian and Eddie Holland had been with Motown and Berry Gordy from the start, as both songwriters and performers, ahead of teaming up with Lamont Dozier, who similarly had been writing and performing on the fertile Detroit music scene. As a production and writing team together, they hit pay dirt, responsible for a huge proportion of the label’s output, and arguably the most responsible as anyone for the fame and fortunes of the Tamla Motown brand. The Supremes? Martha and the Vandellas? The Isley Brothers? Yup, they wrote most of their early hits, and a fair few for the Temptations, Junior Walker, Marvin Gaye and more. Plus, of course, the Four Tops, for me the earthiest and most authentic set of voices in the roster. The combination of the strained vocal of Stubbs, the writers deliberately pitching the songs to the top of his range, with the call and response backing vocals of Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton is remarkable. Add in the exemplary musicianship of the legendary studio house band the Funk Brothers and it becomes unbeatable. Over four decades the recipe and the line-up, at least of the vocal group, didn’t change. And if the Hollands and Lamont didn’t write everything, wherever they were involved, they sure as hell produced and arranged it to sound as if they did.

Hitting the top of the Billboard chart for two weeks in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself” was the second-biggest seller of the year, in a year of strong competition (you’ll never guess what number one was). How well has it fared since? And with whom? There are a lot of anodyne facsimiles, watering the soul and passion down into pappy would be chart fodder. But a few, just a few, have taken the ball and run.
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Feb 052021
 

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!

Taj Mahal covers

Like the centuries-old architectural marvel in India that he took as his stage name, musician and composer Taj Mahal seems to live beyond the reach of time. There’s been an “old soul” vibe about him, an ageless quality, since he debuted in the mid-sixties. Taj may not be the sole survivor of his generation, but you won’t find a more soulful survivor who is still in the game.

His artistic longevity is all the more impressive because Taj has never had the chart-topping hit, or a cultish following, or the other advantages that make it easier for a performer to sustain a career. Yet here he is, almost 80, still throwing down, resonating with a new crop of musicians.
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Nov 292019
 

MOSE-ALLISON-IF-YOURE-GOING-TO-THE-CITYMose Allison is possibly best known these days through his association with Van Morrison, who released Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison in 1996. Morrison probably gave Allison’s career a late boost, presenting him as a somewhat kindred spirit, albeit having a few more years on him, and hopefully a more benign presence than Van the Man, if even harder to classify.

I had always filed Allison under jazz, though blues was probably closer to his idiom, yet here we have If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison, which sees him being covered by a slew of largely rock music gentry from the past few decades. Listening to this selection, it becomes easier to see that blues is at least the template to Allison’s songs. Not necessarily a version familiar to the backstreet bars of Chicago, this is a more polished version of the blues, with echoes of both supper club and Tin Pan Alley – though in Allison’s hands and voice, they sound perhaps a shade less archaic. These are fine songs and, if these covers succeed in pointing attention back to the originals, then at least part of the work of this collection has been done.
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Mar 222017
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

bringing it all back home covers

Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival concerts is one of the most famous – or infamous – performances of all time, subject to numerous books, documentaries, and debates over why Pete Seeger threatened to cut the power cable with an axe. But the fact is, by the time he stepped on that stage, Dylan had already gone electric, four months prior. The first half of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home – which turns 52 today – is all electric. And not the sort of light electric augmentation other folk singers were experimenting with either. The first track “Subterranean Homesick Blues” may still be the loudest, hardest track of Dylan’s entire career. He’d already drawn his line in the sand; the folk-music crowd had just chosen to ignore it.

To celebrate this landmark album’s 52nd birthday, we’re giving it the full-album treatment. Our recent tributes to Dylan albums have covered underrated works like 1978’s Street Legal and 1985’s Empire Burlesque, but today we return to the classics. Such classics, in fact, that in addition to our main cover picks we list some honorable-mention bonus covers for each song. Continue reading »

Feb 062012
 

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

“Honky Tonk Women” by The Rolling Stones may be the most perfect single they ever released. Bold talk? Perhaps. But consider that cowbell, played by producer Jimmy Miller; that opening line, delivered by Mick Jagger in a way that lets you know that he is about to be taken advantage of and not her; or that Keith Richards riff after the opening line, so perfect that when he played it backwards twelve years later on “Start Me Up” it was still perfect. And don’t forget Charlie Watts’s drumming, never flashy and never stronger; those horns coming in during the break, somehow giving it more swing. And then there’s that chorus: made to be shouted along to at the top of your lungs. And all in just three minutes. Continue reading »

Jan 242012
 

Though Bob Dylan moved away from his role as a ‘protest singer’ long ago — we saw Another Side by his fourth album — his name will forever be associated with social activism. The international human rights organization Amnesty International rose out of the same turbulent era as Dylan, forming in 1961, the year Dylan recorded his first album. Fitting, then, that in celebration of their 50th birthday, Amnesty would call on artists to contribute their Dylan covers to the massive four disc set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. Continue reading »