Jan 142022
 
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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Dec 042020
 

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

She's Gone covers

“She’s Gone” by Daryl Hall & John Oates was born old school. Even though the sign over the door of what was primarily known as “Soul” has long been replaced with the marginally more modern and wider sonic net of “R & B,” “She’s Gone” remains proud, righteous and straight up SOUL to its core. It’s an unabashed, beauteous love letter to the glorious Motown sounds that preceded it a decade before its creation, all harmony, hook, and heartache. It is forever immune from descriptive modernization.

John Oates’s explanation of the song’s genesis in his fine, funny 2017 memoir Change of Seasons was surprisingly comic, given the song’s theme of loss. It’s based on a very brief fling he’d had with a woman he’d encountered on an arctic night in an NYC diner at 3 a.m., who was wearing a pink tutu and cowboy boots (like you do). They dated for a few weeks until she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared, exerting the ultimate romantic gesture of cruelty by standing him up on New Year’s Eve. He says when he realized “she was going to be a no-show on that night of nights,” he thought, “If she’s not coming tonight… then she’s gone.” With that, a chorus was born. John shared the story and his melodic snippet with Daryl the next day, who then sat down at his black Wurtlizer and fleshed out the legendary intro and verses… and voila, “Everybody’s high on consolation,” forever and ever amen.

John knew the song was special. After they’d recorded it, he made this unbelievably prescient observation in his journal:

3/2/73, She’s Gone–I’m putting it down in writing. This is the one. I believe in this one.

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Jul 292020
 

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

bee gees covers

Despite the fact that Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb have sold upwards of 120 million records, they can sometimes seem oddly underrated. They aren’t regarded with the reverence afforded to other artists that emerged during roughly the same era, like The Rolling Stones or The Who. They haven’t generated the same level of dramatic intrigue as Elton John or Queen. And discovering their music was never part of some traditional teenage rite of passage like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. But while they don’t seem to receive near the same level of acclaim as the aforementioned artists, their music has remained as utterly ubiquitous as just about all of them. There are few other artists as essential to documenting the sound of an era as The Bee Gees were to the late ’70s.

Throw the Here At Last…Bee Gees… Live album from 1977 on the turntable or queue up the stream. You will be confronted with a veritable assembly line of perfectly constructed, exquisitely performed pop songs. Take a step back and really listen. The outlandish songwriting gift on display is nothing short of mind-blowing, You might think, how is it even possible to have written this many incredible songs? And those are just 20 or so selected tracks Barry, Robin, and Maurice had done up to that point – before Saturday Night Fever! There were dozens more to come.

We were overwhelmed by the number of incredible covers of both Bee Gees classics and deep cuts and their glorious diversity. But we really shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite the band itself not always getting its due, the Bee Gees’ songs remain for everyone and forever.

Hope Silverman

The list begins on Page 2.

Oct 112019
 
Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack

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

saturday night fever covers

Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, joining the ranks of great movies that feature dance as a plot line such as the ballerina fairytale The Red Shoes, or the string of Fred Astaire movies with Ginger Rogers (Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and more) and without (Easter Parade, with a post-Oz Judy Garland). This genre also has plenty of popular descendants like Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Save the Last Dance, and Step Up. SNF is both a worthy successor to the older films and a proud forebear of those that followed in its dance steps.

Starring John Travolta before he had really made his mark (post-Kotter, pre-Grease), the story is as old as time: boy wants to escape his mundane job and dramatic family life through dance and pursue the woman of his dreams, who of course is bad for him, along the way. Plus, there is an obligatory Brooklyn v. Staten Island rivalry thrown in for good measure.

The Bee Gees had fallen into a funk, and not the good kind, in the early 1970s. With help from disco and falsetto, the band had found a new groove. Being a major part of the SNF soundtrack – they composed and/or performed eight of its 17 songs – helped breathe new life into their career. The soundtrack contributed three of their six consecutive number-one singles to the Bee Gees streak, at the time tying the Beatles’ record for the most in the United States.

The soundtrack helped the Bee Gees win five Grammys, and the Bee Gees were able to keep up the momentum from this success until the end of the disco era. By the end of the ’70s, disco fever had burned itself out.

Although some of the themes and dialogue from the movie don’t hold up, the songs remain essential for those times when you want to put on your boogie shoes.
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