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Sorry it's been a while between drinks. Here is the latest installment of Earclub. The theme is 'covers'. Enjoy the songs, and let me know if you can think of any other interesting covers to add to the list!
The Boxer - Mumford and Sons & Jerry Douglas
Not all the covers in this set are better than the original, but I think I like this more than S&G's original version. It is more earnest and less affected: M&Sons excel at earnestness! I am not a huge Mumford fan normally. They have a great sound but I haven't found any of their songs to really grip me - their success for me is in their sound and energy, rather than in any special song. But here the song is already a cracker, and they have Paul Simon, Jerry Douglas and the incredible production by Russ Titelman to raise the bar for them. Their energy, the sincerity of Marcus Mumford's voice, and the big deep harmonies make for a pretty incredible cover!
Jerry Douglas is one of the best session musicians in the world. He is a dobro player ((acoustic slide guitar with a resonator) and a bluegrass star who currently plays in Alisson Krauss' band among others. He has been around Nashville doing session stuff on dozens of incredible albums for 30 odd years. This track is from his solo album traveller, where he seems to have called in some favours: it has tracks with Eric Clapton, Keb Mo, Dr John and some other greats.
So basically... I love this track.
Take me Home Country Roads - Toots and the Maytals
I think you know you have made it as a songwriter when an artist who is cooler than you does a cover of one of your middle of the road songs. John Denver was a great artist, but with the bowl cut and glasses he doesn't quite have a bad-boy image! I have read a few articles that point out how close country and reggae actually are, and also how popular country songs are in the West Indies. Perhaps this cover is not surprising then.
My Way - Sid Vicious
Irreverant, offensive, stupid, delightful... This cover deflates the pomp and mawkishness that so many versions of this song wallow in, and replaces it with a proper punk whinge. Not that the original is a bad song, or that Elvis or Sinatra's versions are bad.. only that the song and its performance lend themselves to being be a bit schmaltzy and self-important!
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Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters
I am not sure who did this song first, although there is a version from the mid 50s by Bo Diddley. The live recording gives a sense of the intensity of the atmosphere, and the way that Muddy could rip a crowd to pieces... Very badass.
Wayfaring Stranger - Jamie Woon
This is not strictly a cover, since Wayfaring Stranger is a traditional song. There is always a risk, when trying to update a traditional song, of absolutely wrecking it. Perhaps Woon's poppy R&B style of singing is not quite suited to a simple and humble song, but this is definitely an interesting take, with some nice harmonies - his voice is also pretty buttery smooth.
Little Help from My Friends - Joe Cocker
I heard somewhere that Paul said this was his favourite Beatles cover. It is great in that it doesn't really try to be Beatlesie at all, but at the same time recalls some of McCartney's more soulful numbers. Love the way Joe Coker is completely unselfconscious and committed in his singing.
I can't get no satisfaction - Otis Redding
I think I like this version more than the Rolling Stones' original because it is so punchy and tight. It suits Otis's percussive and gutteral delivery. Again, it says something for a song that comes out of an R&B tradition when one of the masters decides to cover it!
A Case of You - James Blake
I think I have put this one in a different Earclub, but it definitely deserves to be on this playlist too. Astonishing singing and sensitive and interesting playing. It is a reminder of the sheer musicality and talent that underlies James Blake's other more unconventional 'soulstep' productions. It generates no small amount of envy in me, knowing that Blake plays and the song as flawlessly live as he does in the recording.
Streets of London - Tony Rice
Tony Rice's unaffected singing and the perfect, crisp, bright, cross-picking on his beautiful Martin d-28 save Ralph McTell's ballad from being too sentimental and maudlin. I like this version better than the original because it just tells the story frankly, frugally, and without indulgence.
You make me feel like a natural woman - Aretha Franklin
This is not the only Carole King song that has been covered by an incredible artist, but it is a perfect storm: a pop song that is exciting, interesting and thoughtful, sung with the visceral energy unique to Aretha.
Tainted Love - Soft Cell
This is a good choice of song to cover by Soft Cell - they pick up on the percussive minimalism of Gloria Jones' 1964 version, and transpose it into their stark electronic 80s sound.
I shot the sheriff - Eric Clapton
Clapton's version of the song was more successful than Bob Marley's original, and got to number one in 1974. I think the original is better, but as you would expect from Clapton it is a pretty tight cover! It also had a big impact, helping to bring reggae into the mainstream, so I am sure that Bob Marley would have appreciated this, along with the royalty checks that must still be flooding in to his estate.
Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin
This cover is so differnt to Junior Murvin's quirky, slightly off-kilter, falsetto reggae song that it is worth a listen. I think the original is better, but it is fun to hear the song in a more earnest, four-square vein.
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Romeo and Juliet - The Killers
This cover doesn't really deviate too far from the Dire Straits original. Really it is just an update on the production. Mark Knopfler's vocal probably has a bit more character and charm than this one, but again I am sure he doesn't mind having his song presented to the kids again, emanating from faces more familiar to them.
Metro - System of a Down
The song does well in the transition from Berlin's New Wave sound to a harder rock sound: the starkness works in both arrangements.
Hurt - Johnny Cash
Where so many of the covers on this list are instances where younger contemporary bands reassert the relevance of works by older artists, this is the reverse. This time Cash is the one riding on the popularity of a new song to remind everyone that he is one of the greats. This song was one of Johnny Cash's last big commercial releases before his death, and is a reminder of how much he influenced the idea of rock and roll, the tortured artist swathed in darkness, and of course a reminder of the incredible force of personality that his voice carries, even ravaged by old age and illness.
Hey Joe - Jimi Hendrix
Tim Rose and Billy Rose have both claimed credit for fiddling around with a traditional song and turning it into a 60s folk-rock version, which then formed the basis of Jimi Hendrix's huge hit. Funny, but perhaps fitting, that what was essentially a hillbilly song should end up as one of the iconic examples of Hendrix's work: a black artist re-appropriating a rock and roll genre that was becoming dominated by white artists, but which of course had its roots in African American music.
As I listen to this last song, it occurs to me that a lot of this playlist is about cross-cultural and cross-generic pollination and re-pollination: carribean artists turning country into reggae, punk singers turning reggae back into rock; African-Americans turning English rock and roll back into the R&B from which it originated; great country singers like Johnny Cash engaging with the gritty urban sounds whose existence he laid the groundwork for.
This is an apt song to end on, since its story really exemplifies the way that creative appropriations bring to light the relevance of older works, and the art of other cultures, for new audiences. Elvis recorded a famous version of this in the early 60s. It was written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George David Weiss. They based their version on a French love song from the late 18th century by The Jean Paul Egide Martini (1741–1816). And UB40 led a reggae resurgence in the early 90s, bringing back a genre from 2 decades back, a song from 3 decades back, and a tune from 2 centuries back.
Again, a busy week has kept me from making a new earclub playlist, but luckily I have plenty of older ones yet to share! This one is called Celtic Fusion.
I have picked 6 songs from recent explorations in slightly bent Irish and Scottish stylings. A lot of them are flawed in some way - but that is hard to avoid when you take risks with genre.
'The Plank', is actually by poms, but I like the way they bring rock attitude and energy to their piratical folk setup.
'Torsa', by Lau, is worth persisting with, though it meanders into its stride. The trio are based in Scotland and they mix some atmospheric indie elements (and even a few hints of chillout electro) with melodies and structures that lean folk-ways and also classically. Not all of their songs hit the mark, even though they are instrumentally virtuosic. But this one is sleek and sweet and I really like it.
'4th and Vine' is by the Irish queen of 90s indie pop - Sinead O'Connor. She is unflinchingly controversial, and she seems to have had a resurgence of energy in her most recent album. I was really impressed by the way she brings afro-beat and reggae influences into this tune, but doesn't lose her own sound in among it. May not be to everyone's taste.
'More than money'. Although this song is interesting, to me it ultimately sounds a bit self-conscious and forced. Still for a guy with quite an esoteric sound, Seth Lakeman seems to be getting a bit of attention. He is a really talented fiddler (not so evident on this song), and he plays fiddle and sings at the same time, which is ridiculously hard to do! Anyway, he was signed a couple of years ago by Relentless Records. For a tiny label, they have broken some massive platinum-selling artists (e.g. Joss Stone, Jay Sean, KT Tunstall). So good luck to him.
'Sloe gin' - this is a random combination of celtic trad with calypso and ska. I think Bellowhead manage to pull off the strange mix through some good pacing, although they don't manage it so well in most of their other songs. Still, this one makes for a cool and weird track: worth a listen all the way through its various twists and turns.
'The parting glass' - Here I've done something I really like to do, and which Spotify makes easy. That is - look at lots of different arrangements of one tune. So... Cara Dillon gets away with the cheesy piano arrangement because her voice is so outrageously good. The tune is an old Irish one, that really wants to be done in a very bare and simple way, without all these shifting poppy chords. Bob Dylan does a version called 'Restless Farewell' at the end of Times they are a'Changin' - also too cheesy, I think. I've stuck in an a capella one that is slightly too obviously auto-tuned but quite cool, and another hipstery pseudo-dub one by some chick called Hannah Peel. I think hers actually is closest to the mark, in spite of the funny electro stuff. But the best rendition I've heard is my mum's - she used to sing me to sleep with it!
I hope you sleep well tonight too!
Been busy, so here is a past earclub to keep your ears happy. In other news, had a great rehearsal with Hattie Briggs for our upcoming show at the Workshop - you are in for a treat with Hattie's soulful vocals. Anything Goes - Epic Major Lazer, from the same album as Pon De Floor, which was remixed to be the groove for Beyonce's Girls Run the World. Love the dubby dancehall feverishness and outrageous toasting.
Lies - JJ Cale is such a boss. No-one does chilled out funkiness quite like him. Apparently he is one of Eric Clapton's heroes.
Perfect Darkness - Fink used to do ambient electro and then traded it in to be a singer/songwriter. It makes sense of his style, and he makes the transition well. I like how he mixes ambient beats, soulful vocals and minimal, open, thoughtful instrumental parts. Interesting without being wanky, which is always impressive.
Tightrope (and Sincerely Jane) - You prob already know of my love of Janelle Monae. She was in Sydney last year; does these really theatrical pop-opera type albums and has a super tight band. Compare Tightrope with some James Brown... like Sex Machine. Lots of influence there.
I heard the Angels Singing - Straight out, honest, bloodcurdling gospel blues.
Rot on the Vine by Teeth and Tongue - Aussie/Kiwi band; they play around the traps. This is a sick song, really well put together, slithering along between indie-pop and R&B. I wish it was slightly better mastered with a fuller sound.
Elephant - People love to hate Tame Impala, but this is such a perfect psychadelic rock song. You can't really do much better in that genre, and they well deserved the Triple J hottest 100 spot.
The Fight - Sia. I assume you also know of my love for Sia. She is killing it right now: obviously the quality of stuff that is getting out on the radio in her collaborations with the likes of Flo Rider etc is not up to her usual standard of songwriting, but she can be forgiven for finally making some $$$ after a long and hardworking career. This song slides effortlessly from soulish R&B into pop and back again. The perfect crunchy gibson guitar sound is emanating from the fingers and axe of Nick Valensi of the Strokes.
Wheels - This is Fink's take on blues, with a bit of John Lee Hooker influence sounding through.
Me and my guitar - Tony Rice is a bluegrass legend, known for his impossibly clean, accurate and nuanced flatpicking. This is not really bluegrass or R&B: it's something in between which settles in between. They use all kinds of bluegrass tricks to make up for the lack of a drum kit and still do something passably funky.
Tamatant Tillay - Tunng do prog folk stuff. Occasionally they are a bit too low energy and self-conscious for me, but they do well teaming up with Malian afrobeat stalwarts,Tinariwen, at the Beeb. The super light touch and willingness to play behind the beat in the lead guitar make you simultaneously want to chill out and go out and fight somebody...
...which is the feeling that good R&B always seems to give me.
As promised in my mailout, here is the latest installment of earclub - my bookclub blog for music.
This is a list of traditional, but mostly progressive bluegrass tunes. Most people hear two notes of banjo playing and their reaction is to say, 'Yeehah', assume a vacant grin, make a fist, put their elbow out at a right angle and swing their arm back and forth in an idiotic 'yokel hoe down' gesture. They check out and stop really listening. So this list is meant to show that bluegrass is not just music for webbed-fingered hicks. It deserves a proper listen, with elbows by your sides.
A lot of the tunes on this list feature some usual suspects on the bluegrass scene, who played in various combinations together from the late seventies until today. They are all pretty serious and amazing musos.
For example, Mark O'Connor (fiddle) started his career playing with Stefan Grapelli and gradually established himself as a session guy in Nashville, playing on more than 450 records including records playing guitar with Chet Atkins. Then he went on to a solo career, in which he's collaborated with James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma, and even the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. He has done a bunch of interesting arrangements of American traditional tunes, and he's also composed and performed classical concertos, string suites, and some incredible violin partitas and caprices. Like other American composers before him, he is preoccupied with traditional American music - in his case it just happens to be Appalachian music instead of blues (Gershwin) or ragtime (Ives). Any of his stuff from the 80s to now is worth listening to.
Bela Fleck hardly needs an introduction. He has revolutionised banjo playing, he's an incredible jazz player as well as a composer, and he has also taken a classical turn on occassion, with surprisingly inoffensive banjo versions of classical pieces.
The rest of the guys, Ricky Skaggs (mando/vox), Tony Rice (guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Sam Bush (mando, fiddle, vox), Edgar Meyer (bass) and Mark Schatz (bass) have stayed closer to bluegrass and country, although all of them have ventured into other genres, especially jazz.
Sawing on the Strings
This is a traditional tune, but it's highly arranged (probably it needs to be, because she has two mandos and two fiddles playing). It's cheesy, but it's hard not to like it because it's so well done. As far as I can tell it is the incarnation of a fantasy for Alison Krauss, bringing in Tony Rice and Sam Bush and a couple of others to join her already amazing backing band, Union Station.
Apricots on Sunday
This is a shameless plug for Fanny and her band - we have played a few gigs together and they are awesome. Buy their EP.
This is quintessential instrumental prog bluegrass with. The ridiculous mando playing is Sam Bush and the bass is Edgar Meyer.
Crossing the Transipi
Singing and playing the fiddle at the same time is hard. Making three part harmonies with one melody instrument and a voice is even harder. As an aside, Sam Bush does the best job of looking hillbilly-like. He grins madly and bobs his head when he plays.
Never meant to be
I really like this song: Tony Rice is such a sensitive player, and it is a pretty, sweet, symmetrical tune and arrangement.
This is a really, really old traditional fiddle tune that came across from Ireland and Scotland. This track has it in more of an 'old time' Appalachian style than bluegrass, although the arrangement is not really either. It showcases Mark O'Connor's amazing accuracy and purity on the fiddle. You might notice the banjo sounds different to other tracks - the player is using an older 'frailing' style (incidentally the style my mum taught me) instead of typical bluegrass 'Scruggs' picking. I think he might also have a proper hide banjo instead of a plastic head.
More prog bluegrass with more complicated chord structures and improvisations than the usual traditional bluegrass range. Again, the accuracy and thoughtfulness of Fleck and all the other instrumentalists' picking is awesome.
This is a cover of a Bob Dylan folk song, by a bluegrass-folk group, known for their Rock attitude. It is basically just great tune, done really well, without anything fancy.
Look down that lonesome road
At this point I realised I hadn't put in too much middle of the road bluegrass, so that's what this one is.
Talk about suffering
This is an Appalachian gospel tune. Ricky Skaggs does the beautiful and distinctive high harmonies, the tune is Tony Rice.
Doc Watson is a folk legend. He was a blind guitarist, who only became famous in middle age, when he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. This is a children's tune, done so sweetly. For some reason I could totally see some wanky indie band making heaps of money with a cover synched to a laptop or tablet ad.
I will make love to you
Mustered Courage are an Aussie band playing around the traps so keep an eye out for them. Love this cheeky cover of a 'love song dedications' stalwart.
I included this because it is so forward looking. This was recorded in 1988, but with the open suspended chords it sounds like really contemporary indie folk. This is the big, open sound that bands like Mumford strive for.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy. Now is the third time I have tried to upload the tracks from the EP to iTunes. Either they won't start uploading or they spitefully wait until the progress bar is within milimetres of the end, and then stop!
The whole EP experience has been full of troubles and difficulties, but with the help of Ben Corbett and his dad Roger up at Valley Studios in Springwood, we have managed to salvage something and produce a good result.
I am looking forward to launching - again it will take work to get a venue organised, but there will definitely be a cigar or three when this record is released into the wild.