Friday, April 08, 2016

Top 10 Unlikely Covers

I'm a big fan of artists stepping out of their comfort zone - or maybe it's really our comfort zone - and covering a song that would seem to be out of their bailiwick. Exploiting what could be called the "sincerity gap," wherein a song that seems kind of like a joke is given a new level of emotion, is often a key to success. For exhibit A see number one on my list of Top Ten Unlikely Covers. What are your favorites?

Aztec Camera - Jump Maybe I suck because this is my favorite Aztec Camera recording and I know they are a bit of a sacred cow. I'm a big Van Halen fan (DLR years only!) so I was delighted to hear a completely different approach to the splashy, synth-driven MTV monster that was Jump. The best thing about this was the absolute lack of irony. Something tells me Roddy Frame likes VH as much as I do. Still waiting on that Hot For Teacher cover.

Natalie Prass - Caught Up In The Rapture
As I noted in my review of her show at Bowery Ballroom last year, the Spacebomb chanteuse is a sucker for slinky R&B. On this version of the Anita Baker smash from 1986, she put her mouth where her moneymaker is. Wait, that didn't come out right...just listen.

Sly & The Family Stone - Que Sera Sera
After There's A Riot Going On Sly's rep started going downhill, with blown concerts and "unreliable" behavior alienating fans, critics, and collaborators. He didn't necessarily help his cause by covering a song made famous by Doris Day, sung here by sister Rose Stone. But when he wails on the chorus, it sounds like he means every word. 

The Wailers - Sugar Sugar
While the Monkees were a fake rock group that became real, The Archies, being cartoons, never had that opportunity. They weren't bad, they were just drawn that way. But the songs were real enough and Sugar Sugar was as good as any other bubblegum song. After all, Jeff Barry wrote most of the songs for the real groups, too. But when The Wailers put it to a hip-swiveling rocksteady groove it took on a different connotation. A couple of years later Bob was singing about Marcus who had candy tar all over his chocolate bar in Kinky Reggae - wonder where he got that idea?

Radiohead - Nobody Does It Better
This is firmly in the Aztec Camera camp. You can just tell that Thom Yorke thinks this classic James Bond theme by Carly Simon is a fabulous song. He really gives it his all and it helps that it fits his voice like a glove. I wonder if there's a studio recording of this somewhere in the Radiohead archives.

Emmylou Harris - May This Be Love
We probably have Daniel Lanois to thank for getting Emmylou to explore this deep cut from Are You Experienced? No matter whose idea it was, it is just gorgeous and invites a whole new understanding of Hendrix's songcraft. 

The Isley Brothers - Love The One You're With
By 1970, The Isley Brothers had earned the right to do pretty much whatever they wanted, having had their first hit in 1959. Still, one would not have pegged them to be Stephen Stills fans. One thing that's cool about their version is that they play it fairly straight, adding just a little grit to the original, which was already little funky, and reveling in the harmonies.

Hole - Credit In The Straight World
There is something so self-contained, even precious, about the one album released by Young Marble Giants, that until I heard this it was unimaginable that someone would cover one of their songs. It was a canny choice for Hole, however, as it fit their sound nicely while also providing some more melodic colors to Live Through This. It was also a nice bit of curation and likely introduced many people to the genius of YMG.

Yo La Tengo - Friday I'm In Love
While my favorite Yo La Tengo usually involves Ira Kaplan wailing on his guitar, they do have a nice sideline in covers, exemplified by their lovely folk-rock take on this 90's classic. The original version by The Cure seemed a little unlikely as well, pushing Robert Smith and co. toward the environs of shimmering pop.

The Staples Singers - Slippery People

While the lyrical content of the Talking Heads song might seem a little more oblique than the average gospel song, there was no doubt about the origin of those call and response vocals. The Staples Singers were already legends when they put this out but their cover version reawakened interest in their career for a whole new audience. In any case, Mavis Staples must have really connected with the song as she still performs it regularly.

Bonus Cut:

Freddie Hubbard - Cold Turkey
Here's one from another side of the aisle. Jazz musicians covering pop songs goes back to at least the 30's and we even had folks like Ramsay Lewis giving the treatment to Beatles songs in the late 60's. But hearing hard-charging Miles Davis protege Hubbard take on John Lennon's heroin-withdrawal nightmare of a song has a bit more of a frisson than the usual pop-jazz stylings you would expect. Unlike some other songs in this vein, I doubt this was a bid for pop success!

Unfortunately, even in today's streaming-centric world, there is no one place that I could find that had complete versions of all these songs. This YouTube playlist is the best I could do...What are your favorites?

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