Friday Music Focus: 6/10/16

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Rowland S. Howard with his collection of records and books, photographed in 1999.

Today we look at a few examples of some of my favorite artists doing cover versions of other people’s songs. As Tess Duncan wrote for Paste last year: “There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.”

Cyndi Lauper, “When You Were Mine” (live at the American Music Awards, 1985 + live on tour, 2016; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) [originally by Prince, 1980]. In honor of Prince’s birthday, which was on June 7, here are two examples of Cyndi Lauper covering one of my favorite songs of his, “When You Were Mine” (from the 1980 album Dirty Mind). Obviously the version from last month has a particular poignancy to it, but even back in the 80s, Cyndi had her own twist on the song that was almost as uptempo as the original while also being more bittersweet. My favorite part of both performances is that she sings the high-pitched electronic synthesizer solo heard in the recording from her debut album, She’s So Unusual.

Manic Street Preachers, “(Feels Like) Heaven” (live on BBC Radio 2, 6/3/2016) [originally by Fiction Factory, 1983]. It was worth sitting through all three hours of DJ Chris Evans’ hideously annoying BBC Radio 2 breakfast show (it airs 6:30-9:30 am, UK time) just to hear the Manics do a few songs from Everything Must Go (which is, as has been mentioned on this blog before, an album currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary) and also this rendition of Scottish group Fiction Factory’s one-hit-wonder single from three decades ago. Speaking of fiction, I thought I would also include a minute-long snippet from an interview with Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire from December 1991, talking about the power of literature. Looking at Edwards’ and Wire’s wonderfully gaudy fake-fur coats, I’m reminded of this quote from musician Danny McCormack: “Richey and Nicky were inseparable at one point – you’d never ever see them alone. It was like two big leopard-skin jackets walking towards you.”

P.S. One of the most fun paragraphs I’ve read all week, courtesy of Wales Online writer David Owens in his review of the Manics’ recent home-turf concert at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea: “Head down and into the home straight, the forecast torrential rain finally arrived at the precise moment Nicky Wire re-emerged after his third costume change of the evening, bedecked in a Welsh flag skirt and musical note knee socks underlining his status as possessing the best pins of any fortysomething man in rock ‘n’ roll – and giving the front row quite the treat into the bargain.” (Photographic evidence here.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (appears on the album Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986) [originally by David and Jonathan, 1967; popularized by Gene Pitney, 1967]. I did a lot of listening to Nick Cave last Thursday and Friday because of the announcement that a new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, will be out this September, in addition to the release of a partly-3D documentary about the making of the album (a one-night-only event on September 8 for which I already have my tickets, of course!). But last Saturday I was surprised and delighted to hear the song “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” sung by actors Olivia Colman and Garry Mountaine in the new film The Lobster, which I saw at BAM Rose Cinemas. Even though the song is thought of as a Gene Pitney classic, I know it best from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks, an album comprised solely of covers. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call “Something’s…” one of Nick’s better vocals from his early years; he did a lot of atonal shouting when he fronted the Birthday Party between the late 70s and 1983, so the fact that he could do quite nicely with a good melody probably swayed people who had previously been on the fence about his musical abilities, and nowadays it serves as a good introductory tune for people who have never listened to his work at all.

Rowland S. Howard, “The Passenger” (appears on the soundtrack for the film He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, 2001) [originally by Iggy Pop, 1977]. It is sometimes hard not to think of Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard being joined at the hip since the Boys Next Door/the Birthday Party was really the beginning of making music history for each of them (although to be fair, Rowland’s version of “Shivers,” done with the Young Charlatans in 1978, is still the definitive punk take on that song before Nick turned it into a moody ballad in ’79). Each man has a separate style, so it’s not like their recordings necessarily beg comparison to one another, but one thing that has always amused me in judging their oeuvres side by side is that Rowland had a knack for covering songs in a high-spirited way that Nick has never done. (I don’t expect Nick to start now, particularly with the painful year he has had, but this is an observation based on the entirety of his career with the Bad Seeds. With few exceptions, lightness is not Nick Cave’s specialty.) But Rowland could finesse a rock or pop-rock song into something just as snappy yet in his own inimitable voice, and his interpretation of one of Iggy Pop’s most famous songs is first-rate. There is a sense of humor there. You can hear an unmistakably raised eyebrow.

Courtney Barnett, “New Speedway Boogie” (appears on the compilation album Day of the Dead, 2016) [originally by the Grateful Dead, 1970]. Coming back around to recently released covers, here’s a little something by Courtney Barnett, the best artist to emerge from Australia in the last couple of years (as well as being a fan of Rowland S. Howard, who influenced her guitar-playing and whose song “Shivers” she covered last year). I have never cared for the Grateful Dead, the one exception being their late 80s pop hit “Touch of Grey.” So when I listen to Courtney’s cover of “Boogie,” I hear it as new – a slow-burning but foreboding landscape – rather than as a reworking of the old, which is ideally what you want out of a successful cover anyway.

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