Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cover This and That

My musical education began among the stacks of my parents' record collection. They had a pretty good mix of stuff, a wee bit of classical, a whole bunch of 20th century vocalists, dixieland, some straight up jazz (pre-1950), show music of course, and a nice collection of American folk music. Names like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella, Dinah Washington, Bobby Short and Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Mezz Mezzrow, Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Oscar Levant, The Weavers, Odetta and The Kingston Trio. They had one Beatles record.

My favorite time to listen to them were the rare days I'd stay home from school and have the living room to myself. I would pretend to be Judy or Ella or even Frank and then belt out tunes to the empty room. The dog didn't care that I sang off key.

Eventually I moved on, but I didn't move on completely. I had a brief relationship with AM radio pop music until I discovered FM radio and it blew my world to pieces. From there, I found my own little two-lane blacktop road to outlaw country, then bluegrass and off into whatever hip hop, pop or rock caught my attention. The thing is that no matter what anybody says, it's all connected. Rap to country to show music to pop to R&B to bluegrass to punk to hip hop and on back to rap and every other kinda way you want to play it. Seriously, there ain't no Kanye West without Kurtis Blow and their ain't know Kurtis Blow without George Clinton and no Funkadelic without Little Richard and no rock and roll without Hank Williams and no Hank without Leadbelly and no Dylan without Odetta. Round and round you can go.

My tastes run pretty wide, but I'm a sucker for great lyrics. Must be the writer in me. I think this also comes out of my formative music education -- the stuff that had the greatest impact on me, from the 60s anti-war folk music to the songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter to Dylan and Springsteen, was as much about lyrics as melody.

The one test of a good song lyric is how often it is successfully covered. Back in the day when the songwriters mostly worked for hire, it was not uncommon for popular songs to covered by many different singers and bands. When I was a kid, I used to make a game of finding as many recordings of a particular song as possible. I would collect them on one cassette tape (remember them?) and note how each singer interpreted them. It can be an interesting education in how to sing a song when you hear how two different great singers do the same song.

In today's music world, of course, singers write their own songs and those who do are at the top of the food chain, Covering a song takes on all sorts of mechanization's. It's not so easy -- or even marketable -- to cover a big artist's big song. You're bound to be compared to the original. And almost always not in a favorable way. But occasionally, just like the sequel can be better than the original, so can the cover of a good song.

With that in mind, this is going to be the first in an occasional series featuring interesting cover songs that are markedly different than the original.

The first of these is a song by Radiohead, called "Black Star." Radiohead is, of course, a major British band, one of the most critically acclaimed of recent years. Full disclosure: I tried to get into them but I never really got their thing. Frankly, I find them a bit pretentious. But they are enormously praised by music critics so they must have something going for them. It was their second record, Bends, that brought them critical acclaim and launched them into the stratosphere of big-league bands. The last track on Bends was this little song called "Black Star," which you can listen to in my Vox Stash here.

It's a fine song with a nice riff, very typical Radiohead, somewhat overwrought and maybe slighly over-produced, filled with the requisite guitar mashing. In their hands, it's just a notch below power-pop rock and roll, the kind of songs that precursed bands like The Shins, The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie.

It doesn't stand out as being great. In fact, I don't think I ever played it again after listening to it the first time. And I would have completely forgotten it if not for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Welch and Rawlings are what I like to call modern throwbacks. Welch was born in New York and raised in Santa Monica, California but her musical style is firmly middle-of-the-country. Combining traditional forms of folk, bluegrass, country with a dose of rock and roll, she and her musical partner Rawlings, have developed a signature style all their own. In her four studio albums (and one live one), they have performed original material, traditional songs and covers by artists like Emmylou Harris and Neil Young.

Welch has a distinctively beautiful voice that is at once angelic and just a little rough to be interesting. But if it's her voice that brings their songs to life, it's Rawlings' guitar playing that gives them a soul. The guy can seriously pick. I don't like to throw the word "genius" around too much but if anyone deserves the title, it's Rawlings. Even if you don't like their style, it's hard not to appreciate just how great a musician he is. And his star shines extremely bright on their cover of "Black Star."

The live recording is included on an EP from last year (and available through iTunes). Their version bears almost no resemblance to the original. It's almost as if it's a completely different song, from a teen-age emo piece to a sweet, achingly soulful folk tune. Welch sings it with a pathos that seems forced in the hands of Radiohead's lead vocalist Thom Yorke and Rawlings, well, listen to his solo guitar stuff -- he tears it up. (Seriously, even if it's not your flavor, listen to it all the way through -- that's how you play acoustic gui-tar).

Check it out here, on my Vox stash.

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