Saturday, July 8, 2023

What I've Been Listening To Lately (No Cover Charge Version)

I had been planning another covers collection until I read Rachel Brodsky's entertaining pushback against the current glut of tedious run-throughs. There's a lot in her thesis I reject but it did what a good opinion piece should do: it got me thinking.

For instance, the bit where she quotes a five year old Slate article by Carl Wilson

“By the early 1970s, when Dylan, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon alike put out covers albums, whether to patch over a fallow period or just to get back to their roots, they met with hostile critics and lousy sales. Covers? What a rip-off!”

I'm old enough to remember when that happened and it's kinda-sorta true, although I'm not so sure about the "lousy sales" part. Or the hostile critical reception, for that matter. I seem to remember at least some of those albums being pretty successful commercially and John Lennon's "Rock and Roll" was definitely hailed as a return to form at the time.

In general, though, covers albums back then were often regarded as self-indulgent, both by the record-buying public and the pop press. There was a moment, just after the sixties died, when a lot of established rock stars - you can add David Bowie and Bryan Ferry to that list - seemed to feel it was time to stop innovating for a while; to step back and take stock of where they'd come from. 

Paying tribute to their influences and establishing their place in a tradition seemed to matter more than being the first to try something new, at least for a while. It wasn't a desire always shared by the audience, many of whom wished their idols would just get on with it and write some new tunes.

Not that most of the perpetrators were digging too far back into their own timelines. Bowie's Pin-Ups, for one, mined a very specific seam of the superstar's past; about three years to be precise, from 1964 to 1967, the moment when the young David Jones was transitioning from mod to flower-child, the first of a seemingly endless series of chameleonic changes.

In 1973, those chart hits from less than a decade ago seemed like relics from an archeological excavation. We had so much less of a sense of our own pop-cultural history in those pre-internet days. It's hard to imagine now but at the time, music from even five years before seemed like it came from another era altogether. I remember listening with fascination to that album as a young teenager; it was as though Bowie was holding out some of the lost jewels of a bygone age for me to admire, although when I listened to the originals later it occured to me that he wasn't necessarily giving them the best setting in which to shine.

The thing about all of those albums - or at least the ones I've heard - is that most of the covers were very faithful. That's the basis of Rachel Brodsky's objection to the current wave of covers sweeping the charts and it's one with which I wholeheartedly agree. While it can occasionally be instructive to hear one of your favorite acts attempt to replicate, precisely, the work of another, on the whole I can't see a lot of merit in this kind of musical cloning.

Neither do I have an awful lot of time for the now-standard approach to doing a song "differently", namely slowing it down or speeding it up so it sounds either like Leonard Cohen on downers or The Dickies on meth. The varispeed method was fun for a while but we've heard it done too often (And too often heard it done badly.) for it to have the impact it once did.

With all that in mind, I took a look at the covers I'd been stockpiling and decided some of them just didn't cut it. For example, this version of the truly wonderful Rilo Kiley classic, Portions For Foxes, by Lydia Loveless and Jason Hawk Harris really motors but also flattens out the oddness and loses the desperation. It just makes me want to hear the original. Plus I don't much like Harris's voice.

Still, I do have a handful worth sharing. Covers that don't sound exactly like the models or covers I like of songs I don't. So even if there aren't enough for a whole post of their own, I can at least kick some of them out of the waiting room by throwing them in with the new stuff. Oh yes, there's new stuff, too...

London Calling - Urthboy (The Clash cover.)

A few weeks back, for some inexplicable reason, TripleJ threw a bunch of archive covers onto the channel including this one from 2009. It's not great but I thought it was interesting, especially considering Mick Jones' enthusiastic and early conversion to hip-hop, something he pursued with vigor during his time with Big Audio Dynamite, a band I'd prefer to listen to than the Clash these days.

Bags - Dominic Fike (Clairo cover.)

I mean, where do you even start? Fike's voice is like sandpaper and not in a good way, the drummer sounds like he's laying carpet, there's a bizarre prog interlude that lasts all of ten seconds and the whole thing is a total mess. It completely changes everything about the song, from the feel and the texture to the import and the meaning. I wouldn't call it a good cover but at least it's not boring.

Like A Prayer - King Hannah - (Madonna cover.)

Okay, this is one of those slow-it-down affairs I said I was done with but the drone makes it more than just the nine millionth Cowboy Junkies rip-off. There's a seven minute extended take if you haven't had enough. Some of the YouTube comments pick up on the similarity to Portishead's cover of ABBA's SOS, which opens up a whole fresh nest of vipers. I don't have my snake-handling gloves close by so...

Wagging Tongue - Depeche Mode (Wet Leg Remix)

And we slide into the grey. Where does a cover end and a remix begin? This is right on the borderline. After all, when you start adding vocals you're taking ownership, aren't you? Not to mention treating the original singer until they sound nothing like themselves. Honestly, the remix could as well be a different song. A better song. Don't take my word for it, though. Judge for yourselves.

Vampire - Olivia Rodrigo

All the way out from under the covers now but still not free from the influence. As reported by NME, Olivia Rodrigo gave an interview to Vogue recently (She's on the cover. Milestone!) in which she talks about her parents' musical tastes and growing up listening to "grunge, rock, and alternative: No Doubt, the White Stripes, ’80s metal, riot grrrl", all of which you can clearly hear in her magnificent debut album, SOUR.  

Despite being marketed as a pop phenomenon and a Disney Princess, Olivia Rodrigo is an alt-rocker through and through. She may be "a definitive Gen Z pop star" but she went to see Depeche Mode with her dad a few weeks back and they're taking a father-daughter trip to see the Cure next. She's the poster girl for not compartmentalizing by age.

Vampire is one of the strongest songs I've heard this year, a super-smart, super-charged crescendo that starts slow and never stops building. It's from the upcoming sophomore album, of course. The Vogue writer got a sneak preview (A job with perks!) and likened what she heard to "Le Tigre, Charli XCX, and the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack". I can't fricken' wait!

You Don't Even Know Me Anymore - Charly Bliss

At this point, since I just mentioned her, I'd usually slot in the excellent new Charli XCX track from the Barbie movie but we already had that earlier in the week. Instead, let's have this and not just because of the nominal connection. It sounds faintly like something Charli XCX might do, only slowed right down, although what it really reminds me of is a less frantic, calmer Superorganism.

What it doesn't much sound like is Charly Bliss, which is great, even though I really like what Charly Bliss usually do. I'm all for experimentation, when it works. And this works.

Good Things Take Time - Harmony

I feel like I could claim this post is still channelling 1970s radio segue protocols by quoting the YouTuber who raves "THANK U CHARLI XCX FOR MADE ME DISCOVER THIS BEAUTIFUL GEM" but I haven't been able to stand up a source for that so I won't. For all I know Charli came round to his house and played it on her phone. 

No, she didn't.

The video has a great opening but the tune doesn't really take off until around 1.45, after which it just flies! It has all that glitchy hyperpop chaos I so love but there's a melodic throughline to carry it. I'd be dancing round the room to it now if I hadn't just booked an appointment at the hernia clinic.

New Jeans - New Jeans

My KPop credentials are non-existent and I confess I only watched this because I read that they turned into the Powerpuff Girls but I'm really glad I did. Like half the videos these days, it takes it's sweet time getting started but from around 1.08 on it's sugarcharged magic! 

Also, I always make time for eponymous songs. Every band should have one. 

Also, also, seven and a half million views on day one. Just sayin'. 

Also, also, also, I really need to watch the Powerpuff Girls some day...

Now U Do - DJ Seinfeld, Confidence Man

Come on, it's summer! This is the stuff! It's also the edit because a) the edit has something moving on screen even if it's only the lyrics - although, frankly, those lyrics really do not need to be spelled out and b) shorter is always better, unless you're high, in which case just loop the damn thing already and leave the rest of us out of it, goddamit!

Rainbow Sweater - Liza Anne

I'm guessing they're Australian? Dunno why. Just a feeling. 

Wait a mo. I'll check. 

Oh. Nope. Born in St. Simons Island, Georgia. 

Are you born in an island, though? wouldn't it be on an island? I guess it depends how big the island is. I mean, I live on an island but no-one ever says they were born on Britain. 

How big is St. Simons Island, anyway? 

Wait a mo. I'll check. 

17.5 square miles. And it's barely an island at all. Look. I can see why you'd be born in it not on it.

Weirdly, there's a video of Liza Anne doing Rainbow Sweater live at Baby's Alright in Brooklyn (Not on Brooklyn.) and for once it's not been posted by Jarrett Wolfson. He must not have been there that night. Maybe he couldn't get in. It was a sell-out, apparently, which isn't surprising because Alex Lahey was headlining and she's brilliant. And also Australian. So that's where I got the idea...

I feel we may be running adrift here... The post could do with a big, crowd-pleasing finish. Have I got one?

Wait a mo. I'll check. 

St. Charles Square - Blur

There we go! That'll do it! 

Thanks Damon. Thanks Graham. Thanks... um... the other two.

Until next time.


  1. I have to agree about the interpretation of London Calling. To me, The Clash's version sounds urgent and important, whereas this version is more a going through the motions to make sure they hit the notes right but don't capture the energy of the original.

    Upon hearing Good Things Take Time, my first thought was "just how old is this song?" That first part has a vibe going back a decade or two, but then the second half kicks in and then it sounds current.

    1. I did wonder for a moment if Good Things Take Time was a cover. There's a bunch of songs of that name on YouTube. I didn't listen to them all to find out if they were different because none of the artists looked very interesting. Once it gets going, though, it definitely doesn't sound like an older song so I'm guessing it's an original.

      London Calling is one of those songs that's been played to death. I loved it when it came out but I'd happily never hear it again now. I like the scratching at the beginning of the Urthboy version and it sounds as if it's going to go somewhere interesting for a while but it kind of meanders back into a very straight cover halfway through, which is disappointing. I'm not sure if I've ever heard a really good cover of a Clash song. I might have to look into it.

    2. London Calling is only rarely heard on radio here in the US, and even in the 80s it never got a lot of airplay. It's as if station managers looked at The Clash, said "We've already got Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay or Should I Go, so why do we need any other songs in the rotation?" There's a lot of songs that I'd like to hear more of from that era on the radio --or on playlists-- but they never seem to get their due. It's like when I pull out some Smithereens to play, and if I'm driving somewhere people in the car will go "Holy crap, I haven't heard these songs in ages. Where did you find this CD?"


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