I've always rather liked cover songs - or at least, I've never been one of those folks who can't imagine a cover that does anything but make one want to listen to the original (which is not to say that some covers don't do exactly and only that). So this is the second or third year in which I've compiled a playlist consisting solely of covers I'd run into during that year. Here's the 2008 version:
Ringtone Tycoon: "it's okay, they're speaking Chinese..."
1. Marnie Stern "Don't Stop Believin'" (Journey): Among the more interesting varieties of covers are those that begin in your mind as clearly ironic...but then turn out to represent aspects of the original song that were more interesting than you'd remembered it. Okay - fooled ya. I don't know if this is ironic...but Stern's usual spastic yet fluid guitar playing covers every square millimeter of this track, such that the mundane little song underneath is almost not there. (Also: "South Detroit"? I believe that would be properly known as "Windsor, Ontario"... There is, however, a "South Detroit" in South Dakota, according to Google...so maybe we've been wrong all along, and the narrator is from South Dakota.)
2. Chica and the Folder "I'll Come Running" (Brian Eno): Despite being entirely synthetic, this one sounds almost like an arrangement Eno might have used for the original...perhaps if an Oblique Strategies card had read "Blackout" or something.
3. Darker My Love "The Fool" (Sanford Clark): A somewhat obscure fifties track, if I'm remembering correctly, covered here as part of some shoe-based marketing program. Does that sound promising? No - but I like the song much better than I would have guessed.
4. French Kicks "Trouble" (Lindsey Buckingham): I didn't plan on including covers of this Lindsey Buckingham song two years in a row...but that's just how it came out. Of Montreal did it last year...I wonder who'll do it 2009?
5. The Monks of Doom "The 15th" (Wire): This might be the Wire song you want to play for someone to evidence the band's genius as both songwriters and arrangers...the Monks of Doom, however, make the arrangement less luminously brilliant and add an ending (and a fake ending) that suggests they're taking the song into their own, more improv-friendly territory...but instead punt in favor of giving the 'puter some.
6. Parenthetical Girls "Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)" (Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark): Architecture & Morality is one of my favorite albums (the source of this track's original), and one reason is its blend of electronic, acoustic, and old-school musique concrète sampling...and what's astonishing to me is how well Parenthetical Girls (of course you've guessed by now: no women in that band either...) have reproduced the effect of the textures and tones of the original version's opening section - even though the orchestration is quite different. Beyond that, the arrangement is slightly more intimate than the original, largely due to the substitution of what might be a harmonium for mellotron, and the fade's accompaniment of the martial drumming with reams of acoustic percussion (rather than the sort of clattering electronic soundscape that backs the original's acoustic drums).
7. Eliza Lumley "How to Disappear Completely" (Radiohead): Covering Radiohead is the new black, or the new loud, or maybe just the new "new x"...but there's a reason for that, which is that brouhaha about distribution models, stylistic changes, and bad hair only obscures that Radiohead also writes very good, durable songs. Lumley's version barely exists, and in so nearly not doing gets quite pointedly at the panicked desolation at the heart of the song.
8. Morrissey "Redondo Beach" (Patti Smith): When the Smiths' first singles came out, and Johnny Marr's fabulously inventive and textured guitar-playing surrounded Morrissey's series of two-note melodies, everyone figured Marr would go on to become a big star, while Morrissey would probably become a writer or a journalist or simply a celebrity. Instead, Marr's taken the title of our last track to heart (even when he appears, who can tell? hear his appearance on last year's Modest Mouse album for evidence), while Morrissey's had a career full of solid albums...and has developed into a fine, supple singer without losing his distinctiveness. Here he wraps himself around Patti Smith's tragic little number to nice effect.
9. Brazilian Girls "Crosseyed and Painless" (Talking Heads): First, I believe this is the sole act in this year's mixes with "girls" or "women" in its name that actually has women in it. Take a bow. Yeesh. Anyway: a nice, intense cover of Talking Heads' already intense song.
10. No Age "It's Oh So Quiet" (Björk): Another species of cover is the kind in which the band does nearly a complete rewrite. There are some similarities in melodic countour here...but essentially, this is a No Age setting of the lyrics to Björk's song (which isn't actually hers, but let us not quibble).
11. Radiohead "The Headmaster Ritual" (The Smiths): Whereas this is nearly a carbon copy...but it's interesting to see how well Thom Yorke's voice fits the lyric and melody, and the way Marr's idiosyncratic guitar part with its odd passing chords is flawlessly reproduced. This is from a live online performance, if I recall correctly, via Stereogum (I linked them the last two posts, and they still haven't paid me, so you get to find the URL yourself this time).
12. Scott Miller "Cara Lee" (Chris Stamey): Miller, late of Game Theory and the Loud Family, is a semi-retired father of two these days ("semi-retired" from music anyway), but he made this recording and offered it for free if enough people donated to a particular charitable cause. They did, he did, and here it is again...but you might give to Donors Choose anyway.
13. The New Frontiers "Look at Miss Ohio" (Gillian Welch): I think this is the only track here whose original is unknown to me (I found a free stream of that Sanford Clark number above, which I hadn't known beforehand), but since I can nearly hear Welch's voice singing this one, I'm guessing it's pretty close.
14. My Morning Jacket "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" (Donovan): Okay, am I imagining this, or was the Donovan original one of the earlier instances of a song used in a commercial for an utterly unrelated product...like some time in the '70s? Anyway, I like the original regardless, and My Morning Jacket tweak it just enough to make it interesting...
15. Spoon "Peace Like a River" (Paul Simon): I would not have expected Spoon to cover Paul Simon...but here they do, from a Daytrotter session, and it somehow fits the band better than I would have guessed.
16. Calexico "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" (Bob Dylan): From a series of online downloads of live tracks covering Dylan songs. If anyone knows who the guy is that sings the Spanish verse, let me know: he gives it this incredibly grave dignity, and while the series is called "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan," as effective as Bob can be singing his best, he couldn't do this.
17. The Last Town Chorus "Modern Love" (David Bowie): Yet another common species of cover: the radical tempo change gambit. Do a fast song slow, do a slow song fast - you get the picture. Done well, though, it brings out whole new realms of meaning, since all the connotations of "slow" (and, often, "quiet") get applied to lyrics lacking such registers in the original. (Speaking of which: I've always thought Roger Daltrey's bellowing on "Who Are You" often utterly missed what seemed to be the point of the lyrics...and that if Pete Townshend had sung the verse about "how can I measure up to anyone now, after such a love as this?" in his own, much more vulnerable voice, particularly holding back the volume quite a bit, the song would have been much more effective. So, uh, I guess I'm saying I'd like to hear a cover of the song by its actual writer...)
18. Seksu Roba "Moon Song" (My Bloody Valentine): It's Theremin Night at the Luna Lounge, and here's a glittering trove of swank dressed up just for your very sophisticated palate...
19. Laura Cantrell "Love Vigilantes" (New Order): Cantrell found the country song hidden within the New Order track and pulled it out intact. Sad that so many lyrics that began as fiction end up being all too plausible, though. (Uh, not the visitation part - the rest.)
20. Xiu Xiu "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" (Bauhaus): Xiu Xiu is, of course, not for everybody - I fully understand the folks who would rather claw their own eyeballs out than listen to either the band's sometimes horrendous cacophony or Jamie Stewart's vocal exhibitionism - but at their best, they're not only compelling but (often overlooked) write great melodies besides. This, of course, is not their song...but anyone expecting Stewart to suddenly start howling or yelping will be... I guess you'll just have to find out.
Play it, Sam - play it.
Next: My favorite 20 albums of 2008 (and accompanying playlist).