Posts Tagged ‘cover songs’
20 Oct

Week 232: “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon (as covered by The Honey Ants)



Because Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a staple of my family’s long road trips, I have heard the original “You Can Call Me Al” many, many times. And, with all due respect to the undisputed songwriting prowess of Paul Simon, this version is better.

Actually, let me rephrase that: this version brings out everything that was good about the song already. The original “You Can Call Me Al” has the quirky and introspective lyrics that are a trademark of Paul Simon’s career. The problem was that it was released in 1986, and so it is stamped with everything that was silly about music in the 80s. Dated synthesizers. Bland-sounding horns. Echoing drum kits. Chevy Chase. Quirky and introspective comes off as campy and fluffy.

Pretty much the only thing it had going for it was the world’s greatest 5-second bass solo.

Okay, I’m being too hard on it. It’s a classic tune from one of the 80s’ best albums. But you’ve got to hand it to The Honey Ants; this is a lovely version of Simon’s song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The synths are replaced by a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. And even better, they don’t try to imitate the famous synth line from the original.

2. Without all the extra instrumentation, the lyrics have more room to breathe. To be honest, I never realized that the lyrics included the word “bonedigger” until I heard this version.

3. The harmonies, not present in the original, are reminiscent of the Simon & Garfunkel days.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-kindling a connection with a childhood friend.

08 Sep

Week 226: “Waltz #1” by Elliott Smith (as covered by Christopher O’Riley)



I’m usually a bit wary of tribute albums. Tribute albums are the musical equivalent of mandatory staff meetings at work: there are too many of them, and they rarely offer any new information.

My wariness level is even higher if the tribute album in question is paying homage to a recently-dead artist. It’s very tempting to write it off as opportunism. Aren’t you supposed to eulogize someone in your own words? With your own songs? Do we need new versions of classics anyway?

But I don’t get those pessimistic feelings with “Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute”. Pianist Christopher O’Riley doesn’t try to do too much, or add excessive orchestration. His versions of Smith’s songs are simple piano renditions, subtly different but still recognizable. I probably wouldn’t listen to the album all day, but his version of Waltz #1 is perfect.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. O’Riley layers the piano parts in the same way that Smith used to layer his vocals.

2. The notes repeatedly glide up the scale in a way that reminds me of (don’t ask me why) empty ski lifts going up a hill.

3. The chord changes at 2:36 are unexpected and wonderful.

Recommended listening activity:

Framing your favourite photo of you and your best friend.

15 Jul

Week 166: “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields (as covered by Patricia O’Callaghan)



The best-known version of this song is probably Peter Gabriel’s version, which was made so popular by its inclusion on the show “Scrubs” that many people assume it was Gabriel who wrote it. In fact, it’s from The Magnetic Fields’ sprawling, ridiculous, and possibly genius triple album “69 Love Songs”.

Not to be grumpy, but I don’t really like either version. I find Peter Gabriel’s take a bit cheesy, an overdone reaction to the deadpan tone of the original.

Thank goodness for Canadian opera/jazz singer Patricia O’Callaghan. For me, her version hits the “Goldilocks point” between the too-sweet and too-sour flavours of the other two. Simple, playful, and just sweet enough, it’s everything a relationship should be.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Clever and honest. Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merrit originally conceived “69 Love Songs” as a musical revue, a tongue-in-cheek look at the love song itself. So if “the book” he’s talking about is meant to symbolize every love song, romantic comedy, and grocery-store paperback that modern society has produced, then I agree; some of it is just really dumb.

2. The double bass. It’s a great companion to O’Callaghan’s voice, and the way the two of them interact makes me imagine a carefree couple strolling hand-in-hand.

3. The melody. The prettiest are (fittingly for a love song) the held notes on “I” and “you”.

Recommended listening activity:

Doing something ordinary with someone who is extraordinary.

22 Apr

Week 154: “The Eraser” by Thom Yorke (as covered by Christian Scott)



I was a bit hesitant to listen to Thom Yorke’s first solo effort, The Eraser, upon its release in 2006.

While I loved his voice and his lyrics, I always felt that the Greenwoods were as important to Radiohead’s songwriting process as Thom Yorke was. Following Radiohead’s career arc, it seemed like any time Yorke’s influence over the band’s direction got stronger, the results got weirder. Not bad weird, but I got the impression that without the Greenwoods there to counterbalance his tangents, they would become more and more experimental.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Well, mostly. There’s some pretty strange stuff on The Eraser, but it’s mostly listenable, and the stuff that isn’t too listenable is still interesting. And besides, listening to things that are difficult to listen to is good exercise for your ears.

The title track is probably my favourite, and Christian Scott does it justice (and then some) on his 2010 album Yesterday You Said Tomorrow.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The…thing…that rattles. I don’t know what it is. It might be a snare. But every time the piano hits one of its chords, something rattles. At first it bugged me, because I thought something was wrong with my speakers. But now I like it.

2. The soft trumpet tone. Scott calls it his “whisper tone”, and it’s a trademark of his playing. I love it because it means that his trumpet needs to be recorded really close, picking up all the subtleties of his playing.

3. The tempo change at 3:20. In both the original and this version, it’s a startling switch that doesn’t seem to make at sense. But like everything else in the song, it works effortlessly and inexplicably.

Recommended listening activity:

Doing something that’s difficult but worth it.

21 Jan

Week 141: “A Forest” by The Cure (as covered by Nouvelle Vague)


In 2003, French musicians Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux had the kind of strange idea that only comes to you at 4am when you’ve had far too much coffee. They decided to form a cover band, dedicated to creating bossa-nova versions of 80’s new-wave.

The next morning, they decided it was still a good idea, so they went ahead with it. And they were right; Nouvelle Vague became one of the most interesting bands of the decade, simultaneously nostalgic and forward-looking in their sound and overall esthetic.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Bossa nova percussion. For my money, nothing gets a party started like the guiro.

2. Semi-whispered vocals. Nouvelle Vague has featured a variety of vocalists over the years (including this one), and on this track the singer is Marina Celeste. The lyrics have a dreamy quality to them already; Celeste brings that feeling out even more than on the original Cure track.

3. Nature sounds. They’re present for the entire song, but by the last 30 seconds, it’s just about all we hear. Listen with headphones and you can almost feel the humidity of a tropical rainforest.

Recommended listening activity:

Lying on your back with a spray bottle, spraying water into the air, and letting the mist fall slowly back on to your face.

27 Feb

Week 94: “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears (as covered by The Bad Plus)


Several years ago, I took a trip to France with my trusty non-digital camera (remember those?) and plenty of “Kodak Gold 200” film. Halfway through my effort to take pictures of absolutely everything in Paris, I ran out of film. I ducked into a camera shop to re-stock on film, but thanks to my second-rate French skills, came out with black & white by accident.

But to my surprise, when I developed the photos weeks later, I found that the colour photos looked embarrassingly amateur, while the black & white photos were just dripping with artistry and professionalism. This was the moment when I realized that the key to taking great photos is to make them black & white. It just somehow seems to add class to the photo, no matter what the subject matter.

The musical version of this phenomenon is the jazz cover. Take any song, put it in the hands of a talented jazz trio, and it will sound great. The Bad Plus have been working this recipe to perfection for many years now, and this is one of their best results.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The unexpected chords. The Bad Plus really injects a spooky feel to the Tears For Fears classic by throwing in wacky cadences and dissonance, like at the end of the first chorus at 1:08.

2. The piano at 2:39. The contrary motion of the left and right hand is the audio equivalent of a double rainbow.

3. Starting at about 4:30, the drummer starts to go bonkers. The piano calmly repeats the melodic line from the chorus, while drummer Dave King pretends he’s onstage with Hendrix at Woodstock.

Recommended listening activity:

Experimenting with effects in iPhoto.

05 Dec

Week 82: “How Do” by Sneaker Pimps


If you spent a significant portion of the 90s smoking things and listening to trip-hop, there’s a good chance you remember the name Sneaker Pimps. If you don’t recognize the name, or if you smoked so many things that you’ve forgotten, allow me to re-introduce you.

Formed in England just as fellow Brits Portishead were gaining popularity, Sneaker Pimps released their debut, “Becoming X”, in 1994. They made it into the clubs with the driving single “Spin Spin Sugar”, and onto radio with the eerie “6 Underground”.  (Which, as a side note, took its main samples from the music in the movie Goldfinger when the girl is discovered dead, covered in gold paint. Take a listen just after the 1-minute mark in this video.)

Having ridden the wave of British trip-hop to success, they decided to dump their mousy lead vocalist, Kelli Drayton, after touring their first album. She left, and their success left with her. Although they released two more albums without her, they never matched the success of “Becoming X”.

This song is a cover of “Willow’s Song” from the creepy 1973 film The Wicker Man. I have to say that I think I prefer this version to the original; it’s more dreamy and ethereal, and has fewer naked women banging frantically on doors. The Sneaker Pimps’ version was never released as a single, but it was always one of my favourites from that first album. It must have been one of the lead singer’s favourites as well, because she covered it once again on her own solo effort ten years later.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening sample. It’s a clip from The Wicker Man, and it’s neat that there’s so little dialogue. The listener is left instead to ponder the crickets, the cheering in the background, and the mystery of who the “sergeant” might be.

2. The percussion. Beginning with the simple “thump” on each downbeat, it builds to include some nice soft brushes at about 1:20.

3. Kelli Drayton. The vocal line in this song is perfectly suited to her tiny, almost Alvin-and-the-Chimpmunk-ish voice. And I love that she just hums the line at 2:42, as if the words aren’t even important. Or maybe she just forgot them. It was the 90s, after all.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking to the corner store to pick up a midnight snack.

07 Nov

Week 78: “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn (as covered by Erato)

If there was ever proof that less is more, this song is it.

A charming re-working of a decidedly mediocre song by pop star Robyn, this song, performed by Swedish vocal group Erato, does what all good cover songs do: it takes the original song, strips it down to its basic strengths, and fills the gaps with something completely new.

A clip of Erato (well, three of them anyway) singing the song became internet wildfire a couple weeks ago, and the simplicity of the video just adds to the song’s charm. Shot in black and white on a cheap camera in their cramped Swedish kitchen, it proves that beauty doesn’t need a big budget. (Robyn’s video, in case you were wondering, is an awkward combination of Flashdance and Napoleon Dynamite. You probably don’t need to see it, but if you’re curious and you enjoy feeling slightly uncomfortable, go for it.)

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The percussion. Erato trades in Robyn’s highly produced sound for used cottage cheese containers. No word yet on whether the success of the YouTube clip has boosted cottage cheese sales in Stockholm.

2. The three-part harmonies. Okay, this might contradict my “less is more” argument, but Erato’s vocal arrangement is gorgeous.

3. The lyrics. To be fair to Robyn, she gave Erato some good lyrics to work with. This is an interesting take on the break-up song; a plea for compassion from the “other woman”, making her case that honesty is the only approach to a complicated situation…that’s good stuff. Robyn’s come a long way since “Show Me Love”.

Recommended listening activity:

Building a castle out of Tupperware.

27 Jun

Week 59: “Summertime” by Angelique Kidjo


If you were to shrink the year into one week, summer would be the weekend.

When you’re a kid in school, June feels like one long Friday. And even if you’re in the working world, June has that Friday-like sense of excitement; everyone’s asking each other what their plans are, and Monday just feels so far away.

July is like Saturday. People go on vacation. Friends come over for a barbecue. Parks are filled with dog-walkers, Frisbee players, and children with energy to burn.

August, on the other hand, definitely has a Sunday feel to it. A contented, relaxed, day-after-the-party kind of feel. Still fun, but a little voice keeps reminding you that Monday (autumn) is just around the corner. Better get those chores done…that homework finished…that shopping out of the way.

So whether you’re in school or not, here’s wishing you a happy Friday night with an interesting version of the old Gershwin tune, “Summertime”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The quiet summertime bugs in the background. Not sure if they’re crickets or cicadas, but they make me feel like grabbing an iced tea.

2. The vocal arrangement. Gershwin’s songs have been performed by uncountable numbers of people over the years, but you won’t find a more creative adaptation than this one. I love the vocal percussion at 0.34, the voices that stand in for the original string part at 1.03, and the lone voice that holds that awesome sustained note at 3.10.

3. The language. The internet had a hard time telling me whether or not she translated the original lyrics into Fon or Yoruba, both of which are languages of Kidjo’s native Benin. Frankly, it doesn’t matter much; she could be singing a translation of “Straight Outta Compton” and it would still sound lovely.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting right next to a fan.

18 Apr

Week 49: “Blow Out” by Radiohead (as covered by L.O. Freq)


Cover songs are tricky.

If you stick to the original, you get criticized for trying to mooch off someone else’s popularity. If you make it really different, fans of the band you’re covering will accuse you of blasphemy.

But doing cover songs is completely natural when you think about it; after all, every band out there started because someone wanted to imitate their musical idols. Today’s pop divas were yesterday’s kids, singing along to Whitney Houston and Madonna. Today’s guitar heroes were yesterday’s awkward teens, secretly playing air-guitar to the solos of Slash, Hendrix, and Zeppelin.

Having said that, when a band puts out a cover song, it’s rare that they hit the magical balance between their own style and the elements that made the original song a memorable one to begin with. British ambient duo L.O. Freq did exactly that with their 2006 cover of Radiohead’s “Blow Out”. In fact, at the risk of being hunted down and killed by rabid Radiohead fans, I might even say that they improved upon the original.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. A new guitar part. Whereas the original uses a few simple chords, L.O. Freq imagines whole new layers of acoustic awesomeness, making the song sound less urgent, and more textured.

2. A female vocalist. Thom Yorke has a wonderful, fragile voice, and he does great things with it. But Reeta Loi’s voice was tailor-made for this song. And she even manages to throw in some Yorkian mumbling for good measure.

3. A dreamy ending. While young, angsty Radiohead chose to go all “90’s rock guitar explosion” at the end of the track, L.O. Freq fades it out on soft synth strings, horns, and vocal “aahs”. As much as I like Radiohead’s version, written in 1993, but I can’t help but think that if they had written it in 2011, it might have come out sounding more like this.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting on that old band t-shirt you haven’t worn in ten years.

p.s. If you know of any other beautiful cover songs, let me know:

25 May

Week 2: “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” by The Postal Service


For music fans, there are few things cooler than discovering a b-side or rarity by your favourite band.  It’s the musical equivalent of pouring yourself a bowl of cereal and watching in ecstatic disbelief as the  dollar-store prize tumbles out.

I had been a fan of Death Cab For Cutie and its electronic half-brother The Postal Service for a while when this little gem made its way into my ears, a b-side off the single for “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Although this is a cover of a song by The Flaming Lips, the lyrics are perfectly in line with Benjamin Gibbard’s patented way of capturing feeling without sounding pretentiously artistic.  In this case, it’s the feeling of sudden realization that your life is completely different from the way it once was.

2. The layered “aaah” vocals that float over the song, like a freshly shaken-out blanket settling onto a bed.

3.  The Rhodes piano, which lends the song a slightly Radiohead-ish feel.  The instrumentation in the original version of this song is totally different…this is one of those rare cover versions that improves upon the original.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting away groceries.