some versionings

One more of my annual set of mixes is complete (which leaves two: my listening diary best-of for the last three months of the year, and tracks from my top 20 albums of the year: obviously, this will not happen by the actual end of the year).

As a fan of cover versions, for the last several years I’ve been making mixes of my 20-odd favorite covers of the year (by “of the year,” I mean “new to me that year” – although most of these are from 2009). Here’s this year’s track listing, with some remarks. In keeping with this year’s previous mixes, the title for this one derives once more from the land of teabagging crazy: this one’s called Coach-Quote Fail and refers to Sarah Palin’s hilarious use of a cheesy-ass website to attribute a quotation to basketball coach John Wooden…when in fact, the quote is actually from an American Indian activist John Wooden Legs. Palin’s usual care and concern for accuracy, once more.

And hey – check the comments area…

  1. Steve Barton “She’s Leaving Home” (The Beatles): By speeding this one up to a near-punkish tempo and turning things up, Barton reveals a different dimension to this song. I give credit to the original for movingly seeing both the daughter’s and the parents’ perspective (a rare thing in 1967), but Barton’s approach brings out both parties’ foolishness, to a degree: his treatment implies that, hey, that’s life…stop overdramatizing every damned thing.
  2. Neil Young “A Day in the Life” (The Beatles): I wouldn’t have thought that a five- or six-piece band could do justice to this song…but Neil Young has, as usual, an uncanny grasp of this song’s essence…and so in his plainspoken way, he delivers. Crazy Horse style guitar torture subs in for the orchestras, and Young delivers a knowing performance. His humor’s intact, too: the final E chord on a vibraphone (!) overshadowed a bit by some random feedback…
  3. The Feelies “Little Red Book” (Bacharach/David, via Love): From a boot of Feelies live cover tracks, the band finds the rock in this number even more resoundingly than Love did.
  4. Will Sheff “Ex-Girl Collection” (The Wrens): From a split single on which Okkervil River’s Sheff and the Wrens’ Charles Bissell cover each other’s songs. Sheff brings out the strange sense of compulsion, with a healthy serving of self-loathing and frustration, implicit in the Wrens’ tale of serial infidelities.
  5. Cursive “Love Cats” (The Cure): The song is a long-time favorite of mine; this arrangement (from a Daytrotter session) hews fairly close to the original’s, but the vocal approach is a bit more unhinged than Robert Smith’s…
  6. Dum Dum Girls “Play with Fire” (The Rolling Stones): Kinda like the Jesus and Mary Chain without so much distortion but with plenty of echo, this version emphasizes the original’s moodiness.
  7. Juliana Hatfield “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” (The Rolling Stones): As typically is the case, redoing a song acoustically emphasizes the subtler emotional tinges of the lyric, in this case reminding us that the Stones’ lyrics could be rather more canny and thoughtful than one might guess – given that, as this song’s title says…
  8. Holmes “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie): And slowing this one down and enriching it with orchestration emphasizes that Bowie’s chord progressions are somehow distinctively his own.
  9. The Dirtbombs “Sherlock Holmes” (Sparks): The Maels, as usual, conceal with bizarre wit a song addressing an all-too-typical emotional situation: feeling inadequate to fulfill what a lover deserves. Somehow, the narrator’s absurd bragging that he can sing and dance like Sherlock Holmes (a character not exactly known for either ability) only brings out the way he’s striving to be something impossible or unrealistic – and will therefore inevitably fail. “Baby” is, symptomatically, not heard from at all: this is inside theater.
  10. The Soundtrack of Our Lives “Fly” (Nick Drake): While stripping a full-band arrangement down to acoustic guitar often emphasizes the strength of a song’s structural roots (or lack thereof), the opposite approach can also demonstrate a song’s sturdiness. Here, the band of Swedes turns Drake’s simple, acoustic-guitar -based number into an orchestrated power-pop song…a treatment Drake’s beautiful melodies withstand with ease.
  11. The Books ft. José González “Cello Song” (Nick Drake): Another Nick Drake cover, this one despite the synthetic and musique concrète overlays, closer to Drake’s original in some ways. Another lovely song.
  12. Slaraffenland “Take on Me” (a-ha): This rather baroque little arrangement demonstrates that there was far more going on musically with this early-eighties trifle than one would have suspected (me, I always assumed it was simply a delivery system for the vocalist’s show-offy range). Scoring that multi-octave rise instrumentally is in some ways more effective, drawing attention away from the vocal gymnastics and sending it back onto the emotional buildup the melodic line conveys on its own.
  13. The Flaming Lips ft. Stardeath and White Dwarfs “Borderline” (Madonna): “Stardeath and White Dwarfs” is a band featuring the Lips’ Wayne Coyne’s nephew Dennis. Anyway: a nice buildup on this one, delaying the chorus until nearly the end of the song. I originally recorded this from an online video and assumed the distortion was due to crap sound source – but this version is direct from the iTunes store, and apparently, they meant the drums and everything else in the loud part to sound such crap. Grrrr.
  14. Zola Jesus ft. Dead Luke “Somebody to Love” (Jefferson Airplane): Okay, technically this song was first done not by the Airplane but by Grace Slick’s old band with her brother-in-law Darby Slick, The Great Society. Whatever. Another journey into the echo chamber…I’m not sure in this version whether “somebody to love” isn’t sort of a threat…
  15. Division Day “Ghosts” (Japan): Japan’s original featured a new synth sound on nearly every note, a novel arranging approach not quite copied here by Division Day, but they do catch the song’s mood (and some of those odd chords that I’m guessing were David Sylvian’s, judging from his later career).
  16. Greg Laswell “Your Ghost” (Kristin Hersh): Sometimes it’s hard to tell a really good cover from merely a good cover of a really good song. Then again, who cares? One of my favorite Hersh songs, done here quite effectively, although the arrangement is little changed.
  17. Grooms “Wicked Game” (Chris Isaak): Making a proper rock song out of this one would seem to rob it of its spooky melancholy – and it sort of does. But it’s still pretty obsessional.
  18. Local Natives “Warning Sign” (Talking Heads): I wouldn’t have thought of rendering the vocal in three-part harmony. These guys did, giving a whole new flavor to this song.
  19. Grand Atlantic “Single Ladies” (Beyonce): Every year, someone’s gotta cover a massively popular single in a radically different style. This year, this song. I like it. (Sorry – no Kanye West joke.)
  20. Ken Stringfellow “Airscape” (Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians): Stringfellow (of the Posies) does a very nice, keyboard-based arrangement of this song, one of Hitchcock’s most fabulously moody and moving tracks. (Actually, the thing I like least about it is its title, which seems needlessly precious.)
  21. Zooey “Father to a Sister of Thought” (Pavement): One of Malkmus’s most impressively rambling yet catchy melodies, dreamily attended to here by the single-named singer…
  22. Illinois “Girl U Want” (Devo): Because the original had no banjo.
  23. Phosphorescent “Reasons to Quit” (Willie Nelson): No messing around. Just some hard truths.
  24. Beck’s Record Club “Teachers” (Leonard Cohen): Beck’s first-take in-studio diversion this past year involved gathering a disparate batch of musicians to cover key albums in their entirety in off-the-cuff arrangements. Some of them are pretty close to the originals, some are wildly different…but this is the only one that both sends the original through the shredder and remains effective in its own right. (One of the two versions of “Heroin” on the site is just awful in its half-assed deconstruction…)


Filed under 2009, noise

3 responses to “some versionings

  1. Awesome. Thank you!

  2. Don

    You probably noticed that my “Most Played Songs of 2009, Part 1: Songs Released in 2009” had its fair share of covers.

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