[Cover Me]: Arcade Fire, Elliott Smith and Cowboy Junkies

 Arcade Fire – Queen Bitch (Originally by David Bowie)

Today Arcade Fire released their sprawling fourth album, Reflektor, and if like me you have recently been grooving to the lead single of the same name you will undoubtedly have noticed the heavy David Bowie influence on the track. ‘Reflektor’ masterfully synthesises choice elements from Bowie’s catalogue from Station to Station through to Outside to create a paranoid-dancehall anthem that sounds as if it were beamed from an alternate future where the Eastern bloc is still in effect, aided not least by the man himself on guest vocals and production from Bowie disciple, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame. Arcade Fire pull it off with style, but their earlier Bowie impressions were not always so accomplished. Their early, admirable take on the glam rock anthem ‘Queen Bitch’ points clearly to their musical inspiration for the riff on ‘Wake Up’, but does not little else besides. However, Bowie is always a tough nut to crack, so with the best of intentions the Montreal/Texas collective deliver a rollicking rendition that deserves to take home the bronze at the very least. (Please excuse the interminable screaming on the recording, I couldn’t find a better copy.)

Elliott Smith – ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’ (Originally by Hank Williams Jr.)

It has been ten years since Elliott Smith’s mysterious and tragic death, an end which has cast a long shadow over his recordings since. Probably known best for several contributions made to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, much has been mythologised about him and much is made of the sadness. But, these are poor characterisations of a person who made light melodies of their personal demons and whose black sense of humour is often overlooked or misunderstood. With that in mind, I’ve decided to accentuate the positive by choosing this ramshackle cover of Hank William Jr.’s ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’, found on the Live at Largo EP which accompanies Autumn de Wilde’s portrait book, Elliott Smith. This idiosyncratic cover of a country song is a fun tune and is a great insight into the loving relationship Smith had with his audience. You can hear Smith audibly cracking up as he sings (and messes up) the song and the crowd laughing along with him. You can practically hear the grin on his face as he asks at the song’s close, “So, you guys doing okay? You weren’t thrown off by my fuck up? ‘Cause there’s more in store!”

Cowboy Junkies – ‘Sweet Jane’ (Originally by The Velvet Underground)

This cover has been on my list for a while, and the unfortunate announcement yesterday of Lou Reed’s death at the age of 71 seems to make this an appropriate moment to feature this tribute. ‘Sweet Jane’ was one of Reed’s favourites from his own compositions and he included it regularly in live sets from 1969 until his death. The song has been through many variations, from upbeat pop strummer on the Loaded album to solo heavy glam-rock in some live renditions. This version by Cowboy Junkies, which most will recognise from Oliver Stones’s Natural Born Killers, is based on the slower version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live! and takes full advantage of the natural reverb in the church in Toronto where they recorded their second album, The Trinity Session. The lazy strumming and sluggish bass line perfectly complement Margo Timmins’s drawn out delivery of each line until the break where her voice soars above them and lifts the song up. And what did Reed think of it? He told BBC Radio 4 in 2007 that it is “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” High praise from a man whose work will be played with as much excitement in one hundred years time as it was on the day it was first unleashed.

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