[Cover Me]: Dead Kennedys, Nouvelle Vague and Seu Jorge.

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Dead Kennedys – ‘Viva Las Vegas’ (Originally by Elvis Presley)
Appearing at the tail end of their 1980 debut Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, Dead Kennedys had been playing the Elvis Presley show tune since their early days. Stripped down and revved up, this version simmers with reckless abandon and the anarchic humour in Jello Biafra’s reworked lyrics of a coked up gambler rings truer than the original’s optimism. Fittingly, the Kennedys’ version appeared in Terry Gilliam’s leering film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

Nouvelle Vague – ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ (Originally by Dead Kennedys)
Almost at the other end of the spectrum, this take on Dead Kennedys’ fourth single is slowed to sultry, bossa nova groove. Bringing their distinctive knack for transposing punk and new wave songs to a lounge jazz setting effectively, Nouvelle Vague put ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ in a drinks party and what it might be missing in Biafra’s manic energy is made up for by Camille Dalmais’s amusing and bubbly delivery.

Seu Jorge – ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ (Originally by David Bowie)
Seen here in his Team Zissou garb on the good ship Belafonte, Brazilian actor Seu Jorge’s major contribution to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was to reinvent a slew of early David Bowie songs as Portuguese acoustic ditties. Hearing these versions Bowie himself said “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with”. Brimming with charm, Jorge’s covers are the masterstroke in Wes Anderson’s absurd nautical adventure.

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[Cover Me]: Gil Scott-Heron, Nils Lofgren & The White Stripes

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Gil Scott-Heron – ‘Me and the Devil’ (Originally by Robert Johnson)
Appearing on his final album, I’m New Here, Gil-Scott Heron transposes Robert Johnson’s stark ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ from the haunting Mississippi delta of the 1930s to the ghostly concrete structures of 21st century New York, trading six strings for brooding synths. As an artist who had only just returned to recording following sixteen years of multiple incarcerations and crippling addiction, the malevolent atmosphere and strained vocals on the track reflect that Scott-Heron knew his devils all too well.

Nils Lofgren – ‘Like a Hurricane’ (Originally by Neil Young)
As Neil Young readies to release A Letter Home, a covers album including songs by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and Bert Jansch which chimed personally with Young, it seems appropriate to post a cover by sometime Crazy Horse member and current E Streeter, Nils Lofgren. Over nearly fifty years in music working with some of the 20th century’s defining musicians, Lofgren has proved himself to be rock’s most gymnastic guitarist, both in technique and on-stage antics. In this extended take from his own cover album of Neil Young songs, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, Lofgren strips down the howling pain of Young’s electric original into a plaintive acoustic tearjerker with him soloing at his spellbinding best.

The White Stripes – ‘Baby Blue’ (Originally by Gene Vincent)
The White Stripes were never averse to taking old blues and injecting them with some garage-punk adrenaline, and here they crank up Gene Vincent’s slice of rock n’ roll gold to deliver a spine-tingling rendition in one of John Peel’s legendary sessions.

[Cover Me]: Richard Thompson, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Tim Buckley

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Richard Thompson – ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ (Originally by Britney Spears)
That right there was the sound of you double-taking. As part of his ambitious 2003 project 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which traced a common thread through music from 1068 all the way up to 2001, folk-rock luminary Richard Thompson closed with this Britney Spears mega-hit (though not without taking a slight detour to the 16th century towards the end). It’s clever, tongue-in-cheek and damn if it isn’t catchy!

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Tower of Song’ (Originally by Leonard Cohen)
It was a toss up between posting this and The Bad Seeds’ haunting cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Singer‘ from Kicking Against The Pricks, but for sheer full-tilt energy and originality I had to plump for this. Leonard Cohen has been Nick Cave’s mentor in many ways (the first Bad Seeds album even opens with a cover of Cohen’s ‘Avalanche‘), so it is not surprising for Cave to pay tribute to the man “gifted with a golden voice”. Rather than sticking to the blueprint though The Bad Seeds rip it up with a frantic race through almost every conceivable genre of the 20th century. The result is as if you were plummeting between the floors of the eponymous Tower of Song and hearing the noises made on different floors on the way down.

Tim Buckley – ‘Martha’ (Originally by Tom Waits)
This track is taken from Tim Buckley’s penultimate album Sefronia, and while much of the album is a mixed bag there is no doubting the grandness of his version of one of Tom Waits’s earliest heartbreakers. In fact, Waits’s Closing Time (the album the original appeared on) had only surfaced two months before Sefronia was released, and this says something for the immediate connection Buckley must have felt with ‘Martha’ to record it and really get where Waits was coming from. While musically Waits’s original is soused in the dissatisfactions of the present, Buckley’s sweet, string laden version brims with the optimism of a young love which the song’s Tom Frost hopes to rekindle with Martha. By being the first prominent artist to cover songs by the then largely unknown Waits, Buckley drew public attention to him and thereby helped him on his way to becoming one of the truly defining artists of the last fifty years. For that alone, this version of ‘Martha’ deserves attention and appreciation.

[Cover Me]: Josh Ritter, Jeff Buckley & Julia Holter

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Josh Ritter – ‘The River’ (Originally by Bruce Springsteen)
Simply one of the best songs ever written, this rendition was one of the first tracks that turned me onto Josh Ritter and marked him out as one to watch. Capturing the broken and forlorn spirit of the song, Ritter’s plaintive cries send a shiver up the spine. I saw him perform this at his show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam last year and it was spellbinding, where time seemed to stand still for the briefest of moments.

Jeff Buckley – ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ (Originally by Bob Dylan)
Found on the extensive and unparalleled Live At Siné, this recording sees Jeff Buckley in his element performing in his café stomping grounds before the release of Grace. Buckley covered many of Dylan’s songs, seeing him as a songwriting muse in some respects, but as ever he left his indelible mark on this slide-driven version of the Blood On The Tracks highlight. He didn’t just play songs, he inhabited them, and the emotional intensity of this song (and many others) remains an indisputable testament to his effulgent talent.

Julia Holter – ‘Hello Stranger’ (Originally by Barbara Lewis)
Virtually unrecognisable from the original, Julia Holter definitively updated the R&B hit on last year’s Loud City Song, taking the fifty years since it’s release in one giant leap. Stripped of the “shoo-bop-she-bop” vocals and jaunty organ, ‘Hello Stranger’ drifts amongst textural soundscapes and Holter’s reverberating vocals, becomeing less a chance meeting in the street and more of an intense channeling, like meeting someone from across the years in a dream.

[Cover Me]: The Band, The Nighthawks and Nina Simone

The Band – ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ (Originally by Marvin Gaye)
Groovy, bluesy and impossibly catchy, The Band’s souped up version of the Holland-Dozier-Holland song hits you square in the guts. The Band recorded it multiple times (it most notably opened The Last Waltz) but this recording snatched from a 1972 show at the Academy of Music, NY for me is the most powerful. Levon Helm’s barking vocals are at their most desperate, Robbie Robertson’s guitar solos are at their most searing and the dramatic break before the band come back in full unison showcases an iconic band at the height of their powers.

The Nighthawks – ‘Sixteen Tons’ (Originally by Merle Travis)
While the most famous version of this song is arguably Tennesee Ernie Ford’s version, this full pelt rendition by Washington, D.C. bluesters The Nighthawks has had a wide circulation due to its appearance in The Wire. While the slight swing vibe and slightly cheerful clarinet motif in Ford’s version might seem a bit disingenuous given it’s subject matter, this version bristles with rage. Rattling drums, harmonica honks and blistering guitar make for one hell of a ride.

Nina Simone – ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ (Originally by Blind Willie Johnson/Traditional)
Appearing on 1969’s Nina Simone and Piano, this earthy spiritual emphasises just how powerful a performer Nina Simone was in isolation. Each note in her raw vocals bleeds emotion and her bold piano playing echoes the conviction of one who has sensed the devil breathing down their neck. A spine-tingling song from a force of nature who could make any song her own.

[Cover Me]: Kwabs, Ayanna Witter-Johnson & The Low Anthem

Kwabs – ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (Originally by James Blake)
James Blake’s music has always had that soulful, jazz singer strain running through it, teeming just under the washed out surface of echoing beats and thawed synthesisers. Here Kwabs and co. tug at that particular string on ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ with soft melodies and Kwabs’s resonant baritone, bringing to the surface the seductive jazz ballad the song always had the potential to be.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson – ‘Roxanne’ (Originally by The Police)
As a multi-award winning musician with degrees in Classical Composition from the Trinity College of Music and Manhattan School of Music, as well as winning local venue competitions and being invited to tour with accomplished sitarist Anoushka Shankar, you could say Ayanna Witter-Johnson is something of an over-achiever. Appearing on her debut EP Truthfully, her solo cello take on pop masterpiece (and impetus for an intensive drinking game) ‘Roxanne’ is something to behold. Her soaring voice is both yearning and mournful, while her poised arrangement brings brooding classical sensibilities to Andy Summers’s tense, jazzy chord voicings.

The Low Anthem – ‘Home I’ll Never Be’ (Originally by Jack Kerouac)
Based on a little ditty Jack Kerouac wrote one night (tentatively titled ‘On The Road’), this rollicking barnstormer comes from The Low Anthem’s third album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. While this version owes a lot to Tom Waits and Primus’s previous arrangement, it is the ramshackle energy generated by Jeff Prystowski’s clattering percussion and Ben Knox Miller’s reckless holler which makes this rendition rattle along with the same energy it’s author’s prose was famous for.

[Cover Me]: Poliça, Martina Topley Bird & Mark Lanegan and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Poliça – ‘Nobody’ (Originally by Keith Sweat)
In this live clip from a show in Phoenix, AZ last year, Poliça take Keith Sweat’s seduction hip-hop and put their energised spin on it. Driven along by the band’s powerful rhythm section, ‘Nobody’ takes on the effervescent energy of tracks like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Amongster’. Meanwhile, Keith Sweat’s braggadocio is replaced by Channy Leaneagh’s soulful echoing vocals. That is, before she modulates her down a couple of pitches to comic effect mid song (oddly enough for Athena Cage’s part). For a group whose music often comes across as committed and serious, it’s a nice touch of self-deprecating fun and a feel-good club moment.

Mark Lanegan and Martina Topley Bird – ‘Crystalised’ (Originally by The xx)
When the introverted chill of ‘Crystalised’ was first released it quickly beguiled ears across the world and singlehandedly launched The xx into the international limelight. Here, Martina Topley Bird and Mark Lanegan give it a bit of a shake up, with some help from Warpaint. Martina Topley Bird’s distinctive, laconic croon has often acted as an effective foil to another vocalist on many records, but perhaps not against a voice as gravelly as Mark Lanegan’s tombstone grumble. They make an unlikely pair, but their juxtaposing vocals work surprisingly well. Meanwhile, Warpaint surrender to the groove and ‘Crystalised’ subsequently sounds less like disaffected showgaze and more like moody graveyard funk. The song is also accompanied by some pretty stellar visuals too.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – ‘Wild Horses’ (Originally by The Rolling Stones)
Possibly the greatest song the Jagger/Richards writing partnership ever produced, ‘Wild Horses’ already had a slight soul bent. In the hands of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings though (whose fifth album Give The People What They Want recently landed) it becomes an all out soul belter, replete with horns, gospel organ and rocksteady snare snaps. While Mick Jagger’s tender emotional delivery belied his youthful earnestness, Sharon Jones pours a lifetime of experience and struggles into her wails, wringing each note for all it’s worth. Stunning.

[Cover Me]: Jimi Hendrix, Bat For Lashes & Baby Huey

Jimi Hendrix – ‘Killing Floor’ (Originally by Howlin’ Wolf)

Let’s kick off the weekend and this week’s Cover Me by rippin’ it up with some Jimi. Originally recorded and released in 1964 on Chess Records, ‘Killin’ Floor’ became a standard of the Chicago electric blues sound. Driven by a drum beat that chugs along steadily like a locomotive and punctuated by Hubert Sumlin’s spiky guitar part, the song is a classic tale of bad lovin’ delivered in Howlin’ Wolf’s trademark growl. Although the song rumbles on at a fair pace already, three years later Hendrix decided to take things up a few notches for his rendition (as was his way with all of his covers). What ensues on this opening number from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is a high-octane blues explosion, with Noel Fielding’s bass keeping things moving along smoothly in the background while Mitch Mitchell dishes out cascades of crashing cymbals and pounding drums and Hendrix does his thing. The blistering guitar pyrotechnics (which would become literal guitar pyrotechnics later in the concert) on the audio recording alone is enough to blow you out of your seat, but when you watch this performance it really drives home what a showman Hendrix was. Flamboyant and devastating; Hendrix was more than a spectacular musician, he was a force of nature.

Bat For Lashes – ‘I’m On Fire’ (Originally by Bruce Springsteen)

The centrepiece on Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA already burned with feverish longing, but in the hands of Natasha Khan it becomes a thing of smouldering grandeur. Khan changes the gender of the protagonist and in many ways this rendition feels like a female answer to Springsteen’s man who wakes up “with a freight train running through the middle of my head”. Where the muted guitar and cool organ of the original bely barely restrained passion, the wistful violin and shimmering marxophone here reflect a slow-burning desire. Where Springsteen’s croon is raw and soulful, Khan’s siren call is poised with grace and drama. Listened to side by side, it is almost as if the protagonists of each version is reaching out for the other.

Baby Huey – ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (Originally by Sam Cooke)

And now to bring it on home with a Sam Cooke song. I first heard this version on the Huey After Midnight show on BBC Radio 2 and it floored me. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is one of the most powerful songs in history, resonating with the endurance and dignity of the human spirit, and Baby Huey puts his heart and soul into his rendition. He begins slow and masterful, echoing Cooke’s own graceful introduction, but as the song builds he yelps and wails in anguish, giving life to the endured pains and injustices the song addresses. Amongst plaintive horns things simmers down around the six minute mark and Baby Huey opens up and rhapsodises about the hard times and loss of innocence in his Indiana hometown. “There are three types of people in this world, that’s how I know a change is gonna come,” he claims, “There’s white people, there’s black people, and then there’s my people”. It is an all-embracing statement in line with the original song’s message, and it is a shame Baby Huey could not see how people would receive it for he died at the age of twenty-six from a drug-related heart attack before his only record’s release. Nevertheless, the record, produced by Curtis Mayfield, and this song stand as testament to the man. It is an epic nine and a half minute trip with tinges of gospel and psychedelia, which winds its way much like the course of the river in the song and when Baby Huey claims “I feel a change coming”, you believe him.

[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.

[Cover Me]: Arctic Monkeys, Mazzy Star and Johnny Cash

Arctic Monkeys – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ (Originally by John Cooper Clarke)

Not exactly a cover, so much as a setting of words to music. The influence of John Cooper Clarke’s wordplay has long been evident in Alex Turner’s lyrics and since the Monkey’s last trio of albums has lead them to L.A. and back it seems fitting for their latest offering to come full circle and finish with Carke’s kitchen-sink poetry. Turner’s Sheffield brogue is a perfect foil for Clarke’s Salford drawl as he delivers lines like “Let me be your ‘leccy meter, And I’ll never run out”. Meanwhile, the shuffling beat and swirls of oscillating guitar hold a strong tie to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s ‘Loverman’ (the band have also covered Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, from the same album). Positioned at the end of the album, this song of longing proves to be the woozy hangover at the end of AM‘s long, heavy night.

Mazzy Star – ‘Five String Serenade’ (Originally by Arthur Lee)

Mazzy Star recently released their first album in seventeen years, Seasons of Your Day, and it reminded me of this little beauty from 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See. Originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love, the song choice really lays out the shared Californian genealogy between the two bands. Both bands have a knack for hazy and psychedelic melodies. However, while Arthur Lee’s psych-tinged original wallows amid waves of chorused guitar and shimmering strings, David Roback and Hope Sandoval’s take really accentuates the lullaby at the heart of the song. Roback slows the pace down to a slow dance, accentuating each note in the arpeggio, while the swathes of strings in the original are condensed to a sparse string section. Floating between these and the occasional tambourine shimmer is Sandoval’s sultry drawl, which complete’s the song’s soporific atmosphere. The song lies nestled at the centre of So Tonight That I Might See, and is a spellbinding moment of tender magic.

Johnny Cash – ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (Originally by Gordon Lightfoot)

It has been ten years since the loss of Johnny Cash, whose American Recordings albums remain a tribute to his power as a performer and a songwriter even in his final years of deteriorating health. His output was so prolific at this stage that he left behind three album’s worth of recorded material that were released after his death. It seems that he was a man wanting to set the record straight before he checked out, and nowhere does this come across as strongly than in his versions of ‘Hurt’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. The latter was penned by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and is one of the most evocative and accurate account of a dissolving relationship I have ever come across. Lightfoot’s original was already pretty poignant, but in Cash’s hands the song takes on a whole new poignancy. As with all American Recordings covers, ‘If You Could My Mind’ is stripped down to its very essence, with barebones instrumentation. But, as ever, it is Cash’s entrancing vocals that really clinch it. His voice is recognisable but quavers, betraying his years and deteriorating health, forming cracks in the deep and confident voice which sang ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. It is the audible hesitation when singing “I’m just trying to understand” and “I just don’t get it” which cuts through to the core. It gets me every time. Rest in peace, Johnny.