Covers

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Over at “The Song In My Head Today” Holly Hughes has started an ambitious project — “52 Girls” in which she will post 52 songs that each have a girl’s name in the title. So far it’s fascinating, including familiar songs that are well worth re-visiting, and songs I’d never heard before.

It’s gotten me thinking about songs that would fit that criteria. There are lot’s of them, it’s a pop cliche, but I have surprisingly few in my music collection (or, at least, surprisingly few that are both worth recommending, and not so famous that they don’t need a recommendation). The one that I was thinking about most recently, which turned into this post is the old classic, “Frankie And Johnny.”

One thing I realized, after I’d started looking for it online, is that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recorded version of the song (looking, I do have a copy of the Harry Smith collection which includes the recording by Mississippi John Hurt, but it was different enough from the version that I knew that I didn’t pay that much attention to it). It was a song that I heard people singing when I was growing up. I knew it was a famous and influential song, but it was interesting for me to learn more about this history.

From Wikipedia, some highlights:

“Frankie and Johnny” (sometimes spelled “Frankie and Johnnie”; also known as “Frankie and Albert” or just “Frankie”) is a traditional American popular song. It tells the story of a woman, Frankie, who finds that her man Johnny was “making love to” another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested; in some versions of the song she is also executed.

. . . [various versions published between 1899 and 1912]

Several students of folk music have asserted that the song long predates the earliest published versions; according to Leonard Feather in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz it was sung at the Siege of Vicksburg (1863) during the American Civil War and Sandburg said it was widespread before 1888, while John Jacob Niles reported that it emerged before 1830. The fact, however, that the familiar version does not appear in print before 1925 is “strange indeed for such an allegedly old and well-known song,” according to music historian James J. Fuld, who suggests that it “is not so ancient as some of the folk-song writers would have one believe.”

At least 256 different recordings of “Frankie and Johnny” have been made since the early 20th century. . . . The story of Frankie and Johnny has been the inspiration for several films, including Her Man (1930, starring Helen Twelvetrees), Frankie and Johnnie (1936, starring Helen Morgan), and Frankie and Johnny (1966, starring Elvis Presley). Terrence McNally’s 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was adapted for a 1991 film titled Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The two things that jump out at me, are that it’s more famous than I would have guessed, and that it’s a song which has has been done by both white and black musicians for a long time. There aren’t that many songs that have been recorded by Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke, or by Roscoe Holcomb and Stevie Wonder. Having listening to about a different recordings on youtube, here are a couple that stand out to me. If you don’t want to go through all of the, I recommend skipping to the last one, by Beth Orton, for a remarkable contemporary recording.

I really like Big Bill Broonzy’s performance as representative of the traditional blues version. The thing that strikes me listening to that is the way in which the betrayal and murder play themselves out in public. Frankie is told about the affair by a bartender who presumably knows exactly what’s going on. In this version she finds Jonny in a hotel, but in many she shoots him through a pair of swinging doors. In either case, there’s nothing secret or hidden

Jimmie Rodgers also recorded an early version (the video dates it to 1929/30). The lyrics are similar but in this case the betrayal is even more out in the open. After talking to the Bartender Frankie, “looks over the transom. She saw to her surprise. There on a cot sat Johnny making love to Nelly Bly.” In this case, unlike the previous one, Frankie ends up sentenced to death, rather than just imprisoned. But the very last lines of the song are this interesting coda, “This story has no moral, this story has no end. This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men. He was her man and he done her wrong.” That, again, shifts the emphasis away from a personal identification with Frankie or Johnny and towards it just being a (particularly dramatic) story about the sort of bad things that happen in the world. That’s part of why this and the previous version make me think of it as a story belonging to a community, rather than just about two people.

By contrast, in Pearl Bailey’s excellent recording the focus is shifted towards Frankie and Johnny. For one thing, changing the person who tells Frankie where to find Johnny from a bartender to a “soda jerk” makes the background feel more comic and less believable (and, unlike the two previous versions, there aren’t any words sung in the voice of the bartender / soda jerk — we’re just told what he said) . Secondly, Pearl Baily adds a variety of embellishments which identify with Frankie like when she mutters, “I don’t blame her she should kill him.”

The version that I heard growing up was clearly based on the New Lost City Ramblers recording, which has a completely different set of lyrics, which appear to be credited to Charlie Poole.

Finally, I came across an amazing video of Beth Orton. It took me a minute or two to appreciate it. At first it felt affected, and I had to adjust to her tempo, which is significantly slower (and the intensity does pick up as the song goes along). But once I got used to it, I have nothing but praise and admiration. I think it’s a completely successful blending of contemporary and traditional style, and up there as one of the best modern recordings of a traditional song that I’ve heard.

I’m starting to see end of the year “best of lists.” I’m not generally inclined towards that sorts of thing since I don’t listen to much music at the time it comes out. For me listening to an album two or three years after its release counts as an unusually active interest. But I do think it’s worthwhile to recognize the pleasure of new music and the surprise of something unexpected. In that vein I can recommend a re-release of a somewhat-obscure 1971 album which I happened to get last week, Gonna Take a Miracle.

I’d had some sense of Laura Nyro as a songwriter who was both playful and intense — she’s probably best known for writing “Eli’s Coming” but my favorite, of the songs I’ve heard is “Sweet Blindness.” Gonna Take a Miracle is an albums of covers recorded with Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash) and is definitely a surprise. It’s playful, certainly, but it dives into a variety of pop standards with urgency and intensity. Some of the characteristics of the album can be explained by how it was recorded:

The studio was booked for a week, yet by the sixth day nothing had been recorded because everyone was having too good a time vibing. The schedule grew so tight that Patti [LaBelle] actually bet Huff a sizable chunk of cash that the songs could be knocked out in a few hours. According to Vicki, Gonna Take A Miracle is first takes, partially because everyone knew the songs by heart, but mainly because there was simply no time.

Listen to one of my favorite tracks, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The original is a legitimate Motown classic and there cover is, to my tastes better. Nervy yet friendly, sexy without being a come-on, and bringing real emotional bite to its sense of infatuation without being breathless. When they sing, “I don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.” it’s makes immediately clear what the song is about.

Consider what it means to call a recording, “intimate.” The word suggests privacy, some shared confidence between musician and listener. This music is intimate in that nothing is hidden but it is profoundly social music — both in the making of it, and the way in which Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle must have pushed each other, and in the implied connection to the audience, well described by Amy Linden in her liner notes:

Nyro’s fifth album, it pays homage to Motown, doo-wop, and the power of the girl-group. It was city music, street corner music. It was “black” music but like hip-hop, accessible to anyone with passion. Alternately gritty and giddy, it was the sound that hung in the New York City air like humidity on an August afternoon.

The message of the recording isn’t “let me tell you something that I know and you don’t.” It is, “let me remind you how rich and vibrant our collective culture is, that these songs, which we’ve all heard on the radio, are full of pleasure and emotion.” It is a bit of a miracle that the record exists as it is, rich, but immediate and unburdened by grand ambitions, it captures what must have been a very fun day in the studio.

I mentioned in a teaser at the end of the last post a significant musical discovery. I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because each time I start to write it ending up listening to something new by the artist in question and falling in love and wanting to include that. So, instead I will try to make this simple.

Starting where I did: looking for a copy of the Nick Lowe version of “Indoor Fireworks” I got a collection of Elvis Costello covers. One of the immediate standouts was Christy Moore’s version of “The Deportees Club.” The song has been a favorite Elvis Costello track of mine since hearing the acoustic version included as a bonus track on the Goodbye Cruel World re-issue. It’s clever and tart without the level of vitriol which can sometimes be off-putting in Elvis Costello, and the line, “all my troubles I confess to another faceless backless dress” is great.

As Elvis Costello says in the liner notes Christy Moore brings a nice sweetness and humanity to the song. The self-destructiveness in the original is pushed towards weariness instead. The feeling of missed opportunities in the song is sung as more a reflection on the human condition rather than a grievance.

I happily included the song on a mix CD that I was working on at the time. Then I started to look up Christy Moore and figure out who he was and the more I found out the more surprised I was that I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s a legend of Irish music who’s been recording regularly since the 70s and does almost exactly the sort of music that I like, Listening to a handful of his albums he’s even better than I would have expected (with the caveat that, as far as I can tell from reviews, it looks like the tried to go in more of a pop direction in the nineties which doesn’t sound like a good choice). On any given album there are at least a couple of songs which are as good as you could possibly ask for. He’s a fantastic singer and really consistently attentive to the meaning of songs. The thing that is remarkable is, often, how much weight and thought he will give to every line in a song. He’s unusually good at being able to locate the emotional core of a song and then communicate that and embody that in his delivery.

I have several songs of his that I hope to write about at some point but I will close by just pointing to a version of the most recent song of his that I’ve heard and fallen in love with. This one was recommended by RS and comes from his time with Planxty, a group that did traditional Irish music, has a great reputation but didn’t last that long before splitting up to work on individual projects. Looking at AMG I see they released three albums in 73-74, then a pause and two more albums in 79-80. I admit, hearing all of that I was a little bit suspicious. I’ve been dissapointed before by some of the pioneering British folk crossover groups like Steeley Span or Sandy Denny. They’re good, but listening to them I feel like the battles they were fighting are not the ones that I’m interested in. I feel like Steeley Span was trying to do folk music with the energy of pop music, which is a good thing, but, at the same time, it was a new enough idea that they didn’t completely trust that there was an audience for it, and it ends up sounds very stiff to my ears — like they’re being very cautious and overemphasizing that they are being respectful of the material.

None of this describes Planxty who appear to be legitimately great performers of traditional Irish music (I say, “appears to” only because there albums are somewhat expensive so I haven’t gotten to them yet, but after RS’s encouragement I look forward to doing so) and I want to urge you as strongly as possible to listen to the following song even though it’s nine minutes long.

You get another example of Christy Moore’s ability as a singer in “Little Musgrave” (youtube). It’s a familiar story, but he avoids having it feel formulaic. He’s invested in the story and in the motivations of the various characters. It seems like a simple thing to do, but it’s very difficult and most people don’t pull it off nearly as well as he does. It’s so common to hear ballads sung as if the story has always already happened, as if the song isn’t telling a story, it just exists as a version of a story, as if the interest is in the way in which it relates to all of the versions that are out there. He tells the story and tells it very well.

Youtube also has a more recent live version if you prefer. It’s similar to the version above, and you can see his face.

I’m hoping to do some blogging this weekend but, in the meantime, three items for the fourth of July.

First, Gretchen Peters at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser performing her song, “Independence Day” and talking about what it means to her. The person Gretchen Peters is both a little odd, it’s clearly a slightly awkward setting, but I think her introduction to the song is nice.

Second two songs about, uh, explosions, if you will forgive the entendre.

Eilen Jewell singing “Bang Bang Bang.” It’s a short song, just under two minutes long, but clearly a great performance piece. I discovered her when I was looking for female performers for my Country mix. I ended up using one of her Loretta Lynn covers, but this was also one of my favorite songs that I found during that process.

Finally, Nick Lowe’s sensitive cover of Elvis Costello’s, “Indoor Fireworks.” This is also a relatively new find; last fall I was listening to more Nick Lowe and it got me to look at his catalog again. The Allmusic review of The Rose Of England mentioned that track as a standout and I went looking for it. As it turned out that ended up leading me to make one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2011 but that’s a story for another time . . . hopefully this weekend.

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in an annual mix-CD swap. It’s a fun thing to do. Making a mix CD means a bunch of focused listening, and it’s good to have a commitment to make time for that, and it’s nice to hear what other people want to share.

I was really happy with the first mix that I did for this group. But I felt like the one that I did last year wasn’t quite as good. It wasn’t bad, but it suffered from not having a clear theme. It ended up being less coherent as a finished mix, than the previous one.

So I’m happy to report that I have a plan for this year.

I was listening to a recent Judy Collins tribute album and two songs really impressed me, one of which was “Since You’ve Asked” sung by Joan Baez. I hadn’t listed to any recent recordings by Joan Baez and it’s a pleasure to hear her sound that good. Her voice great, and she just sings the song really well. She’s able to combine intimacy and forcefulness in a way which suggests the benefits of experience. She sounds really comfortable knowing both her voice and her own abilities as a performer.

So I’ve decided that my mix for this year will be songs by people who, at the time of the recording, have at least 20 years of experience as professional musicians.

I’m curious to see how it turns out, and looking forward to working on it. One of the interesting things about the process of working on a compilation is how it can focus ones attention on hearing similarities between songs from different artists. The sequence, by creating a connection between one song and the next, forces you to think about what elements make that a smooth or difficult transition. I’m hoping that doing an mix of strictly veteran performances will be an interesting exercise in listening and paying attention to the similarities between what skills different people learn as they accumulate experience.

I may have to work to keep the whole thing from being too cautious. Part of the fun of recordings from earlier in people’s career is that they can have so much more at stake and that can push them in interesting ways. But I’m optimistic that it will work.

For example, Teddy Thompson covering “Super Trooper.” It’s a great performance.

(As some context, if you aren’t familiar with Teddy Thompson, I found this while looking for his fantastic, dark, performance on the Jools Holland show).

Brad DeLong links to an amazing performance by Rosanne Cash.

Listening to it I feel like the tune is just settling into my my bones.

This is a surprisingly sad occasion. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were a couple of songs that I had been thinking about. One of those was a track off of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. I didn’t post it at the time because, in all honestly, I had misplaced the CD, and figured I’d post it when I came across it, which I recently did. I was happy, because it was something I had been wanting to share.

So imagine my surprise, when I went to post, and discovered that Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday.

I’m not quite sure what to say. For me Gil Scott-Heron is a figure who seems to stand outside of time and the flow of popular music. He isn’t somebody about whom I could ever say that I followed his career, or even that I had a sense of the arc of career or life. I heard “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” when I was young enough that it wasn’t surprising to hear something new that didn’t sound like anything else. At the time I didn’t like the other songs of his I heard, which lacked the hooks of, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” but eventually I listened to this compilation extensively and came to appreciate how consistantly strong his work was, through a variety of moods and styles. “Small Talk at 125 at Lennox” is still a track that I’ll use as a stereo test track; it’s a surprisingly beautiful sound recording. Even as I got to know some of his work it felt both powerful, beautiful, and somehow remote in the sense that it never seemed to be in dialogue with other recordings. His influence is obvious, well-known, and immense, and his influences are also apparent but the power of his performances feels neither in debt to anybody else, nor transferable.

This New Yorker profile from last summer describes many of the difficulties in life and the respect that people had for him, and is very sad to read following the news of his death.

The song that had recently caught my ear was the title track, “I’m New Here” because I watched the video and was struck by how strongly it rooted the song in an idea of New York City (and how charismatic Gil Scott-Heron’s performance is). It evokes the folklore of the city and suggests that, only in New York, could Gil Scott-Heron, legend, live, be troubled, inspired, lonely, and be just one person in the crowd. If Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who obviously carried his own history with him the video suggests that New York contains so much history, and so many people, that he could still be “new here, once again.”

At the time I saw the video I thought it was a beautiful tribute to the folklore and idea of the urban center, and life affirming. At the moment I see the sadness in it as well. But I think it is, ultimately positive. From the New Yorker article:

“I’m New Here” is a reverent and intimate record, almost more field work than entertainment—a collage partly sung and partly talked, and made largely from fragments of Scott-Heron’s poetry, handled here in a voguish manner. It presents a notional version of Scott-Heron, which is Scott-Heron as hip-hop practitioner.

Scott-Heron recorded the songs and his poems, and Russell added the hip-hop tracks that accompany them. “This is Richard’s CD,” Scott-Heron says. “My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

“I’m New Here” is twenty-eight minutes long and has fifteen tracks, four of which are songs, one of which Scott-Heron wrote. Russell left the microphone on between takes and during discussions, and so he collected asides and observations, which he presents as interludes.

As a music fan it’s inevitable that one speculates, in various ways, about the state of mind of the performer. One of the most basic and unanswerable questions to ask is what creative mood inspired the particular performance.

It’s always fun to listen to a recording and have the sense that the musician was creatively inspired in some way and perhaps even surprised themselves while making it. With the constant demand for novelty in pop music there’s no shortage of opportunities to hear somebody taking a step into a new creative direction — sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and the feel of somebody who’s perhaps a little unsure of themselves but also with the spark of doing something new.

I was reminded recently that it can be equally interesting when somebody is doing something familiar but without any sense of it having become routine. A while back RS gave me a copy of Booker’s Guitar by Eric Bibb, and I’ve just been getting around to listening to it and have been impressed. It’s a good example of material which feel very present and felt, while also feeling like he has a deep familiarity with the music.

The story behind the album (and album title) is that Eric Bibb had a fan come up to him after a show ans ask if he wanted to play the guitar that had been owned by Bukka White. However that incident inspired this album, it feels to me less like finding new musical territory than re-discovering the pleasures and the depth of music. And I say this not having heard anything by Bibb prior to this.

I would say that it’s a very serious album, not because the mood is unhappy, but in the sense of an intense interior focus.

For example, “New Home“, has a classic blues feel, played with a real richness. And then you have something like “Wayfaring Stranger” which feels meditative in a good way.

After I listened to the Emmylou Harris version of “Wayfaring Stranger” I looked up a number of different performances on youtube and, in general, I was surprised at how may of them I didn’t like. I think it’s such a beautiful tune that I resisted performances that are too forward or like too performance oriented — for example the Neko Case cover which isn’t a bad performance, but just doesn’t feel right to me). Listening to Bibb’s version I felt like it delivered exactly what I wanted in a performance of the song which was one that honors the emotion of the song but also feels responsive to the internal experience of being a musician and playing and singing such a perfect melody. Listening to it I feel like I can just inhabit the song and that he’s right there too, in the music and in that moment.

Update: It strikes me that this is one case in which I am particularly glad that I have the ability to share a copy of the recording as well as write about it. I don’t feel like I’ve precisely described what it is that I like about the recordings, but I know that there is the artifact itself which may be helpful towards understanding my description. Technology does have its benefits.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of David Bowie but, unusually, I generally like his studio work as well or better than the live recordings. I usually think that a good live performance has an immediacy that’s hard to replicate in the studio, but the same traits that make David Bowie exceptional also make his live records less revealing. I’m apparently not the only one who thinks this. By my count he’s released 25 studio albums and 4 live recordings, despite touring regularly.

He’s very actorly as a singer, and has a generally analytical approach; he isn’t spontaneous. The pleasure of an album like Ziggy Stardust is the close attention to detail and the sheer density of creative ideas. He’s adjusting his phrasing and emotional pitch on every line, and sometimes on individual words. It’s wonderfully crafted but in it’s very attention to craft it doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, so the live versions tend to be very close to the originals.

With that background I was impressed by this duet between David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey on “Under Pressure”.

I hadn’t heard of Gail Ann Dorsey before but, according to wikipedia she’s been the base player for Bowie’s touring band since 1995. That would mean that they’d been working together for about a year at the point of that performance, which makes their evident comfort with each other even more impressive.

That comfort was the first thing that I noticed. They both seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves and appreciating the moment of singing the song together. The second thing that interested me was the way in which Gail Ann Dorsey, broadly speaking, is the yang to David Bowie’s yin. She is careful, and respectful of being a guest on the song, but also emotional, in-the-moment, and willing to push the song for the live performance. While David Bowie is controlled and disciplined. Considering Bowie’s greater stature, it’s impressive that the performance ends up feeling like a collaboration of equals.

It’s really a good performance.

I also think there’s an interesting contrast with several of the other videos of them performing the same song together which are just not quite as good.

Consider this from a year later — note that the sound quality is better, but much quieter, so you’ll have to turn up the volume quite a bit from the previous video to have a fair comparison.

That performance feels like much less of a collaboration, and I suspect that the fact that it’s in a much larger venue (Madison Square Garden) plays a role. Gail Ann Dorsey is more restrained, but I also think it’s interesting to watch the difference in Bowie’s performance. In the MSG video, Bowie looks much more conscious of continuing to be aware of and play to the crowd the entire time. In the moments on the two videos when you can watch Bowie while’s he’s off the mic, in the first one he appears to be listening to Gail Ann Dorsey, while in the second one he looks more like he’s still orchestrating the performance and the center of attention even while he isn’t singing, and it’s harder for Gail Ann Dorsey to create a space for herself in that circumstance. I think that’s a good example of what I was describing in the beginning of David Bowie’s sense of precision getting in the way of spontaneity. It isn’t a bad performance, but it’s not as good.

That said, if you want another example of them looking comfortable performing together I thought this video was very sweet.

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