Take Cover! Zee Avi Vs. Interpol

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Zee Avi takes on Interpol’s “Slow Hands.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Despite the gloom often hovering amid Interpol’s music, there is often heaps of romance at play. Over the course of four LPs, the band has remained consistent in this, infusing shadowy, audio film noir and oblique lyrics that almost always hint at deep longing. “I submit my incentive is romance,” Paul Banks sings in “Slow Hands” as stoic and academic as ever, yet there’s no doubt that he feels just as crazy in love as the rest of us. But to go overboard would spoil the spirit and the polish of Interpol. Composure, for the quartet, has always been king.

Interpol wouldn’t be Interpol if it came across more vulnerable—the band is kind of stuck in that way—which is one reason we should be thankful that young songwriter Zee Avi shed a different light on Banks and Co.’s work for them. On her excellent cover of “Slow Hands,” Avi, who came to prominence on YouTube, completely deconstructs the arrangement and rebuilds it as if it were some lost, sun-drenched vocal-jazz classic. And yet the imprint of Interpol is left intact, as Banks’ lyrics are anything but generic. Testaments of love, it seems, come rendered in many shades.

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Take Cover! Gillian Welch Vs. The Byrds

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Gillian Welch takes on the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Punk-rock gestures come in many forms, often entirely divorced from the image we have of punk-rock style exhibited over the years by any number of bands playing fast and furiously. One such case is when, on March 15, 1968, Gram Parsons led the Byrds in “Hickory Wind” instead of a planned cover of Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison,” during the band’s now legendary Grand Ole’ Opry performance in Nashville. The ultra-traditionalist crowd was already wary of long-haired “hippies” co-opting country ‘n’ western music for their own aims—something the Byrds had just done admirably on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo under Parsons’ influence—so the mid-set change of course only inflamed them even more. To a degree, this was the equivalent of Sinéad O’Connor shredding a picture of the pope decades later on Saturday Night Live.

And yet now “Hickory Wind” is considered a country classic, the dawning of a new age in which C&W would begin to impress upon a whole generation of rockers. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, though not the first collection of country-tinged rock (the Byrds themselves had already experimented with twang on Turn! Turn! Turn!), is now thought of by many as the first landmark country-rock album. Considering how far that union has come over the years via the Wilcos of the world, this is not inconsequential. “Hickory Wind,” in particular, showed that a romance for Southern climes and ideals could be shared by anyone with enough sense to slow down long enough to appreciate its unmistakeable charm.

No stranger to American roots music herself, Gillian Welch contributed a disarming version of “Hickory Wind” to Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons in 1999. Assisted by little more than the warm glow of a reverberating synth pad and a plodding acoustic guitar, the bluegrass songstress stretches the song out slowly, allowing us to appreciate Parsons’ paean to an idealized Southern childhood in vivid detail.

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Take Cover! Queens Of The Stone Age Vs. The Kinks

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Queens Of The Stone Age takes on the Kinks’ “Who’ll Be The Next In Line.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Listening to the Kinks’ jangly, direct “Who’ll Be The Next In Line,” it’s impossible to miss the band’s influence on modern acts like Spoon, the Black Lips and, in a less refined sense, the burgeoning crop of garage/punk outfits making waves with prominent bloggers in recent years. Led by the brothers Davies, the London-born quartet was, in 1965, leading the British Invasion as a rawer, less wholesome version of the Beatles (drugs hadn’t deflowered that band’s work yet), which makes sense when you consider that, despite modest success, bands like Spoon in particular have never really garnered the attention of the happy-go-lucky mainstream set. All acts listed above make or made rock ‘n’ roll for a crowd definitively at odds with the screaming masses taking part in Beatlemania-esque cultural events.

It should be unsurprising that one of the last true rock bands standing, Queens Of The Stone Age, would pay reverence to the Kinks’ early work as well. Released on b-sides/rarities album Stone Age Collection in 2004, QOTSA’s “Who’ll Be The Next In Line” isn’t markedly different from the original, but, in a way, it would’ve been strange if it had been: This band is direct as they come. Nevertheless, there are differences, however subtle, so get to listening.

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Take Cover! Damien Jurado & Rosie Thomas Vs. Bruce Springsteen

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Damien Jurado & Rosie Thomas take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Wages Of Sin.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

The Boss’ haunting and sad “Wages Of Sin” originally appeared on Tracks, a four-disc boxed set released in 1998 filled with b-sides and alternate recordings of previously released material. Personally, I came to know it by Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, which, perhaps oddly for a music writer, I’d heard before actually hearing the original, demo-filled folk album that many consider the greatest achievement of his charmed career. However, despite the tribute album being released by the well-respected Sub Pop label (we assume label execs working at that level do their homework), there does seem to be some dispute about whether “Wages Of Sin” was recorded during the Nebraska sessions or for Born In The U.S.A. (As for me, the stark, insular nature of the song makes it pretty clear, but I’d love some clarification in the comments section if you fancy yourself a Boss aficionado.)

Either way, “Wages Of Sin”—like the rest of Nebraska and, in many ways, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The Ghost Of Tom Joad—gives us a look at the Springsteen many of us prefer over the E Street Band-backed, blue-collar symbol of Reagen-era patriotism. (For the record, I love the E Street Band and, in a classic sense, patriotism, but those influences aren’t as kind to Springsteen’s music, in my opinion, as Americana lit and the folk singers of yore.) It’s a love song, but one that wrestles with consequences. We don’t know what “sin” the Boss is referring to, but it’s clear that his indiscretions have wrought intense pain at home. Clothes are strewn about; conversation is non-existent. And all he wants to do is flee some persistent evil, to not be stricken with the sense that mankind can never be truly good. “Dancing In The Dark” is fine enough, but these are the kinds of songs that make a mark that won’t as quickly be forgotten. Brilliantly, in 1982, they were being recorded by one of the biggest pop stars in the world.

The severely undervalued Damien Jurado has been making “Wages Of Sin”-esque material since his debut in the late-’90s. In particular, The Ghost Of David, Now That I’m In Your Shadow and, more recently, Saint Bartlett are brimming over with characters who want more from their marriages and their gods, their sons and their fellow countrymen. So when the Seattle songwriter took on “Wages Of Sin,” assisted by the angelic vocals of Rosie Thomas, he was treading familiar waters. Indeed, in many ways the song sounds like a Jurado number: sad but devoid of melancholy, each simply performed note and beat all perfectly submissive to the larger story. One walks away from the best Jurado material with the sense that he just stared into the face of every conflicted American failing in an endeavor to do his best. A depressing picture, to be sure, but we somehow feel better because of it—affirmed in the knowledge that our “wages” are shared.

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Take Cover! Garbage Vs. The Ramones

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Garbage takes on the Ramones’ “I Just Want To Have Something To Do.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

With its slowly churning, thick-with-ennui minor chords laid atop a simple 4/4 beat, “I Just Want To Have Something To Do” is a classic punk-rock love song. Coyness is key, declarations of affection only suitable for placement between lines that suggest anything would suffice for a good time, when the truth is some specific one, and time spent with him/her, is the true object of Joey’s affection. An evening spent with this nameless individual would certainly beat feeling sorry for himself somewhere on Second Avenue, staring into a plate of chicken vindaloo, as he begrudgingly suggests he’s doing at the top of the song.

Just as the Ramones profoundly influenced punk rock in a macro sense, they also had a huge hand in giving future rockers specific tools for revealing emotions without being campy—a trait that most of the band’s radio-rock contemporaries were seemingly incapable of doing in the late ’70s. The Ramones were the cool, almost detached antidote to the Journeys of the period, bands that, while undoubtedly talented, were getting rich pedaling a milquetoast image and sound that was safe for the whole family. Sure, these bands weren’t the Partridge Family, but in the continuum of rock history, they will surely go down as some of the most bland. (When’s the last time a budding musician told you he/she was inspired by Steve Perry?)

Mid-’90s heavyweights Garbage largely kept the Ramones’ original in tact, yet fattened it up considerably. Led by the seductive, distorted grit of Shirley Manson’s vocals, the producer-heavy band added layers and layers of rhythm guitar and a faster, more sophisticated beat, placing it squarely within an era dominated by sonically propulsive bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Green Day and the like. Something tells me Joey would’ve approved.

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Take Cover! The Wooden Birds Vs. Hall & Oates

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Wooden Birds take on Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

“A she-cat tamed/By the purr of a Jaguar.” The whole of straight man-kind is both ruined and elated by the type of woman described here in Hall & Oates’ massive 1982 hit “Maneater.” But its ability to resonate with a colossal slice of the world’s population has little to do with its staying power. The song, disarmingly simple but elusive as an educating force for writers (we still haven’t figured out how to replicate this level of talent), is as provocative and infectious today as it was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when it sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks straight. Its red-blooded, cautionary themes persist, to be sure, but it’s the groove, clockwork but soulful, that keeps pulling us back. That and its clever use of saxophone as a way to conjure dark secrets of the night. In that sense, “Maneater” could probably be just as effective as an instrumental, like Santo And Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk,” but darkened for the modern, more cynical era. Add Hall’s always consistent turns of phrase, and that’s the ballgame. Pop perfection. Something to truly revere.

So can you tweak the formula and achieve the same results? Many have tried and failed, however nobly. But the Wooden Birds, led by Andrew Kenny of the now-defunct American Analog Set, come bracingly close to capturing the sinister nature of the original. Rendered in Kenny’s trademark style (earthy, as if he and his band were in the adjacent room), the Birds’ cover contains only the most essential elements, down to a melodica transplanting the iconic sax line and the drum parts being traded for tapping on an acoustic guitar. It’s an approach that Kenny has been perfecting in one form or another for years, one that works wonders on the Birds just-released Two Matchsticks, out now via Barsuk.

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Take Cover! El Perro Del Mar Vs. Lou Reed

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week El Perro Del Mar takes on Lou Reed’s “Heavenly Arms.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

When Lou Reed released Blue Mask in 1982, it was considered by many to be a return to form and a welcome escape from the excess of his mercurial output of the ’70s. Amid drug and alcohol abuse, that decade was for the most part spent giving fans everything and nothing they wanted, from the insular Berlin to the all-things-to-all-people-isms of Sally Can’t Dance. And let’s not forget 1975’s Metal Machine Noise, a double album of, well, what the title infers.

But tracks like “Heavenly Arms,” Blue Mask‘s final number, revealed a man grown weary of games. The song is incredibly straightforward and earnest, a far cry from the gimmicks Reed was beginning to be known for, which, had they kept up, could’ve eventually tarnished his legend considerably. Blue Mask isn’t as groundbreaking as anything the Velvet Underground produced with Reed at the helm, to be sure, but it’s far better than most of what he released in the decade prior. In this, as in all things, the relativity of the matter counts, especially when you’re talking about an icon like Reed.

Considering that Sweden’s Sarah Assbring sings about love and the loss of it on most, if not all, El Perro Del Mar tracks, “Heavenly Arms” was a perfect fit when it came time to record 2009’s Love Is Not Pop, her third album. And she absolutely nailed it, transforming the original’s instrumental simplicity into a more elaborate, Brill Building-type affair with the help of Studio’s Rasmus Haag. The production constantly surprises without diminishing the warmth at the heart of the song, enhancing and arguably improving on Reed’s idea.

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Take Cover! YACHT Vs. X

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week YACHT takes on X’s “Nausea.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

There was always something different about Los Angeles-based, late-’70s punk icons X. Not different in the sense that our parents understood punk itself—fear everything they don’t understand kind of thing—but in a way that belied the band’s musical and literary pedigree. Singer Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe, who would later be married for five years, met in poetry class; original guitarist Billy Zoom had previously backed legendary rockabilly artist Gene Vincent; and drummer D.J. Bonebrake would go on to perform with classical jazz groups. Nonetheless, X’s sound was just as raw and sinister as that of the Germs and Black Flag, which, alongside X, were giving the movement a visibility in L.A. it had never before seen. X was inspired by ideas and a new sound, not empty technical proficiency.

For its part, YACHT extinguishes the guttural haze of X’s “Nausea,” which first appeared on the band’s 1980 debut, Los Angeles, and replaces it with a slick, krautrock structure that somehow captures the brooding aesthetic of the original pretty well. Perhaps only because all the lyrics are clearly audible—the same can’t be said of the X version, nor of most punk songs from the period—the new “Nausea” experience is more vivid, even somewhat disturbing, despite its squeaky clean veneer. The two options, then, are quite distinct, though equally assured of their gall.

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Take Cover! Madeleine Peyroux Vs. Elliott Smith

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Madeleine Peyroux takes on Elliott Smith’s “Between The Bars.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Elliott Smith’s “Between The Bars” is both a quiet testament to the ability of love to save us from ourselves and a crushing reminder that, despite love, our worse angels often have the final say. Before the songwriter allegedly took his own life on Oct. 21, 2003, Smith suffered no deficit of adoration or commitment from his friends and fans, yet he was in a near constant battle with himself. Money and success, even the approval of Hollywood, couldn’t alter the quality of Smith’s life, one that was haunted by chemical dependency, depression and frequent thoughts of (and infrequent attempts at) suicide. Yet Smith often wrote with a poignant compassion for others and even of his own ability to fall deeply for another. “Between The Bars” reminds me to take from love while it’s available, to respect the fact that its existence in any pure form is often tenuous and finite, especially when the person dispensing it struggles so deeply to love him/herself.

For her part, Madeleine Peyroux did a fantastic job of remaking the Smith classic into a dusty, evocative vocal jazz number that retains every bit of the original’s shaky optimism. Perhaps as a tribute, Peyroux recorded “Between The Bars” less than a year after Smith’s passing, including it on 2004’s Careless Love. That album was released eight years after Peyroux’s breakout debut, Dreamland, which, in the same way Smith was often compared to Nick Drake, garnered the songstress frequent nods to Billie Holiday.

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Take Cover! Bon Iver Vs. Bonnie Raitt And Leon Russell

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Bon Iver takes on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

When I originally pitched Bon Iver’s cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I wasn’t aware that I was also pitching Bon Iver’s cover of “A Song For You,” Leon Russell’s classic 1970 ballad. (For that matter, I was also unaware that Raitt’s “Nick Of Time” sneaks in, appropriately, at the end of the medley, but doesn’t stick around long enough to be a candidate in this contest.) This is because I pitched the cover based on the online cacophony that resulted from Bon Iver’s recent appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, not on having heard the cover myself. (The wisdom of crowds on the web is a peculiar type of wisdom, no?) That’s why there are three options streaming below instead of the usual two: It’s Bon Iver vs. Raitt/Russell, not Bon Iver vs. Raitt vs. Russell.

The Fallon appearance came ahead of the June 21 release of Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar), Justin Vernon’s highly anticipated second LP. A more expansive effort than 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago (pedal steel, saxophone and a more elaborate use of drums are just a few of added flourishes), the new collection nonetheless retains the gorgeous and rustic feel of the debut, generally speaking. Listen closer, though, and you’ll hear also inflections of the Range-era Bruce Hornsby, most prominently on the closer, “Beth/Rest,” which has already divided listeners because of its unabashed nod to the type of lite-FM turned elevator music made popular during George H.W. Bush’s one term.

Rest assured, however, that the unveiling of Vernon’s adoration for soft pop is not a play toward irony. Aside from the fact that he seems totally genuine about his love of Raitt and Hornsby, in particular (why would he waste an opportunity to been seen by millions of viewers by singing songs he didn’t really like?), it’s not as if Vernon needs to impress the type of listener who sees artistic merit in irony. (I’m not going to use the often misused and damning “H” word.) The incredible success of For Emma, Forever Ago, which, I’ll add, is appealing because it is so honest, saw to that.

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