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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