Take Cover! Trentemøller Vs. Chris Isaak

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Trentemøller takes on Chris Isaak’s “Blue Hotel.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Chris Isaak’s eponymous second album was released in 1987, four years before his career would really take off with the popularization of “Wicked Game,” from 1989’s Heart Shaped World. Nonetheless, “Blue Hotel,” which is “easily the killer track on [Chris Isaak],” according to AllMusic‘s Ned Raggett, makes it clear that the songwriter was well on his way to cementing his iconic, brooding surf-pop sound long before he became so universally adored. One need not listen further than the song’s haunting opening refrain to know exactly what I mean. The combination of Isaak’s Orbison-esque baritone against James Calvin Wilsey’s woozy, six-string tremolo is by itself potent enough to alter the mood of even the most chipper listener.

Of course, when we use the word “haunting” to describe Isaak’s music, the name David Lynch invariably arises. And rightly so: Lynch was hot on Isaak from very early on, having used an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” in his 1990 film Wild At Heart, in addition to casting him two years later in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. That woozy tremolo sound would be mimicked relentlessly throughout Twin Peaks the TV series, as well. Even so, though the aesthetics of Lynch and Isaak are irrevocably intertwined, we should be careful to honor the latter on standalone terms. Rarely has a songwriter in the last 50 years channeled a quiet and lonely sorrow so convincingly.

For his part, Denmark’s Anders Trentemøller does a fine job of modernizing “Blue Hotel” in a way that feels quite different—the cover is less open and surf-y than it is industrial and urban—while delivering the same dark and wistful results. The remake is part of Trentemøller’s recent contribution to the Late Night Tales series, which has also featured compilations by Air and the Flaming Lips (among others) since its inception in 2001.

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Take Cover! Wilco Vs. Big Star

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

Whether we like it or not, there’s no stopping the process of growing old. At least not yet. And even if some bright Stanford researcher does one day discern a way to defeat aging and death, it’s difficult for me to imagine a world in which science will be able to restore the far less physiological condition of our adolescence. But that’s what “Thirteen” does so well. Without being cute, the song wastes no time placing us back into our barely teenaged minds, when walking a love interest home from school was like winning the Heisman or, for the more nerdy of us, a Fulbright Scholarship. And on the way, we’ll affirm that we’ve got tickets to the dance taken care of, too; not via PayPal, of course, but by stopping by the student activities table in the lunchroom. These were the days when the slightest hint of mutual admiration birthed a thousand sleepless nights.

“Thirteen” does more than transport us to the halcyon days of our own youth. It also reminds us of Big Star’s early days, when a young Alex Chilton, inspired by a 1964 concert by the Beatles in his hometown of Memphis, won over Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens the first time he performed the song for what would soon become his band. (Bell, Hummell and Stephens were known as Icewater before the addition of Chilton.) Soon after, “Thirteen” would find a home on the group’s debut, #1 Record, which continues to rest comfortably on “greatest rock albums ever” lists despite being refreshed nearly every year. Moreover, the group’s influence as a whole, on everyone from R.E.M. to Elliott Smith, is indisputable.

Wilco would probably be proud to fall into that camp, too. In fact, I’ll admit that I’d heard far more Wilco before I heard Big Star for the first time, leading me to compare Chilton’s older-than-his-years voice at 21 to Tweedy’s as soon as the vocal melody begins in “Thirteen.” I didn’t have my band chronologies messed up so as much as I was simply stunned how much Chilton recalled Tweedy, or, I suppose, it’s vice versa. Either way, Wilco clearly has an affinity for Big Star, and the band does its adoration justice by re-creating the tune so fabulously in its own way.

Here’s to staying young no matter our age.

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Take Cover! The Tallest Man On Earth Vs. Bob Dylan

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week The Tallest Man On Earth takes on Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Forty-five years ago this month, Bob Dylan released sprawling double-album Blonde On Blonde, a collection so striking that its folk- and country-rocking sound continues to be emulated even today. Indeed, as the Nashville Scene‘s Daryl Sanders notes in his epic cover story on how the album irrevocably changed the city’s image almost overnight, “Blonde On Blonde brings to a climax the staggering creative streak Dylan began when he went electric, infuriated folk purists and freed his muse.” Nashville was once primarily a haven for songwriters who composed for other artists, but the city’s importance in the Blonde On Blonde narrative would soon inspire the likes of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Joan Baez, Townes Van Zandt and others equally prominent at the time to record albums in Music City backed by the city’s incredible session players, who continue to be the unsung heroes of many popular recordings today.

Released as a single in June 1966 just ahead of the arrival of Blonde On Blonde, “I Want You” is the shortest, and arguably the most direct, song on an album comprised of tracks that extend out as far as 11:23, as on side four’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” Rumored to be inspired by Anita Pallenberg, then-girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, the song is a sprightly performed gem, capturing “that thin … wild mercury sound” Dylan had labored unsuccessfully to capture for years until the Nashville sessions took place in 1966. Whether the rumor has any merit is beside the point; here, as on much of the material he produced in that defining period, Dylan’s work is addictive no matter the back story.

The Tallest Man On Earth, nom de guerre of Swede Kristian Mattson, has been compared to Dylan since he emerged in 2006 with his eponymous EP, so a cover from him is certainly fitting. And he nails it, supplanting the original’s more robust instrumentation for a svelte banjo riff played live for Daytrotter while Mattson misses nary a beat on the vocal performance. In the end, it may be blasphemous for some of you to side with anyone but Dylan, of course, but I think you’ll be hard-pressed not to be intrigued by The Tallest Man On Earth after you hear Mattson’s rendition, if you’re not already.

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Take Cover! The Black Keys Vs. Buddy Holly

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week The Black Keys take on Buddy Holly’s “(Ummm, Oh Yeah) Dearest.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

It’s well-known that the gravity of Buddy Holly’s influence far outweighs the short time he spent on the earth. In the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to present day blues/rock stars the Black Keys, Best Coast and, um, these guys, Holly’s legacy has made an indelible mark on popular music since his untimely passing in 1959, otherwise known as The Day The Music Died. Equally astounding is the sheer volume of work Holly recorded by the time he passed away at 22. In addition to the three albums he issued while alive, Holly tracked enough material to ensure that Norman Petty, his manager for the majority of his career, would be able to release new recordings for 10 years after Holly’s death, making him a sort-of Tupac before Tupac was Tupac.

“(Ummm, Oh Yeah) Dearest” arrived in 1969 on Giant, the last of the post-humonous collections released by Petty on Coral Records. A brief, breezy love song, it’s thought to have been recorded with producer Owen Bradley during Holly’s time in Nashville in 1956. But, as is the case with much of the post-1959 material, it’s difficult to say for sure. Most of these songs were demos or home recordings that were later overdubbed or pieced together by Petty and others to meet the high demand for Holly’s work in the wake of his death. Sadly, Holly wasn’t around long enough to approve the altered versions, which has been a point of contention over the years for some of his most devoted fans, who understandably harbor concerns about the integrity of the editing process and the motivations behind it. Despite Petty’s intentions, however, it’s quite possible that we would’ve never heard “Dearest” (as it’s come to be known) or any of the other great, but poorly recorded, tracks in Holly’s catalog, had the producer not endeavored to make public the unissued material (however tweaked).

The Black Keys’ seductive take on “Dearest” will be released on an upcoming tribute album called Rave On Buddy Holly alongside covers by the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Paul McCartney, Florence And The Machine, Cee Lo Green and several other worthy artists. And though I haven’t heard anything but the Keys track, if the others are as good as this, Rave On Buddy Holly might yet be the rare tribute album worth sinking your money into. Indeed, I’m personally still divided on which “Dearest” is better.

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Take Cover! The Twilight Singers Vs. Marvin Gaye

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Twilight Singers take on Marvin Gaye’s “Please Stay (Once You Go Away).” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Marvin Gaye’s 12th studio album, Let’s Get It On, is widely regarded as one of the best and most sexually charged pop albums of all time. It was also one of Gaye’s most successful, arriving in 1973 hot on the heels of What’s Going On, a landmark soul collection in its own right. Broadly, each album addressed different topics—politics on the former, sex on the latter—but they shared a few qualities that said as much about Gaye as the times he thrived in. That is, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On showed Gaye to be a musical visionary who was no longer content working within the confines of the Motown Sound; that Gaye, like John Coltrane before him, partly viewed his most important work through a theological lens (Let’s Get It On, in particular, has been understood by some to be as much a paean to God’s love as A Love Supreme); and that Gaye’s impact reached far beyond music in the latter half of the Vietnam years. His thoughtful, intensely earnest meditations on love and war during the early ’70s saw to that.

The primal nature of Let’s Get It On should not be undersold, however. Whatever Gaye meant to telegraph between the lines of his groundbreaking R&B work will never be more titillating than the sex and sensuality firmly planted on the album’s surface. Yes, Gaye may’ve been trying to exercise a few existential demons wrought by his conflicted, fundamentalist upbringing when he tracked the album, but that conversation is better left to the thought-piece cognoscenti. Indeed, as evidenced in the one-two opening punch of “Let’s Get It On” and “Please Stay (Once You Go Away),” Gaye is primarily fixated on sex and emotional security, the kind that’s so tenuous when a partner tends to obscure his/her desire for anything more than coital transaction. Alas, Gaye was no part-time lover. At least in song.

Despite being altered significantly, “Please Stay” finds a doting caretaker in the Twilight Singers’ Greg Dulli, who, through his work fronting the Afghan Whigs in the ’90s and the Singers and Gutter Twins since, has always been fixated on soul music and sex. He often approaches love from a darker, less optimistic place than Gaye, to be sure, but his reverence for the fairer gender is incontestable. The dude loves women.

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Take Cover! Karate Vs. Billie Holiday

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Karate takes on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

One of the great protest songs of all time, “Strange Fruit” was originally published in 1936 as a poem in The New York Teacher, three years before vocal jazz icon Billie Holiday would introduce it to a much wider audience with her Milt Gabler-produced version on Commodore. Holiday wasn’t the first to set the poem’s couplets to music, either; that honor could be claimed by the poem’s author, Abel Meeropol, who had already performed the song with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, in several New York City venues before Holiday put her own spin on it in 1939. Nevertheless, it’s Holiday’s stoic and brooding take that we remember most, a seminal work that paved the singer’s path to stardom while the country’s tragic race problem began to spill over into public view in perhaps the most significant way since the years leading up to the Civil War.

Judging by a cursory Google search, how Holiday came to know of the Meeropol poem is up for debate. What’s much more clear, however, is that the singer felt a personal attachment to the song’s horrific depiction of racism, perhaps no more sordidly displayed than in following lines: “Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” While no one in Holiday’s immediate family had been killed in such a gruesome fashion—she was raised in the Northeast, where lynchings were far less of a threat for African-Americans than in the South—she had nonetheless seen the ugly reality of discrimination play out in the life of her father, a jazz musician who was denied treatment for a fatal lung disorder due to racial prejudice just a few years earlier. It’s no wonder, then, that Holiday’s bandmates reported that she would wind up in tears nearly every time they performed the song together.

For its part, Karate’s somber take on “Strange Fruit” is a shorter, bluesier rendering, though one that’s no less affecting. Leader Geoff Farina’s ineffably smooth guitar solo goes a long way toward that end, but so does the trio’s overall reverence for the issue at hand. Indeed, Karate’s earnestness is equally present in covers of protest songs by Mike Watt, Bob Dylan, Mark Hollis and others, which appear alongside “Strange Fruit” on the band’s In The Fishtank sessions, recorded while on tour in the Netherlands in 2004.

Cast your vote wisely.

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Take Cover! The Great Book Of John Vs. INXS

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Great Book Of John takes on INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

For fans of legendary Aussie rock band INXS, “Never Tear Us Apart” is more than merely another great song in a catalog of many. It’s become an anthem of sorts, played while the members of INXS ferried their iconic singer Michael Hutchence in his coffin outside St. Andrews Cathedral after his untimely death in 1997, adapted in acapella style by British football fans to lend a loftiness to the matches of their favorite squads and co-opted by Bono amid live performances by U2. “Never Tear Us Apart,” the fourth break-out single from Kick, INXS’ sixth album and its most successful, would also show up in the director’s cut of 2001 cult film Donnie Darko. And these are, of course, only some of the song’s more popular applications.

“Never Tear Us Apart,” which started out as a bluesy number when it was demoed in 1986, is certainly interesting on a purely musical basis. The way it straddles the fence between lite and stadium rock without bowing to the worst tendencies of either, even with the inclusion of a Kirk Pengilly-ripped sax solo, is truly remarkable. Arguably what makes “Never Tear Us Apart” more than just a song, however, is the way Hutchence’s deeply personal lyrics reserve an intimate space for himself at the same time their themes of transcendent love and hope appeal to all. This is the power of song at its most potent, articulating the heart of a beloved artist at the same time it captures the imagination of generations. Its reach is universal without a hint of feigned intent or emotion.

In light of the classic stature of “Never Tear Us Apart,” then, it could be said that any attempt to adapt it meaningfully would be folly, not unlike the many egregious covers of “Imagine” have proved to be. In fact, as I’ve witnessed several times throughout my tenure as MAGNET’s Take Cover! scribe, our readers generally don’t take too well to artists who have the gall to pay respect to the more well-known of our heroes through a re-imagining of their work. But, if there ever were at time to do so, I hope this week you’ll put aside your adoration for an original long enough to give a new rendition a shot. The Great Book Of John’s cover is inventive and heartfelt, a nod to the song’s bluesy origins and a truly evocative introduction to a burgeoning band from Birmingham, Ala. Though worlds apart from Perth, “Never Tear Us Apart” clearly means as much in the deep South as it does in Australia.

Cast your vote wisely.

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Take Cover! Franz Ferdinand Vs. LCD Soundsystem

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Franz Ferdinand takes on LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

“All My Friends” is at the same time the best and worst song to write about this week, given the recent farewell that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy bade us from a sold-out Madison Square Garden on April 2, surrounded by, well, all his friends. It’s the best not because the song is arguably Murphy’s greatest achievement, but because of how prescient its themes would prove to be. Over seven-plus minutes of off-kilter, sprightly piano hits and disco-punk rhythms, Murphy told us that “this could be the last time” that he would “set controls for the heart of the sun,” even though “All My Friends” appeared on just his second album. Indeed, it was almost as if he already had an end game in mind as he and his friends pounded the cold New York streets on the way to the club. So it’s the worst for the very same reason: Time itself, compounded by the demands of growing older (the combined bête noire of the song), explains why we must go ahead in the world Soundsystem-less.

No matter how you feel about the legacy or the music of the band (or the pseudonym if you’re Slate‘s Jody Rosen), “All My Friends” is filled with the sort-of “wish I had one more shot” poetry that we all feel in increasing portions as we grow older. That it was set to a tune that’s as timeless as New Order’s “Ceremony” is an ancillary benefit, as far as I’m concerned, albeit a great one. And, as many writers have noted since the LCD’s inception, Murphy’s lyrics are always worth highlighting. Whether in forms ironic, snarky or meditative, his thoughtfulness is a rare quantity among the typically surface homogeneity of most dance-music lyrics. I, for one, will miss the dynamism of a guy who can irreverently bury elitism (“Losing My Edge”) in the same breath that he can earnestly mark the denouement of youth (“All My Friends”).

As far as Franz Ferdinand’s cover goes, I tend to agree with the highest-rated comment on the song’s YouTube page: “[the] debate about who did this song better is completely retarded.” For one, Murphy commissioned the arty (and culinarily sophisticated) dance punks to record their own version for the “All My Friends” single, alongside a version by John Cale. That the cover was born of a mutual respect goes a long way toward negating any sense of competition. And two, as the YouTube commenter goes on to subtly suggest, “BOTH BANDS DID GREAT DAMMIT.” It’s true! Franz’s cover is the rock to Murphy’s roll. (I’d apologize for my bawdy closer if it weren’t so accurate.)

Cast your vote wisely.

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Take Cover! Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Vs. Sufjan Stevens

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy takes on Sufjan Stevens’ “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Much has changed for Sufjan Stevens since we first met his acquaintance in the early part of the aughts. Or so that’s how the story goes. The Age Of Adz, his most recent album, traded the stoic, orchestral-folk sound that made him a minor icon during the better part of the last decade for dark and sprawling electonica. It’s the most “personal” of Stevens’ albums (so said the critics)—drawing on lost love, anxiety and his experience with a rare neurological virus that derailed his work for months—and also the most divisive.

To be fair, critics weren’t the only ones speaking of Adz as if it were the first honest look into the songwriter’s personal life. The press release for the album espoused the same idea. And, of course, most of us know Michigan and Illinois as a terrific form of fiction more than as first-hand accounts of Stevens’ life itself. Storytelling was also used as a narrative device on Seven Swans, though biblical references pre-dated and supplanted the more historical and geographical scenes of those records, respectively.

However, when I listen to “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” (the opener of Seven Swans with a namesake of Isaiah 55:12), I don’t get the sense that Stevens was telegraphing his thoughts and passions any less intimately in 2004 than he did on Adz six years later. Sure, he’s adopting the wonderment expressed by the biblical writer at the beauty of the natural world, but Stevens’ awe seems unshakeable, too. For what is great writing if not merely a tool, on one hand, to lend words and perspective to something we as readers already know within? Stevens may unpack his emotions more literally in his recent work, but transparency doesn’t necessarily translate into being more “personal.”

For his part, Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) gives us a quintessential cover of “All The Trees.” With the help of Meg Baird, Emmett Kelly, Ben Boye, Van Campbell, Sabrina Rush and Danny Kiely, the rhythms, melodies and instrumental palette shift ever so slightly, making plain Oldham’s reverence for the track and his singular ability to alter its feeling at the same time. The cover is just as solemn as Stevens’ original, but Oldham’s brooding and earthy touch can’t be mistaken.

One final note having nothing to do with style preferences: Oldham’s cover is part of a new, Stevens-approved collection called Seven Swans Reimagined, all proceeds of which are benefiting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Other artists on the record include the Gregory Brothers, Joshua James, Inlets, Half-Handed Cloud and more. In other words, your contribution here is a win/win for everybody.

Cast your vote wisely.

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Take Cover! The Civil Wars Vs. Smashing Pumpkins

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Civil Wars take on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

By 1993, Smashing Pumpkins were quickly becoming a household name, thanks to the success of Gish on college radio and a relentless touring schedule that included opening slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. But, as has been well-documented, that period in the band’s history was tumultuous at best. Soaring popularity did nothing to abate Jimmy Chamberlain’s drug abuse, Billy Corgan’s writer’s block and depression or the love lost between James Iha and D’Arcy once their once budding romance turned sour.

Although these struggles would loosely serve as a bellwether of the band’s future unraveling, in ’93, they instead coalesced into the fuel that Corgan would need to craft one of the great rock albums of all time, Siamese Dream. Alongside Chamberlain and producer Butch Vig, Corgan wrote and recorded nearly every track on the record, all of which are, in my mind, perfect. And while the psych-metal thrust of songs like “Cherub Rock” and “Geek U.S.A.” tended to hide Corgan’s vulnerability, “Disarm,” “Soma” and “Luna” made it abundantly clear that he was everything the critics had predicted: unnervingly talented but, more importantly, multi-dimensional.

What’s particularly amazing about “Disarm” is that its acoustic, orchestral fixings do nothing to belie Corgan’s intensity. Clouds of distortion and pummeling drums are nowhere to be found, yet it’s impossible not to feel tense amid its dark and obliquely romantic passages. Here, there is a cohesion with the Pumpkins’ heavier work despite the song’s relatively stark composition, Corgan revealing himself to be more of a haunted lover than the fighter implied by the otherwise visceral nature of his approach. This dynamic was not lost on us, of course: Siamese Dream, led by singles “Cherub Rock, “Disarm,” “Today” and “Rocket,” was certified quadruple platinum and is widely considered to be a classic across all genres among critics and fans alike.

Nashville’s most recent success story, the Civil Wars could probably make any piece of the Pumpkins’ catalog sound beautiful. Armed with only the essentials—two voices, acoustic guitar and piano—Joy Williams and John Paul White make music that emits a wildly disproportionate amount of feeling in relation to the austerity embedded in their approach. So it’s to the duo’s credit that, instead of simplifying “Today” or “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” for dramatic affect (something they could’ve easily done), they engaged the challenge of making their own one of the most bare Pumpkins tracks. This isn’t as easy as it looks when you consider that Williams and White already trade in the kind of slow, sonically weightless compositions that have made them an instant hit in recent months. Nonetheless, the Wars manage to suss out every pure ounce of the song, leaving the body limp and exposed, but satisfied.

Cast your vote wisely.

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