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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