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.

The Cover:

The Original:

[poll id=”198″]

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, Hummel 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.

The Cover:

The Original:

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.

The Cover:

The Original:

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.

The Cover:

The Original:

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.

The Cover:

The Original: