Saturday, March 13, 2010

“Yeah, But…”

The title of this post is the shortest answer I can give to the question, “How do some artists approach cover songs?”. Surely, something drew them to the original song in the first place. But the new version is something else entirely. The song has been transformed so completely that it might as well be an entirely new song. Here is a set of covers like that. Purists may be offended. This set is for the rest of us.

Cassandra Wilson: I‘m So Lonesome I Could Cry


Cassandra Wilson takes Hank Williams’ classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and creates a setting for drums, bass, fiddle, and guitar. There is also a bouzouki, but it still sounds like it might be a fairly straightforward reading. It isn’t. Wilson turns the song into an aching jazz ballad. The lyrics are here, but even Williams’ original melody is gone. It might be best to call this a new musical setting of a poem by Hank Williams. But Cassandra Wilson completely gets the intent of the original. This version aches with loneliness just as much as the original.

Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra: Fly Like an Eagle


On the evidence of this song, don’t let the name of the band fool you. This is a jazz band with some serious chops. Elizabeth Shepard takes the vocals, and the band swings hard. Fly Like an Eagle has always struck me as a celebration of freedom. This version represents that freedom in musical form.

Incidentally, I got this one from Fongolia at the blog Fong Songs. He presents unusual originals and covers by Canadian artists who are unknown here in the United States. I highly recommend a visit.

Save Ferris: Come On Eileen


Ska bands seem to play a game of Can You Top This. The rules are simple; find an unlikely candidate and create a ska cover of it. This could be a recipe for disaster, but a surprising number of the ones I have heard are quite good. This version of Come On Eileen is one of my favorites.

Dala: Ohio

[purchase from American Laundromat Records]

This version of Ohio comes from a compilation album of Neil Young songs performed by female artists. The album is on American Laundromat Records, where they specialize in compilation albums for various charities. This one helps breast cancer survivors.

Usually, artists choose to cover a Neil Young song from his solo career, but here is one from his days with Crosby Stills Nash and Young. The original rang out in protest of the deaths of the student demonstrators killed at Kent State. By extension, the song was also a rallying cry for the protests against the Vietnam War. The song expressed righteous anger, and demanded action. But here, Dala preserves the words and melody of the original, but changes the tone completely. The arrangement features tolling piano chords and acoustic instruments, and the song becomes an elegy for the dead. And the vocal harmonies of Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine really put this one over. The transformation of the original is probably the most subtle example here, but just as complete.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Dala: Compass


Speaking of Dala, I am pleased to present them here with this week’s Spotlight Song. I have to admit though, this one almost didn’t happen. The album is called Everyone is Someone, and that first thing I heard was the single, Levi Blues. Here is a folk-pop number with breathy girlish vocals, and was ready to dismiss both it and them. However, in due time I got the Neil Young sampler with Ohio on it. I played this one straight through, and Dala’s version of Ohio made me think I might have missed something. I did, but luckily, there was still time to fix it.

I still find Levi Blues to be lightweight, but the rest of the album shines. In particular, Walther and Carabine’s vocal harmonies put me in mind of Simon and Garfunkle, and they get a lot of emotion not only from their individual voices, but also from the way they blend and interact. The lyrics are wonderfully poetic, and feature great imagery.

Compass is a bonus. All of the qualities I mentioned above are here. And the arrangement here is stunning. It’s just two acoustic guitars and a harp, plus those voices. Many Celtic artists have achieved less emotional impact with fuller arrangements. They should all listen to this, and see how it’s done.