B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs

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“You took the words right out of my mouth…” – Meatloaf

I read on-line the other day that Paul Simon has an album, In The Blue Light, coming out in September. It’s yet another artist who is teeing up a new album for next month. It’s going to be a busy September down in the B&V Labs. I look forward to sipping a nice Buffalo Trace, enjoying the slow fade of summer and the sweet decay of autumn with all this new rock and roll. I’ll be watching football in my underwear, tumbler in hand, with the volume muted and cranking tunes all month. The Rock Chick will likely travel to points west to escape that torture… The fact that Paul Simon was putting out an album caught my eye. It’s only been two years since his last album, the wonderful Stranger To Stranger Review (Full LP): Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger”. Simon typically takes half a decade between studio albums so this seemed awfully quick for him. A little further digging and I realized that Simon is revisiting some of his more obscure tracks from his back catalog and redoing them on the new LP. I saw he’s even re-cutting “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.”

I have to admit to being a tad surprised by all of this Paul Simon news. I have seen artists revisit songs before, but never an entire album of their past material. Artists typically want to move forward creatively. Sting likes to go back and redo Police tracks, like “Shadows In The Rain.” Phil Collins redid “Behind The Lines,” a Genesis track, on his debut album. Yes, Phil Collins… don’t give me any shit, everybody had that first album because of “In The Air Tonight.” Robert Plant went back to a Page-Plant track, “Please Read The Letter” and redid it with Alison Krauss and frankly, I liked that version better. Sometimes a song just isn’t done. There are different ways to approach a song and sometimes a reassessment, or if you will, a look back is worth taking and the results can be more satisfying. Keith Richards always says that Stones tunes are never really finished in the studio, and they always continue to evolve on the road.

All of this got me thinking about cover songs. A cover song is where an artist, usually an established artist, sings/performs a song written by another artist. Think of a cover song as a two-for-one…you get a taste of both the performer and the original artist. Often times the artist doing the cover finds something in the song that the writer/original performer might have missed. Think, “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley versus Leonard Cohen’s original version (although I prefer Cohen’s version, the rest of the planet dug the Buckley version). Or perhaps Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” which is definitive, instead of Otis Redding’s original. Most artists do prefer to write their own stuff. Typically every band/artist starts as a cover artist… every bar band I’ve ever seen typically does other people’s stuff until they can establish their own music. If an established artist chooses to do cover songs, they typically limit it to one or two tracks on an album. However, there are a number of cases where an artist does an entire album of cover songs, or as I like to call it, a “covers albums.” Unlike Paul Simon, these cover albums tend to cover other artists, not the artist’s own back catalog, but Paul Simon gonna Paul Simon.

Over the years I think the cover album has gotten a bad reputation. The reaction from fans usually runs along the lines of questioning whether the band has run out of ideas. Is the band getting lazy? Sometimes the cover album is considered a contract filler, much like some of the lesser live albums out there tend to be. Cut a covers album, hand it in to the record company to fulfill the specified number of albums in the contract and sign a new deal. And I’ll be the first to admit, there have been some really bad covers albums. The Band, who weren’t getting along, and couldn’t really function put out Moondog Matinee in an attempt to recapture their early, bar-band days. They missed the mark pretty widely… Although I dug their version of “Mystery Train.” Annie Lennox’s Medusa left me stone cold, and I love her voice. And, while most people would disagree with me, I loathed Springsteen’s album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I can’t even listen to that record and I think everybody knows I’m a Springsteen fanatic.

All that aside, when the right artist is paired with the right material, a covers album can be something quite special. I think the following records are examples of those rare occasions where the artist chose material that was perfect for them. Whether it’s an artist returning to the roots music that originally turned them on or the artist’s take on some of their contemporaries tracks, there are plenty of examples of great covers albums. These are my favorites.

  1. Aerosmith, Honkin’ On Bobo – Arriving three years after the over-produced Just Push Play, this album was a welcome return to Aerosmith’s sleazy, bloozy, early sound. It was touted as a blues covers album but it’s more like covers of songs by groups who covered the blues… but I’m splitting hairs here. Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Girl,” “Baby Please Don’t Go” and a rockin’ version of “Road Runner” are some of the highlights. I haven’t been a fan of much that Aerosmith has done since Permanent Vacation, but this one is a fun record.
  2. Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues and Southern Blood – Gregg’s 2011 LP, Low Country Blues was a T. Bone Burnett produced blues album that I just loved. It’s the perfect pairing of material and artist. Gregg was made to sing the blues. His 2017 follow up, Southern Blood was supposed to feature all new material, but alas, Allman was overcome by cancer. Both of these albums were late career gems… My thoughts on the latter, LP Review: Gregg Allman, ‘Southern Blood’: A “Brother’s” Beautiful Farewell.
  3. Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones, Foreverly- Billie Joe Armstrong heard an old Everly Brother’s album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a covers album the Everly’s did after they got famous. As a master stroke he brought in Norah Jones to sing the harmony vocal that Phil sang. I love “Roving Gambler,” “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” and of course, the old standard “Barbara Allen.” This is a quiet, laid back, rootsy treat.
  4. David Bowie, Pin-Ups – This album was considered at the time to be Bowie in a holding pattern. It’s basically Bowie doing a bunch of late-60s blues based covers. He also does a Springsteen track, “Growin’ Up” and an early Syd Barret Pink Floyd track, “See Emily Play.” I love the song selection and Bowie rocks on this album.
  5. Johnny Cash, American Recordings – Rick Rubin pulled Johnny Cash out of career oblivion and exile to record this fabulous set of covers, including songs by Danzig, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. It still sends chills up my spine to hear The Man In Black return. His follow-up, cut with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, was another gem, Unchained. If you dig those albums, I also highly recommend the box set of out-takes, Unearthed, that has some mind blowing stuff including Cash singing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” backed by the Chili Peppers (sans Anthony Kiedis). This is essential listening.
  6. Eric Clapton, From The Cradle – Clapton returning to where it all began for him, the blues. The critics suggested he was a tad too reverent on some of these blues chestnuts, but who wouldn’t be reverent with a song like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a track written by Willie Dixon and first done by Muddy Waters? Clapton sounds more engaged on this record than anything he’s done since Layla.
  7. Bob Dylan, Shadows In the Night – The world’s greatest song writer doing covers from the great American songbook that are all related in some way to Frank Sinatra? This should be a disaster but it just works. He went on to record four more discs worth of these covers,which like Rod, was overdoing it. I still love this one though…
  8. The Hindu Love Gods, The Hindu Love Gods – R.E.M. (sand Michael Stipe) backed Warren Zevon on his album, Sentimental Hygiene. They had some extra studio time and decided to bang out this grab bag of covers. They’re mostly old blues or country standards but he also did “Raspberry Beret” which became a surprise hit. I don’t think this music was ever supposed to see the light of day and it’s release soured Zevon’s relationship with R.E.M., which is too bad because this is a great record.
  9. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raising Sand – Another T. Bone Burnett produced gem. T. Bone paired Plant and Krauss at a benefit and Plant was so enthused by the harmonizing, they decided to cut an album. I always wished they’d come back in and recorded some original stuff, but this covers album is super. Oh, and I think it won a Grammy or two.
  10. John Lennon, Rock ‘N’ Roll – Lennon returning to the music of his youth, the music that turned him onto rock n roll in the first place. This music is so joyful. I think people were put off by this album when it came out, but I think it’s aged very well. Lennon owns “Stand By Me.”
  11. Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run – Dylan always returns to folk music in troubled times… McCartney always seems to return to the music of his youth, early rock n roll when he’s facing tough times. This was the first album he cut after the loss of his beloved wife Linda. David Gilmour plays guitar. What’s amazing are the three originals McCartney penned sound like oldies… I didn’t realized he’d written them until later.
  12. Metallica, Garage, Inc. – This started as a five song cassette tape and evolved into a sprawling two disc opus. They cover a lot of early British heavy metal from bands I’d never heard of. They also do a great job on Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In a Jar.” They even throw in “Turn the Page” by Seger and “Tuesday’s Gone” by Skynyrd for good measure. Wild, heavy good times.
  13. Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman – Harry Nilsson’s voice was one of the most amazing of the 70s singer/songwriter genre. He was, to put it lightly, eccentric. He was a huge fan of Randy Newman, also a tad idiosyncratic. Harry did Randy’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” and became so enamored with Newman he did a whole album of his songs. Harry is largely credited with breaking Newman to the rest of the world. I love this record. The vocal overdubs are the thing of legend.
  14. Robert Plant, Dreamland – After pairing with his old guitarist for the Page & Plant albums and tours, Plant re-emerged as a solo artist with a covers album of old blues tracks and sixties songs he liked/admired. Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” sounds like it was written for Plant. I love his take on “Hey Joe,” which has more in common with the original than Hendrix’s cover version. “Darkness Darkness” and “Morning Dew” are definitive here. I also saw Plant on this tour and his voice was sublime.
  15. Rage Against the Machine, Renegades – Rick Rubin pushing a band to do covers, who’d have thought? At least this wasn’t his usual acoustic approach. Tom Morello’s guitar dive bombs through Zach de la Rocha’s vocals on some great tracks from “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (Springsteen), to “Maggie’s Farm” (Dylan) to “Down On The Streets” (Iggy & The Stooges). RATM never did a bad album.
  16. The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome – The Stones going back to their blues roots… It’s like hearing them in London at the Marquee Club in 1965. This album was, again, the perfect pairing of artist and material. This is essential listening for Stones fans, blues fans and fans of rock n roll. I would recommend their album, On Air, a compilation of live takes from their early days on the BBC, as a companion piece. My thoughts on Blue & Lonesome, LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle and On Air, LP Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘On Air’ – An Exciting Look Back To The Early BBC Performances.
  17. Bob Seger, Smokin’ O.P.s – The title purportedly was supposed to mean “smokin’ other people’s songs.” Seger takes on oldies, “Bo Diddley” to takes on contemporaries, Stephen Stills “Love The One Your With,” and Tim Rice’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” This is an upbeat rocking album, and a must for fans of Seger’s rockier stuff.

That’s it folks! If I missed an album of covers by an artist you know and love, let me know in the comments. I recommend everybody check out or buy these albums. If you’re thinking there’s a lot to love here, well, “you took the words right out of my mouth…”

 

 

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