Covered: “Thirteen”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Fans of the forever-underrated Big Star were thrilled with the recent release of Live in Memphis, which captures a semi-reunited version of the group performing a homecoming show back during the early 90’s.  While it is somewhat of a disappointment that bassist Andy Hummel and guitarist/singer Chris Bell were not a part of the tour, it’s still a wonder to hear the majority of the band’s impeccable catalog in a live setting competently captured (and it’s especially moving to hear Alex and Jody cover Bell’s gorgeous “I Am the Cosmos” and dedicated to their deceased friend).  Still, despite many of the high points of the album (personally I loved how high Jody Stephens’s drums were in the mix, and the use of reverb to really bring out his integral contributions to many of the band’s best songs), many of the reviews can’t help but reveal the disappointment at finding out that the delicate favorite “Thirteen” didn’t make the cut.

“Thirteen” is universally beloved for its touching depiction of early teenage love.  The initial scene of the first verse perfectly captures the innocence of that time, when the biggest concerns were a partner to walk home from school and whether that special someone would accept your invitation to that week’s dance.  The second verse is memorable as well, with its generational standoff over music and the comfort that allies find in their shared love (“Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/come inside where it’s okay”).  And the final verse offers both a view that exaggerates the situation (“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”) and also diminishes the stakes (“If it’s so, well let me know; if it’s no, well, I can go.”).  The lyrics are accompanied by some of the most beautifully recorded acoustic guitars ever, a trademark of the entire #1 Record album.  Alex Chilton carefully picks a classic folk chord progression, mainly alternating between G and C chords, but also brilliantly involving the relevant minor chords as well to bridge the main sections.  The guitar solo, in all of its simplistic glory, is also a perfect example of how modesty should be a path taken more often; a couple of precisely selected notes and a graceful little run can be all you need to add the necessary flourish to a song.

Today, Wilco released the rarities box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot, and for many who pick it up it will be the first time that they’ll hear their cover of “Thirteen” (among many other tracks–it’s nearly 80 songs across four discs, many of them previously unreleased).  I managed to randomly find a copy of their single “Outtasite (Outta Mind) a couple of years ago which included this cover, so even though I haven’t gotten a chance to plow through the rest of the box set, I can at least comment on this track in particular.  Wilco is careful not to overwhelm the tender ballad, but they also are able to add a couple of subtle touches that make it sound like a regular part of the Wilco catalog.  The graceful backing piano, the more deliberately strummed rhythm guitar, and a gorgeous lap steel lead guitar all give extra color to the song, and make the song sound like a folk or old country standard.  And Jeff Tweedy’s distinctive warble helps bring out some of the pathos inherent in the song, though Tweedy is a good enough musician to not overindulge in this regard, letting the melody and words speak for themselves.

I would be derelict in my duty if I also didn’t share Elliott Smith’s hauntingly beautiful version of the song.  As one may expect, “Thirteen” is a natural fit for Elliott, as it allows him to use his well-honed style of gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar and his delicately yearning vocals to great effect.   The result is a more mournful and melancholic reaction to this tale of nostalgia, and allows one to reflect the story through a different lens.  You can find a more polished version (with more precisely picked guitar and vocals a bit higher in the mix) on the rarities collection New Moon, but this particular video was a pleasant surprise, as Elliott’s emotions really shine in the performance.

Not only is “Thirteen” a great song in and of itself, inspiring several other cover versions, but you can hear its direct influence on songs like “We’re Going To Be Friends” by The White Stripes.  It’s proof that even the seemingly simplest songs and ideas can have an undeniable influence and far-reaching impact.  It’s also evidence that Big Star was a really, really great band.

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