Covered: “Running To Stand Still”

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.

For this edition of Covered, we’ve decided to take up a suggestion from one of our friends from Twitter.  We had never head the cover before and only had passing familiarity with the original, but nevertheless we decided to take up the challenge and assess the merits to the best of our ability.  If you feel we’ve failed, don’t blame The Captain, but our own hubris.

The Joshua Tree deserves its reputation as one of the best albums of the 80’s as well as a definite of U2’s career, but for many music fans my age, their general knowledge of the record is limited to the big three singles that kick off the album, thanks to the endless repetition on the radio of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With Or Without You”.  While all three are great songs in their own right, they paint an incomplete picture of The Joshua Tree as a whole; and because these songs have been so overplayed, the desire to sit down and listen to the album is often absent, so the rest of the record is often overlooked.  It’s too bad, because then you miss out on such gems as “Bullet the Blue Sky”,* “One Tree Hill”, and “Running to Stand Still”.

“Running to Stand Still” is a different kind of ballad than the overblown epic, anthemic types with which U2 has become synonymous, as it demonstrates a certain subtlety that the band has unfortunately neglected in recent years.  The song begins with a quick country-tinged blues guitar riff, a nod to the album’s Americana themes, before shifting focus to the delicate piano chords which make up the bulk of the song, augmented by a light palm-muted guitar (which connects the music to the first third of the album).  As the song builds, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s thundering toms then help guide the song to its climax.  As the song peaks, Bono refrains from breaking into a full-throated bellow as would be expected, and instead takes a more measured approach as he gingerly sings the final lines.  The song then tapers off with a mournful harmonica solo, creating a whirlwind of emotions within the listener–there is a sense of deprivation as the listener is deprived of the desired big climax, but at the same time there is a deep appreciation for the restraint which matches the mood created by the lyrics.

Though Elbow has enjoyed a certain level of popularity among critics for a number of years, my only experience with the band is catching on Palladia a part of a festival performance of theirs; they’re one of those bands that I always mean to check out but unfortunately never do.  My initial impression of the band brings to mind comparisons to Coldplay and Frightened Rabbit, even though I know Elbow predates both bands.  In other words, Elbow fits perfectly as a new millennium version of U2.

As for this cover, Elbow does a great job of respecting the reverence of the original while adding their own personal touches on the edges.  They expand a bit on the intro with a few embellishments of the acoustic guitar, before transitioning to the piano section.  Here, instead of relying on block chords with the occasional melodic connections, the band chooses to arpeggiate them instead, elongating the progression and giving the song an additional bit of momentum.  As the song moves into its climax, the band eschews the thunderous toms of the original and instead relies on a more traditional drum pattern.  The intro guitar makes an additional appearance in this version, making its inclusion seem like less of a novelty, but most importantly Elbow exhibits the same restraint as the song fades to a quiet finish.

This was one of several covers that were done for this War Child compilation, and I have to say this performance has piqued my interest into how all the other acts did with their takes on some classics.  As for this cover, though it doesn’t offer too much in terms of original spin on the material, it still rises above being a mere rote take of the U2 version.  Perhaps this will be the nudge that I needed to dive into the rest of Elbow’s catalog.

*When I got to see U2 on the Vertigo tour, the unquestioned highlight of the show for me was their surprise performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky”.  Sure, it was great to hear the big three from The Joshua Tree, but you expect those to be played, which made their inclusion of “Bullet” that much better.

Covered: “Stillness Is The Move”

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.

Dirty Projectors broke through in a big way in 2009 with their release Bitte Orca; though the album didn’t sell that many copies (which, let’s be honest, was to be expected, considering the experimental nature of their work as well as the decline in sales across the music industry overall), it garnered a massive amount of praise and ended up on countless Best Of lists.  At the very least, it earned the group substantial buzz and a placement on the strangest triple-bill I’ve ever seen–playing Madison Square Garden with Wavves and headliner Phoenix (plus a special appearance from Daft Punk(!)).  I will never forget looking across the arena that night and seeing thousands of faces that were alternately bewildered by the complex time signatures and odd vocal inflections of the group or merely bored by the lack of instantly-accessible melodies and wondering when those guys with that one song they really liked were going to show up.

“Stillness Is The Move” was a highlight of Bitte Orca for many fans, even if it strayed a bit from the usual Dirty Projectors formula (as much as there is such a “formula”).  Dave Longstreth’s yelps don’t make an appearance on this track, as the group’s three female vocalists (Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle) provide the harmonies, though his intricate and unique guitar style makes a distinct impression.  The guitar is paired with a glitchy upper-register bass part which helps provide a skittering counterpoint; though the two parts have two markedly different rhythmic patterns, they somehow fit together in a pleasing groove.  But the true power of the song is the gorgeous interweaving melodies of the vocals, which will have you humming along long after the track is over.

She may be remembered more for her antics inside an elevator with her sister and brother-in-law last year, but there was a time where Solange attempted to step outside of Beyonce’s shadow by launching a music career of her own.  Though we seem to be coming closer everyday to becoming ruled politically by a couple of dynasties, the public has been less accepting of nepotism in the music industry for the most part, and as a result few remember Solange’s brief career.  If Solange is remembered at all, it’s generally as a punchline.

However, there was one brief shining moment to her career that is worth revisiting, and that is her cover of “Stillness Is The Move.”  Solange displays great vocal dexterity in her handling of the song’s complex melodies, allowing her to show off her range and musicality.  It’s an impressive display of musicianship in its own right, but the true power of her cover is how it develops and embellishes the strengths of the original.  The cover emphasizes the deep rhythmic groove, showing that hiding underneath all the usual indie rock trappings there was a soulful R&B song; though it’s hardly definitive evidence, a quick look at the way the singers dance in the original music video helps confirm this assertion.  The interweaving guitar and bass parts in the original may interact with each other in an elaborate manner, but they’re actually held together by a simple drum groove that drives the song.

Additionally, Solange’s vocals help illustrate the technical achievements of the original.  Subsequent listens revealed how the trio was able to bounce around difficult intervals and odd rhythmic accents with ease, which I had glossed over initially.  With that in mind, I can’t say that Solange’s version is the superior one, though she does a great job of making it her own, but that it’s still an excellent performance because of the way that it found new qualities in the original that had previously been overlooked.

Covered: “Modern Romance”

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.

Recently we’ve linked to a multiple articles that discuss New York’s place in recent music history, including one that took a look back at the “rock revival” spearheaded by NYC groups at the turn of the century.  While many of the bands that initially tasted a bit of success (or at least caught a couple of weeks of intense buzz) have long since faded in our memories, there are bands that have endured to become respected elder statesmen and albums that have since become modern classics.  One such record is the debut album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell.

The album is known for capturing the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s incendiary garage-punk of which only a select few had seen glances with their early EPs and their fiery live performances.  Fever to Tell is filled with all sorts of beautiful noise and anarchic glee, with singer Karen O expertly toeing the line between playfulness and pure sleaze, shattering normal stereotypes about gender and their resultant expectations with lines like “Boy, you just a stupid bitch and girl, you just a no-good dick.”  The band deservedly broke through into the mainstream with the gorgeous ballad “Maps”, which bucked the traditional YYY formula and showed another side to the band, namely one of vulnerability.  But album closer “Modern Romance” takes this shift a step further–after the brash shot of defiance that was “Y Control”, the band retreats with a declaration of existential ennui.  The weary resignation of the song captures the hangover after the raging party that was the rest of the party, and while it is difficult to accept, its placement at the end of the album indicates at least the band recognizes its existence.  The song is built on a monotonous yet hypnotic simple guitar riff (and an expertly deployed sleigh bell), as Karen O laments over the top with the fact that, try as we might, “there is no modern romance.”  On its surface, it may appear depressing, but somehow the band is able in its performance to convey a sort of rebelliousness, that while things as they exist may be awful, there is still the chance at change.

TV on the Radio, whom we praised effusively for their brilliant new album Seeds, recorded a cover of “Modern Romance” from their fellow compatriots in the New York rock-revival scene for their New Health Rock single soon after the release of Fever to Tell.  It’s a solemn performance, and those unfamiliar with the original would have little reason to believe it was a cover, as it’s dressed up in a lot of the production that is a TV on the Radio trademark (namely the gentle electronic drumbeat, the hazy atmospherics, and the various squiggly beeps, which combined with the soulful vocals help capture a lot of the early TVOTR sound).  However, despite the delicate vocal performance, the band doesn’t really capture any of the pathos of the original, and otherwise is unable to do enough to put a personal stamp on the song to answer the question of why record a cover, either than as a tribute of admiration.  It’s a respectable performance, but because of a lack of a perceptible intimate connection with the material it never really rises above an intriguing novelty; in other words, for TVOTR completists it is worth enough to track down the rare EP, but it’s not enough to stand side-by-side with the original.

Covered: “Fuck Tha Police”

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.

In light of recent tragic and inexplicable events, it seems an appropriate time to discuss one of my favorite covers of all-time.  Growing up, I didn’t listen to much hip-hop beyond what would crossover into the mainstream, and focused much more of my attention on rock.  So my entry into classic hip-hop comes from a different direction than a lot of people, and was influenced by my love of Rage Against The Machine.  I became a devoted fan of the band soon after the release of Evil Empire, having been transfixed by Tom Morello’s ability to manipulate the guitar in ways beyond its intended purpose in “Bulls On Parade” and “People of the Sun”.  But I also appreciated Zack de la Rocha’s unique drawl and his fiery lyrics, which read into this as much as you need to, very much appealed to a politically-minded middle-schooler.  It wasn’t long before I attempted to track down everything the band did, and with the advent of file-sharing a few years later, that became easier than ever.

One of my first finds in the early days of Napster was a live recording of a one-time cover that the band did at a Philadelphia show back in 1995.  Apparently there had been concern by the local police that rioting would break out at the Rage Against The Machine show, because of the unassailable logic that angry music leads to uncontrollable hooliganism.  The large buildup of police at the show did not escape the band’s notice, and the band extended “a nice, friendly message to the fraternal order of police in Philadelphia.”

I loved the ridiculous pure noise that Tom was able to coax out of his guitar to mimic the turntable in the original and how by slowing the riff down and adding some distortion the entire band was able to create such a hard-edged groove.  It was the perfect example of the group’s ability to find the intersection between rap and rock, something that while many other bands attempted during that era but spectacularly failed to do so (as those who have the painful memories from living through the nu-metal era of the late-90’s can attest).  You can feel Zack’s genuine anger in his performance and the passion that he has in what he says, so it’s easier to forgive a few of his lyrical mistakes or that he only perform’s Ice Cube’s verse.  I loved this cover so much that I spent countless trips to the record store looking through their bins to see if I could find a copy of the import album Live & Rare so I could have it on disc, ultimately proving successful.

As big a fan as I am of the cover, nothing compares to the anger and importance of N.W.A’s original.  Their blunt reaction to the brutality of the LAPD was a shock to the rest of the country, but it gave voice to those who experienced repression on a daily basis but had been ignored to that point.  While many forcefully disagreed with the group’s view and felt that they were a threat, N.W.A was representing the point of view of a constantly persecuted group that felt the need to rebel in any way possible.  This is a response and attitude that is as old as popular music itself, but it speaks to the power of hip-hop (and the power of other biases) that there were those who assumed that every lyric the group spoke was intended to be the truth, and as a result should be censored (we’re seeing this play out once again with the recent Supreme Court case Elonis v. United States).

As for the music itself, the reliance on simple drum machines and turntables are a hallmark of the era but are also used to great effect.  The big hits with each beat provide a nifty contrast to the main funk sample, though the Twilight Zone-ish guitar riff used in the post-chorus hasn’t aged well.  As for the lyrics, there are several great lines throughout, and unfortunately as pointed out above, they are as relevant as ever.

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.

Covered: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”

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.

I spent the majority of this past weekend binging on movies, including at one point watching the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  If you’re like me and were born well after its initial release, the thing that is most memorable about the movie was the number of questions that Trivial Pursuit devoted to the film.    Along those lines, trivia buffs should be well aware that despite seeming to be an incongruous pairing, one of the Academy Awards given to the movie was for Best Song, for the Burt Bacharach-penned “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”.  Academy members didn’t seem to be bothered with the anachronistic placement of such a song in a film about the Old West, probably because of how sweet the scene with Paul Newman doing bicycle tricks for Katherine Ross was, and let’s face it, it’s just a perfectly pleasant tune.  Who could possibly hate its beautiful melody, or its lyrics filled with a sunny optimism?

[I’m going to be honest when I say that it wasn’t until this weekend that Spy Hard was parodying this exact scene–I just thought it was a funny, goofy interlude as a kid]

For years, the version of “Raindrops” that I listened to the most was this cover by Ben Folds Five.  I got it back in the early days of Napster, so for years I had no idea that the guy doing the intro for the band was Burt Bacharach himself, but such is the wonder of YouTube.  On its face, the pairing makes perfect sense–with the prominence of piano in the Ben Folds Five sound, they’re somewhat forced to acknowledge the big pop hits that feature the instrument.  And while Ben and his piano do a great job in capturing the spirit of the original, it’s the performance of the other two oft-overlooked members of the group, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse, that draw me in the most.  Jesse does a great job of keeping a great jazzy fill throughout and matching each change in dynamics, but its Sledge’s explosive fuzz bass bursts that set this version apart from the original.  Sledge adds inventive new melodies and provides a nice blast of edginess, helping to enliven the climax and also making the originally tacked-on coda sound like a vital part of the song.

Both Sledge and Jesse are excellent musicians, which is why I always cool on following Ben through his solo career; while I appreciated the approach that Folds brought to the instrument as a fellow piano player and appreciated his biting and sardonic lyrics, the musical parts that most impressed me throughout their career were the bass and drums.  Go back and listen to Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner with fresh ears, and make a concerted effort to pick out their contributions.  It will give the songs a whole new meaning, and that much more enjoyable on playback.

Covered: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

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.

Is there anybody that doesn’t appreciate “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”?  It seems like one of those songs that we can all agree is pretty great, and even though it was ubiquitous enough that we’ve all heard it, no one seems to think it was overplayed.  Just take a listen right now, and tell me that it doesn’t put a smile on your face.

Tears for Fears is touring once again, and they’re one of the headliners for this weekend’s Project Pabst festival in Portland, mixing it up with the likes of Modest Mouse, GZA, and the Thermals in a one-of-a-kind lineup.  I didn’t even know that the band had reunited, but it’s a nice surprise and I’m sure there will be plenty of people from younger generations who would love to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” live for the first time.  It’s pretty much a perfect pop song–who doesn’t love those warm synth chords, those gorgeous harmonies, even that lively drumbeat and that whirling guitar part?  I never paid much attention to the lyrics, but it’s easy to see that they’re versatile enough that you can use the song in a variety of setting, from the sarcastic to the sincere.  The song represents the best of pop music trends in the 80’s, with none of the irritation.

Ted Leo has done some great covers in his time, so he was a great choice to kick off the AV Club’s “Undercover” series; unfortunately for the rest of the bands that followed that season, he was a tough opening act to follow.  For this version, he swaps out the synths for guitars, but their shimmery tone more than makes up for the switch.  It’s a tricky drum part, but Chris Wilson nails it, and even includes some of the memorable fills of the original.  And though it was only Ted on vocals, he does a great job of capturing the style of Tears for Fears, yet at the same time staying true to his own voice.

The key that makes this cover so effective is that the group commits to the song, even though they could have easily decided to toss it off as a lark.  This is especially apparent in their re-working of some of the guitar parts and the brilliant solo sections, where Ted and the Pharmacists trade off some excellent licks.  At the same time, the group keeps the feel loose enough that the performance doesn’t come off as rigid; it feels like an especially tight rehearsal, which is the best you could really aim for in that round room.

Covered: “Cortez the Killer”

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.

Zuma is one of my favorite Neil Young albums, but there is one track that stands out clearly from the rest and is the major reason why most people have this record in their collections: “Cortez the Killer”.  Even my mother, who is only a casual music fan and not really familiar with Young’s work, was compelled to remark about the song when she heard it for the first time, saying “that was beautiful.”  The song is known for its epic guitar solos, but unlike the vast majority of songs with the same claim, the tempo never gets above an ambling pace.  For over seven minutes, the audience is enraptured by gorgeous guitar lines that snake and wrap around the listener’s ears.  It’s an amazing feat.

Over the years, a lot of people who enjoy proving how smart they are, have taken aim at the lyrics and dismissed the song because of the historical inaccuracies.  True, to say “and war was never known” about the Aztecs, out of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is pretty ridiculous.  However, the song came out at a time when historians were beginning to teach a revised version of the interaction between European settlers and Native Americans, and if Neil Young swung the narrative too far in the other direction, it’s understandable.  However, consider that just saying “Cortez, Cortez…what a killer” was enough to apparently get this song banned in Spain during the 70’s, and that part was true.  In the end, I’d just say to those critics to get over themselves and enjoy the true beauty of the song, and let the guitars wash over you.

You know how I mentioned above how it was “an amazing feat” for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to keep the listener’s attention for over seven minutes simply by the beauty of the guitar solos?  Think how impressive it would be to do the same thing, except for twenty minutes.  That’s what Built to Spill was able to accomplish, as recorded on their Live album.

Over the years, Built to Spill has been known to play several covers and do an outstanding job on each of them, ranging from classic rock staple “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”.  I remember seeing a particularly impressive version of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”, with the band able to perfectly nail that distinctive effect for the guitar.  But there may not have been a finer cover than their version of “Cortez”, which still amazes me to this day.  Doug Martsch is a fair match for Neil Young’s distinctive whine, and that’s without even an attempt at imitation; Martsch’s vocals also carry an additional fragility or vulnerability, which helps bring out the beauty of the song even more.

The astonishing thing about their cover is that at no point when listening does it ever feel like “this is a twenty minute song”; it sounds like it takes roughly around the same time as the original, even when you’re listening to several rounds of solos at the end.  And man, those solos…each separate round is able to offer new variations on the well-known melody without sounding repetitive, and able to galvanize the listener without showboating or grandstanding.  The solos keep building and building, and then reach a glorious climax, before slowly receding into the ether, because you have to take some time to calm yourself after witnessing such beauty.  It’s also way tougher to do than just fading out like the original did, though to be fair, that was apparently due to a lack of tape.

The point is, if you have nothing to do for the next half hour, listen to these two versions.  You can thank me later.

Covered: “Fade Into You”

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.

“Fade Into You” is one of the most enduring songs of the 90’s, even if many of its fans never learned the name of the song or the band that performed it.  It’s a gorgeously melancholic ballad, the kind of tune that’s perfect for long moonlit drive down a long country road.  The song is malleable enough that it can fit between just about any mood, from somber and pensive to relaxed and content;  it’s the perfect soundtrack to either a night of solemn, longing regret or perhaps peaceful joy with satisfied companion.  I never fully became a fan of Mazzy Star, but the brilliance of this song forces me to try again every so often.

Musically, it’s built on several wonderful little sonic details, from the haunting lead slide guitar lines, to those piano figures that accent the end of each phrase, to that laid-back yet insistent acoustic guitar with its loping waltzing rhythm, with Hope Sandoval’s breathy, ethereal vocals softly hanging above the mix.  The song is built on a slightly unconventional take on the normal three-chord structure, progressing in a IV-I-v structure, with the dominant five chord played as a minor chord.  This slight violation of normal harmonic theory gives the song its edge, as each line in the song seems unsettled because the chords haven’t resolved properly; it’s what gives the song its mournful atmosphere.

The last time we did this feature, we looked at Dinosaur Jr. dismantling and giving a shot of energy to The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”.  This time, J Mascis takes a different approach with his contemplative and respectful version of the song.  It actually fits with his style as a solo act; for an artist that’s known for letting loose with blistering solos at the loudest possible volume with his regular gig, J often takes a more measured and thoughtful approach as a solo artist, and often indulges in acoustic ballads.

With this cover, J keeps it simple with just two guitars.  The rhythm guitar track is played with a softer, looser feel than the original, with the kind of touch that either indicates softer strings or perhaps strummed without a pick.  The lead is also done on an acoustic guitar, with meandering yet melodic lines dipping in and out throughout the track.  J’s leads, though omnipresent, often remain in the background, but when they poke through to the forefront are never showy.  Each line is not meant to purely dazzle the listener with technical wizardry (even though they are often impressive), but instead offer variations and comments on melodies from the vocals and in the original.

Then again, over a 30 year career we’ve come to expect this from J, at least from a guitar-playing perspective.  Here, J’s vocals also help produce a great cover: J’s unique vocal style has that particular vulnerable quality that really helps bring out the fragile beauty inherent in the music.  His voice may not be technically perfect, but in this case the imperfections become an asset by helping to enhance the delicate emotional complexity of the song.

Covered: “Just Like Heaven”

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.

One of my all-time favorite covers is Dinosaur Jr.’s take on one of The Cure’s biggest hits, “Just Like Heaven”.  The Dino version somehow succeeds in being both faithful to the original and irreverent at the same time.  The video above helps make my point, as the band clearly has a bit of fun with the original version by mimicking many of its dance moves, but it’s done in a gently mocking manner instead of a heavy-handed insulting way.  The distinctive bass pickup/drumfill intro remains, but this time at a quicker tempo, followed by a shimmery acoustic guitar that’s a close match to the original.  It’s when the next wave of guitars enter that changes the mood, first with a heavily wah-wah’ed backing rhythm guitar, and then followed by a guitar that’s been whammy’ed within an inch of its life that takes on the memorable melody line, instead of the delicate twinkly style of the original.  It’s at this point that this sounds like a classic Dinosaur Jr. song, though with a more danceable beat.

J Mascis matches the vulnerability of Robert Smith’s vocals, and J’s distinctive whiny drawl actually helps bring out the emotion of the lyrics.  But it’s Lou Barlow’s shouted contribution of “You!” to the power chord-heavy chorus that really seals it, and it makes me crack up every time I hear the song.  It’s so jarring and unexpected that it changes the whole demeanor of the song, but once you know it’s there, you can’t wait for it to appear again.  J then twists the melody into one of his trademark blistering solos, further putting the band’s stamp on the song.  And just when you’re expecting the release from another chorus, the song abruptly cuts out.  For years, I thought I was the victim of a shitty version of the album, but I later found out that no, everyone had the same problem; the story is that the tape ran out while they were recording the song, but they liked the take so much they shipped it as is.  To this day, the band plays it the same way, abrupt ending and all.

For a long time, the Dinosaur Jr. version was the only one I knew; I had known it was a cover, but I never felt like seeking out the original since it was rare that I was in a mood to listen to The Cure.  So it may appear that my opinion is tainted, but no less of an authority than Robert Smith himself has proclaimed himself a fan of the cover, going so far as to say that it now influences how his band plays the song live.  I like the original, but I’ll agree with Mr. Smith on this one.

BONUS TRIVIA: In the Dinosaur Jr. video, the green puppet is wearing a “Deep Wound” t-shirt, which is the hardcore band that J and Lou were in before starting up Dinosaur Jr.