Alex Chilton

Covered: “September Gurls”

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.

As the calendar switched to September today, the first song that popped into my head was Big Star’s classic “September Gurls” (sorry Earth, Wind & Fire–you will get your moment to shine on the 21st).  Though I never figured out the meaning behind the distinction between December Boys and September “Gurls”, I would argue that Alex Chilton’s bittersweet romantic ode to a lost love is close to being a perfect pop song.  Not only is the song filled with memorable melodies, including the immortal hook of “December Boys got it bad”, but it also features those sweet, chiming guitars that helped influence a generation of musicians into creating what would become known as “jangle pop”.  However, as is the case on the rest of Radio City, the secret weapon is the booming drums of Jody Stephens, who provides both a powerful foundation as well as brilliant and precise fills.
It is no surprise then that over the years since its first release that “September Gurls” has inspired numerous cover versions from a diverse group of artists.  Its straightforward chord progression and simple rhythm make it an easy addition to a band’s setlist, and the relatable subject matter and unforgettable melody makes it a natural crowd-pleaser.  Most versions tend to be faithful to the original, like this beautiful acoustic performance from Brendan Benson, but there are moments and opportunities that allow for an artist to add a personal touch or two.  For instance, though The Bangles’ cover adheres closely to Big Star’s version, the fact that the song is sung from a woman’s point of view changes the narrative dynamic of the lyrics, and the generally slick production tips off what decade their version was performed.  The Dum Dum Girls provide another example, as their straightforward take nevertheless manages through a few slight modifications to bear the imprint of the group’s trademark sound, namely the heavy use of reverb and a switch to a classic garage rock drumbeat.

The version that sticks out the most in my mind, however, is the ragged version that The Replacements would bust out from time to time at their shows.  The wear and tear in Paul Westerberg’s voice is perfect for the longing that shines through the lyrics, and there is a certain restrained ferocity in the band’s attack that enhances the emotional pain inherent in the song.  Structurally, the band does not do much to alter the song, with any changes being purely incidental.  Instead, what sticks in my mind is the vitality of the performance itself, and how it is a perfect example of the ability of The Replacements to be the best bar band in the planet on any day of the week.  It seems impossible to top the original, but at least The ‘Mats show the way to make a memorable version of a new standard.

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.

Catching Up On The Week (Sept. 5 Edition)

A few #longreads as you prepare yourself for the fact that you’re going to have to watch Jimmy Fallon next Tuesday…

Speaking of The Replacements, here’s an interview that USA Today conducted with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills talking about one of their musical heroes, Big Star.  That band’s first two albums are getting reissues this week, so for those people that haven’t been able to find a used copy all of these years you are now in luck and now have no reason not to own and love #1 Record and Radio City.  Mills is an expert on the subject, considering he wrote the liner notes for the reissues and is touring as a part of the musical collaboration project that does a live cover of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album.  And if you’re still in need of some convincing about the significance of Big Star, check out this entry of the “Primer” feature of the AV Club covering the career of frontman Alex Chilton.

The Wall Street Journal has an inside look at the collaboration between director David Fincher and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, providing fascinating insights into the nuts-and-bolts of their unique method of scoring films.  Considering how great their previous collaborations have been (The Social Network and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are two of the only film scores I listen to with any regularity), you should be eager to hear their work on the upcoming Gone Girl.

The AV Club has a couple of extended features to check out, with the first being a dual interview with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan, and the second being a look at how those “rock and roll cruises” that have become popular in recent years are put together.

And finally, Pitchfork has an Op-Ed that pushes for a return to mono.

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 11 Edition)

I would hope that we provided you with enough #longreads for the weekend with our recent series of Neutral Milk Hotel essays, but just in case, we have a few more links to check out.

The big story this weekend is the first weekend of Coachella.  Because you’re all smart enough to avoid the huge crowds and the awful heat, you’ll do what I do and watch the festivities courtesy of their own YouTube channel.  That said, I wouldn’t mind if I was one of those people that were deemed important enough that companies would pay just so I could attend a music festival.

As for earlier this week, the biggest news was probably Stephen Colbert being tapped to replace David Letterman as host of the Late Show.  SPIN sets you straight if you think this has little do with music.

Oh, you might have thought that last night’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was the big story.  It was pretty huge, if only for the inclusion of Nirvana.  I’d direct you over to the Everybody Loves Our Town Tumblr for all your necessary links, though I’ll specifically link to this interview with grunge experts analyzing the “irony” of Nirvana’s induction, as an anti-establishment force that is now formally a part of the establishment, and this piece that discusses the brilliance of an all-female lineup heading the reunited Nirvana.  It’s probably not a good idea to take a look at this setlist at the secret aftershow party that included J Mascis showing up to do classics like “Drain You”, because you’ll be pissed at the fact you weren’t there and are only hearing about this now.  But I will link to this video of Kim Gordon performing “Aneurysm”.

And in a nice coincidence with all the Nirvana news this week, we’re about to see one of their major inspirations release their first new album in over two decades soon.  Guitarist Joey Santiago of the Pixies did an in-depth interview with MusicRadar talking about his guitar-playing style and gear, and drops some insight into the recording process behind Indie Cindy and the current dynamics of the band..

Last week we were less than pleased with an AV Club article, but they’ve redeemed themselves with a close look at the brilliant Weezer track “Only In Dreams”.  I’m only disappointed because I had hoped to do a Feats of Strength on one of my favorite Weezer songs, but they did a pretty bang-up job themselves.  I’d only add that part of the brilliance of the guitar solo is that the show-stopping run up the neck is reminiscent of the big solo in “Marquee Moon” and does a great job of creating tension by dancing around the traditional sweet spots on the scale, and that the whole sequence is a perfect parallel to the lyrics and title of the song.  But good work.

And finally, I’m going to be sure to spend a little time this weekend reading this Pitchfork interview with a biographer of Big Star’s Alex Chilton, because Big Star was amazing and that’s all you should need to know before doing the same.