A lot of the most memorable songs over the past 50 years have not been originals, but remakes of other artists. Sometimes, the cover is the song that the world remembers for years to come. Examples of great cover songs are endless, some notables would be Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Coen’s “Hallelujah”, or Johnny Cash covering “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. A good cover of a good original song brings out previously unnoticed qualities of the song, comparable to a person moving to a foreign culture and being forced to adapt yet retain their core personality. And in this unique sub-category of music, there are some songs that have flown under the radar, wether stuffed on a B-side of a single or overlooked for innumerable reasons. Now, I could never do justice the entire concept of cover songs in one blog post, but here are 5 that are worth a listen.
5. Jim James -“Goin to Acapulco” (Bob Dylan)
Listen here (via Grooveshark):Jim James- Goin\’ To Acapulco
Recorded for the soundtrack of the film about Bob Dylan “I’m Not There” along with a slew of other artists recording Dylan songs (some of them great, see “Ring Them Bells- Sufjan Stevens”) for the film’s soundtrack. As well as being on the soundtrack, the song was also featured in the film being performed by Jim James on camera. The scene where he sings is beautifully chilling, performed stoically at an open casket funeral during the film. With people such as The Byrds, Jimi, Neil Young and Johnny Cash covering Dylan songs, it is easy to overlook a Dylan cover. But don’t overlook this one!
4. Mott The Hoople- “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground)
listen here (via Grooveshark): Mott The Hoople- Sweet Jane
This is track one on Mott The Hoople’s (It’s totally okay if you haven’t heard of them) only “big” album, All The Young Dudes. As soon as the first guitar kicks in, if you have ever heard The Velvet Underground’s classic, you know what’s coming. The song is just so pleasant. Ian Hunter NAILS the vocals, he does his own thing, it’s very ‘Mott The Hoople’-esque and the signature, rhythmic “D-A-Bm-G, G-Bm-A-D” chord progression is pounding the whole time. But what makes this song is the lead guitar, never overpowering, but distinguished and somewhat unexpected. What should have been the hit cover of the album ended up taking backseat to the “hit” song, “All The Young Dudes”. And don’t get me wrong, “All The Young Dudes” is an AWESOME song, but for me, “Sweet Jane” is the crown jewel in Mott The Hoople’s crown.
3. David Rawlings Machine- “Method Acting/Cortez The Killer” (Bright Eyes, Neil Young)
listen here (via Grooveshark): David Rawlings Machine- Method Acting/Cortez The Killer
This is a recent discovery of mine, and actually the inspiration for this post. I am a big fan of both Bright Eyes and Neil Young, so I was already excited when I first heard it. But the low, minor, melancholy of this 10 minute track will haunt you beyond the level of just a good cover. David Rawlings is an Americana artist, married to one of my favorite singers, Gillian Welch. Which was my motivation for picking up his cover album “Friend of a Friend” at my public library. It took me a while to listen to, as it was low down on my priorities list, but what I found when I picked it up was pure gold. And this track is THE track of the album (although Rawlings’ cover of Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young” is just delightful). But “Method Acting/Cortez The Killer” is addicting, and it gets stuck in your head in a strange way. Instead of just humming the melody, you begin to think about the song itself and want more of it, like a novel you can’t put down. The song ends with Gillian Welch singing “Cortez The Killer”, which will give you chills down your spine. The track is haunting and rustic. I cannot recommend it enough.
2. Sufjan Stevens- ”Come Thou Fount” (Robert Robinson)
listen here (via Grooveshark): Sufjan Stevens- Come Thou Fount
I am a sucker for an old school hymn redone, and I am also a sucker for anything and everything Sufjan Stevens does. This banjo heavy version of the old 18th century hymn is a perfect exercise in restraint and beauty. Recorded for his Christmas album and featured on several television shows, Sufjan brought out the emotion and beauty already in this hymn. Every time I hear this song I tear up a little bit, between the piano, banjo, Sufjan’s voice and the compelling beauty of Jesus this song displays. This song not only is an artistic masterpiece, but it makes me love Jesus more.
1. Jeff Tweedy & Jay Benett-”James Alley Blues” (Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown)
This isn’t just a gem, it’s a diamond. Recorded in 1999 on the Austin Music Network, and as far as I know, no where else. This song is a cover of old bluesman Richard ‘Rabbit’ Browns “James Alley Blues”. Brown’s most well-covered track has been a beloved track by musicians for years. Dylan remade this song on the Basement Tapes, David Johannsen (New York Dolls) and various others have covered this song brilliantly. But I have never heard anything like Tweedy and Bennett’s version. It’s low key, featuring Tweedy (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Golden Smog) on vocals & guitar and Jay Bennett (Wilco ’93-’01) on piano. The sound is simple, yet elegant. With songwriting unmatched even today and Tweedy’s voice fits the lyrics better than even Brown’s voice did. It could be the story of an emotionally strained romance, or the story of Tweedy and Bennett’s crumbling friendship and musical partnership, which ended only about a year and a half after this was recorded. And you can’t argue with the lines “sometimes baby I think you’re too sweet to die, sometimes baby I think you’re too sweet to die, other times I think that you ought to be buried alive”.