Your Cover’s Blown: She & Him – “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 15, 2008
Emily Deschanel to work “Love Machine” cover into Season Four premiere of Bones
One of the things I’ll probably miss about my brief period interning at Sirius was the free CDs–extra promos discarded by the higher-ups and rewarded to us second-class workers as thanks for the many CDs we barcoded, filed, fetched and ripped over the course of our days. Not because of the money it saved me–I probably spend less than $100 a year on new music these days, sadly–but just because it gave me the opportunity to hear a bunch of things in passing that I never would’ve had the initiative to search out on my own. I’d long been intrigued by the idea of Zooey Deschanel (She of Almost Famous and Elf, adorable for her big eyes and supposed indie cred) and M. Ward (Him behind 2006’s excellent Post-War, and its frequently MTVU-rotated single, “Chinese Translation“) collaborating on some sort of country-folk outfit, but neglected to actually search it out until a promo copy of their Volume One fell in my lap at Sirius.
By and large, I feel about it the way I’ve felt about recently acclaimed efforts from Neko Case and Jenny Lewis–generally nice stuff, some spots a little brighter than others, but generally not the sort of thing I’d be likely to often return to. But Zooey and M. were smart enough to include a couple of covers to hook the pop listeners like me, and while I’m not sure if they’re actually superior than the other songs included or if they just speak a language that I can better understand, they’re by far my favorite things on the disc. Best of all is their working of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ already oft-covered “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me“–and I mean oft, as Wikipedia lists covers as having been done by, among others, Cher, Percy Sledge, The Zombies, The Supremes, The Small Faces, even Bobby McFerrin and Cyndi Lauper (and some dudes from Liverpool might’ve covered it on one of their early albums too, I think). The book has, for all intents and purposes, been written on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”
Yet something really strikes me about the She & Him version, which I think goes back to a discussion I had with a friend of mine a few months ago. She (my friend, not Deschanel) put the original song on a mix in a road trip we were taking, and related a story about how she recorded a version of the song with a couple of her amateur musician friends for an assignment in a music production class of some sort at NYU. At first I was surprised at the choice–I wouldn’t even say that “Hold” is my favorite Smokey song, though with competition like “Tracks of My Tears,” “More Love” and “Mickey’s Monkey,” that’s hardly an insult–but as I thought about it, it started to make perfect sense, and I even got really jealous that I hadn’t been around to record it with her.
I guess it’s just that “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” seems more imminently coverable than any other Miracles song, or really just about any other song from the Motown era–more like a vocal standard than a top 40 hit. There’s no question that Smokey and company do the song’s most definitive version, but it’s a song that’s so simple and basic that it should be almost as impossible to fuck up as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Take the first line–“I don’t like you / but I love you.” It seems straightforward almost to the point of being facile, yet it kind of says it all, doesn’t it? It’s an uncommon thing to say in a love song, but it feels instantly familiar and logical. Same with the chorus, which is just a repetition of the title phrase and “I love you, and all I want you to do is hold me, hold me, hold me.” No figurative language, no wasted phrases, nothing but basic, instantly relateable feeling. Who could miss with that?
And the She & Him version of this song takes this idea to the logical conclusion, stripping the instrumentation of the song down to match the simplicity of the lyrics. As was typical of the Motown sound of the time, the original “Hold” is produced with a lush, if not necessarily ornate, full-band sound, but She & Him break it down to just what their name suggests–little more than the voices of Ward and Deschanel, with only spare, echo-laden production and minimal guitar to accompany them. But perhaps even more importance than its emphasis on the song’s simplicity is how much more palpable it makes the song’s feeling of intimacy. Already fairly honest and practical while still being incredibly romantic, the original song was definitely not a passion of a new love sort of song, it was a song that implied deep connection over a long, occasionally infuriating relationship. The hushed echo of Zooey and M’s intertwined vocals creates a brilliant aural approximation of this tried-but-true intimacy, and just feels extremely tender.
More than anything, it reminds me of Cat Power/Chan Marshall’s Diablo Cody-approved cover of Phil Phillips’ similarly standardish “Sea of Love”–another bare-bones cover of a classic love song that feels even deeper and closer thanks to the version’s sparse, almost haunting sound. Marshall has proven herself one of the most reliably brilliant and versatile song interpreters of recent years, and it’d thrill me to see She & Him take this promising start down that path as well. As long as I can continue to get their CDs for free, anyway.