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Your Cover’s Blown: Yellow Magic Orchestra – “Tighten Up” (1980)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 4, 2010

Archie Bell & the Drells’ 1968 classic “Tighten Up” was always one of the more idiosyncratic US #1 hits. A funky soul number based on a percolating bass line and choppy two-note guitar rifff, the song simply featured Bell commanding his pledges through various musical directions (most of them tightening-up-related) for three-plus minutes of entirely verse-less and chorus-less bliss-out groove. With only a sporadic horn break coming to interrupt the song’s mellow, its hypnotic rhythms had far more in common structurally with the disco and house records of future decades than it did with any of its 60s soul peers (although it’s possible that all soul outfits in Houston sounded like this–I doubt I could name you a single other soul outfit to ever hail from H-Town, unless we’re counting Lil’ Flip). The song’s backstory is just as weird, with Bell being drafted into the Army just as the song was taking off, and getting shot int he leg in the process (thus, as Wikipedia somewhat wryfully points out, making the “we dance just as good as we walk” line “a little ironic”).

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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.

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OMGWTFLOL / Your Cover’s Blown: Paul McCartney & Billy Paul’s Versions of “Let ‘Em In”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 21, 2007

Do me a favor

Can you imagine a world in which Paul McCartney is a popular recording artist? And I don’t mean popular in that just generally well regarded, “Prince is still as popular as ever!” way–I mean popular, not just with #1 albums and sold out tours, but with huge, monster hit singles. There were probably girls that listened to solo Paul McCartney. Young girls. You really know that The Beatles must’ve been the best band of all-time for Macca to even be allowed the time of day for his solo career, much less the consistent runaway success he achieved for pretty much the entirety of the 70s.

And believe me, I don’t mean this to insult the old duck–Paul McCartney is awesome, no question, in my mind every bit the equal of John or George in terms of classics, both with the band and without (Ringo, of course, is still miles ahead of the pack). But he’s awesome in the way that my 11th grade Physics teacher was awesome, or the way that the wheelchair trivia guy in Ghost World was awesome, or, of course, the way the entire cast and staff of Carpoolers is awesome. In other words, quirky, goofy, impossible to take seriously awesome. Old awesome. Listening to Paul McCartney’s solo or Wings stuff stuff is like deciding to eat lunch in the backyard instead of at the dinner table. Pleasant. Dignified. Aloof. Brilliant.

Nonetheless, when was the last time old awesome translated into hits? I mean, we’re talking about a guy who had a top 40 hit with a cover of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” .
A guy who mentions military ranks in several of his biggest songs. A guy who wrote smashes around phrases like “HAAAAANDS ACROSS THE WATER,” and around bad title puns like “Helen Wheels”. A guy who even acknowledged his critics in one of his biggest hits, but determined that this old dog didn’t need new tricks, and proclaimed “Heeeeeere I gooooooooooo AGAAAAAAAINNNNN!!!” Were 70s audiences really so burned out from the decade before that they decided that all they could handle was the most harmless music humanly possible?

Even for Macca, though, “Let ‘Em In” reaches new heights of inanity. The great majority of the lyrics are repeatings of this phrase:

Someone’s knocking at the door
Somebody’s rinign’ the bell
Do me a favor, open the door and let ’em in

There’s also a part where he lists the people who he wants to be let in:

Sister Suzie, Brother John
Martin Luther, Phil and Don
Brother Michael, Auntie Jin
Open the door and let ’em in

The amount of effort evident in the creation of these lyrics is truly stunning. This is not a short song, either–this is all there is to chew on for the song’s 5:11 duration. I mean, shit, check Wikipedia’s riveting commentary on the song’s lyrical content:

The lyrics include references to a list of Paul’s visiting friends and relatives: “Sister Suzy,[1] Brother John,[2] Martin Luther,[3] Phil and Don,[4] Brother Michael,[5] Auntie Gin,[6] Open the door and let ’em [them] in.”[7]

In a later verse, “Brother Michael” is replaced by “Uncle Ernie.”[8]

Like many other Wings songs, “Let ’em In” has been covered.

Wow.

Anyway, the song is disturbingly hypnotic. Insanely catchy, too, but in a much, much less confrontational manner than something like the Vengaboys, or the New Pornographers. The pounding bass-like piano line in the background, the light shuffle of the drums, the crisp production–it’s insiduous. Listening to “Let ‘Em In” is like watching an ant crawl on the ground after getting one of the best pot buzzes of your life–something that shouldn’t be even close to interesting, but remains unmistakably captivating and even slightly profound nonetheless. It’s the way Seth Rogen describes You’ve Got Mail (his favorite movie, one of the only funny scenes in the whole show) in that episode of Undeclared–“It’s just pleasant. It’s like waves lapping against a shore.”

I found Billy Paul’s cover of “Let ‘Em In” while doing a research paper on Classic Philly Soul my Junior year (let’s hear it for college, huh?) and hoping to prove that Billy Paul had songs more worthwhile than “Me and Mrs. Jones”. Dunno if Billy’s version of the Macca standard is actually better than his signature song, but I certainly find it more interesting–and slightly less creepy, since the only times I ever hear “Me and Mrs. Jones” seem to be when the song’s being used for lamely humorous purposes on Comedy Central.

But it just astounds me the way that Billy Paul actually finds meaning in McCartney’s song. Paul takes the song’s central premise and somehow makes it a civil rights anthem–helped greatly by the innumerous MLK samples, which make the song feel like kind of a proto-“Come Together” (or at least a proto-“Cult of Personality”). Paul also changes the namecheck part to be all about real life black leaders of the time (though I’m not really sure if Louie Armstrong qualifies as such). McCartney also mentioned MLK in the original “Let ‘Em In,” so you could say the meaning was there all along, but when hearing it from Macca, you could never imagine that the phrase “open the door and let ’em in” could possibly be a plea for something as broad as racial equality. It doesn’t sound like it could be a plea for anything less narrow than “hey, get the door, will ya? TOUGH GUY?

Once again, though, not that I’m complaining. I probably still ultimately prefer the McCartney version, just because its appeal is so singular among popular music–no other supposed rock star will ever seem as unconcerned with doing anything resembling the attitude of “rocking” again, I don’t think. Cvil rights is all well and good, but hey, sometimes some good company with older relatives is what really hits the spot.

(They’ll kill me if I write this much about Paul McCartney without mentioning them at least once, so please check out solidlittlerockjams.blogspot.com, which has probably reviewed seven new unreleased Macca albums in the time it took me to write this column)

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Your Cover’s Blown / Don’t You Forget About Me: The Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Love Rollercoaster” (1996)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 7, 2007

You give me that funny feeling in my tummy

I remember reading an NME review of The Cure’s Galore once upon a time that quoted Mick Jagger saying something about how after the Rolling Stones made Exile on Main Street, they just didn’t try that hard anymore, since they had already achieved everything they wanted or needed to achieve (the reviewer went on to compare this to The Cure’s situation post-Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me). This is, of course, a fairly stupid point, since not only did The Stones make at least one great album over a half-decade after Exile (Some Girls, and I’m starting to think possibly Tattoo You as well), but The Cure’s best and most loved album was the one directly after KMx3. However, I do come back to this quote fairly frequently when thinking about the careers of two current modern rock bands–The Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A recent karaoke performance of RHCP smash “Scar Tissue” by IITS friend Andrew Weber prompted discussion about exactly what the moment was that Red Hot Chili Peppers stopped caring about making distinctly above average music. Like peers the Foo Fighters, for nearly the last decade, RHCP have continued to put out a seamingly endless stream of increasingly mediocre singles, re-writing old hits and crafting songs so unremarkable and samey-sounding that trying to identify one from another is like trying to beat the Pepsi Challenge. This would be no great tragedy–few great bands can stay consistently great for multiple decades–but the real dastardly thing about RHCP is that they’ve undergone this whiting-out while still managing to stay in the top strata of current rock bands commercially (same with The Foo Fighters, whose “The Pretender” is in I think its 87th consecutive week on top of the modern rock charts at the moment). Unfortunate, to say the least.

Ultimately, I think we concluded that while “Scar Tissue”–the lead single from 1999’s Californication, and the song that revived the band’s fading fortunes after 1996’s semi-disastrous One Hot Minute–was a pretty good song, it was also probably the beginning of the end (or more accurately, I suppose, the beginning of the middle) for the band. It was the kind of lukewarm, underwritten mid-tempo non-rocker that RHCP would make their bread and butter at the beginning of the 21st century (“Californication,” “By the Way,” “Can’t Stop,” “Tell Me Baby,” “Snow (Hey Oh),” probably “The Zephyr Song” if I could remember how the hell it went), but it had a cool enough hangover feel to it, decent enough soloing and pretty enough harmonies to make it worthwhile in itself (and the Stephane Sednaoui-directed video was kinda nifty, too).

“Love Rollercoaster” is, at best, a footnote in RHCP’s chronology. A cover of a 70s #1 hit (strike one) by the Ohio Players, released on the soundtrack (strike two) to Beavis & Butthead Do America (one of the most underrated TV-show-cum-movies* ever made), with an animated video featuring heavy cameoing from the movie’s similarly animated title characters (uh, I guess that should be strike three, but frankly, that’s just awesome), the song has not aged as well in fans’ memories or on modern rock radio as well as some of their less ridiculous hits. It wasn’t even included on the band’s 2002 greatest hits album (tellingly titled Greatest Hits), though that was arguably just as much due to guitarist John Frusciante’s distaste for ex-axer Dave Navarro’s era with the band than anything to do with the song itself.

But the song’s actually fun, y’know? How many post-’96 RHCP songs can you even say that about? Off hand, I can only think of one–Californication‘s “Around the World,” because I actually like that ridiculous slap bass intro and the way the chorus just dissolves into faux-Chinese gibberish towards the end of the song. But “Love Rollercoaster” is even better–especially with that amazing intro, the screeching guitar distortion giving way to the song’s admirably disco-aping beat and Navarro’s Nile Rodgers-esque guitar, even tighter than Leroy Bonner’s playing on the original.

Falsetto! Kazoo! The band gets naked in the video! And lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis actually sort of raps on the verses! Remember when Anthony Kiedis used to sort of rap? Remember how RHCP used to be one of those rap / rock / funk fusion-y sort of bands? Of course you don’t–it’s hard to even remember when RHCP could write decent ballads like “Breaking the Girl” and “Soul to Squeeze” at this point, much less to remember when they were actually considered slightly cutting edge. I’d be surprised if the band remembered themselves.

OK, so it doesn’t quite match the spooky paranoia of the original–a feeling which is half attributable to the ridiculous urban legends surrounding the song and the infamous high-pitched scream that comes two and a half minutes in–and it could’ve used some horns to really sell those verses. But I still like it just as much as anything the band’s done since ’91, and RHCP were never very good at sounding creepy anyway. Besides, I feel like if they tried their hand it again today, it’d just sound overly reverent and sort of sedated, so I’m glad they got it out while it still had a chance to be even slightly kick ass.

*(Huh huh huh, huh huh huh)

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Take Five / Your Cover’s Blown: The Five Weirdest Covers of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 24, 2007

Ready boots?

Few 60s pop songs have proven to be more bizarrely enduring than Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that–far from it, in fact, since I think its status as one of the 60s’ quirkiest, catchiest and most distinctive hits is somewhat inarguable. The brisk, tambourine-heavy beat, writer Lee Hazelwood’s classic hard-knocked homilies (“You keep lyin’ / when you oughta be truthin'”) via Sinatra’s trademark deadpan delivery, the closing mariachi horns, and of course, that unforgettable descending bass hook, all add up to one of the best singles of 1966, my vote for the greatest year for pop singles in the 20th century.

What’s strange about it, though, are the people keeping the song’s legacy alive. Aside from throwaway covers from Jessica Simpson and the Supremes, and a token appearance in the first Austin Powers movie, “Boots” appears to be almost solely the domain of the creepy and fucked up. The song’s most memorable pop culture appearances come via movies like Full Metal Jacket and Natural Born Killers, and versions of the song span such genres as punk, industrial, metal, alt-dance, rap, reggae and just plain out there. Just how many weird versions of this song have there been? Versions by Nick Cave, Operation Ivy, Kon Kan, Boy George, Antonio Banderas (via the Shrek 2 soundtrack) and The Residents DIDN’T make the cut for this article. Here’s the five that did:

Mrs. Miller – “These Boots Were Made for Walkin‘” A sort of weirdo, non-fictional precursor to the SNL Culp Family sketches, Mrs. Elva Miller was a 60s novelty act who (probably) wasn’t in on the joke. Nearing 60 at the time of her biggest pop success, Miller’s hits were wobbly, off-tune and off-beat renditions of some of the biggest hits of the time. Her karaoke-ish covers make for some of the queasiest listening you’ll ever experience, not just because her singing is so bad, but because it feels like she might have a nervous breakdown at any point during the song’s running time. Not quite as transcendental as her “Downtown” cover, but a worthy entry nonetheless.

Symarip – “These Boots Were Made for Stompin‘” This late-60s skinhead reggae cover of the Sinatra tune turns the song’s more empowering elements into a more rebellious cry against oppression, a la “Pressure Drop.” Naturally, “Walkin” is changed to “Stompin,” which apparently was the main concern of skinheads before they decided that blanket racism was a more solid ethos or some such.

Megadeth – “These Boots More of a joke than anything else when first recorded for debut album Killing is My Business…and Business is Good!, you’d be hard not to be impressed with the band’s semi-faithful (OK, they might’ve changed a word or two to aggro it up a bit, but it’s still clearly the same song) rendition. Managing to not be impressed, however, was Lee Hazelwood, who called the ‘Deth version a “perversion of the original” and demanded it be removed from further pressings of the group’s album. Listen and judge for yourself, I suppose.

Crispin Hellion Glover – “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’Yes, that Crispin Glover. An improbable and yet somehow inevitable cover of the 60s gem from his sole solo album, The Big Problem ? The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be (which I’ve still yet to hear, but for which I have received uniformly positive buzz), Glover’s version basically Wesley Willisizes the song (tinny drum machines, disarmingly breezy instrumentation, maniacally shrieked vocals), and then some. Even the mariachi part at the end sounds ridiculously unsettling here.

KMFDM – “Boots Neck and neck with their re-work of Madonna’s “Material Girl” for my favorite gender-swapped KMFDM pop cover. Turns out “Boots” is just as applicable to German industrial breakneck motor-pop as any other genre, though by this point in the article, I can’t imagine you could find that too surprising. The “READY BOOTS? START WALKING!!!!!” part never sounded quite so maniacally gleeful/tyrannical before.

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Your Cover’s Blown: Todd Rundgren’s “I’m So Proud / Ooh, Baby Baby / La La Means I Love You / Cool Jerk”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 19, 2007

Your Cover’s Blown takes a look at versions of songs we know through remakes and originals that we might not–some successful, some atrocious, all fascinating.

Over the course of his career, Todd Rundgren was many, many things–garage rocker, prog enthusiast, singer/songwriter, producer (classic rock, techno and everything in between), tape experimentor, power popper, new waver, and countless others. But, like his Philadelphia brothers in arms Hall & Oates, at heart Rundgren was blue-eyed soul all the way through, and that core influence was always what made his wildly diverging musical styles work so succesfully.

So that’s why it’s jarring, but not completley shocking, to hear a medley of four classic soul covers in the middle of the bizarre half-songs and art rock experiments that make up most of Todd’s 1974 album A Wizard, A True Star. It doesn’t hurt that Todd chooses three of the best soul songs of the 60s to cover (and a fourth that’s no slouch)–The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby,” The Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” and The Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.” But if ever there was a moment to fully prove Todd’s soul roots, this’d be it–not just in the songs he chooses, but how sensitively and gorgeously he handles them, like the pro that he is. Rundgren knows his vocal strengths, and he wisely stays away from the grittier soul of the 60s, instead opting for the lushness of some of the Miracles and the Impressions’ dreamier numbers (as well as the kings of lush, fellow Philly natives the Delfonics), and they fit his voice perfectly. Among these, Todd’s herky-jerky proto-new wave cover of “Cool Jerk” seems almost out of place, but it works as a less awkwardway to transition back into the art rock that closes the rest of the album.

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