January 04, 2016

Write on Music's Dozen Covers to Love 2015

The best of people playing other people’s songs... These are Write on Music’s dozen covers to love from 2015:

“Come and Get It” – The Hollywood Vampires
Album: Hollywood Vampires (UMe)

To merit its inclusion here, this selection needs an alibi of sorts — this cover needs a “cover,” if you will: Originally a #1 US (#4 UK) hit by Badfinger as the theme to the 1969 Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr film The Magic Christian, the song was written by Paul McCartney when The Beatles were convening to record Abbey Road. While McCartney recorded a one-man-band demo at the time (which was ultimately released in 1996 on The Beatles Anthology 3), neither he nor the Fab Four ever released a proper studio version of this song.

And so that’s what qualifies this version of “Come and Get It” as a cover. But the synergy between McCartney and the Hollywood Vampires — the band includes Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp, with Macca’s drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. holding down the fort on this particular session — is what makes it magic. 

“(I'm A) Roadrunner” – Paul Weller

Album: Saturns Pattern (Warner Brothers Records/Parlophone)

The Modfather’s love of Motown is a fundamental one, infusing everything from The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” to solo cuts like “Above the Clouds” and “No Tears to Cry.” On this 1965 Jr. Walker & The All Stars rave-up, Weller brings a piano to the forefront (as opposed to the Funk Brothers’ primary guitar-and-saxophone combo on the original) which gives the song a bit slower but steadier pace — holding down the groove like the vintage chassis of a Detroit muscle car hugging the open road.

“Harper Valley PTA” – Squeeze

Album: Cradle to the Grave [Deluxe Version] (Caroline Records)

Life is simply all the more enjoyable when there is new music from Squeeze in the world. And the beloved British band certainly doesn’t disappoint with Cradle to Grave, which often recalls Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s quintessential chemistry as masterful pop songwriters even as it strives for fresh exuberance. The 16-song deluxe version of the album is the one to get, not least for its inclusion of a Difford-led acoustic cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” and a full-band romp through this Jeannie C. Riley classic (written by Tom T. Hall), which with its storytelling lyricism and unbridled quirkiness sounds like it could’ve been yet another Squeeze classic in an alternate universe.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” – Kacey Musgraves

Album: We Love Disney (Verve Music Group)

Since hitting the big time with her 2013 LP Same Trailer Different Park (and its lead single “Merry Go ‘Round”), Musgraves has lit a spark (and a couple of joints, at least in her songs) under the male-dominated Nashville establishment, demonstrating the sort of serious craft and colorful kitsch that feels reminiscent of classic Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn records. Her talent and ties to such a fabled tradition continue to flourish on her latest album Pageant Material while, on this most-adorable rendition of the Mary Poppins gem, Musgraves is downright supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

“Don't Think Twice, It's Alright” – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard

Album: Django and Jimmie (Legacy Recordings)

Including a Bob Dylan song on a “best covers” list almost seems compulsory by now, but this rendition is more than a little special, and not least because of who’s doing the rendering. It was always a kiss-off song anyway, but here Nelson and Haggard evoke a shared wistfulness that could only come from each man having lived his own life on his own terms, tempting and sidestepping perilous, sacrificial fates with not always equal success. Call it reasoned contempt or maybe just chock it up to a certain kind of wisdom, but Dylan could not have foreseen such impressions emerging from this song back when he was writing it as a much younger man — at least not like this.  

“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – Allison Moorer

Album: Down to Believing (Entertainment One Music)

Whether she’s written a particular song or not, Moorer is better than most at getting to the essence of whatever emotion or experience she’s singing about. Maybe that comes from having a low tolerance for bullshit, or maybe it just comes from knowing what needs to be said and how to best get that across. Chances are she’s blessed with both attributes, and on this Creedence Clearwater Revival classic (written by John Fogerty), Moorer invests all of her soulful Southern heart and leaves you feeling like you appreciate the song, and maybe even yourself, a little better.  

“Up Above My Head” – Rhiannon Giddens

Album: Tomorrow is My Turn (Nonesuch Records)

“This is a pillar of American music,” Rhiannon Giddens told Write on Music last year in reference to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the too-often-unsung yet seminal vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist behind this and so many other groundbreaking songs. “It’s like, you cannot deny her influence and yet people don’t know who she is. That’s a problem for me because it continues to reflect the narrative of American music where the black artist is the innovator and then gets forgotten about.” Consider the inclusion and praise here of Giddens interpreting Tharpe with such sanctified jubilance — the performance is but one highlight of an album teeming with them — as a nudge in the right direction. 

“Peace Like a River” – Jerry Lawson

Album: Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet Records)

Pure and simple, 2015’s finest debut album was a half century in the making. As the lead vocalist of the legendary a cappella group The Persuasions for more than 40 years, Jerry Lawson has sung the works of, well, everyone — from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Curtis Mayfield and Solomon Burke. Indeed the group, which got its big break courtesy of Frank Zappa in the late ‘60s, has also sung on albums by the likes of Joni Mitchell (Shadows and Light) and Stevie Wonder (Fulfillingness’ First Finale), among many, many others. 

Just A Mortal Man, released last April, is Lawson’s first as a solo artist, and it’s nothing short of brilliant. The man lives and breathes in these songs with consummate authenticity and soul, giving moments like “Time and Water” and the aching ballad “Loving Arms” a shiver of sheer vulnerability. To open the album and in some ways to set the tone for it throughout, Lawson gives Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River” a renewed sense of gravitas and grace, instilling it with the resilience of one who has withstood time’s adversities to now stand triumphant.

“Love is the Answer” – Rumer

Album: Love is the Answer [EP] (Nightowl Records)

Over the past half-decade since her debut LP Seasons of My Soul (and its immaculate breakout single “Aretha”), Rumer’s gorgeous talent has entranced an ever-growing amount of listeners the world over, including some of the very artists that first inspired her own musical pursuits and passions. Both as a songwriter and an interpreter, Rumer (born Sarah Joyce) has often reflected a retro elegance in her music, whether inspirited by the works of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jimmy Webb, or the ‘70s singer/songwriter scene in California’s Laurel Canyon. 

In fact, her sophomore LP Boys Don’t Cry found Rumer interpreting songs originally written by such fabled ‘70s singer/songwriters as Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Todd Rundgren, whose “Be Nice to Me” was among the album’s highlights. With the title track to her recently released EP Love is the Answer, Rumer revisits Rundgren with similarly breathtaking results. 

“Love Don’t Love Nobody” – Boz Scaggs

Album: A Fool to Care (429 Records)

“I can’t think of any genre of music that doesn’t fascinate me in terms of a vocalist and a melody,” Boz Scaggs told Write on Music in reference to the vintage R&B and the urbanized rock ‘n’ roll he performed on his 2013 LP Memphis. “A singer and a song is just a fascinating study for me.” A similar (and similarly rewarding) experiment continued with last year’s follow-up, A Fool to Care, which includes such standout interpretive moments as the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud,” Al Green’s “Full of Fire,” and, especially, this soul-coated masterclass of the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody.” 

“Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word” – Diana Krall

Album: Wallflower (Verve Music Group)

As some moments chronicled the dissolution of lyricist Bernie Taupin’s first marriage, Elton John’s 1976 double LP Blue Moves was often somber to behold. Yet with her melancholic vocal tone and rich phrasing, Diana Krall takes that album’s most recognized track to new emotional depths. Where Elton sounds damn near desperate to hold onto what he’s got – “What do I do to make you want me?” – Krall sounds like the end is already a done deal. 

“Why Try to Change Me Now?” – Bob Dylan

Album: Shadows in the Night (Columbia Records)

Maybe there’s a connection between being able to write great songs and being able to recognize greatness in the songs of others. If so, Bob Dylan could safely be said to have singular insight on the matter, and with Shadows in the Night he not only underscores the craft of Sinatra’s repertoire but so too the emotional architecture he inhabited within it. At the same time, particularly in moments like this, Dylan brings his own baggage and, in ways not unlike those of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, summons a moment of utter transcendence.