High Frequencies

Amy Winehouse - Valerie

From the album Back To Black (w/ German Bonus Songs) (2007)

Late, late last night - well after 2 am -  I found myself walking through deserted city streets in the crisp autumnal air, enjoying the walk, the solitude, and the soundtrack (thank you, classic iPod!).  Sometimes, in the midst of hectic work periods, packed social calendars, and being overextended on numerous fronts, it’s good to steal away for a little alone time, gather my thoughts, and just recharge the batteries. Of course, maybe going for post-midnight walks in the nippy air with music blaring is one of the odder ways of doing it, but let’s not quibble. 

One of the tracks that came on was one I hadn’t heard in awhile, but have always loved: Amy Winehouse's mellow, jazzy cover of the Zutons' Valerie. Not the version that Winehouse had sung on Mark Ronson’s Version album, which was recorded in the Phil Spectorized 60s girl group style that won her raves for the Back To Black album, but a mellower, funkier, more relaxed version that came to me via a bootleg called Soul of Unplugged and Electrified. It contains a performance Winehouse gave in Berlin in January 2007, and the whole feel of the song is just loose and melodic, the backing band is casual but solid, Winehouse’s voice is sultry and in control, and the sound is crisp and immediate. It was clearly recorded onto a soundboard, either professionally or by some amazing bootleggers. Whatever the case, this track is one of the great arguments that, as tragic and as short as Winehouse’s life was, it should never overshadow her gifts, and the wonderful music she was capable of presenting. 

Listening to this track, in between some classic cuts by Otis Redding and Ray Charles, in that cold night time air, seriously hit the spot. 

First Aid Kit - Love interruption

Cover of song from Jack White’s Blunderbuss (2012)

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m just a fanatic for that Stockholm Sound. Can’t get enough of it (and while I’m obviously kidding, it just hit me that there’s probably an indie band in Brooklyn somewhere named “The Stockholm Sound.” Or, at least, there should be). If there is a music scene bubbling up from Stockholm, I’m not aware of it….but I have recently been getting hipped to a pair of sisters named First Aid Kit that originate from Stockholm, and they’re carrying on the long, proud tradition of being influenced by music originating in the States and then giving it right back to us.

In the case of First Aid Kit, the sisters have mentioned how much they’ve been influenced by the Americana strains of Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris - so much so, that they even name-checked all of these musicians in “Emmylou,” which first came across my stereo earlier this year. It’s a pleasant little song and the duo have been on my radar as a band to watch.

I’ve been enjoying their latest album, Stay Gold, and earlier this evening, I was blown away by their recent cover (in the clip posted, it starts around the 1:10 minute mark) of a song off Jack White's Blunderbuss disc. Actually, I enjoy their cover more than White’s original. It’s a little bit earthier, a little more urgent, featuring a vibe that has echoes of the best of Ryan Adams, with the sisters’ voices playing nicely off each other and a crack, sparse band anchoring the action. Really quite enjoyable (and, for some reason, it also reminds me of this older clip of singer Lera Lynn blowing the original song composer out of the water with her cover). Now, listen and enjoy…!

James Govan - Something
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James Govan - Something

From Wanted: The Fame Recordings (2013)

To quote a friend of mine: So Much Dammit. Mere months after I first learned about soul singer James Govan, and had a chance to truly enjoy his music, I learn that he’s passed away. And with him, one less link to the golden age of soul music. Very sad.

When I last posted a track from this guy, I came very close to posting his stunning cover of the Beatles' Something. When I first heard it, I was raving about it to friends, playing it on repeat for days, just knocked out with how Govan brought this gritty, Memphis-infused soul sound to George Harrison's masterpiece. The slowly building track, complete with brass backing, a sad, longing organ, female backing vocals, and Govan's rasping, pleading voice….and that repeating fade-out at the end, just building in intensity. Wonderful track, and one of the finest covers of a Beatles song I've ever heard.

Sad to see another great leave us, and a mostly under-appreciated one at that, but the music will live on.

Gerry Goffin: 1939 - 2014

Sadly, news came in yesterday that songwriter Gerry Goffin passed away the other day. Goffin was, of course, famous putting the Goffin in “Goffin-King" partnership in the early-mid 1960s, along with then-wife Carole King. The duo had a slew of hits back then, pretty much helping to write the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles DNA of rock and pop music with hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “One Fine Day," and countless others. Of course, the Beatles and many other British Invasion bands also covered Goffin-King songs on stage and on record, including "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby.” I was going to link to the Beatles playing this from their Live At the BBC disc, but the quality is a little dodgy. I love their take on it, though, so I’ve gone and probably committed sacrilege by posting this cover from a random Beatles cover band, who are faithful to the Fabs version (and the quality is a keeper). Besides, a good song is a good song is a good song, right? And what better way to pay tribute to Goffin than to enjoy his music…?

Jose Feliciano - (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me
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Jose Feliciano - “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me”

From the album Feliciano! (1968) 

The things I’ll do to get a post up. I’ve done battle over the past 45 minutes with a constantly seizing laptop and a tenuous internet connection. I choose not to believe that the computer is judging my taste in music - and it really shouldn’t, because you don’t mess with Jose Feliciano. He’ll cut you.

I can’t really say how I first found this album, but I know I’ve always dug his cover of the old Doors song, “Light My Fire.” My best guess is that I was probably browsing through one of the many music blogs out there that offers up samples of music, came across the write-up for this disc, and thought “Why not?” And I’m glad I did. It’s not one of those monster albums from the ’60s that continually gets the love and adoration it should, but it has a quiet, easy listening sound that has made it a durable sleeper over the decades. And rightfully so.

I particularly like the treatment Feliciano gives to this Burt Bacharach classic. The song has gone through many permutations over the years, with everyone from Dionne Warwick to Naked Eyes having a go at it. But I think Feliciano’s soft, acoustic approach comes the closest to capturing the haunting melancholia the song (about a guy who sees remnants of his old relationship everywhere he wanders) is trying to convey. What could’ve ended up as a sappy or depressing song gets handled with a sense of mournful dignity here. It’s nostalgia for lost romance done right - Feliciano style. 

(Wait…is “mournful dignity” a thing? Or did I just make that up?)

Scott Bradley & Postmodern Jukebox - “We Can’t Stop”

From Twist Is The New Twerk (2013)

I’ve probably mentioned this in prior posts, but it bears repeating: I’m a big fan of cover songs. I mean, I just am. I’m always fascinated by how, when done well, a good cover version can completely change how you hear a song, or how you conceive it. Sometimes, the cover is a dud and sucks all the charm out of what made the original great; sometimes, it’s a powerful re-working that brings a new urgency and vitality that you didn’t even realize was missing from the original. And sometimes, a cover song is so fresh, so vital, and so enjoyable that it can bring out a song’s greatness that you just didn’t realize was there in the first place. 

And that’s what today’s post brings us: a cover version that drew me to a song I otherwise would’ve completely passed over. I absolutely would’ve passed it over. Which shouldn’t be too surprising: if you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, you’ll have guessed that I’m not a huge Miley Cyrus fan. Fluffy pop music has its place, and I won’t knock people who enjoy her music, but it just doesn’t do anything for me (and I’m sure Ms. Cyrus would be completely fine with this, since I really don’t think I’m in her target demographic). Of course, Miley’s music is floating around out there whether I wanna hear it or not, so I’ve at least heard the songs. And they get a big fat Meh.

But I was on a blog several weeks back - I can’t recall for certain, but I feel like it was probably Pop Candy? - that linked to a cover of “We Can’t Stop" that unexpectedly hit the spot. It was a re-working of the song in a piano-based, 1950s style ballad, and even though I gave a listen out of morbid curiosity, I was surprised by how much I dug it. It stripped the song down to just its melody and it was surprisingly catchy. "Get the %$#@! out of town," I thought.

So score one, once again, for the World of Cover Versions. Once again, a song has been shown to have some merits, beyond what even its writer probably realized. And I must humbly give it the thumbs up. And just to keep with this whole “open mind/open ears” attitude, if anyone reading this has any other suggestions for unexpectedly solid cover songs, please give me a shout in the comments section!

The Rolling Stones - “I Wanna Be Your Man”

Single Release 1963, Available Here

Hard as it is to believe, Keith Richards turned 70 today. There’s not too much I can add to the general amazement over this fact that hasn’t been said by many, many others recently – it’s kind of cliché at this point to mention how he was one of those musicians people were privately (and not-so-privately) imagining wasn’t too long for this world back when he was still in his 20s. But clearly he’s a stubborn survivor, so hats off to him.

To celebrate, I was trying to think of some of my favorite Keith Richards performances. There were some of the obvious ones, like “Tumblin’ Dice” with its snaky, bluesy guitar intro, or “Happy,” the definitive Keith Richards pirate-rocker number. I actually came very close to posting “Gimme Shelter,” which has what I think is his finest, best-crafted guitar figures, and which Richards also wrote the entirety of. Such a lovely, well-executed song. But ultimately, I decided to post the Stones’ cover of “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Given to them by the Beatles when the Stones were still new to the charts and needed a hit, the Lennon/McCartney name on the label virtually guaranteed the record some notice, but it was the band’s primal performance that truly won it raves.

Even though it’s not a self-penned number, this track captures everything I love about the early Rolling Stones: the snarling vocals from Jagger, the stinging slide lead from Brian Jones, and the chugging rhythm, courtesy of Richards. They took a really slight song and gave it this delicious, lo-fi garage sound, playing the hell out of it, and making it exciting. That’s what Keith Richards has been able to capture on record at his best, and it’s why I’ve always loved this song, his playing, and the spirit he’s brought to his music. It takes a special talent to go into a studio and lay down music that jumps out of the speakers and just grabs you, but this guy has made a career out of it. Hopefully he’s been enjoying the day with some cake, some friends, and some good music….

Gregg Allman - Please Accept My Love
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Gregg Allman - “Please Accept My Love”

From the album Low Country Blues (2011)

Covers albums are generally hit-or-miss affairs. Some are stop-gap measures, designed to put out some product while a musician or group looks to regain their muse; some are calculated exercises to re-package (and re-sell) collections of songs that had already proven their ability to bring in a tidy profit; and some actually are passion projects, bringing out a sense of the initial fires that ignited our favorite musicians in the first place, placing them on a path toward musical greatness. That last category is quite rare….

….but two years ago, Gregg Allman did his part to add to that cannon. Like many musicians that first came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Allman’s career had seen its share of peaks and valleys, and both the quality and the quantity of his output has diminished in recent years. Fair enough, since the guy has given us quite a bit of great music already; it’s only natural to expect the guy to slow down and burn out a bit by this stage of the game. But in 2011, Allman came roaring back in a big way, teaming up with producer T-Bone Burnett and crafting the exquisite Low Country Blues, a covers album that sounds fresh, vital, and alive. Unlike many of his peers from his younger days, Allman’s voice lost none of its original husk or authority, and - surrounded by top session musicians and the desire to really dig into the material - Allman and his crew breathed new life even into old chestnuts like B.B. King's “Please Accept My Love.” 

I cannot overstate how much I love this disc. It sounds like vintage Gregg Allman vocals, placed in a warm, live, exciting studio performance (which is pretty much because it was). Have a listen to this track and enjoy. And then join me in patiently awaiting to see if a second volume will ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping…!

Smith

….So it seems that work has kind of swallowed me into this deep, dark black hole over the past couple of weeks, and the world of High Frequencies has unfortunately been pushed onto the back-burner. And that’s just how it is when you’ve gotta pay the bills, right? But just because I haven’t been posting doesn’t mean that I haven’t been keeping the soundtrack going in the background. And this link of many, many Elliott Smith cover songs was just too good to not point out. So, consider this my shout from the dark, a forget-me-not, and hopefully I’ll come up for air soon. In the meantime, keep on keepin’ on…!

Amy WInehouse & Paul Weller - “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Available online as a video only - (circa 2006)

While I’ve been on a big Marvin Gaye kick lately, this seems like a good time to post this great collaboration between Amy Winehouse, Paul Weller, and Jools Holland, from one of Holland’s new years eve specials. Damn, why do the Brits have much better NYE television than we do? It takes a truckload of talent to tackle a song that is so closely identified with Marvin Gaye, and to be able to actually pull it off, but Winehouse and Weller were on fire during this performance

Whenever I watch and listen to this, I think three things: (1) Great song; (2) Paul Weller is one of those rare musicians that keeps growing, innovating, and surprising, long after his initial burst onto the stage; and (3) It’s such a shame that Winehouse's great troubles and early death hang over her legacy, because she was such a talented singer and songwriter. Hopefully people ultimately focus more on that….

The Flying Burrito Brothers - “Do Right Woman”

From The Guilded Palace of Sin (1969)

The first time I remember hearing the name Gram Parsons was way back when I was in high school, and I had just come across a copy of Stanley Booth's classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones in the local library. I didn’t know who Booth was, and I didn’t really know who Gram Parsons was; but I was going through that magical first brush with the Stones, getting to sink my teeth into the music (the music beyond just hearing “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up”, that is) for the very first time. I must’ve been about 15 or 16, and hearing songs like “Midnight Rambler" and "Gimme Shelter" just opened up a whole new world for me. It was exciting. The sounds just had so much more life to them than anything I was then hearing on the radio. 

Naturally, I wanted to read about the people behind the music, so I devoured as many books and articles about the Stones as I could get my hands on; if there had been much of an Internet to speak of back then, I’m sure I would’ve been online researching the band all hours of the day and night there, as well (this was just before the world went digital, though, so how much information could I really have found on a dial-up connection??)… 

This quest for reading material on the Stones ultimately led me to Booth’s book, which chronicled the band’s American tour in 1969. That was the tour that infamously ended in horrific violence; it was also the tour where the band spent a fair amount of time hanging out with country-rock musician (and one-time Byrds member) Gram Parsons. At the time, Parsons was launching his new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, with fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, and they were flying high with their now-classic debut album, The Guilded Palace of Sin. Throughout the book, whenever Booth writes about the band playing, he paints this picture of soulful, pristine country sounds cutting straight through the filth, sleaze, and muck of the times or the circumstances, almost like beams of sunshine escaping through dark grey storm clouds. Yet I must admit that, not being a big fan of country music, I was not initially inclined to check this band out. 

But as I read and re-read (and re-read some more) the book over the years, and as I constantly absorbed Stanley Booth’s high praise of the Burritos, I finally had to check them out. I believe the first track I ever heard that really hooked me was their version of “Do Right Woman.” I’d heard and loved the original gospel-flavored version released by Aretha Franklin in ‘67 - classic soul with that unbeatable Muscle Shoals sound - but the Burritos slowed the song down, gave it a hazy, Southern feel (for some reason, I always picture acoustic guitars being lazily played on a front porch on a hot summer’s day), and infused it with a completely different, equally satisfying vibe. It’s rare when I can hear a cover of a song that I love as much as the original, but this was one of those times.   

The ache in Parsons’ vocals, the close harmonies on the chorus, and the way Parsons slowly, passionately drawls out the “They say that it’s a man’s world/But you can’t prove that by me/ So as long as we’re together baby/You better show some respect for me” line just hits that sweet spot. Ever since I heard this song for the first time, I’ve been a fan. And now, with the hot weather of summer coming back, this song has been making a comeback to my playlists in a big way…. 

Fourmost - I'm In Love

The Fourmost - “I’m In Love”

Single release from 1963, Available Here

I may’ve mentioned over the past few weeks that I’ve been on a bit of a power-pop tear. And really, if you’re going to go on have a power-pop bender, you really can’t exclude the Beatles, can you? After all, they practically invented the genre. I’ve been listening to this band for over 20 years, and it never ceases to amaze me just how melodically inventive they were, how they were able to adapt and evolve to the changing times. Just a brilliant, brilliant band.

I’m also always amazed at how productive they were as songwriters. in 2013, aside from a handful of folks like Ryan Adams, it’s practically unheard of for a band to be cranking out albums and singles every few months. But in the early ’60s, Lennon & McCartney were practically bursting with songs, writing not only high-quality material for themselves, but also for a number of other acts on their manager’s roster. One of those acts, the Fourmost, was lucky enough to land what I believe is primarily a Lennon number, “I’m In Love."  

I must admit that I cannot locate the source, but I’m fairly certain that I once read that this song was originally considered for the Beatles and deemed too weak, and therefore offered up to a number of other bands. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas did a fairly tepid version of it, but for my money, the best contemporary version of this is from the Fourmost. The group stuck very close to the Beatles/Merseybeat template, and any American ears that heard this at the time of its release could be forgiven for mistaking the recording for the Beatles. 

The song itself is a slight, fluffy love song, with lyrics proclaiming the joys of innocent new love - but the melody is incredibly catchy and interesting, and the band delivers the track with a crackling forcefulness that’s enhanced by a clean, crisp production. Would’ve fit in quite well on the Beatles’ debut album, and practically sounds like a lost track from that session.

It’s pretty amazing that the Beatles could toss off a very sturdy track like this in ‘63 - a track many bands would’ve been proud to have produced - and just give it away.  

Kula Shaker - “Hush”

Available on Kollected - The Best Of Kula Shaker (2002)

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been hitting the ol’ laptop and cranking out copy over the past few days, being powered along by coffee, Red Bull, and high-energy music. Which has led me back to this old chestnut, which is a cover of an even older chestnut. Originally a hit in the late 1960s by Deep Purple, “Hush" was dusted off and given a workout by Brit-Poppers Kula Shaker back in 1997. I’ve always loved this version of the song - it’s far from deep, but it’s loud, it’s fast, it’s got a cool organ sound and a chunky rhythm guitar riff. Of course I’d like it….!

More info on the compilation album this landed on, back in 2002, can be found here. Kula Shaker has never really gotten a ton of attention in this country - they sort of piggybacked on Oasis’s moment in the sun in the mid-90s, and then the U.S. charts just kind of lost interest. But they’ve always been a fun band with heavy retro influences. 

Irma Thomas - Time Is On My Side
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Irma Thomas - “Time Is On My Side”

From the album Wish Someone Would Care (1964)

I love classic soul, R&B, and gospel music, and I love the Rolling Stones. I think my record on this all is pretty clear. So it would only stand to reason that I would dig this gospel song, sung by the great Irma Thomas, and popularized by the Rolling Stones in 1964. As an interesting side-note, the song was written by producer Jerry Ragovoy, who also wrote and produced some classic tracks by singer Howard Tate.  

All that aside - “Time Is On My Side” has always been most closely associated with the Stones, since they had the big hit with it, and they’ve had the most durable career. Yet Thomas, I think, captured the true flavor of the song. Backed up by a gospel choir, and sung with a gritty earthiness, Thomas just blows young Mick Jagger out of the water on this one; admittedly, I would argue that Jagger didn’t really find his voice until “Satisfaction" brought out his snarl the next year. The early-mid 1960s were a time when many of the British Invasion bands were seeking inspiration from, and trying to copy, American R&B, and one listen to this track gives a compelling idea why. The song just works

Like Howard Tate, who released some fantastic music in the mid-60s but who somehow got lost in the mix, Thomas never quite found the success that she should have. As this whole disc shows, it wasn’t due to lack of quality material….

The Rubinoos - Heroes And Villains (Beach Boys)
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The Rubinoos - “Heroes & Villains”

From the album Crimes Against Music (2003)

It’s a foolish group that thinks it can out-Brian Wilson Brian Wilson. After all, this is one of the pioneers of layered, harmony-drenched pop-rock masterpieces. He’s the guy who created such timeless, emotionally satisfying songs as “This Whole World,” “Til I Die,” “God Only Knows,” and dozens upon dozens more. For “Wouldn’t It Be Nice" alone, the guy should have his permanent place in rock history secured. And in the mid-60s, Wilson could do no wrong. This one-man hit factory was churning out   such high quality material that he even kept the Beatles on their toes, forever worrying that he was crafting better goods.  With the release of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, they certainly had good reason to worry.  

And then, in late 1966, things started to unravel for Brian Wilson. Business pressures, inter-band creative arguments, heavy drug abuse, and escalating mental illness started to rob him of his golden touch and his confidence as he worked on the Smile album. The first big single from the album, “Heroes and Villains,” was issued in the summer of ‘67, and it landed with a thud.  After the thundering success of “Good Vibrations" - a dynamic, exciting rock single - several months earlier, expectations for this track were sky high. But instead of another scorching, danceable rock song, the listening public instead got a complex, confusing rock-meets-barbershop-meets-Americana pastiche of sounds with a less accessible hook. It was still an ambitious, interesting track, but it was simply too out there to truly catch fire, and the public rejection profoundly stung Brian Wilson. 

Fast forward a few decades, and power-pop rockers the Rubinoos released a cover of “Heroes and Villains” on their 2003 disc “Crimes Against Music.” And lo and behold, they actually bested Wilson with one of his own songs. The Rubinoos’ version of “Heroes and Villains” is everything the Beach Boys’ version was, only better. The band opted to cover it acappella-style, allowing the intricate harmonies and the ambitious melodic twists and turns to take center stage. The resulting track is both direct, crisp, and exciting in a way that the greatest Beach Boys tracks were. 

I can’t vouch for other tracks by the Rubinoos. Haven’t heard much of their original stuff, and what I have heard sort of washed right over me. But on this one, at least, the liberated one of Brian Wilson’s great songs from its own studio excesses. And amazingly one-upped him. No small feat!