100 best covers: #69 Cornershop “Norwegian wood (This bird has flown)”

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Chances are pretty good that if you haven’t heard tell of Cornershop, you’ve likely heard their huge, worldwide hit, “Brimful of asha”, bolstered in large part by the fabulous remix by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook. The original version of that track appeared on Cornershop’s third album, 1997’s “When I was born for the 7th time”. The album was released just past the apex of the Britpop craze and though neither their sound, style, politics, or ethos necessarily matched up with others from the scene, they were still lumped in with that lot simply because they were there. It was likely thanks to their appearance in the British music magazines I was in the habit of purchasing when I had the coin, and the aforementioned ubiquitous hit, that I purchased the album on CD during my final days of university*. And though I did like a lot of its tracks, it took me a few years to really appreciate what Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres were doing. There was so much going on here – psych, funk, rock, dance, ambient, and traditional Indian music – and the culmination of all this was summed up in this fun cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian wood (This bird has flown)”.

The original, I’m guessing, needs no introduction. Recorded way back in 1965 for the album “Rubber soul”, “Norwegian wood” is widely considered to be one of the first instances of ‘Raga rock’ and was also highly influential on the burgeoning psych rock movement. The song was written by John Lennon, apparently about an extramarital affair, with contributions from Paul McCartney, its composition inspired by the folk ballads of Bob Dylan. But it all really came together when George Harrison added a touch of sitar, an instrument he had just recently discovered and had started to learn, and all of a sudden, we had our first Western rock song to feature the Indian traditional stringed instrument.

So, in fact, it’s quite compelling that Tjinder Singh, whose band name was a play on the stereotypical vision of Indian immigrants in England, would choose to cover this particular track. Reportedly approved by both Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, his cover translated the words to Punjabi, upped the sitar focus, and in a sense, whether intended or not, reclaimed the use of the instrument and shone a spotlight on his heritage.

It’s never a fair game to try to rank a cover against a Beatles original but I definitely think Cornershop’s version of this track is worth your time. What are your thoughts?

Cover:

The original:

*”When I was born for the 7th time” eventually wormed its way deeply amongst my favourites of 1997, one of the greatest years for music (in my opinion), and landed on my top ten when I counted them down a couple of years ago.

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Best tunes of 2002: #13 Badly Drawn Boy “Something to talk about”

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In the early spring of 2000, I met up with my old roommate and university friend, Ryan, and we went to see a new John Cusack flick at the Bloor and Yonge cinemas in Toronto. We both came out of the theatre talking excitedly, both us having immensely enjoyed “High fidelity”. Over beers afterwards on some patio or other along Bloor street near the Annex, Ryan told me that he liked it just as much as the book by Nick Hornby, upon which it was based. I hadn’t known about the book and so shortly after that evening, I went out and bought it in trade paperback, promptly devoured it, and put it away on my shelf.

Fast forward about two and a half years, I was then living with my future wife Victoria in a basement apartment in the Vanier neighbourhood of Ottawa, something I never would have fathomed that evening over beers with Ryan. But there I was and given my meagre call centre salary and Victoria’s part-time hours while finishing up her Master’s degree, we were living a frugal existence to say the least. They say that necessity breeds ingenuity. I guess this is how I discovered that the Ottawa public library loaned out DVDs for free and how I managed to watch a lot of films I might not have otherwise seen (like “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”, for example).

On one of my many trips to the main branch downtown (where they had the best selection), I picked up a Hugh Grant rom-com called “About a boy”. I’ve always loved Hugh Grant in pretty much everything he’s done, despite the fact that there’s some truth to the critique that he’s always playing the same character with only slight variations. However, his role of Will in “About a boy” seemed to me then (and still does) the role Hugh Grant was born to play and the film was so much more than your normal rom-com fare. I remember sitting afterwards while the credits rolled and absently humming along with the music, not really knowing what hit me, and I noticed that it was based on a book by Nick Hornby. The name seemed vaguely familiar so I crossed the living room to my desktop computer, booted it up, and did a Google search. The connection was made, I ordered the Nick Hornby book from the library, finished it, and ordered another and another, until I had gotten through everything he had thus far written. Hornby has since become one of my favourite authors to read (though for some reason, I still can never remember his name).

The film “About a boy” (properly) introduced me to Nick Hornby but it also introduced me to English singer/songwriter, Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy). On the back of his wildly successful debut released two years beforehand*, the filmmakers asked Gough to score the film and his soundtrack is a mix soundbite-like jingles and fully-formed songs, all with the same laidback groove and hipster cool feel. “Something to talk about” is one of these latter and the second proper single released from the album. It’s got the strut and flow and attitude of the film’s main character. Indeed, you could easily imagine Gough walking down the street behind Will, performing this as his personal theme music, all decked out in knitted hat, shaggy hair, beard, and sunglasses. Subtle and hip and effortless. That is all.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

*I spoke a bit about that debut when “Once around the block”, one of its singles, appeared on my Best tunes of 2000 list.

Best tunes of 1992: #13 Suzanne Vega “Blood makes noise”

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My introduction to American singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega came via a remix of her track “Tom’s diner” back when I was in high school. I won’t tarry long on that particular song lest we run the risk of it getting tangled in all of our heads. But if you so wish it, the song appeared at the twenty-seven spot on my Best tunes of 1990 list and you can read more about it in that post I wrote three years ago.

I wasn’t the only one introduced to Vega in 1990. As I wrote previously, that remix opened the doors to all sorts of new fans and perhaps was the impetus behind the change in direction we heard on her 1992 album, “99.9F°”. I remember not really being phased when I first heard it but then again, I had not yet gotten into her earlier, more folky stuff, save for perhaps being vaguely familiar with “Luka” from the radio. My friend Tim brought the CD over to my place one night, though I’m not sure what we were doing that evening (maybe playing Risk), and I asked him to leave it with me because the sound reminded me of “Pretty hate machine”, an album with which I was quite obsessed at the time.

Number one hit single, “Blood makes noise”, was particularly, jaw-droppingly good. Chains clanking, drums thumping, bass heavy and insistent, demanding insular attention, while Vega chants and incants alongside the tribal rhythms.

“I’d like to help you doctor
Yes I really really would
But the din in my head
It’s too much and it’s no good”

It’s two minutes of racket, an uproar on the dance floor, frenzy and ecstasy. Indeed, this din is not too much, nay, it’s really, really good.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.