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100 best covers: #93 Billy Bragg with Natalie Merchant and Wilco “Way over yonder in the minor key”

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As I understand it, the story goes something like this. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, approached Britain’s modern equivalent, Billy Bragg, after seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert with the proposition of bringing some of her father’s unrecorded compositions to life. Bragg agreed, but not before enlisting the help of American indie folk/rock group, Wilco. The extraordinary and perhaps a bit surprising results were recorded and released as 1998’s Grammy-nominated album, “Mermaid avenue”. In fact, it was so successful that a second volume was released two years later, followed by a three volume box set that included outtakes in 2012.

This song, “Way over yonder in the minor key”, is a bit unique on this list of covers series in that we don’t have an original recording to which to compare it. Apparently, when Woody Guthrie died, he left behind manuscripts containing the lyrics to over a thousand songs but because he never read or wrote music, we’ll never know for sure how these were really meant to sound. Yet without a solid guide, I think Billy Bragg has done a fine job here, keeping to Guthrie’s spirit but adding his own personal touch. It’s simply strummed on his acoustic guitar and sung in his inimitable and working class accented vocals. He’s enlisted Wilco’s Jay Bennet to lay down a lovely Hammond B-3 backbone, some Eliza McCarthy fiddles, and of course, Natalie Merchant’s lovely backing vocal track.

“Way over yonder” is one of the lesser politically-charged of Guthrie’s tunes and is not overtly making social commentary but perhaps is more personal. It’s light and jocular, calling to mind a simpler time. Childhood. And all of those childhood teasing games.

“She said it’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my luttle girly, that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me”

The cover:

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

Categories
Tunes

Best tunes of 2000: #6 Mojave 3 “Return to sender”

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It was Saturday afternoon, September 30, 2000, and I was at work, nearing the end of my shift. I called Tim because I had a hankering to go out and was curious to see what my friends were doing. “I know what you’re going to do tonight,” Tim proclaimed, much like Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer might have done in ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’. “You’re coming with me to see Mojave 3 at the Horseshoe tonight!” It was fortuitous for him and for me that he had an extra ticket for the show and was looking for someone to claim it. I had never really listened to Mojave 3 before but I was game.

I don’t really remember many details of the show, given the amounts of cheap draft consumed that night, but I’ve got two that I can relay. The first is that I must’ve really enjoyed it because I went out the very next day to purchase their latest disc, 2000’s “Excuses for travellers”. The second is a short conversation that transpired on the way out of the Legendary Horseshoe after the show that will live on in infamy. Tim was saying something about how Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell had gone all Cowboy Junkies with Mojave 3. And I drunkenly proclaimed, “Tim, you have no concept of genre.” He just looked at me, incredulous, and said, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.”

I don’t want to put more words in his mouth than necessary but Tim was probably referring Halstead’s and Goswell’s pointed shift in musical direction after they disbanded their original band, Slowdive, and formed Mojave 3 with another Slowdive member, Ian McCutcheon. By 2000, they had added Alan Forrester and Chapterhouse’s Simon Rowe to their roster but they never did change the three in their name to a five. They were also on album number three by this time and had firmly defined their sound, as atmospheric as anything their first band would’ve been proud of but with a country and folk tinge, which is likely where Tim dug up his Cowboy Junkies reference.

“Return to sender” is a boppy number that dances along to Halstead’s gentle acoustic strumming and his soft and plaintive vocals. The jaunty drumming, the banjo twang, twinkling keys, and harmonica flourishes only to serve to add to the wistful joy. And all that’s great but for me, this song is elevated above others of its type by the lyrics.

I went looking for a priest
I said say something please
I don’t want to live my life all alone
He said god will take care
Of those that help themselves
But you look pretty screwed
Send a letter

So all this to say, after years of listening to this song and catching up on the rest of Mojave 3’s back catalogue, I may be willing to concede that Tim may have had something with the Cowboy Junkies comparison. (But I still stand by my statement about his lack of genre sensibilities.)

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.