100 best covers: #82 Travis “Baby one more time”

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So here’s one that you can place firmly in the fun column.

I came across this particular cover during a brief period in 2001 where I was a bit obsessed with Scottish alt-pop band Travis and I was on the hunt for everything they’d recorded. Appearing as a B-side to the 1999 single “Turn”, it was recorded live and you can actually hear the laughter from the audience as they start to recognize the song. The band themselves can be heard snickering at the beginning, especially at the forced falsetto moments, but by the end, they are indeed performing it in earnest.

I also didn’t recognize the tune at first during my first sampling of it. It’s slowed some, performed stripped down to only an acoustic guitar with Fran Healy being joined, gang style, by the rest of the band on vocals. When it clicked, I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing and that’s what I think is so wonderful about it. It’s the surprise factor. A teen pop song performed by a pop band of a different sort and it works. I think so anyways.

As for the original, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to work too hard to jog your memory about it. Which is good because I can’t say I know much about Ms. Spears. However, I certainly have been overexposed to a bunch of her songs over the years and this one was particularly ubiquitous at the end of the nineties. I remember watching the video for the first time in disbelief. It was so obviously a ploy, a riff on the catholic school girl fantasy, but it worked. The song was huge, making her over from a former Mouseketeer to a pop star in the blink of an eye. Still, she likely got too big, too fast, given her tabloid ready lifestyle, and has had to forge more than one comeback over her career.

It’s probably pretty obvious by now which version I prefer. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a hate on for the Britney, nor her version of the song. It’s well written and has a great hook. Her style and sound is just not to my taste.

Do you have an opinion on the matter? I’d love to hear it.

The cover:

The original:

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


Best tunes of 1991: #14 Barenaked Ladies “If I had $1 000 000”

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On my birthday, just under a month ago, my wife Victoria suggested I put on a record. (She does that every once in a while.) And I think I surprised her by slipping on Barenaked Ladies’ debut album, “Gordon”. The surprise to her was likely that I liked the album enough to purchase it on vinyl. Admittedly, I haven’t always been a fan of a lot of their work, but as I explained to her, they were fresh and new when they first hit the scene. They quickly amassed a following for their hilarious and energetic live shows, where the improvised banter between the two principals, Steven Page and Ed Robertson, between songs or during, was a frequent occurrence. Now, it’s hard to capture that energy on a studio recording but they tried really hard on the debut, as well as showing the band’s propensity for crossing and blending genres. That album is now a classic and one that I know intimately, even its weakest links.

But before “Gordon” and its major label release, Barenaked Ladies were already being heavily played on Toronto’s alternative radio station, CFNY: demo tapes, self-released music, and shoddily recorded live clips, really, anything they could get their hands on. My own early favourite of their songs was a live recording of the band’s cover of Dean Friedman’s “(I’m in love with a) McDonald’s girl”. If you can find it, do so.

In 1991, Barenaked Ladies, then consisting of Page, Robertson, Tyler Stewart, and brothers Andy and Jim Creeggan, independently released their release, a cassette tape with a yellow cover and the band name printed on the front. “The yellow tape”, as it went on to be known, ended up become the first indie tape to reach platinum status in Canada. The tape consisted of five songs, four of which would be re-recorded for “Gordon” and become some of the band’s best-known songs, the fifth was a cover of Public Enemy’s “Fight the power”.

Today, if you started singing “If I had $1000000” anywhere in public in Canada, chances are that someone would join you in singing it. It was such a huge hit here, even before “Gordon” was released and the only version we had was the demo-style, stripped down version on the “Yellow tape”. Personally, when I first heard the version on “Gordon”, I didn’t like it, finding it too polished, but I can appreciate both now. The music isn’t complex on the original, acoustic guitar strumming, standup bass, and simple drumming, but the vocal interplay and harmonies between Page and Robertson really make the song. The concept behind it, too, is a simple one that most of us can identify with, that of dreaming what we would do if we suddenly came into a lot of money, though these days we might need more than $1000000 to really be considered rich. And beneath all the hilarious ideas of what they might buy – art (“a Picasso or a Garfunkel”, a green dress (“but not a real green dress, that’s cruel”) – there appears to be an understory of the singer pining for a girl for whom he may not feel quite good enough.

Universal, yes. Classic, indeed.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2001: #13 Travis “Sing”

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Travis is a Glaswegian quartet that got their start in the early 90s but they didn’t settle on a lineup or release their debut long player until 1997. And yet it wasn’t until 1999 that they really hit their stride. “The man who” was a game changer, paving the way for the sensitive melodies of Coldplay, Keane, and perhaps even Snow Patrol. It was a massive hit for the band and two years later, their third album “The invisible band” did much of the same and achieved similar successes.

I was still in Toronto in May 2001 when it was released. I was living in a smallish one-bedroom apartment with my cat Lucy in a low rise building in Roncesvalles village. The apartment itself was serviceable but I loved the neighbourhood. I was managing a tool rental store within a big box building supply store (since killed off by Home Depot) and had no idea that within a few months I’d be packing myself and my cat up and relocating four hours to the ENE with then-girlfriend/now-wife, Victoria. We had gone to see Travis perform live just the previous September at the Warehouse with my ex-roommate Ryan and his girlfriend at the time, Amanda. I remember Victoria napping in the lounge, in a room off to the side of the main performance space, while the opening band played, which was forgivable because the band was obviously forgettable. Travis, themselves, were great live and I am reasonably certain that they played a few tracks from their upcoming release.

I bought “The invisible band” on CD almost immediately upon release and track one, “Sing”, made an impression on me right from the start. It starts off with a little feedback, reminiscent of the hidden track that ended “The man who”. Then, the finger picking on the banjo begins and you’re thinking: “What is this?” And this is probably the impact the band was going for when lead guitarist Andy Dunlop traded in his axe for just this one song. This was years before Mumford and Son made it de rigueur to break out the banjo in pop songs so it was jarring. Yet it worked, possibly because he was just plucking at it like he would his guitar.

But this song isn’t just about the banjo. Fran Healy is singing, pleading with us all to “Sing”, not just by ourselves, in the shower or driving in the car, just sing it loud and clear. Forget our inhibitions and insecurities and just be ourselves. And “sing”, damn it.

I love the notion. And it does have a warming, cheering effect whenever I hear the song.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.