100 best covers: #70 Great Lake Swimmers “What was going through my head”

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Five years ago, Nettwork Records celebrated their 30th anniversary as a going concern. As a part of the festivities, they released a compilation album called “Cover to cover”, which featured current label artists covering songs from its storied past. If you look at the list of songs by artists as varied as Skinny Puppy, Coldplay, Passenger, and Sarah McLachlan, you can almost trace the label’s history from indie upstart on the west coast of Canada to apparent music savants picking up on the early days of the Canadian alternative rock scene, striking gold there, and then finding itself as an international mover and shaker. And looking at the list of the artists covering these tracks, you can see the label looking back towards those early roots and mining the best of current new Canadian indie.

Our cover song today is the penultimate track on this compilation and is a true example of CanCon brilliance. The original version of “What was going through my head” was the third single released off “Now and again”, The Grapes of Wrath’s* biggest album, a huge hit here on the Canadian radio airwaves. They were so big here I can’t imagine anyone not knowing this track but my understanding is that they are one of those CanCon bands that didn’t really travel well internationally. They were led by the songwriting duo of Tom Hooper and Kevin Kane and were almost as well known for their long, thick and wavy hair as they were for their vocal harmonies. The original track is heavy on the acoustic strumming, all jangle pop like and easy on the ears, and the synths here were a new addition to the band’s straightforward drums and bassline. Listening to the track for what must be the millionth time, it’s easy for me to see why Hooper and Kane always reminded me of Simon and Garfunkel with their plaintiff and haunting deliveries.

Great Lake Swimmers are a Toronto-based indie folk outfit led by Tony Dekker, who definitely sound more Iron and Wine than Lumineers. I’ve been listening to them for a long time and have always dug the low key and quiet vibe of their tunes. This cover actually first appeared as a bonus track on the deluxe version of their 2012 album, “New wild everywhere”, their most upbeat and commercially successful release to date. Their take on “What was going through my head” is faithful to the original, dutifully, doing the classic proud. It is slower in pace, as one might expect, and a shade longer than the original’s sub-three minutes. Dekker’s soft touch on vocals gets his harmonies care of Miranda Mulholland, who also adds a lovely touch on the violin to replace the keyboards of the original. And yeah, this is the Great Lake Swimmers so we’ve also got banjo and upright bass in the mix. It’s oh so organic.

And if the original wasn’t such a big part of my teen years, I could almost say this cover is better than the original. But it was, so I can’t.

Cover:

The original:

* Incidentally, The Grapes of Wrath’s first ever release, a self-titled EP, was also Nettwerk Records’ debut release.

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

Best tunes of 2011: #3 Sloan “Unkind”

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Last summer after seeing Canadian alt-rock icons, Sloan, in concert for the first time ever, I shared some pics and a few words, for which if you missed the post, you can find here. I had mused, then, about how the group played pretty much every song, save one, that I would’ve wanted to hear. This is a quite a feat when you consider that I’d been listening to them for almost twenty-five years, a period during which they had released eleven full-length albums. In the comments section afterwards, I had a bit of jive with Geoff from 1001albumsin10years, comparing notes on our favourite songs written by each band member, and I admitted that the one song they didn’t play was perhaps my favourite of theirs of all time. And yeah, that song was “Unkind”.

In 2011, Sloan were celebrating twenty years together as a band so when they released their tenth album that year, they called it “The double cross” as a play on the Roman numeral representation for the number twenty. It was their shortest album to date at just under 35 minutes but it was typical in that each band member contributed their own songs to the finished product and that the album rocked in totality.

“Unkind”, a Patrick Pentland penned tune, was the only single to be released from the album but it was enough to get me to pick it up. It is the second longest track on an album of short quick hits but I personally wouldn’t mind it being even longer. It’s got this raunchy but ripping, guitar riff that was built for ‘raising the goblet of rock’. The drums are all over the place and yet definitely organized enough for you to nod you head and tap all your hands and feet, as if you’re frantically playing the air drums. The patented Sloan harmonies are here too, of course, all members jumping in to perfect the chorus.

This song brings me so much joy. It is an almost flawless rock song. And so close to hitting the number one spot in this list. Stay tuned to see what beat it.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2002: #22 Sam Roberts “Brother down”

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According to our friends at Wikipedia, an “extended play record, often referred to as an EP, is a musical recording that contains more tracks than a single, but is usually unqualified as an album or LP”. It’s a format that seems to have made a bit of a comeback in the last decade or so, likely as a result of and in conjunction with the return to relevance of vinyl records as a means of releasing music. In an otherwise digital sales and streaming world, the term would be rendered meaningless. Personally, and though I know a number of my favourite bands (see Belle & Sebastian) love the format, I’ve never been big on them, only procuring them in the cases of many of these same bands when I started to turn completist on collecting their musical outputs. It’s likely because for much of my early life, I didn’t have a lot of disposable income to put towards purchasing the music I loved so I had to be picky and found more value for dollar on full-length albums.

Sam Roberts’ debut release, an EP called “The inhuman condition”, was one of the few EPs I ever purchased brand new* on CD. I distinctly remember heading down to the HMV at the Rideau Centre one night after work with a $75 gift card burning a hole in my wallet. I remember wandering around the store many times with various combinations of discs in my hands, not wanting to waste such a rare opportunity in those days on poor choices. Of course, of the four or five CDs I walked out of the store with that evening, excited to get home to start spinning them, that EP was one of them, the relatively lower price and my enjoyment of this particular track whenever I heard it on X101 FM being the two main reasons.

The Montreal-based singer/songwriter has since gone on to great success nationally but I think Sam Roberts’ first single, “Brother down”, really paved the way. The version on the EP is the second version recorded (the first was a demo that you might find floating around) and he redid it a third time when he released his debut full-length the following year. It’s definitely still quite popular and has been a crowd favourite every time I’ve seen him perform live, which is actually quite a few times. It is a fun and funky number, the bongos, handclaps, and call and response vocals that run throughout providing the requisite groove. At the time, I honestly felt and described Roberts as Canada’s answer to Beck and though these days I can’t conscientiously make the same comparison, this particular song does smack audibly of Beck’s mid-90s “Odelay” days. It just makes me want to dance.

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

* As opposed to secondhand, I mean.