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

<< #70    |    #68 >>

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.

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

<< #71    |    #69 >>

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.

100 best covers: #71 Pixies “I can’t forget”

<< #72    |    #70 >>

Leonard Cohen was a great songwriter. He was a poet that wrote poems and those poems became songs when he decided to sing them, instead of just read them aloud.

Of course, when you write excellent songs, you’ll have numerous other excellent bands and solo artists lining up to cover your work. And some of them might even transcend your original versions in popularity and commercial success. Such as it is with Leonard Cohen, who has been covered many times over, and even had just the one of his songs covered thousands of times (I’m sure you can guess of which song I speak). If you ask my wife, though, she’ll tell you that Mr. Cohen is tops on the list of artists that should never be covered and that no one can come close to touching his versions. Conversely, my friend Tim has said to me on more than one occasion that he likes Leonard Cohen’s songs, but only when someone else performs them.

And I’m pretty near certain that these words were first uttered by him whilst listening to the 1991 tribute album, “I’m your fan”. This excellent 18-song compilation was put together French music magazine, “Les Inrockuptibles”. The album’s title is a play on Cohen’s 1988 album, “I’m your man”, and its track listing included varied versions of Cohen tunes by artists such as Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, House of Love, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Lloyd Cole, John Cale, James, R.E.M., and of course, this excellent cover by the Pixies.

Recorded in the same year as “Trompe le monde”, their final album before dissolution, the Pixies’ version of “I can’t forget” was unsurprisingly more upbeat and hard-hitting than the original. Indeed, it could almost be mistaken for one of their own tunes, if it had only been a bit more weird and off-kilter. Cohen’s original was recorded a mere three years earlier for the aforementioned album, “I’m your man”, and while all of its songs were great – classics now – it took me a while to get over its production and instrumentation, which were synth heavy and definitely of their time and place.

Sorry Victoria. I think I’d take the heavy guitars, faster rhythm, and Frank Black’s yelp and Kim Deal’s chiming backup over the easier listening marimba synth-programmed hangover, even if it does include Cohen’s inimitable, rich sing-speak vocals.

What about you? What are your thoughts?

Cover:

The original:

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