100 best covers: #72 Cat Power “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again”

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Just over a couple of years ago, I participated in a collaborative blog posting extravaganza, for which a number of bloggers around the world all posted words on the same day on Bob Dylan, a theme decided upon in advance. It was a fun exercise, albeit somewhat outside of this particular blog’s normally scheduled programming, and it was interesting to see how all these different writer’s chose to treat the chosen theme. In my case, I opted to write about the 2007 film “I’m not there”, an unorthodox biopic on the iconic singer/songwriter that chose to portray him using four different actors and telling bits about his life using multiple story lines. Of course, given my blog’s music bent, I spoke at length about the soundtrack as well, which is a super long (perhaps too long) double LP made up of covers, rather than the originals, by various artists across the musical spectrum. And perhaps both of these, the film and soundtrack, were as contrarian and confounding as Bob Dylan can be himself.

One of the three tracks I pointed out as amongst my favourites on the soundtrack was this cover by Cat Power of “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again”. Though to be honest, it’s definitely less about the artist performing it than it is the song itself. I know next to nothing about the American singer/songwriter but she definitely stands up to the gauntlet laid down by Dylan on this track. Hers is just shy of the seven and half minute mark of Dylan’s original but her honey smooth vocals keep the energy and the feel true to the original. Both versions bounce and jive along and bring a smile to my face every time. I actually fell in love with Dylan’s original just shy a decade earlier when I heard it on another soundtrack, the one for the very excellent screen adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson classic, “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas”.

It’s just one of those songs that could go on for ever as far as I’m concerned, even if either singer just devolved into gibberish. And well, I can’t actually decide which version I like better on this one. Thoughts?

Cover:

The original:

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

Best tunes of 2002: #18 Billy Bragg and the Blokes “Some days I see the point”

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To be honest, Billy Bragg’s eighth album, “England, half English”, is not my favourite out of all of his work.

In fact, it was downright disappointing given that it was his first new album of new material in five years, this after spending some time resurrecting otherwise lost Woody Guthrie material with American alt-rockers Wilco, and gaining a brand new sector of fans in the US. The album’s promise was also predicated on the news that he was working with a full band again and that said band was to include members of the Faces, The Mekons, and Shriekback. I really wanted to like it… but I didn’t. At least, not all of it. There were a few gems in the heap, though, right? Else I wouldn’t be writing this particular post right now.

Songs like “Take down the Union Jack”, “Distant shore”, and this one, “Some days I see the point”, with more understated instrumentation, just seemed to work better with Bragg’s songwriting style. Where the songs get more playful in arrangements elsewhere, he almost sounds silly. (A case in point for me was that when I heard a more stripped-down, acoustic version of the overwrought “NPWA” and I found it almost palatable.) Maybe I am set in my ways but I feel like Bragg should always sound like it’s him busking on the street corner on his soapbox, rather than jamming as just one of the ‘blokes’ and trying to fit his message in.

Indeed, “Some days I see the point” sees Bragg actually questioning his message. With the slow plodding bass backbone, the tapping drums like wet bare feet amidst the lapping of waves on coastal rocks, the breezy sustained organs, and the gentle plucks at the guitar, Billy is escaping to nature to keep it real. It’s like, even with all the fun and noise on the rest of the record, he’s feeling the weight of the all cynicism and apathy, and questioning his existence.

“Gonna follow the path that climbs up through the trees
Walk along the cliff top and gaze out to sea
I feel free when I come up here
And if it’s clear some days I see the point”

It’s human and it’s sad and I can totally identify.

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

 

Best tunes of 2012: #29 Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra “Want it back”

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Amanda Palmer (or Amanda F*cking Palmer as she sometimes calls herself) is a divisive individual. But an individual she certainly is.

She formed The Dresden Dolls with drummer Brian Viglione in 2000 and the duo gained a rabid cult following with their “Brechtian punk cabaret” music, to which I have never ever listened to this day, but I imagine to be equal parts musicianship and performance art. They went on hiatus in 2008 (though they have reunited several times since then) and Palmer formed another short-lived duo with Jason Webley, called Evelyn Evelyn, before embarking on an even more successful solo career.

In the spring of 2012, Amanda Palmer launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the self-release of a forthcoming album she was working on with her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. Her goal of $100,000 was easily surpassed in a matter of hours, eventually reaching the lofty and record-breaking mark of nearly $1.2 million. It raised a lot of eyebrows and started to change the ideas of what it meant to be a musician and a fan/customer/art patron and the relationship betwixt the two in the digital age. Palmer definitely has her fans but she also has her detractors. And she didn’t do herself any favours in that regard when she asked for the whole helping arm and put the call out for volunteer musicians on each stop on her tour after raising so much coin on Kickstarter. She eventually backtracked on that when the internet was outraged but there it is.

I actually listened to most of the resulting album, “Theatre is evil”, without any of this context, well before reading about her in the news and becoming somewhat put off by some of her opinions and outspokenness and almost unreal persona. Truly, though, the album is quite a fantastic piece of work with a great many highlights. “Want it back” is track five out of fifteen and the second single to be released from it. Synth washes start the proceedings. Then come the driving piano staccatos and snappy drums and plucky guitars. Palmer’s vocals are breathlessly running from one line to the next, seamlessly snarling and yelling and barking and yelping and angelically crooning. It can be an exhausting listen but also a compelling one.

“Once when you’re gone, and I wanna do it backwards
Just like the song, we’re addicted to the L word
Up past your head, down your back
Around your ankles, ready for attack
You’re upstaged
And then you’re strangled”

The video is pretty neat too. Filmed like stop motion animation, the lyrics appear as she sings them, written all over the place, black ink from an ink well – splish, splash, splosh. The version below is the clean one. There’s an NSFW version out there for you to find as well. Because, of course there is.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.