Necessary Covers: Make Your Grand Parents' Music Good
With the previous entry on this topic I kind of inundated you with potential tributes to the musicians who died during the period covered by the last Grammy Awards. It really is the only reason to watch the most arbitrary and meaningless award show ... Quiet. Yes it is. So much ink has been used explaining why that is already. You are not going to make me explain it again ... Where was I? Oh yes, I got long winded about the tributes, and I keep thinking of new things to add.
I want to make this a regular feature, but in much more digestible. So going forward I will cover one song at a time unless there is a tribute to dissect. For the first entry under these new guidelines I'm going to look at Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown.
I tease a bit. It certainly isn't the sort of song you expect anyone under AARP eligibility age some to have in their record collection unless they are giant herb or a hipster, but it isn't bad by any means. It tells a classic (if misogynistic) story of the cheatin' woman. The structure of the song is a standard five piece country* rock song with relaxed tempo. The backing guitar work is solid. The vocal styling is mostly engaging, especially on the chorus. There is something odd about that could use some updating, however.
The lyrics of the song suggest a certain amount of danger. She's got him feeling mean, and he better not catch you, etc. The problem is Lightfoot will never ever come off as a badass. He sounds more plaintive than a seething, raging man done wrong. We know that Lightfoot will never make good on his implied threat. The bizarre thing is that apparently Lightfoot had actual cause to feel this anger. If ever there was a time for him to growl and sing through clenched teeth, this is it, but he comes off as beaten down dad who is late for parent teacher night. C'mon Gordon ... act like you give a damn! This is why she's running around on you.
Alright so we need to inject some palpable anger into the song, but we can't go full Opeth or Johnny Rotten on this. Sometimes what dooms a cover is a perform sticking to close to the original style, but it can also be done in if the wrong element is changed, or too much is changed. Changing the tempo would be particularly ill advise, as would making the song loud. I have always though anger is most powerful when it is quiet and eerily calm. So we need a musician with restrained expression, but whose threats feel less implied.
At the risk of seeming like an obsessed fanboy (I listen to other music, I swear), I think Nick Cave is your man. He naturally favors slower tempos, and while he does get shouty at times, as frequently he takes a more intimate approach and still build drama:
I have previously written about how adept Cave was at covering Leonard Cohen, turning Avalanche into a goth dirge, and I'm Your Man into a soul/jazz anthem, but he can also handle folk and country. What is particularly useful can be heard in Idiot's Prayer. Cave sings about man being executed for killing his lover, and while wistful, he sneaks in an edge of anger, nihilism, and menace at these strategic moments.
That song gives you an idea, of what Cave can add to Sundown, but it doesn't reflect where he is right now. Idiot Prayer, and much of the album it is on, still reflect Cave's gothic post punk roots. Many the rougher edges of his personality are still on display, even though he was more restrained in his song writing. As a result it's not a very good analog for what Sundown would be in his hands. We can expect that he would use his baritone voice to great effect, but his writing and performances are becoming more subtle, and his song craft more compartmentalized between his work with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman.
Even though it was released only seven years after The Boatman's Call, the song O Children provides the best preview of what this cover would sound like despite being 13 years old at this point. Cave's musical evolution has been going down this path. His music has generally become quieter. There is less certainty to his anger. O Children is even slower than Sundown, but the vocalizations are similar, and it includes many of the aspects that I stated that Cave could bring. Try listening to this, and interpolating Gordon Lightfoots song over it.
*I say country even though Lightfoot is generally considered a folk musician because the song includes drums, which folk typically doesn't.