Mike Mellor: I really like the theme you came up with this week, great interpretations of great songs. My head was immediately swimming with selections, but I'm certain I want to start with something off of Wicked Grin, John Hammond's album of Tom Waits covers.
The album was released in 2001, which in hindsight looks like just about the time Waits was cementing his reputation as an American treasure. A generation of young people who primarily knew him as a supporting actor had discovered decades of his music after Mule Variations came out, and he was a year away from releasing Blood Money and Alice, both of which were spinoffs of theatre collaborations with avant garde director Robert Wilson. Hammond, for his part, was stepping way out of his traditionalist comfort zone working with Waits as producer of his own compositions.
The thing I love most about the album is that Waits as producer was able to completely reanimate his own songs by using the skillset of Hammond. I've always felt that though Waits's songs are often based in rhythm & blues, they have always been more theatrical than anything else, primarily because of the way Waits is as a performer. Giving them over to Hammond's authoritative guitar playing, pipes and blues phrasing gives the songs a different body, which lets Waits the producer put different clothes and mannerisms on them.
One of the best examples is "Jockey Full of Bourbon". I love how the chorus grows a melody, from being simply rhythmic in the original version, and the way the punchy accordion sort of duets with Hammond's voice.
Brendan Hogan: I feel like I could play that whole record and just call it a night. I love Wicked Grin. Tom Waits' music cozies up with Hammond's blues, and because he had such a hand in making it I feel like we get the best of both worlds on that album. It's if we get a chance to hear Tom Waits re-spin his own songs, except now we get the kickass playing of Hammond added to the mix. I love everything about that record, and "Jockey Full of Bourbon" is one of Tom Waits' best songs.
My choice is a little closer to home. A couple years ago Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault put out an album of murder ballads called Seven Curses (named after the Dylan song). They do good versions of what I guess you might call more obvious songs, like "Philadelphia Lawyer" and "Johnny 99", but they also do some more obscure stuff like a version of Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One". Steve Earle is a desert island artist to me, but Erelli can really sing this. I love the way he sings about dreaming of being tied to the electric chair. The "something cold black shot through my lungs" line really brings it to life. The whole album was recorded around one mic, too; no overdubs.
Mike: Wow, I'd never heard that version before, but what immediately sticks out to me is that Erelli understands the material, or at least has the same understanding of it that I do. It's kind of hard to explain, but it really bothers me when I hear a new version of a song and it feels as if the performer(s) fail(s) to understand the spirit of it. And I don't mean just that somebody reinvents the song, changes tempo, manipulates the lyrics, makes it seem entirely different on its surface. That's totally fine and really awesome when somebody can do that and keep the spirit of the original in tact. But the integrity of the song's spirit is most important and there is no getting around that for me. Do you know what I mean?
Erelli doesn't stray too far from Earle's version, but he does put it in his own style and does so beautifully.
Brendan: I agree with you. There are so many interpretations of songs that seem to totally miss the point, or takes the song into a place where it doesn't belong, that it's the exception to the rule to hear a cover that elevates the spirit of the original and adds something. It's often overlooked, but the artist who can internalize a song and inhabit it as their own is as unique as a gifted songwriter.
Mike: Amen to that. It's a lost art.
Speaking of Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault, and seeming to have that same understanding of a song as I do, Foucault has a version of John Prine's "Storm Windows" that gives me goosebumps. "Storm Windows" is one of those songs that I've sung in my head so often for so long that my internal/imaginary version has different lyrical phrasing than Prine's versions do (not that I could ever execute it).
When I heard this version a few years ago, via Facebook of all places, I was astounded. The flat way Foucault extends the word "slow" in "play it so slow" for a second and a half longer than Prine, how he pauses at "window" instead of "raven" on the line "for so long the raven at my window was only a crow", and how he loses his cool a little earlier in the line "silence is golden 'til it screams right through your bones" are all ways I imagined the song sounding. It's like he knows something about my innermost thoughts, like he was not only staying faithful to the song itself but also to my very personal attachment to it.
Obviously I don't believe that, but that's how it feels. A great cover is capable of doing that.
Brendan: I guess that's the thing about cover songs: They have to be believable, otherwise what's the point? I think as music fans, when a song connects with us, it goes deep. We internalize it, so when we hear another person play a favorite song of ours, it damn well better do it justice.
Laura Marling is a person whose songwriting I really admire. She's damn good, and only 23. I don't think age means much unless it shows, and in Laura's case it doesn't show. So when a friend told me that she recorded a version of Jackson C. Franke's "Blues Run the Game" I had to hear it. It's one thing to write well, but to inhabit a song like Franke's...that is something else altogether. I listened probably a dozen times. Laura has that intangible thing; a totally believable understanding of what she's saying.
Mike: Now you're opening up a whole new topic! To understand a song and make it your own is one thing. To be in possession of wisdom and composure beyond your experience, and then to express it in a mature fashion, is another thing. She is the latter doing the former, which is a pretty rare thing. Can you give us a Laura Marling original to go out on?
Brendan: Laura is a rare artist. Check out "Sophia". Genius stuff.
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
Listen online or at:
91.9 FM Boston, Worcester, Falmouth
91.7 FM Newburyport, Stow, Marshfield
1170 AM Orleans