Mike Mellor: Hey, what's the topic this week?
Brendan Hogan: Want to continue the covers? I was actually thinking that yesterday because there are a lot more good songs.
Mike: If that means I get to pick Richard Thompson's cover of Britney Spears' "Oops!...I Did it Again", then yes!
Brendan: Wait. They have to be covers of good songs, not novelty songs.
Mike: Funny you should say that. I swear to God the first time I heard the original version I thought to myself, "Hey, wait a minute...I kinda like this song. If you take out the awful production and the awful performer, it's actually a good pop song." I even stole a copy off of Napster, burned it onto a CD and stuck the disc in my desk drawer. I wanted to listen to it, but I didn't want anybody to know.
It took Richard Thompson to help me overcome my shame..
Brendan: I don't believe in feeling ashamed of what you like, but I also don't think that song fits the context of the theme. If the theme was Polished Turds, then I'd be on board. It's not that I don't like the song simply because Britney Spears sang it. (And by the way let's point out that she "sang" it. She didn't write it; two of the FOURTEEN producers who manufactured that album wrote the song). I just argue it's not a great song, and therefore doesn't fit the criteria of the theme hour for this week's radio show.
Brendan: No versions of "Puttin' on the Ritz" either. The argument for including Shawn Colvin's version of "Crazy" can be made, though.
Mike: I just googled that expecting Willie Nelson, not Gnarls Barkley! Please make that argument, sir.
Brendan: To me, it's an example of a good pop song written from a seemingly genuine place. The original was recorded using samples, drum machines, and other modern pop music production techniques, and Shawn Colvin just applied a more stripped-down treatment using finger-picked acoustic guitar, vocal, and rhythm section.
That kind of re-working usually shows whether a song can stand up. I guess the difference I see in "Oops!...I Did it Again" is not so much whether it's revealed to be a good song in the hands of Richard Thompson, but that it is a totally fabricated thing to begin with. I've never been a fan of the let's get together and write a hit approach to songwriting. Something about it isn't genuine unless it's done well.
Mike: I see what your saying; at its base the song itself has to meet certain criteria of artistry. I've been a fan of Cee-Lo Green since the days of Goodie Mob. I know that André 3000 has received a lot of accolades in his career for sophisticating hip hop, but I think in the entire Dungeon Family Green is the only one who has made a mark as a lyricist.
Another great pop song that got a lot of renditions in its hey-day was The Band's "The Weight". My favorite version is by The Staples Singers. In a lot of ways I think of it in the same light as how we were talking about John Hammond's Wicked Grin last week. The Band wrote amazing songs, many of which were heavily influenced by gospel and rhythm & blues, but as charming a singer as Levon Helm was, a song structure like that is built to be sung by someone like Mavis Staples.
Brendan Hogan: I agree. A lot of people have covered that song nearly to death. But The Staple Singers' version is a great example of music circling back around on itself. It's North American rhythm & blues backwoods gospel folk rock. I like the re-arrangement of the hook of the song, too. It's a nice twist; throws your ear off a little bit. And, you're right, Mavis' voice is so big and authoritative that it fills a space and takes on a different persona than Levon's did, but without doing his original vocal take a disservice.
I think it's important, when covering a song, that it be inhabited by yourself without ignoring or cancelling out where the song came from. Steve Earle is a master at that, especially when covering songs of his mentors and heroes. He does a great version Guy Clark's "The Last Gunfighter Ballad". It has all the intensity you expect from Steve Earle without overpowering the finesse and detail of Clark's writing. A perfect tribute song.
Mike: Yeah, I know this song from Johnny Cash's uninspired version from the '70s. Earle treats it with the seriousness it deserves, without necessarily losing the black humor. Come to think of it, that's his style in general; mostly deathly serious but with an ability to laugh every once in a while...
...as opposed to Randy Newman, whose primary lyrical tool is humor. I can't always enjoy Newman's arrangements or performances of his own songs (he's a little too drawn out and asymmetrical with his piano playing), but when they're in the right hands they sure can be great. I Love Levon Helm's version of "King Fish", a song about one of my favorite figures in American history, Huey P. Long.
Brendan: Levon with his daughter Amy and Larry Campbell. What's not to like? His drumming style is like B.B. King's guitar playing: I know it from one note (or snare hit). But... that's a topic for another discussion.
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