Working Through It: Mates of State – Mountaintops

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I had picked up on the Mates of State on their prior album, Re-Arrange Us. It caught my attention but I didn’t love it. But it was good enough that I started looking into their back catalogue and keeping an eye on their future.

In case you don’t know them, Mates of State is a Connecticut spousal unit that delivers joyous DIY pop without any irony or gimmicks. This kind of earnestness generally captures sneers from cynics and rockists. It might have been deserved on Re-Arrange Us and their follow up covers compilation, but not on Mountaintops.

On Mountaintops, Mates of State keep the great melodies but ditch the preciousness.  From the starburst of a song Palomino to the restrained Unless I’m Lead, Mountaintops has enough distinctly enjoyable songs to earn its way into regular listening. Or at least, I listen to it regularly.

UK Indie – Building a Better Playlist

I recently watched the BBC4 documentary Music for Mistfits: The Story of Indie. While the three part series covers oft-told stories, the effect of viewing them as a group under the indie banner is really satisfying. It also fills some gaps with bands and songs that often didn’t get play outside of the UK. With that bounty of new-to-me material, I set out to create a great big playlist. Enjoy!

Even Better Than The Real Thing: Five Covers That Are Better Than The Originals

We are inundated with cash-in cover songs that introduce new acts that have “talent” but no real songs of their own. But in a small number of cases, songs are reinterpreted as a way of bringing something new to the song. In an even smaller number of cases, those cover versions eclipse their original versions in their greatness. Here are five examples.

1. John Cale – Hallelujah

I know what you are thinking. “Jeff Buckley’s version is THE BEST”, you say. Well, it isn’t. Jeff Buckley created his overwrought version only after hearing John Cale’s definitive arrangement. CBS Records had basically buried Cohen’s version upon its release and it wasn’t until John Cale covered it on the excellent tribute album I’m Your Fan that most people heard it. Cohen manufactured the parts, but Cale built the song.

The Cover

The Original

2. Elvis Costello – (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, And Understanding

While many assume that this is an Elvis Costello original, it was actually the creation of fellow Stiff Records artist/producer-in-residence Nick Lowe. Lowe was a hard-luck veteran of the British music scene when he eventually caught fire as a jack of all trades at Dave Robinson’s Stiff Records. Costello was the first new star to emerge from Stiff’s roster and Lowe gave him the song to record (Lowe was his producer).

In my opinion, the hard-charging drums and guitars along with the urgency in Elvis Costello’s vocal delivery make the cover better than the gentler, 70’s rock original version.

You be the judge.

The Cover

The Original

3. Spiritualized – Anyway That You Want Me

Jason Pierce was a well-established space rock icon from his work with Spacemen 3 when he emerged with Spiritualized. The band’s first release was this brilliant cover of Anyway That You Want Me by 60’s rockers, The Troggs. While the original is a classic in its own right, Pierce took it into outer space with layers, upon layers of guitars.

Note: You must play it loud.

The Cover

The Original

4. Nico – These Days

Jackson Browne’s earnest, coffee house song gets transformed by the uber cool vocal stylings of Nico as well as an entirely new musical arrangement. The fact that it was included in Wes Anderson’s best film didn’t hurt its standing either.

The Cover

The Original

5. Johnny Cash – Hurt

Trent Reznor’s Hurt is excellent. But it doesn’t stand out much from the alt-rock of its time. Johnny Cash’s version, however, is unlike anything else. Cash recorded this track after it was put forward by Rick Rubin. He really turned it into the ultimate farewell to his fans and to his life. It is rare to see an ancient performer become the most relevant artist of the moment. Johnny Cash did that with his cover of Hurt.

The Cover

The Original

Here’s a Spotify Playlist with these five and many more!

 

 

 

Working Through It: Ultravox – Vienna

 

 

I had to start somewhere, so why not here? I rescued this album out of the 2 for $3 bin at a local record shop earlier this year.  Ultravox was a new wave outfit out of London that saw some success in the early 80’s. I really only knew them for the hyper-emotional track Dancing With Tears in My Eyes that appeared on a few compilations over the years and hadn’t given them much more thought until I came across this record.

Vienna is the definition of an early 80’s synth-pop/rock album. It’s a collection of songs that reflect a range of styles and influences which makes it almost sound like a compilation album. New Europeans is a mix of pompy guitars and keyboards while Mr. X is a cold, futuristic ballad that would have fit in nicely on any late 70’s Kraftwerk album. Vienna is the standout track on the album. It is a bit of an epic — full of long pauses, dramatic orchestration, and bursts of emotion in every vocal note.

I actually play this album far more than I thought I would. A lesson for me as I really had low expectations when I spotted it in that 2 for $3 bin.

 

Working Through It: The Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace With God

On their first two efforts, Red Roses For You, and Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash, The Pogues established themselves as one of the most interesting, if novel, bands in post-punk London. The band, led by Shane MacGowan, traded fuzzbox guitars for mandolins and pipes to create a sound as powerful as any, more “mainstream”, punk band ever did. On If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues moved from being rough and tumble, to being brilliant. Perhaps they knew this when they included an image of writer and fellow Irish ex-pat James Joyce, on the cover of the album.
The album opens with the title track, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”. It explodes out of the gates like stallions in a horse race. Legs fly everywhere and the motion is a blur, but the lyrics bob above the fray to see it through. It is an empowering song about defiance in the face of death. “Turkish Song of The Damned” carries on this notion. There is no rest for the wicked as the next track, “Bottle of Smoke”, picks up on the momentum launched by the title track. It this case, the song is about a horse race. It is a profanity laden tale of money riding on hopes and dreams. But the next track on the album stunned us all.
“Fairytale of New York” has become a modern standard. It is the story of two recent Irish immigrants falling in love on the streets of New York. The song begins with our protagonist being led into the drunk tank on Christmas Eve. He reflects on the events leading up to that night. He had won a bet on a horse race (“Got on a lucky one/Came in eighteen to one”) and got wild with promises to his girl (as sung by the brilliant Kristy McColl). “This year’s for me and you/So happy Christmas/I love you baby/ I can see a better time/When all our dreams come true.” But with all highs, come the lows. The booze takes its natural course and the words of the drunken lovers become bitter.

Her: “You’re a bum/You’re a punk”
Him: “You’re an old slut on junk/Living there almost dead on a drip in that bed”
Her: “You scum bag/You maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last”
Like any great romantic story, there is some redemption at the end. The sparring calms and the couple opens up to one another about regrets and aspirations.
Him: “I could have been someone.”
Her: “So could anyone./You took my dreams from me when I first found you”
Him: “I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you.”

The rest of the album is very strong. No self-respecting drunken blowout would be complete without the rollicking Spanish-themed “Fiesta” blasting late in the night. The Pogues also managed to include songs about the politics of Anglo-Irish relations (Birmingham Six, Streets of Sorrow) as well as the quiet contemplation of a Springtime stroll (Lullaby of London).
If I Should Fall From Grace With God was the artistic peak for The Pogues. Shane MacGowan’s drinking and erratic behavior grew worse and degraded the quality of his songwriting and vocals in the following years. Hells Ditch and Peace & Love were good but did not live up to the standard of If I Should Fall. At the wrap of Hell’s Ditch, MacGowan left the band (or was kicked out depending on which version you believe). The Pogues continued and released two mediocre albums, Waiting for Herb, and Pogue Mahone. They have since disbanded. Shane MacGowan has released several solo albums but they pale in comparison to his work in the mid-80’s with The Pogues. Like most good things, quality is rarely duplicated. If I Should Fall From Grace With God is such a flash of artistic perfection that we shouldn’t expect another.