What makes for a great cover version is a mysterious thing. The original song in theory has to be great, but that isn’t always the case; sometimes the cover version is what makes a previously forgettable song abruptly great. Furthermore, the new version in theory has to be a notable re-conception; but then again, sometimes the new one is pretty straightforward and similar-seeming. I think maybe the single through-line most great covers have in common is summed up in the word “character”—a pretty much ineffable way of describing the presence and vigor the singer brings to the moment-to-moment moments of the song. I have no particular further explanation for why Eliza Gilkyson’s version of World Party’s “Is It Like Today” feels so momentous. It’s her voice, her phrasing, her arrangement, all adding up to character. Lots and lots of character. You may or may not hear the same thing but I’m at least giving you the chance, and that’s something.

Meanwhile: has Elvis Costello written a better song that no one knows than “Crimes of Paris”? I’m open to other ideas but I’m thinking no, he maybe hasn’t. I’m also wondering how Stevie Wonder managed to make something that sounds like a harpsichord not make me run away screaming. Usually harpsichords send me running away, screaming. This playlist is full of such minor mysteries. I’m not sure why Haley Bonar isn’t a bigger deal. I’m not sure why Norah Jones is so consistently alluring. And think about this: “The Wheel and the Maypole,” closing things out here, with its improbably catchy two-part chorus, was the last song on the last album that the band XTC ever released. Always leave ’em wanting more—a great philosophy so few properly represent.

Oh and p.s.: this is a different Robert Johnson. Not sure how a mid-’70s white guy figured he could make things fly career-wise with that name. Even if it is his actual name. On Wikipedia he gets the middle initial “A.,” but still. And “Leslie” cops a guitar line from “Apache.” But still.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Numbers With Wings” – The Bongos (Numbers With Wings, 1983)
“La Cage Appat” – Peppertree (Peppertree, 2006)
“Frozen Garden” – Emily Jane White (They Moved In Shadow All Together, 2016)
“Solitary Man” – Neil Diamond (The Feel of Neil Diamond, 1966)
“Leslie” – Robert Johnson (Close Personal Friend, 1978)
“Find Him” – Cassandra Wilson (New Moon Daughter, 1995)
“Hometown” – Haley Bonar (Impossible Dream, 2016)
“5-7-0-5” – City Boy (Book Early, 1978)
“Last Innocent Year” – Jonatha Brooke (10 Cent Wings, 1997)
“(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (Away We a Go-Go, 1966)
“Crimes of Paris” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions (Blood and Chocolate, 1986)
“Is It Like Today” – Eliza Gilkyson (Paradise Hotel, 2005)
“Free” – Stevie Wonder (Characters, 1987)
“I Wanna Be Your Lady” – Shannon Wardrop (Cloud Nine EP, 2015)
“Season’s Trees” – Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, featuring Norah Jones (Rome, 2011)
“‘Cello Song” – Nick Drake (Five Leaves Left, 1969)
“Mirror Star” – Fabulous Poodles (Mirror Stars, 1978)
“The Real World” – The Bangles (The Bangles EP, 1982)
“Trust in Me” – Holly Cole Trio (Blame It On My Youth, 1992)
“The Wheel and the Maypole” – XTC (Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Part 2), 2000)

Lost Woods

“Vodka Ocean” – Lost Woods

Something relaxes in me as I listen to “Vodka Ocean.” And it has nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content (about which more later). It’s the straightforward palette of traditional rock’n’roll—guitars, bass, drum. And maybe more than that: it’s the clarity of two distinct guitars interacting. That’s one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this. You can hear it in the introduction, and during the instrumental breaks, the way both guitars find their own lead lines, working in a way that is at once complementary and also independent—it’s as if the guitars aren’t necessarily listening to each other but merely trusting that the other one is going to be in a sympathetic place.

And as I keep listening I detect an extra element buttressing the two-guitar attack, and probably rendering it all the more ear-catching, and that’s the bass. Urgent and creative, the bass functions nearly as a third guitar for all its melodic inventiveness. It even gets a fuzzed-out solo (1:55), not something you hear everyday.

Oh and as for those lyrics apparently the song grew out of an unfortunate bit of overindulgence at a music festival, after hearing that Frank Ocean had cancelled. Further details are probably best overlooked, but any band that can turn such an incident into a song this assured and engaging is worth keeping an eye on, says me.

Lost Woods claims inspiration from early ’90s indie rock and I am not only hearing that generally but I am finding myself thinking specifically, and fondly, of the trio Dada (known best for “Dizz Knee Land” but their 1992 debut was chock full of incisive tunes). “Vodka Ocean” is the third Lost Woods single; an EP is on the way.


“Let Me Run” – Florence Glen

I’ll be the first to admit there’s a fine line between acoustic-based singer/songwriter music that inspires and acoustic-based singer/songwriter music that bores. The basic sonic atmosphere is pretty much the same—guitar, voice—and yet some songs fly and some songs sink.

“Let Me Run” is a flyer, and one of its primary assets is its simplest: this song is super concise. Check out the introduction—we hear one iteration of the deftly-played central guitar lick, seven seconds in all, and then a three-second pause, and then we’re right into the verse. This is not the trivial detail it may at first seem; precisely because acoustic-based songs are often stripped of most aural texture they really should progress without delay. Many don’t; Glen wins our hearts and ears quickly by simply opening her mouth. In all, the song runs but 3:05—a healthy length, to my ears.

But “concise” doesn’t just mean “short”; it means intelligently compressed and expressed. One of “Let Me Run”‘s finest features is its production quality, in terms of both clarity and variety of sound. Everything is crisp and succinct, even as more instrumental diversity is involved than one might initially expect in this singer/songwriter-y setting. In addition to percussion we get adroitly incorporated strings and even, I think, a tasteful hint of electronics. Nothing intrudes and yet we are soon enough in the middle of a fully formed composition.

Best of all is the natural instrument on display—Glen’s dusky alto, with its fetching lilt (counterbalancing the darker tones of her lower register) and a rhythmic precision built into her enunciation (I am for some reason especially taken with how she sings the word “together” at 0:52).

“Let Me Run” is a song from Glen’s EP Spread Them Eggs, released in May. You can check out the full EP on SoundCloud. Glen is based in London. This is her first fully-produced recording; a previous, self-recorded digital EP came out in 2013.


“Through the Yard” – Kauf

And now, as if to prove that neither conciseness nor organic details are the only tools in a performer’s toolbox, here is the nearly seven-minute-long “Through the Yard,” buttering your ears with its smooth hypnotic charm and groove-based melancholy. Music is more than ever a wide world, easily discerned when commercial radio stations are turned down.

Existing at a nexus we might not otherwise have noticed, joining world music to 21st-century electronica to late-era Roxy Music, “Through the Yard” launches off an ascending pentatonic scale, affected via synthesized woodwinds. Pentatonic scales, with five notes versus the usual seven, produce intervals with a far-away, vaguely non-Western feeling. And if the riff’s persistence here grounds the song in an open-ended inquiry, the lyrics further the effect, with Kauf mastermind Ronald Kaufman singing a series of clipped phrases rendered mysterious via beginnings and endings that are swallowed or otherwise indecipherable—we pick out words but not concrete meaning. It seems no accident that the song’s most-repeated lyric, “If you make a little noise,” is inherently unresolved: if you make a little noise, THEN what? I don’t think we find out.

The song, nevertheless, delivers a certain kind of arc. At first, “Through the Yard” is held together by its riff, its smartly assembled percussive sounds, and the layered allure of Kauf’s half-rich/half-disaffected vocals. A fuller-fledged electronic beat emerges at the three-minute mark. And while the first half of the song revolves around what feel like verses, the second half, after the underlying beat comes forward, employs subtler, higher-register melodies, with an upward-floating feel, and matches them against more insistent sounds below (for instance, that off-kilter line repeated by a trumpet-like synth first around 3:40, and more insistently again around 4:30). Through it all I feel drawn to how Kauf presents as both disconsolate and upbeat at the same time. I identify that as the Bryan Ferry element here.

“Through the Yard” is slated to be the final track on Kauf’s debut album, Regrowth, slated for release later this year. In the meantime, you can check out two other tracks at his Bandcamp page. Kaufman is based in Los Angeles. Thanks to the artist for the MP3.

photo credit: Daniel Trese

Mark Tulk

“Universal Code” – Mark Tulk

While tinged with a bittersweet air “Universal Code” likewise comes across as friendly and comforting. Piano-based rock music can have that effect on me, I think. Maybe it’s just because I grew up playing piano, and hearing a good amount of piano music in the house. Or maybe—just maybe—there is something built into the sound of a piano, perhaps its unique capacity to be at once melodic and percussive, that feels human-scaled and reassuring.

More to the point, see what Tulk is doing with the piano here—two things I am noticing in particular: first, the incisive, eighth-note motif that opens the song, with its accents on the one and two beats (at once basic and somewhat unusual), right away asserting the instrument’s rhythmic potency, and racing the pulse a bit; second, the song’s central chord change, heard first at 0:14, which is a homely but affecting up-step from G major to A minor. Written into the right context, moving up just one tonal interval can be a poignant thing. Which is to say he had me at hello, basically.

Which is not to say there are not engaging elements throughout, of course. The instrumentation is deftly done—the song expands beyond its piano foundation, with subtle electronic flourishes and offbeat vocal layering, without losing its piano-centric-ness, which seems its own sort of accomplishment. And then what’s this?: a coterie of reed instruments sidle in somewhere along the way, and become undeniable past the two-minute mark. An appealing constant throughout is Tulk’s warm, strong singing voice, with a tone at once earthy and buoyant.

“Universal Code” is the lead track on Embers, Tulk’s third full-length album, released in March; he has also put out two EPs. You can listen to the entire album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp. Born in Australia, Tulk, who identifies himself on his web site as a “writer, philosopher, and musician,” is based in Boulder, Colorado. MP3 courtesy of the artist.