Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa

Incisive cover of a ’70s nugget

“Alone Again (Naturally)” – Perry Serpa

A song about losing both parents and contemplating suicide is not standard top-40 material but Gilbert O’Sullivan fashioned a catchy ditty of it back in 1972; the song was later declared the fifth most popular song of the ’70s, according to none other than Casey Kasem. Those were the days(?).

Fifty years after the song was originally recorded, NYC-based singer/songwriter Perry Serpa has pulled it out of the oldies stack, to terrific effect. While not making any flagrant changes, Serpa manages to excavate the mature heart of a song initially a bit too jaunty for its own good. He’s slowed it down slightly for one, ditched the vampy piano and sunny acoustic guitar fills for another, and, crucially, reduced the sappy swelling of strings to the sound of individually articulated violin lines. But maybe the most impactful change is the shift in vocals: O’Sullivan sang with a bright, poppy tone that fought with the content; plain-dealing and world-weary, Serpa dives into the song’s poignancy by staying ever-so-slightly above it. Where O’Sullivan gave pep the aura of hopeless defeat, Serpa delivers melancholy with an undercurrent of tenacity. At the risk of offending originalists, I like this version quite a bit better than the well-known one.

Serpa’s incisive cover is one of ten tracks on his new album, Laying Low in the Highlands, scheduled for release next week. Serpa was last featured on Fingertips in 2018, with a track from that album of his that created the fictional classic album Nick Hornby wrote about in his novel Juilet, Naked. (If you never heard it, and/or never heard about this project, go back and check it out. It’s well-done and worthwhile.) With his band, The Sharp Things, Serpa has also been here in 2013 and 2014. Thanks to Serpa for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Gramma’s Boyfriend (loose-limbed Daniel Johnston cover)

Gramma's Boyfriend

“I Live In My Broken Dreams” – Gramma’s Boyfriend

All music (and in fact all art of any kind) exists as an ongoing dynamic between existing form and free expression. The tighter a song adheres to a form, the more (in theory) a listener’s capacity to connect personally with it will depend upon the individual expressiveness of the performance. This is why (in theory, and honestly I’m just making this up as I go along) it’s so counterintuitively difficult to play the blues (or, at least, to play it effectively): the music is structurally rigid enough to require all sorts of expressiveness to have an impact, and yet adding expressiveness to something so inherently structured is a challenge indeed.

And here is “I Live My Broken Dreams”—a Daniel Johnston song that is not exactly blues (though not too far from it), but certainly a composition offering a lot of familiarity in terms of melody and chords; you’ve heard this basic form before. And here is Haley Bonar (rhymes with “honor”), the singer/songwriter (featured here back in 2008 and 2011 on her own) now fronting the peppy, intermittently frantic Minneapolis band Gramma’s Boyfriend. Not the same sound as when last we left her. But the character of voice required to command attention behind a mere guitar serves her well in this new, noisier context. More to the original point, Bonar’s expressive qualities (from tone to phrasing to just general cool-sounding-ness) shoot through the song’s somewhat homely form and help transmute it from a fractured, fragile oddity into a chewy but loose-limbed rave-up. Her four band mates deftly assist, laying down a groove at once dirty and bouncy, a semi-chaotic mix of synth squiggles and reverbed noise. With a very sudden ending.

“I Live My Broken a Dreams” is from the album PERM, released this week on Graveface Records. The band previously released an eight-song album called The Human Eye in 2013.

photo credit: Graham Tolbert Photography

Free and legal MP3:Emma Swift(brilliant, achy cover of new wave nugget)

I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Emma Swift

“Total Control” – Emma Swift

Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift has transformed this new wave classic via the most delicate and deft mutation. The Motels tune still burns slowly, achingly. In place of the original’s rubbery, late-’70s itch Swift employs a torchy, old-style country setting, with exquisite pedal steel work and a slight but effective vocal twang.

We know we are in excellent hands from the opening notes: Swift creates an entirely new introduction for the song, composed of lovely, unresolved arpeggios, played on a silver-toned guitar. It couldn’t be more different than the dated, repetitive staccato of the original intro, which had its new-wave-y charms but always struck me as clunky. (It can be a fine line between a slow burn and lack of imagination.) And while there is likewise nothing wrong with Martha Davis’s vocals—okay they were a bit affected but that was her thing—Swift here really sings this baby, accessing all sorts of actual emotion in places where Davis was content to go for eccentricity.

That’s the thing about this cover that feels almost shockingly appealing: how deep and lived-in Swift makes a song that never previously seemed much more than a quirky curiosity. Some of this has to do with the subtle but superb arrangement; there does not appear to be one note in the background or foreground that isn’t being played for a purpose. Even something as seemingly minor as the decision to deliver the oddly climactic line “Stay in bed/Stay in sheets” with harmony vocals (Swift otherwise sings single-tracked the whole way through) becomes a moment rich with ineffable delight via some combination of know-how and hunch. In any case, I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Swift is a singer/songwriter from Sydney who spends half her year in Nashville. She also hosts an Americana-oriented radio show on the Australian station Double J. “Total Control” can be found on Swift’s debut release, a self-titled six-song EP, which you can listen to and/or purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks muchly to Cover Lay Down for the link. Joshua’s been running a genial covers-only music blog there for years and years; check it out at http://coverlaydown.com.

Free and legal MP3: Younghusband (deft re-intepretation of lost classic)

Unearthing forgotten Christmas classics is a holiday tradition that never grows old to me, especially when the new interpretation is this deft and the forgotten song this worth remembering.

Younghusband

“I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” – Younghusband

Unearthing forgotten Christmas classics is a holiday tradition that never grows old to me, especially when the new interpretation is this deft and the forgotten song this worthy. “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” is an overlooked nugget from the overlooked ’60s singer/songwriter Margo Guryan, which surfaced on a fan club recording by St. Etienne in 1998 but has otherwise been waiting for a wider audience. In a just world, this is the version that does it, starting right now with this post. (Side note: the world may not be entirely just.)

What I particularly love here is how the British band Younghusband has managed to disclose the otherwise unapparent Ramones-y heart of Guryan’s rather more Bacharach-y original. The song’s chunky, fitful melody was never as light and breezy as the songwriter professed in her own version; the band here exploits its truer nature by giving it a bottom-heavy feel and converting a light-as-air riff filled with la-la-las into a decisive, lower-register instrumental melody. There is something inescapably Phil Spector-ish in the air here too, as the bashy, reverbed, elusively constructed background sound feels like a tasty homage to a master who himself of course is associated memorably with Christmas music.

Meanwhile—Margo Guryan? I had never heard of her before, and yet wow, there she is, a singer/songwriter who wrote and performed in that wispy, sunshine-y style perhaps more widely associated with the likes of Claudine Longet or even, from South America, Astrud Gilberto—a style that has had an unanticipated second life here in the 21st century. Guryan began her musical career in jazz in the late ’50s, and did not start paying attention to pop music until a friend of hers forced her to listen to “God Only Knows.” She eventually recorded one album, 1968’s Take a Picture, a light-sounding but deceptively complex collection of songs which was well-received critically but found no audience. (Guryan did not want to tour, so her record label didn’t promote the release.) She thereafter abandoned her recording career, and spent most of the ensuing decades as a music teacher. She is still alive, and is active on Twitter.

Younghusband, meanwhile, is a quartet from London that released its debut album, Dromes, in September, in the UK only. Their “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” cover was made available via their record label, Sonic Cathedral . Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC6 for the head’s up.

For the excessively curious, the original Margo Guryan version can be heard on Spotify, here (available only to Spotify subscribers):

Free and legal MP3: Chamberlin (smartly reimagined Paul Simon cover)

Brilliantly re-arranged to highlight the original’s strange and moody lyrics.

Chamberlin

“You Can Call Me Al” – Chamberlin

So it seems that Chamberlin guitarist Ethan West was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike one day, not exactly in the best mood, and heard Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” on the radio and was struck all of a sudden by how strange and brooding the lyrics are, despite the upbeat vibe of the music. He and the band, with a history of covering unexpected songs, decided to try to rearrange the things accordingly. And boy do they. These guys kill right away with their conversion of the original’s bouncy synthesizer riff into a wailing guitar (0:13), distilling Simon’s four full, cheerful iterations into a lead line that takes us through the motif just one and a half times, leaving us edgy and unresolved. Singer Mark Daly dives into the lyrics—previously sung so drolly by Simon—with a moody disquiet, sounding like an outtake from the first Counting Crows record.

Everything falls into place from there; this version has an instant, enviable inevitability about it. I love the effortless tension the band introduces in the chorus, as the familiar but still inscrutable line “If you’ll be my bodyguard/I can be your long-lost pal” is sung not with a wink and a skip as Simon did it but with a kind of harrowing plea (starting at 1:08), as a gathering drum beat sets up a stretching out of the word “long” that mirrors the original but in an utterly transformed context and culminates in the return of the central instrumental motif, now an unmitigated howl. Don’t miss as well how the band converts Simon’s cheerful “na-na-na-na” break into a slowed-down, cleared-out instrumental in which the percussive bass line in the original becomes a ghostly, intermittent clatter of drum sticks. If everyone affected cover songs with this much skill, no new songs might ever more have to be written.

Chamberlin is a five-man band from Vermont that was founded in 2010. They have released one album and two EPs to date, the most recent release being their Look What I’ve Become EP, which came out in September. “You Can Call Me Al” is a separate song, newly released. Thanks to the band for the MP3. You can download above the usual way, or visit the band’s SoundCloud page for streaming and/or downloading and/or commenting directly to the band. Be sure also to check out the band’s web page, where you can listen to the entire EP, download a song from it, and find tour dates for its fall tour, just underway.

Free and legal MP3: The Darcys (irregular, arresting Steely Dan cover)

By eliminating the drums, the Darcys have converted a classic Steely Dan song into a moody, reverbed brew of keyboards, guitars, and chanting-monk-like harmonies. The tempo’s the same, the chords are the same, but everything’s different.

The Darcys

“Josie” – The Darcys

While the idea of doing a “cover album” versus a “cover song” is not completely new, neither has it ever much caught on. I guess there haven’t been too many artists with the fortitude, or mania, or funding, or whatever it takes, to go off and recreate a previously existing album track by track. Among the few and far between examples are Pussy Galore’s slapsdash, lo-fi 1986 cover of Exile on Main Street and the earnest live cover album released in 2002 by Mary Lee’s Corvette of Bob Dylan’s iconic Blood on the Tracks.

Now arrive a Toronto quartet called the Darcys with perhaps the most serious and most musically worthy cover album yet recorded—a smart, re-interpretive take on Steely Dan’s perfectionist 1977 album, Aja. While all recognizable, the seven songs are also each altered decisively. What was originally a glistening array of artful, jazz-inflected pop has become a brooding, arresting piece of business. Take “Josie,” which transforms a perky-but-complex song into a doleful-and-still-complex song. Note that they manage this without, really, a change in tempo. What the Darcys have done instead is eradicate the percussion, converting the song into a moody, reverbed brew of keyboards, guitars, and chanting-monk-like harmonies. What remains from the original—and what will always make Steely Dan songs Steely Dan songs—are the incomparably intricate chords, and their sometimes dazzling progressions. Hearing those chords and those progressions reanimated in this new setting is an unexpected treat.

The Darcys have one previous album, self-titled, which was released in October 2011. Although Aja was recorded in 2010—the band produced, arranged, and recorded it themselves—the album was just released late in January. The MP3 here comes via Rolling Stone, but be aware that the band is giving away the entire Aja album on its web site, if you are willing to give them an email address. They are also selling a limited-edition, 180-gram colored vinyl version. I recommend at least a listen, and would point you in the direction of “Peg” in particular.

Free and legal MP3: Clem Snide (mad genius Journey cover)

With just a guitar, his voice, and some exquisitely placed piano fills, Clem Snide front man Eef Barzelay finds the vulnerable heart of an almost willfully silly song.

Eef Barzelay

“Anyway You Want It” – Clem Snide

Clem Snide front man (and, sometimes, only member) Eef Barzelay has taken Steve Perry and Neal Schon’s words and somehow stripped them of their (let’s face it) feebleness, mining them down to the spirit in which they were theoretically intended but which neither Perry himself nor Journey as a band was capable of displaying. This is some kind of mad genius.

I mean, ponder these lyrics—

She loves to move
She loves to groove
She loves the lovin’ things

—and then listen to Barzelay sing them (starting at 0:28). He has removed irony as a stance here; he means these words, and his half-bold, half-shy delivery makes them work, which is all the more remarkable when you note that “lovin’ things” was there to rhyme with the word “everything” from the previous line. With just a ukulele, his voice, and some exquisitely placed piano fills, Barzelay finds the vulnerable heart of an almost willfully silly song. He removes Journey’s instrumental hook—that barreling seven-note riff that screams “Look out! Chorus approaching!”—and adds, crucially, a repeat round of the chorus’s lone lyric. You’ll hear this first at 1:15: how he takes the melody up to the top end of the chord, at once relieving it of its claustrophobia (in the original it’s basically a two-note melody) and adding poignancy via a descending melody that fades each time it descends; he barely bothers to enunciate the “it” at the end of each phrase. As a belted, arena-rock assertion, “Anyway you want it, that’s the way you need it” is all but devoid of sense; as a tentative disclosure, the words have an elusive, confessional air.

But I can’t help thinking that Barzaley has opened a can of worms here. I mean, if he can sing these words and make them sound good and right and true, then it might well be that all sorts of awkwardly written songs out there are actually pretty darned good. They’re just waiting for the right interpreter. Barzaley, at least, is doing his part—this cover of “Anyway You Want It” is from an EP called Clem Snide’s Journey, which transforms six of Journey’s most familiar songs. The EP was inspired by his covering “Faithfully” for the Onion’s A.V. Club (see video below), and came into being via a Kickstarter campaign. The EP was self-released this summer, and is available digitally via the band’s Bandcamp page for six dollars.

Free and legal MP3: Laura Veirs & Mount Analog (unexpected Led Zep cover)

In the Land of Ice and Snow

“The Ocean” – Laura Veirs & Mount Analog

The most unlikely people can sound like Robert Plant, if they only try. Alterna-folkie Laura Veirs, known for her deft acoustic compositions and plain-spoken vocals, manages here to pull off a Led Zeppelin cover by sounding neither the same nor actually very different than usual. But check out her maybe slightly distorted vocals at 0:32 if you don’t believe she’s channeling something pretty cool here. (Oh and full disclosure: I once had a plant named Robert.)

It’s an odd thing, how Veirs retains the heavy feeling of this proto-heavy-metal song, while breathing something light and frisky into it. Off the bat we get a fuzzy, homemade-sounding lead guitar, tracing Jimmy Page’s famous original line, but also a sweet chimey thing (perhaps a glockenspiel?) playing along with it . It puts me in the mind of a jig, which I don’t think the original did. In any case, the tone is set—the music is being seriously considered, but Veirs & Co. will not be intimidated into either slavish recreation or wholesale re-invention. This is recognizably “The Ocean” and yet also somehow not. I especially like how she takes Plant’s rather goofy vocal break in the middle and gives it a lovely, layered setting—sounding less like drunken accident and more like an integral part of the piece. Credit must also be given to Mount Analog, which is actually a pre-existing, shape-shifting side project started by husband Tucker Martine (more well known now as a producer) back in 1997. Sounds like they’re having fun just rocking out a bit, which is not really what they are wont to do.

The song is part of a massive, brand-new, six-years-in-the-making tribute to Led Zeppelin by a bunch of relatively obscure indie bands and artists from the Northwest, but with a few ringers thrown in—M. Ward (playing the instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur”), Chris Walla (doing a slow-burning “In The Evening”), and the redoubtable Ms. Veirs chief among them. The album is called From The Land of Ice And Snow: The Songs of Led Zeppelin and it’s coming out next month on the Portland-based Jealous Butcher Records. The MP3 is right now a Fingertips exclusive.

Note that the Houses of the Holy-inspired cover art, excerpted above, was done by Carson Ellis, who is best known for her ongoing collaboration as illustrator-in-residence with the Decemberists.

Free and legal MP3: Patrick Wolf (both channeling and reinterpreting K.Bush)

“Army Dreamers” – Patrick Wolf

I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I’ve posted here on Fingertips over the years; I’m not at all against them in theory, but I don’t usually feel compelled to talk about them. It’s more of a “Oh, that’s interesting,” and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn’t quite plumbed.

And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang “Army Dreamers” for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf–an intense, theatrical character in his own right–has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf’s most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone–not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her–and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.

“Army Dreamers” is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information.