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: 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.