Friday, September 24, 2010

Cover Your Tracks: Ray Charles and Toots and The Maytals Cover John Denver

In 1975, the fabulous Charlie Rich, country singer and former Sun Records labelmate to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, walked onstage at the Country Music Awards, visibly intoxicated, and instead of handing an Entertainer Of The Year award to John Denver (which was what he was there to do in the first place), took out his lighter, and burned the envelope. Whether out of envy of John Denver (who was having a successful run in the early seventies, while Rich himself was languishing despite his immense talent), or as an affront to the country music industry for rewarding the not-very-authentically country Denver, the point was made. Indeed, Denver was more of a folky—Peter, Paul, and Mary covered his "Leaving On A Jet Plane", after all, and despite "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads", Denver's output will always have a seat in the corny 70s pop department.

I've always liked John Denver, if only for the sentimental memories of hearing his music daily on AM radio when I was a kid in Idaho in the 70s and 80s. But if his regular Muppet Show appearances put him in a league with Paul Williams (with whom he shares both AM radio songwriting and a regular Muppet Show gig), few can deny that the man could write a song. Exhibit A: In 1972, Ray Charles—no stranger to covering country songs, or any other genre, for that matter, slipped an amazing cover of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" on his 1972 album A Message From The People, taking Denver's gentle, folksy original and turning into a joyously funky country hoedown.

Here's Ray Charles covering "Take Me Home, Country Roads":

As good as Ray Charles' version is, this next version might even be better. Toots & The Maytals, one of the greatest reggae groups ever, may have been John Denver fans, and have recorded several other unexpected covers (you should hear their "Louie, Louie"). This track, originally from their 1974 LP "In The Dark", takes Ray Charles' version (likely the version they heard first) and somehow makes it even more sentimental and exhuberant, substituting "West Jamaica" for "West Virginia". Enjoy!

Toots & The Maytals covering "Take Me Home, Country Roads":

Broadcast: Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises [2010]

Whoa...I mean, whoa. I think Broadcast have gone on a lysergic holiday. After releasing a decade's worth of good-to-excellent dreamily melodic, slightly distorted keyboard pop which often sounded like Stereolab's younger, goth cousin, they seem to be taking a sonic detour into more abstract sculptures of spooky noise. I saw them play live at the Troubadour in November 2009, when they were touring in support of Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, a collection of soundtracky noise fragments interspersed with a few actual songs. The record, as experimental as it was (at least in terms of its detour from more familiar Broadcast music), was no preparation for the live show, which began with a very long, intense instrumental (imagine a particular loud, unhinged, electronic, backwards Interstellar Overdrive) performed in front of a very aggressively trippy, black-and-white visual barrage of a video installation. The record's mention of "witch cults" perhaps explains what coven Broadcast had joined. Their path into electric horror movie acid trip soundtracks continues with their most recent release, the single Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises. This title is rather inaccurate, as the three songs' shapes and noises are more of the witch cult madness—it's odd that this unfocused music is going under the formal group name Broadcast & The Focus Group. I hope that they apply their passion for fragmentary noise to their songwriting; they have always have a good ear for squeezing weird noises out of keyboards. But this single, like the last record, has more weird soundscapes than weird songs, and while I do like the exploratory sonics, I feel like Broadcast could be casting better spells than this eye of newt, tongue of bat stuff. If you like Animal Collective's ODDSAC, you will probably like this; if you'd rather have a cup of tea with Tender Buttons, you might want to wait for them to come down out of their tree.

Here's "Inside Out" from Broadcast's Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises [2010]: