Category: Fred Neil

Single Song Sunday: Everybody’s Talkin’
(secondhand coverage from the folkworld & beyond)

September 12th, 2010 — 06:45 am

Though recorded by a man who spent his early years as a Brill Building songwriter, Everybody’s Talkin’ was a folk song first and foremost. Apocryphally, it was a throw-away track, laid down in a single take by an anxious artist eager to get out of the studio and back to his Miami home, but there’s a seasoned depth in the lyric, a universal sentiment of alienation, escapism and desire for the hermitage which rings true in everyman. Fred Neil‘s original may touch upon cowboy country and pop, but that only helps it wring wistful into raw, his deep, clear voice like the ocean he yearns for.

It’s fitting, in the end, that the song’s success allowed Neil to retire from the musician’s life, to live out the last thirty years of his life as a dolphin activist in his beloved Florida. It may not have been his swan song, but taken as a confessional narrative, the song speaks volumes about the distance between Neil’s heart and his career in the mid sixties, when he recorded it.

Many modern listeners have never heard Fred Neil’s original, of course. In fact, Harry Nilsson’s chart-topping cover, recorded just four years afterwards, is so undeniably definitive, thanks to prominent placement in the 1969 critic’s darling Midnight Cowboy, that even artists who cover the song often attribute it to Nilsson himself.

As such, it is unsurprising to find that the vast majority of the covers out there – there’s nearly 100 of them, from techno to pop vocalist – lean heavily on the driving beat and note pattern Nilsson brought to his Grammy-winning take. Though they come from opposite ends of the indie spectrum, for example, Luna and Jesse Malin alike take on Nilsson’s brushstrokes, his eminently distinct up-and-down-the-chord melodic undercurrent, and his vocal flourishes. Crowded House go full-on unplugged, but they, too, undeniably have the later version in their tongues and hands.

Sandro Perri brings us a nufolk atmosphere so much his own, it’s hard to claim influence of any sort, but the samba drumbeat buried beneath seems to have Nilsson’s pattern, as does the soaring vocals; same goes for the bluesy, broken-up take Paul Curreri goes for, which uses Nilsson’s melodic structure as a platform for deconstruction. Megan Washington goes back and forth, with piano and guitar each taking on a distinct version before the song dissolves into free jazz. Singer-songwriters, jazz vocalists, new age bands, and folk-slash-americana performers from Patty Larkin to Madeleine Peyroux to The Jazz Butcher may filter their songs through their own inimitable styles, but put ‘em next to the original, and there’s no question of influence.

You’d think those few who trace their versions back to Neil himself would aim for the profound isolation which defines the lyric, but even here, popular coverage taints the take. Stephen Stills‘ live version is gentle and light, and though it’s tempting to attribute that emotive choice to Stills himself, that lightness echoes Nilsson, not Neil. The bluegrass team of Alison Brown and Tim O’Brien start slow, but pick up Nilsson’s beat and tempo by the chorus. Corinne West‘s soft ballad comes closest to Neil’s swaying rhythm, but the soaring, bittersweet beauty isn’t his. Only Susan Werner truly trades the tick-tock urgency and driving melody of Nilsson’s for the original despair, losing the noteplay, slowing down the tune, layering it in crashing waves of sound until it recaptures the darkness.

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