Category: Harry Nilsson

Covered in Folk: Harry Nilsson (Covers from Marc Cohn, Steve Forbert, Glen Phillips and more!)

October 15th, 2008 — 10:00 pm

My interest in Harry Nilsson came through coversong, most specifically 1995 covers album For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, which I picked up when it was new in order to gain access to otherwise-unavailable rarities from Marc Cohn, Aimee Mann, and a solid roster of other perfectly tuned oddities (like, say, Fred Schneider of the B-52s doing a pitch-perfect version of Coconut, or the infamous nasal harmonies of The Roches applied to a space-age Spaceman). Purchasing the album was a revelation: here was a set of tunes that were all strangely familiar, yet I had never realized that they were all from the same guy. For the rest of my life, a huge set of the songs in the very air of modern American culture would have new relevance to me — which is to say, Nilsson’s work remained ubiquitous as it had always been, but this time, when I heard his songs, I knew how to connect them.

Nilsson is best known in the world of cover collectors for his incredible cover of Beatles classic You Can’t Do That, which combines bits and pieces from 22 other songs from the Beatles catalog, and for his definitive version of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, which appeared in the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, and would later be covered by dozens of others, far too often erroneously attributed to Nilsson himself. His voice is familiar to Western culture due to an almost unprecedented turn as a composer for and song contributor to over fifty film and television soundtracks, from the theme song to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father to the entirety of the songs written for the sorely disappointing Robin Williams/Shelley Long vehicle Popeye. You may have also seen his oddly endearing 1971 made-for-TV morality play and kidproject The Point in your own childhood, as I did; Nilsson claims he had the idea for the project while on acid, and it shows.

But Nilsson was more than just a soundtrack and novelty song guy. A highly prolific and versatile artist in the sixties and seventies, Nilsson released twenty albums between 1962 and 1980, when illness and exhaustion, coupled with the death of his friend John Lennon, drove him away from the studio. He was an incredible songsmith, as his high coverage speaks to; he had a way with a tune, and an ability to speak wistfully yet wryly about cultural alienation through finely honed lyrics floated upon a full wash of rich, orchestrated sound. Discovering his work has been a joy. Knowing that I have only hit the tip of the iceberg is even more wonderful.

Despite high pop culture credibility and two Grammy Awards, it is generally believed that Nilsson’s tendency towards constant reinvention and vast shifts in musical style throughout his career kept him from the recognition that he truly deserved. But over a decade after his death, a quick peruse of the blogosphere reveals that Nilsson continues to have a huge fan base among audiophiles, many of whom believe that his true genius was criminally underrated throughout a highly productive career pushing the envelope of sound and sarcasm, irreverence and grandiose instrumentation. Tellingly, Lennon, who shared Nilsson’s disdain for commercialism, was also a fan; in turn, I’ve heard bloggers I trust refer to Nilsson’s work as “Beatles-esque”, and though I’m not the hugest Beatles fan, I can see what they mean. And any musician who had his work included in High Fidelity — which is, after all, about music with a high credibility factor — automatically gets counted as one of the best of the underrated bunch.

I didn’t grow up with Nilsson in the house; as such, I owe a huge debt to the musicians I love and the blogosphere at large for my increasing fandom of Nilsson, who not only helped me put a name to this culturally ubiquitous voice, but taught me that there was more to this artist than soundtracks, misattribution, and “put the lime in the coconut”. As thanks and in tribute to the power of iconoclasts everywhere, here’s some of my favorite folk-tinged Harry Nilsson covers, from the great, lazy jazzgrass jams of Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek side project Mutual Admiration Society to Steve Forbert’s torn, wistful take on The Moonbeam Song.

Welsh popfolkie and early Apple recording artist Mary Hopkin takes an orchestrated turn on The Puppy Song, while a previously-posted Victoria Williams deconstructs the song into something playfully delicate and warbly; Marc Cohn croons Turn on Your Radio as a slow, inimitable blues with soulful vocals and a Nilsson-esque wash of sound. Canadian folkie Reid Jamieson‘s lovely, lighthearted solo acoustic take on Nilsson obscurity Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore alone is worth the price of admission. The Asylum Street Spankers are their ragged, irreverent selves, bringing an eerie saw and some doo-wop vocals to an acoustic Think About Your Troubles off their children’s album Mommy Says No. And who could resist the indie folkrock of The Format to top things off? Enjoy.

As always, our inclusion of links to the above artists’ stores and homepages should be taken as a tacit urge to support the continued creation of artistic genius in our culture by buying music, directly from the artist wherever possible. Which is to say: buying this stuff from the musicians justifies our existence, and theirs, so do it.

What, more? I was tempted to drop a long list of covers of Everybody’s Talkin’ here to serve as today’s bonus coversongs, but we’ll save that for a future Single Song Sunday. Instead, I’m going to suggest that, as with many prolific artists who treat musical output as an avenue for genre exploration, Harry Nilsson’s diverse output includes more than a few tracks which reflect the trope and stripped down sound of modern folk, even if they are ultimately best classified as classic radio poprock in context. Here’s a few covers from Nilsson’s lighter side.

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1,092 comments » | Asylum Street Spankers, Glen Phillips, Harry Nilsson, Marc Cohn, Mary Hopkin, Nickel Creek, Reid Jamieson, Steve Forbert, The Format, Victoria Williams

Sinéad O’Connor Covers: from Disney to Dolly, from Nirvana to Nilsson

March 16th, 2008 — 02:59 am

I toyed with using today’s post to address some of the unsung heroes of traditional Irish Folk Music, but I’m no expert on the subject. Berkeley Place got to Van Morrison first, I’ve only got a few good U2 covers left, and Wednesday’s post on Celtic Punk was pretty thorough. And even with the SXSW posts starting to get a bit thick on the ground, there’s still plenty of bloggers out there dropping diverse sets of Irish and Celtic music on you this weekend.

But never fear, faithful reader: I’m not about to leave you empty handed on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. I may not remember how to code that little accented e in her name, but I do know that the more I hear of her, the more impressed I’ve been with the deliberate interpetive power of one particular Irish folkrocker. And since she’s terribly underrated in the American soundscape, what better way to celebrate the fire of the Irish than to provide an introduction to Sinead O’Connor?

In fact, in many ways, Sinead O’Connor is the perfect counterpart and compliment to our earlier post on Celtic Punk. Behaviorally, Sinead is sociopolitical punk: the shaved head, the infamous pope-shredding on Saturday Night Live. But sonically, Sinead is anything but. Her voice is little-girl innocent, even when angered to a shaky open-throated vibrato; though she can rock with the best of them, her preferred arrangements and phrasing, especially in coversong, tend towards that full sound which best supports her slow phrasing and lush, languid tone.

Though they’re not usually clustered, this puts Sinead in a select group of like-voiced and like-minded women, such as Dar Williams, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco: contemporaries who set the standard for serious world-changing worldbeat-slash-folk music clothed in breathy high-vibrato vocal sweetness and pop production value.

Of these women, though I love Dar, and respect Ani, when we’re talking about coversong I’d have to put Sinead at the top of the panetheon. Primarily, this is because Sinead has an especially gifted ability to play the tension between punk sensibility and sweet, sultry performance effectively in other people’s songs. Few performers of any type can do this as well, and with as much versatility. If all you’ve heard of Sinead’s cover songs is her poppy take on Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, even if you love her angsty take to pieces, you’ve probably been guilty of severely underestimating this pop punk pixie.

As a cover artist, Sinead brings an unparalleled range to her performances. Her softer song choices clearly are designed to maximize the potential for interpretation to bring new and often ironic meaning to familiar song. Her breathy take on Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t wistful; it’s resigned, conflicted, and startlingly feminist. The echoing ghost-like etherial beauty she brings to Nirvana’s once-grungy All Apologies isn’t restrained so much as angelic: loving and deliberate, it sounds like it comes from Cobain’s coffin.

But Sinead isn’t a one-trick pony, choosing songs to suit a particular strength of interpretation. When a song inherently speaks to the sort of tension she can create through lyrical interpretation, she forgoes use of dissonance between song and voice, letting herself go.

The results are diverse, and equally impressive. Her cover of older political Irish songs like The Foggy Dew tend to be pure and loudly true to the original mournful fife and drum cadence. The build she brings to House of the Rising Sun uses her full spectrum: In five minutes of blues, you can hear an emotional cycle that some artists take a lifetime to scan. And her cover of Dolly Parton’s Dagger Through the Heart manages to be both true-blue bluegrass and emphathetically the most incredible take on Parton’s original wail and frustration in an otherwise excellent collection.

Heck, let’s skip the Prince cover; it’s weak by comparison. Here’s the Sinead O’Connor you should have been listening to all along: the songs mentioned above, and a few more that I could go on about for hours. It may not all be pub music, and celebrating a countercultural bisexual critic of the Catholic Church may not make the conservatives happy. But this is music with the true fire of the Irish in every note. And whether you agree with her politics or not, you just can’t dismiss her craft, her breadth, or the power of her voice.

Sinead O’Connor‘s prolific career has resulted in a vast collection of albums which run the gamut from edgy poprock to atmospheric soundtrack pop to acoustic singer-songwriter folk; though I’m usually reluctant to link to Amazon, Sinead’s website uses it, so head on over to buy her work.

Not sure where to start? Sinead’s newest release Theology is a two-disk set which should make everyone happy: one CD offers stripped down versions of her songs; the other recasts the same songs with a full band. Her reworked version of traditional gospel ballad River of Babylon sounds excellent on both, as do her covers of Curtis Mayfield and Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber. Taken as sets, the covers AND the doubled albums speak perfectly to both the diversity and excellence I was getting at above.

Finally, lest we forget that Sinead is not just a coverartist, today’s bonus coversongs show that Sinead’s songwriting displays the same power and creative energy she brings to her performance. I saw Bettye LaVette do her a capella version of I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got in a cramped jazz club a while back, just before she hit the blogs; though Bettye’s is a totally different sound, it still fits, emotionally.

664 comments » | Bettye LaVette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Harry Nilsson, Hilary Scott, Holiday Coverfolk, Nirvana, Sinead O'Connor

Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 2 (Signature Songs and Solo Projects)

December 10th, 2007 — 02:39 am

John Lennon died 27 years ago, on December 8th, 1980; I was seven, and the event was meaningless. But since then, like every one of you, I’ve absorbed the Beatles canon — which means, among other things, recognizing the loss of musical potential and statesmanship that marks Lennon’s passing.

Mostly, it’s the statesmanship I recognize. Though each Beatle — both the still-going and the dearly departed — went on to a fruitful solo career after the band broke up, for me, the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon are as much more a sum of their parts as they are musically. I mean, I know the music blogosphere is full of powerful Lennon tributes tonight, but by definition music blogs promote that which you haven’t really heard yet. Ask the average non-audiophile to sing a Beatles song, and the odds are they know dozens; ask them to sing a post-Beatles song, and they might be able to mangle their way through the first verse and chorus of a radio hit or or two.

Of course we know Beatles songs; it’s not like we have much choice. Over three centuries past their break-up, it remains a cultural rite of passage to grow familiar with the works of the Beatles. But their solo work has credibility on a smaller scale. As a member of the first post-Beatles generation, I never really took to the work of Paul or Ringo, with or without bands and mates, and my sense of the genius of Harrison and Lennon was mostly a peripheral awareness that there was more there than I was seeing from a distance, that some day I might like to listen to their work a little more closely.

In many cases, it was covers that brought me to to appreciate the continued later-in-life talents of the Beatles boys for what they were: individual talents, still powerful without each other. Great songwriters live forever, in the coverworld. That there are so many wonderful folk covers of the songs of the Beatles boys, both pre- and post-breakup, says what it needs to about their individual talents.

Today, in memory and in honor, over twenty coversongs from the fringes of the folkworld, our largest post ever here at Cover Lay Down. Including stellar folkversions of songs from the solo careers of Paul, George, and John, and some signature Beatles songs generally acknowledged as primarily a product of a single Beatlesboy. Plus a second set of select covers sung by a few of the boys themselves, as a little bonus.

The Songs of John Lennon

  • Alison Crowe, Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Keb’ Mo’, Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Rosie Thomas, Love (orig. Lennon)
  • Damien Rice, Happy Christmas (War is Over) (orig. Lennon)
  • Harry Nilsson, You Can’t Do That (Lennon; orig Beatles)
  • The Subways, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Lennon; orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of George Harrison

  • Girlyman, My Sweet Lord (orig. Harrison)
  • Tanya Donelly, Long, Long, Long (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • The Bacon Brothers, If I Needed Someone (Harrison, orig. Beatles)
  • Jake Shimabukuro, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • Nils Okland, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison, orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of Paul McCartney

  • Ron Sexsmith, Listen To What The Man Said (orig. Wings)
  • Jem, Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. McCartney)
  • Dust Poets, Veronica (orig. Costello/ McCartney)
  • Mark Erelli, I’ll Follow The Sun (McCartney, orig. beatles)

    The Songs of Ringo Starr

  • George Harrison, It Don’t Come Easy (orig. Starr, poss. w/ Harrison)
  • Sufjan Stevens, What Goes On (Lennon/McCartney/Starr, orig. Beatles)

    I’ve thought long and hard about how to direct you to purchase and support today’s coverartists, but ultimately, I decided that today is about George, Ringo, Paul, and most especially John. If, after you hear these incredible covers, you want more information about the recent and universally awesome albums of the artists covering these songs, ask me about them in the comments, or head on over to good old google, type in an artist’s full names in quotation marks, and hit “I feel lucky” to buy direct from any artist’s website.

    Today’s Bonus coversongs: The Beatles Boys Cover…

  • George Harrison, Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (orig. Arlen/Koehler)
  • Ringo Starr and Stevie Nicks, Lay Down Your Arms (orig. Harry Nilsson)
  • Harry Nilsson w/ John Lennon, Many Rivers to Cross (orig. Jimmy Cliff)

  • previously: Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 1.
  • 517 comments » | Allison Crowe, Covered in Folk, Damien Rice, Dust Poets, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Girlyman, Harry Nilsson, Jem, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ron Sexsmith, Tanya Donelly, The Beatles

    Victoria Williams Covers: Harry Nilsson, Greg Brown, and more

    October 24th, 2007 — 08:38 am

    Victoria Williams is a songwriter’s songwriter’s songwriter, a darling of the in-crowd: married to underground folkstar Peter Case when she released her first album in the mid-eighties, she has spent the bulk of her married life with Mark Olsen of the Jayhawks, with whom she cofounded the Creekdippers (aka several other names that have the word “creekdipper” in them). The turn-out for Sweet Relief, a benefit concert/recording made shortly after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1993, included acts from Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum to alt/indie luminaries Lou Reed, Michael Penn, Evan Dando, and Lucinda Williams.

    But let us not think that Williams is worth celebrating merely because of who she knows. Her lyrical scope is voracious, if the lyrics themselves endearingly dorky; she is just as able writing a cute song about shoes or weeds as she is at telling stories of the smalltown and Southern. Her light voice has a quiver and a rasp that lends itself especially well to the loose stringed rhythms and the playful instrumental and back-vocal layers she favors in her performance; it floats beautifully over even the strongest production, like a hymn on a broken guitar.

    And she’s a sonic folk experimentalist of the first degree. In a world populated by Devendra Banhart and Marilyn Manson, Rolling Stone calls her weird, and they mean it as a compliment; it’s no wonder she’s so well respected by insiders well known for pushing the envelope of the sparse, the soulful, and the grungy.

    Though Williams’ mass popularity has never truly caught up with her famous fan-base, it’s certainly not for lack of determination. Fourteen years post-diagnosis she’s still performing — mostly with the California-based alt-grass jam band The Thriftstore Allstars, though according to her fan site, she’s been on the road with indie darling M. Ward enough to be considering a co-release.

    And she still turns up on the occasional folk tribute. Today, typically odd-choice cuts off of a Harry Nilsson tribute and a Greg Brown tribute, each of which shows, in its own weirdly produced way, the instincts of a pro pushing the envelope, setting surrealist stages for the interpretive power of that wavery, strangely beautiful voice:

    • Victoria Williams, The Puppy Song (orig. Nilsson)
    • Victoria Williams, Early (orig. Brown)

    Victoria William’s most recent projects have not yet produced much beyond buzz and bootlegs, but you can still hear her voice in recent releases by hubby Mark Olsen, including 2007′s Salvation Blues, over at Olsen’s Myspace page. I also highly recommend her older work with and without the Creekdippers, and her 2002 collection of old-time covers Victoria Williams Sings Some Ol’ Songs, all available via the Creekdipper website store. You know, just to tide you over while you wait for that M. Ward / Victoria Williams release to materialize.

    Today’s bonus coversongs:

    • The Creekdippers explore Gram Parsons’ In My Hour Of Darkness
    • Michael Penn does justice to Williams’ Weeds (live at Sweet Relief)
    • M. Ward covers Bowie classic Let’s Dance (live on KCRW)

    958 comments » | Graham Parsons, Greg Brown, Harry Nilsson, M. Ward, Michael Penn, The Creekdippers, Victoria Williams