“At Last” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I went through an Etta James phase (RIP gurl) in 8th grade and listened to that song on repeat for most bus rides to and from school. The string intro provokes instant goosebumps, and James’ first utterance of “At Last” is this beautiful sigh of relief. The song is soulful and powerful, but not overbearing. And at two minutes long, it’s way too short for only one listen.
As faithful as I am (and always will be) to the James original, I recently found a rival version. And no, I don’t mean the first recording of the song, which was featured in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives…
I’m also not referring to the PHENOMENAL and emotional Beyonce serenade, as seen at President Obama’s 2008 inaugural ball (which still leaves me in tears).
Nor am I trying to dig up an underground Jason Mraz rendition, or, better yet, one from the late Eva Cassidy (another one of my favorite acoustic, female singer/songwriters).
Long story short, I’d like to introduce you to Gavin James. This Irish crooner originates from Dublin and joined Ingrid Michaelson for some of her UK tour dates. His album is apparently No. 1 on the Irish iTunes charts, however since the US is generally slow to catch on to great European acts…we sadly won’t hear his EP Say Hello in the States for awhile. James is signed to Believe Recordings, the same label as his fellow Irish songwriter James Vincent McMorrow. However, while McMorrow is acclaimed for his raspy, soft, and moody melodies, James has a smoky soul that melts all over you. To take the analogy a ridiculous step further, his voice is the saccharine frosting on a cinnamon bun, filling pores like a sponge of warm and gooey happiness. It’s fitting that he has the same last name as the woman who made At Last famous. However, I like the contrast between the two. Etta’s is a strong, female ballad; a declaration of love meant for grand stages like the Inaugural Ball. Gavin’s is an intimate poem, geared solely towards some extremely lucky lady.
Sure, everyone wants to take a stab at “Call Me Maybe” (I’m talking to you Fleet Foxes, Ben Howard, Cookie Monster, etc) or any Beatles song (Apparently “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” are the two most covered songs). As mentioned in a previous post- I love a good cover song. While I enjoy when they’re produced and recorded on albums, my favorites usually stem from impromptu concerts or requests. I especially love when musicians cross-genres and sounds, like when James Vincent McMorrow sings Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” or when Anya Maria croons T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” Covers bring new meaning and interpretations to music, and are the highest form of flattery. Here are my top cover picks (for this week, at least).
- Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) covering Cold War Kids’ “Hospital Beds” – I could honestly put any Flo Flo cover here; it was really difficult choosing between her rendition of Beyonce’s “Halo” and this one. Her voice has similar qualities to Cold War Kids frontman Nathan Willett; haunting and borderline-screechy. I like that her version is stripped down, but she still belts the “put out the fire boys, don’t stop, don’t stop” coda. It further exemplifies the pain found in the lyrics.
- Alex Winston covering the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light” – Just like Winston’s voice, her version is a little off-kilter. She pairs banjo, heavy guitar, airy female backup vocals, and the slightest accordion with a pounding tempo. Cool.
- Ellie Goulding covering Bon Iver’s “The Wolves” – I gasped outloud the first time I heard this cover. Goulding’s vocals are so pure and beautiful, and much less muddled that Justin Vernon’s. Plus it’s a capella.
- Cee Lo Green covering Kings of Leon’s “Radioactive” – I’m not the biggest Kings of Leon fan and honeslty needed to hear’s Green’s version before giving the original a chance. Clearly acoustic covers hold a special place in my heart, but it’s refreshing to hear Cee Lo sing something other than “F You.”
- Julia Stone covering The National’s “Buzzblood Ohio” – This song reminds me of a train-ride; Stone is contemplative and escaping worries of the past. Her falsetto contrasts The National’s Matt Berninger’s bass in a beautiful way.
If these tickled your fancy, check out my favorite cover blog Cover Lay Down for millions of folk wonders. Or, if you’re the giving kind, The Voice Project is a really great philanthropic organization that works with musicians to raise money for various peace initiatives in Africa. The “Episodes” section of their website features a wonderful web of cover songs.
This post started as an Ode to Covers (not yo’ bedsheets), since musicians revamping other songs is a huge compliment in the music world and also one of my favorite things. (Cue the Julie Andrews.) I especially love when folksters of today pay homage to their folk music role models, like Ben Howard doing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” or The Avett Brothers covering John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” or Rufus Wainwright singing Neil Young’s “Harvest.” If all of those examples made you excited, just wait for the actual covers post coming later this week.
Anyway, to continue with the musical activist theme that keeps appearing in these posts, I stumbled upon the Deschutes River Recordings after consulting one of my favorite cover blogs Cover Lay Down (each post features a theme and at least 10 cover song examples AKA it’s my heaven). The Deschutes River Recordings has three free mp3s from Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, Blizten Trapper’s Eric Earley and singer/songwriter Laura Gibson. Sponsored by the Dechutes Brewery in Oregon, this initiative is a way for the brewery and community to aid the Deschutes River Conservancy. Although the songs are free to download from Bandcamp, listeners are invited to donate in order to preserve the river and its watershed. Not only is the Deschutes Brewery’s social media campaign cranking out super creative ideas in general, this music project is a fantastic way to connect artists to a cause.
Plus the music is pretty rad. Earley’s cover of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” is conversational and soulful, with plenty of toe-tapping harmonica and bass hooks. Gibson’s take on the spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” is steady, earnest, and builds into a quirky crescendo. My favorite of the three is Johnson’s slow rendition of The Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider.” (below) It’s a beautiful, organ-filled call-and-response and simultaneous call-to-action. While the artists shown in the River Recordings are inspired by the Deschutes watershed, this precious ecosystem will hopefully be equally affected by donations raised in the coming months.