Category Archives: Music Not-Reviews

Cover Songs – A Partial List of the Best

February 7, 2011

Originally published on chriscocca.com

Cover songs are forever. My guess is that the second song ever performed was a cover of the first. Some of these cover songs are inspired, many are horrifying. Artists who cover well-known songs are disadvantaged in that they are immediately judged against the original, though the instant recognition of a popular cover song often paves the way for radio play and concert sing-alongs. The best covers may pay tribute or put a new stamp on an old standard. The worst are soul-crushing cash-ins. Here are just a few of my personal favorites and least favorites. Feel free to add your own. But for the sake of my sanity, try not to defend Sheryl Crow.

Part II: The Gold

Heart – “Love Reign O’er Me”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQhAipNH0lM

This is my Johhny Cash “Hurt.”  That is, this is the cover in which I really liked the original, then fell in love with the cover and couldn’t even listen to the original without contempt any longer.

The Who may have been relatively embarrassing geezers at last year’s Super Bowl, but when I saw them in ’02, Roger Daltry still had the pipes to nail the “looooooooooovvvveeeeeee” crescendo as if his drummer and bassist were alive.  Then Ann Wilson had to come and just crush the whole thing.  Wilson’s voice adds a depth to the entire song that makes Daltry look like an imposter in comparison.

Sister Nancy Wilson tosses in just enough guitar feedback to keep the rock ahead of the classical in this version, and she can pull off hard rock posturing better than Pete Townshend these days.  But make no mistake about it—this song makes the list because of Ann’s voice.  She sells the feeling of the song as if she wrote it, and when the mixing board gives her a hand at the end, pushing the finale into the stratosphere, we’re all the better for it.  Catch Heart live and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Disturbed – “Land of Confusion” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6KXgjLqSTg

Nothing will ever terrify a child of the 80s the way Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” did.  With its deranged Reagan puppets that looked just enough like the actual Reagans to frighten pre-pubescents, “Land of Confusion” would be memorable even if the song weren’t.  And I’m still not sure why puppet Genesis is funny whereas puppet Reagans probably sent more kids into their parents rooms at night than the bogey man and Freddy Kreuger combined.

Disturbed, not a band one would typically consider subtle, succeed in their rendition by simply amplifying the heavy guitar licks of the original, which in turn makes the dystopic lyrics stand out more.  It helps that, unlike many of least favorite cover nominees, Distrurbed was not forced to heteronormatize the song by changing any he/she pronouns.  After all, this world “we” live in, and both man and woman will one day be subjected to the great flood the way the puppet Reagans were in ’86.

Disturbed singer David Draiman gives his typical tortured pet performance on “Land of Confusion,” barking through each line like a dog running to the end of a leash.  I’m sure this is enough to make many Phil Collins fans unhappy.  To be sure, Drummond’s growl scat is plenty annoying, especially when he’s offering the kind of mad at your dad garbage that Distrurbed often deals in, but when he adds asides like “ooh-ah-ah-ah-ah” or, as in “Land of Confusion,” “nyah-ah-ah” it kind of sounds like he’s possibly, maybe, just a little bit, making a gag of his over-the-top angsty rottweiler act.

He is joking, right?  Kind of?

Jeffrey Gaines – “In Your Eyes” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7WtavVdBCk

The history of “In Your Eyes,” at least, according to Wikipedia, says a lot about the song. Written by Peter Gabriel, the song was first released in 1986, then again in 1989 after it was featured in the movie Say Anything. Gaines recorded a stripped down version as a B side in 1992, then re-released two different versions of it in 2001. Herein lies the strength of the song, especially Gaines’ version—its timelessness. For this ballad about a guy who sees churches in eyeballs, Gabriel abandoned the giddiness that made 80s hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey” a lot of fun, replacing it with heart-felt lyrics that are just complicated enough to not scream prom song. The original has some world music instrumentation and African yodeling (that exists, right?), which Gaines’ cover does not. See, this is the type of song that thrives on acoustic interpretation. Minus the bits of Toto-sounding keyboard and backup dancers, Gaines’ take lets his voice and the basics of the song do all the work. He proves that “In Your Eyes” does not need world music or exotic stage shows to succeed; its greatest asset is the core of the song itself.

Gaines stopped by my dear old alma mater while touring the college circuit back in ’98, and my then-roommate went to the show, hanging around afterwards just to get Gaines’ autograph for some girl he had an unrequited crush on. That night, I mistook his nightstand for the men’s room, spraying his Jeffrey Gaines autographed poster with recycled Natty Light. Sorry, Tom.

Best Bad Cover

Guns ‘n’ Roses –  “Sympathy for the Devil” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6UsdiJldmo

In the interest of full disclosure, I am an unabashed GnR diehard.  But I like their version of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” much more than their more revered covers like “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

What makes this surprising is that the band itself hates this cover.  Recorded for 1994′s Interview With a Vampire soundtrack, “Sympathy” is the last song released by Axl, Slash, Duff, and co.  The band hated each other so much at this point, they couldn’t even be in the studio together when they recorded it.  Slash said his own rendition of “Sympathy” (ok, his band’s; rumor is Slash’s guitar solo was redubbed by Axl loyalist Paul Huge) sounds like a band breaking up.

But that’s kind of cool, in its own way.  A band of junkies covers a song by an older band of junkies featuring Satan as narrator.  I’d say there’s a game of one-upmanship going on here, and Guns may have just topped the Stones in debauched sinfulness.  Take that one to heart, Keith and Mick.

Oh yeah, and Mick Jagger never could sing.  So there’s that.

Honorable Mention

Ugly Kid Joe – “Cats in the Cradle”

Not sure which list this belongs on, but it deserves mention.

Cover Songs – A Partial List of the Worst

February 3, 2011

Originally published on chriscocca.com

Cover songs are forever. My guess is that the second song ever performed was a cover of the first. Some of these cover songs are inspired, many are horrifying. Artists who cover well-known songs are disadvantaged in that they are immediately judged against the original, though the instant recognition of a popular cover song often paves the way for radio play and concert sing-alongs. The best covers may pay tribute or put a new stamp on an old standard. The worst are soul-crushing cash-ins. Here are just a few of my personal favorites and least favorites. Feel free to add your own. But for the sake of my sanity, try not to defend Sheryl Crow.

The Garbage

Five Finger Death Punch – “Bad Company” http://www.last.fm/music/Five+Finger+Death+Punch

Bad Company isn’t a great band and 1974′s “Bad Company” isn’t one of their better songs.  It’s no “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” that’s for sure.  Hell, it’s not even “Shooting Star” or “Ready for Love.”  Still Bad Company’s “Bad Company” from the album Bad Company is a harmless ditty about life as part of a group of badass cowboys (with guitars?), a mediocre song by a mediocre band.  Think of the original as a precursor to Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive,” without the Aquanet.  “Bad Company” is one of those songs you might leave on the radio or you might flip past, depending on whether or not you feel like belting out a country-tinged guitar anthem about life with a six gun in your hand.

From the start, dunder-headed dorks Five Finger Death Punch add modern rock humorlessness to the proceedings, replacing Paul Rodgers’ pseudo-soul with macho poseur bleats from a guy who sounds like Scott Stapp’s even more earnest little brother.  While Death Punch singer Ivan Moody crotch grabs all over the song, nu metal guitar is provided by former Mandy Moore guitarist, current tough guy Jason Hook.  Part of what makes this song so terrible is that a generation of teenagers, not all teenagers mind you, but the ones who like contemporary knuckle-dragging shlock like Shinedown (makers of the slightly less offensive, equally macho-earnest “Simple Man” cover), will mistakenly say this band and this cover is “cool,” “heavy,” and “better than the original.”  It is none of the above, and considering the mediocrity of the first, that is telling.

Sheryl Crow – “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFU9qBEvEVw

Asking people whether or not they like the Sheryl Crow version of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child” is a good way to pass judgment on them with swift accuracy.  I don’t know what kind of record executive dreamed up this steaming pile of wrong, but unleashing it on an unsuspecting world was cruel, especially given the timing.  Released in 1999, this empty cover was given to a pre-millenial planet still coming to terms with the end of GnR as we knew it.

How did Crow, an artist typically not noteworthy enough to provoke contempt, manage to turn an 80s classic into a pathetic whimper? By removing its innards and adding nothing but sap and ugly.  The original “Sweet Child” manages to be a great 80s power ballad without being considered an 80s power ballad despite its sappy lyrics and goofy guitar chords because it is sung by a sociopath who sounds like he might throw his microphone at the crowd at any minute.  And in fact, he did!  Axl caterwauls “where do we go?” in a demon voice, if ever a demon were to ask a simple question.  Crow, conversely, sings the same line like she is asking if the listener would rather stop at Chili’s or Applebee’s.

Musically, Crow’s version exemplifies that more is less, as she throws in some slide guitar, violin, and some kind of unappealing keyboard, creating a muddled sound that only her Taylor Hanson scream at the end can break through, and not in a good way.  But hey, at least she was able to tweak the arrangement just enough to appeal to both the country demographic and adult contemporary radio.

And no, this doesn’t mean Crow’s version sucks just because it is feminized.  It sucks because it is sanitized, which is the polar opposite of classic era GnR.  Even Fergie Ferg, best known for rap-singing about her humps, does a comparatively much better version than does Ms. Crow, replacing Axl’s edgy wails with sultry swagger that would probably make Sheryl Crow blush.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBIpBNMzzGs&feature=related

Every time I hear Sheryl Crow strain to hit the opening lines of this song,  I die a little bit inside.  Then I check the unit prices on Folgers and Maxwell House.


The Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton – “Big Yellow Taxi”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvtJPs8IDgU

The Counting Crows’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” manages to commit the very sin that the original is about, an accomplishment that would be impressive were it ironic. Sadly, it’s not. That’s right, Adam Duritz, the “they” who “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” is you, you blissfully unaware, fathead, jerk! [Direct all slander/libel complaints to Mr. Trucker’s legal staff directly. — Ed.]

Mitchell’s folk song about the death of nature in the era of the concrete jungle is pro-tooled and suffocated of its hippie-dippy peacenik vibe and replaced with the Counting Crows’ corporate version of the same. Duritz poses as a 90s version of Mitchell’s love child, but he’s really just a gossip rag fodder with devil sticks. I mean, once you’ve dated two-thirds of the women on Friends, you kind of lose your right to complain about tree museums.

To make matters worse, the Crows’ glossy rendition includes cooing and “oh-bop-bop-bopping” from pop singer Vanessa Carlton. You remember Carlton, right? She comes from the era right after pop stars stopped writhing around on snakes and before they started wearing meat dresses. She had a hit or two when it was trendy for young pretty girls to play guitar or piano while staring at something just above and to the left of the camera. I forget whether she plays guitar or piano. She does neither in the video for this song, nor is there any evidence that she and the band ever met. My guess is they haven’t, and we’re probably all the better for it.

Axl Rose, Marketing Genius

February 17, 2011

Originally posted on chriscocca.com

In 1994, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses were in the latter stages of their relevance.  G N’ R were still releasing videos from the Illusions albums and putting out a record of covers, and Aerosmith continued their late 80s renaissance into a second decade with 7x platinum Get A Grip. Meanwhile, I was a young lad still anxiously awaiting the growth spurt that would forever prove  elusive.   It wasn’t exactly cool to love these unabashed rock stars while my fellow fourteen-year-olds were mourning the death of Kurt Cobain and pondering the fate of his mopey peers like Eddie Vedder, but I was steadfast.

Here is an exhaustive list of things I was sure of in 1994:

I would never understand women
I would always love Guns ‘n’ Roses
I would always love Aerosmith.

Two out of three ain’t bad, kid.  You see, while Aerosmith may have had a more productive couple of decades (if  we take the word “productive”  to refer to an organism, institution, or collective that produces things),  Axl’s sociopathic and often bizarrely reclusive behavior has allowed the Guns name to age in a much more respectable way than has brand Aerosmith.

For the unitiated, here is a brief timeline for the original lineups of both  bands since ’94:

Guns N’ Roses Aerosmith
1994: Release “Sympathy for the Devil” single; Slash calls this “the sound of a band breaking up” 1994: Release greatest hits album Big Ones, make boatloads of cash
1996: Break up 1997: Release Nine Lives, which includes lame double entrende single “Pink”
1998: Release “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” on Armageddon soundtrack [rock credibility exits stage left]
2001: Perform at Superbowl XXXV with Britney Spears, N’Sync
2001: Release Just Push Play, world shrugs
2002: Release Oh, Yeah, greatest hits double disc, make boatloads of cash
2004: Release blues cover album Honkin’ On  Bobo. Global reaction: “eh”
2006: Release aptly titled greatest hits album Devil’s Got a New Disguise, make boatloads of cash
2010: Egyptian President Mubarak: “I will step down if Aerosmith threatens to release another album”

While Aerosmith has toured nearly every year during the last fifteen years, Axl’s bizarro Guns has only executed a single successful tour of the U.S., in 2006.  While touring, Aerosmith has enthusiastically shilled for the latest repackaging of their greatest hits album.  As the above list indicates, Aerosmith has released more greatest hits records than records of new material during this period, which is probably at least in part due to their recognizing that no one needs to hear a new Glenn Ballard-written Aerosmith record.  Unfortunately, as the recent regime change in Egypt would indicate, Aerosmith is, in fact, planning to release their first record of new material in a decade sometime this year.

Meanwhile, when he wasn’t standing on the roof of his mansion with a hose fighting off California wild fires (http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=85524), Axl was suing his own record company to keep them from releasing Guns N’ Roses’ Greatest Hits (http://www.tfproject.org/tfp/tilted-music/49290-geffen-records-prevails-over-axl-rose-lawsuit.html). In a a 2004 statement that can only be described as equal parts gutsy and insane, Rose claimed that the Guns N’ Roses Greatest Hits release would take attention away from Chinese Democracy.

Chinese Democracy was released four and a half years after the suit.

Herein lies the Genius of W. Axl Rose, nonmusical edition.  Guns N’ Roses is not one of those punk rock bands destined to keep the same sound and tour every couple of years with only their graying hairs and protruding stomachs demarcating the passage of time.  I mean, they’re not the Circle Jerks.  They’re freaking Guns N’ Roses.  They were making videos with dolphins and supermodels set to soaring piano arrangments while the “cool” thing to do was stare at your shoes while whispering verses and shouting choruses.

G N’ R comes from the “bigger is better” rock ideal, not the punk/grunge “less is more” aesthetic.  In this way, they are a lot like Aerosmith.   Thus, had they remained in the spotlight, they could have easily traded on their hard rock past, put out a few radio friendly shmaltz ballads, retooled a greatest hits package every few years, and made oodles of cash with deteriorating performances at amphitheaters and arenas year-round. In other words, they could have become Aerosmith or, even worse, Motley Crue.

In fact, in the hands of lesser, more  top-hatted hands, Guns would have no doubt become the same self-parodying pantomime of themselves that Aerosmith and the Crue are today.  Slash has sold his likeness to so many lame-rod pop musicians and video games, even he can’t keep count.  But when he gutted the last bits of his reputation on stage with the Black Eyed Peas this year, I couldn’t help but think back to Aerosmith’s nauseating 2001 Super Bowl performance, when they shared the stage with rock ‘n’ roll titans Britney Spears and N ‘Sync.

As Slash tried desperately to strike a cool rock pose next to an awkwardly gyrating Fergie, I thought to myself, that could have been all of G N’ R up there wearing Light Bright outfits and standing next to will.i.am, Fergie, and the other two dudes.

That could have been Axl, Duff, and company singing a country song  to one of their re-claimed daughters on the soundtrack to one of the worst Ben Affleck moves of all time.

That could have been G N’ R singing goofball pop songs about women’s private parts.

That could have been Axl judging sixteen-year-old singers on a past-its-prime TV karaoke contest.

But for the grace of God.

Instead, Axl, who long ago bought out the Guns name, has guarded it like a rich guy guarding his mansion from a forest fire.  The musicians he has chosen to work with recently have names like Buckethead and Bumblefoot.  They may play the same songs as classic Guns, but no one will mistake them for Slash and Duff clones.  And with the exception of a 2002 VMA gaffe, in which a bloaty Axl huffed around Radio City while a giddy Jimmy Fallon and the world gasped in horror, Axl has avoided the spotlight like the plague.  When he finally put out Chinese Democracy after a seventeen year wait, Axl unilaterally decided his record company wasn’t supporting the album enough.  He has subsequently avoided all efforts to promote it himself, including all state-side interview requests and tours.  Does that suck for fans? Maybe, but what hurts more, the lack of Axl or the embarrassing omnipresence of Steve Tyler and Slash?

In keeping his and the band’s profile low key and touring only very sporadically with a cast of characters who look like aliens, Axl has accomplished what only former nemesis Kurt Cobain has similarly been able to achieve  When most people think of G N’ R today, they think of G N’ R no later than 1994.  Axl has divorced himself and his band from Slash, who defaces only himself when he parades around picking up contract work like a poor guy in a Slash costume.  Today’s Guns are something different.  They are a protooled, faceless entity with an enigmatic lead singer.  G N’ R today are to classic G N’ R what the Foo Fighters are to Nirvana. They sprung from Guns N’ Roses, but they cannot damage the iconic stature of classic Guns any more than a Foo Fighters record can hurt the lasting reputation of Nirvana.

And Axl didn’t even have to die to keep his reputation in tact.

Postscript:  I thought this blog fitting for my esteemed former co-dj’s domain because of our shared love of all things Axl.  I wouldn’t defend his choice in Long Island-bred, Lehigh Valley-loving rock pianists with the same fervor.

Also, in 2001, I wrote an essay about Axl Rose, The American Icon, for my ENGL 200 Advanced Expository Writing class.  It was, admittedly, not my best work.  So if you’re out there, Prof. Martinez, I would like to resubmit my essay. Sorry it’s 10 years late.

Interview with John Allen of Charm City Devils

September 20, 2012

Originally posted in the Baltimore Sun’s Midnight Sun

98 Rock’s Autumn Equinox Festival featuring Seether, Sick Puppies and Baltimore’s own Charm City Devils takes place at Pier Six Pavilion on Saturday night. Compared with the pop, electronic and retro acts that typically fill the amphitheater and arena tour schedule, the festival stands out for its hard-leaning, modern-rock bill.

Charm City Devils singer John Allen, a veteran Baltimore musician with a pedigree that includes stints as a drummer for Child’s Play and SR71, credits the station with a lot of the band’s success but recognizes that finding a wide audience for new rock music is harder to do in an era in which terrestrial radio seems to be moving away from guitar-based rock.

The live show, along with radio airplay, are paramount to growing Charm City Devils’ fan base, he says.

“If people don’t come out and support the bands that are writing their own songs, playing their own songs, there is no scene,” Allen said. “Baltimore, for a long time, really supported live music but it was really cover -oriented.“

While Allen believes events such as Noise in the Basement have established a vibrant scene for original rock music, Charm City Devils owe some of its recent success to a cover song.

The group’s take on “Man of Constant Sorrow” made it to No. 20 on the active rock chart and enabled the band to sign with national label eOne Entertainment, thus distributing the new album, “Sins,” through national retailers. Though it’s been available locally since April, “Sins” hit the national market in July.

Allen expressed surprise over the success of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a traditionally folk song first performed by fiddler Dick Burnett. In retrospect, he credits the timelessness of the song for its popularity:

“The song is over 100 years old,” he said. “It’s survived the test of time. It really connects with people on an emotional level. ”

While recording, Allen was unaware of the number of iconic artists who have released versions of the song, including Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Jackson Browne:

“If had I known so many great artists had covered it, I may have thought twice,” Allen said.

More good news followed when World Wrestling Entertainment picked up the Devils’ “Unstoppable” for its No Way Out pay-per-view in June, news the band found out about second-hand.

“I was in touch with the people in WWE and they told me it was between us and Shinedown for this one thing,” he said. “Then a few months go by. We were on tour and our phones started blowing up. They were playing ‘Unstoppable’ during a promo. We found out from fans.”

These types of cross-promotional opportunities are increasingly important in an era Allen refers to as “the worst of the down part of the cycle.” Today, Allen estimates that singles on the active rock chart get half of the spins of comparably charting pop songs.

He says, eventually, guitar-based rock will cycle back up in popularity. (“It always does.”) Until then, bands such as Charm City Devils must connect with fans as much as possible through opportunities such as No Way Out and social-media outlets.

“If Twitter were around when I was a kid, I would love to connect with my favorite bands that way,” Allen said.

Still, nothing beats face-to-face meetings and the connection built through all-out performances, which Charm City Devils pride themselves on.

After putting on a show for the hometown crowd Saturday, they’ll be on the road with bands such as Buckcherry, Saving Abel and Theory of a Deadman for a touring schedule that runs through November and will likely stretch into the new year.