Top 5 Covers of Britney Spears Songs (by Claire)

Hey, remember last week when I said “I’m not a huge Britney Spears fan” in reference to her cover of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”?

Oh wait! Just kidding! I guess I actually love her. This isn’t even a guilty pleasure confession—I’m like the idiot boy in teen movies who never realized he was in love with his hot best friend because she was so busy supporting his dreams and wearing glasses. I think I’ve genuinely respected Britney Spears and liked Britney Spears for years and never realized it.

“Are you out of your mind?” my boyfriend asked this morning, after I barged into the bathroom while he was showering to say “Do you think Britney Spears might be a punk rock feminist icon and we never noticed it?” And you might agree with him—I won’t barge into your shower to convince you otherwise. But maybe, just maybe, before we broach the various elaborate Britney Spears theses unspooling in my mind, you might dip your toe in the B. Spears waters and check out what other artists have done with some of her hits.


“Womanizer” cover by Lily Allen

Does a British accent always class up the joint? Not always. But Lily Allen’s charming, inescapable British accent plus a piano, as well as stripping all the sleek, produced instrumentation in “Womanizer” and subbing in a jazzy, bare bones band? That’s a recipe for classy, one that you could throw most any song into with excellent results. Lily Allen seems like a fellow covers fan, and does quite a few: other favorites include her cover of “Naïve” by The Kooks (which I can no longer find—anyone have a good link?) and her cover of “Straight to Hell” by The Clash.

(Really unrelated to everything bit of Lily Allen trivia: Did you know her brother is Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones and her song “Alfie” is about him?)


“Gimme More” cover by Sia

“Gimme More” is a fine pop song, but no one remembers it for it’s radio play. A consummate performer with multiple iconic music videos under her belt, Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” video looked like a late night commercial for a phone sex line. Everything about it felt forced, from the midriff baring outfits (Spears, though still gorgeous, had joined basically every other woman on earth in not being able to look flawless in a leather crop top) to the beginners-hip-hop-class dance moves. Her droopy performance of “Gimme More” that year at the VMAs commanded a collective “Oh…honey” from living room audiences across the country. She was going through a lot and seemed exhausted; little did we know, she was sharing that in her catchy new single.

Sia captures the surprising sad, exhausted undercurrent of this song. She slows it down and delivers it with a hoarse, weary voice. It’s a cover that illuminates the original song: How exhausting to have a crowd demand “gimme gimme more,” how true to Spears life at the time when she was paparazzi bait, her every mental health misstep breathlessly reported by blogs and tabloids. When you listen to the Sia version, you realize that half the song is a manic repetition of the plea from an unknown crowd for more, more, more from Spears. Is it any wonder her next song would ask again and again “Do you want a piece of me?”


“Oops! I Did It Again” cover by Richard Thompson

This isn’t a joke cover, and that’s why I love it. It would’ve been so easy for it to be a pat on the head, “isn’t pop music just the worst?”, eyerolling/borderline mansplainy sort of a cover, which would’ve been funny to fans who agree, and sort of a musical nuisance otherwise. But Richard Thompson commits and delivers the song with the same gravity and  fervor that he lends to all of his songs. He even has the audience join in, and though they giggle, they hit all the marks. It’s like Richard Thompson, who I love but have always viewed as the sort of artist who belongs more to my father than me, prodded the audience with a “You know and I know that you know all the words. Let’s just embrace this and enjoy it.”

“Toxic” cover by Stevie Ann

There are about a million covers of “Toxic”—noteworthy ones include Mark Ronson’s cover featuring Tiggers that samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard (most fun cover), Yael Naim’s cover (most famous cover), and a cover by Nickelcreek (most bluegrass cover).

Listen to the ones above and feel free to disagree, but I think Stevie Ann’s cover is the most awesome of the lot. Stevie Ann’s silky voice and acoustic stylings transforms “Toxic” into something luscious and soulful. This already seductive song is made more so, and what was once perfect fodder for a club is suddenly perfect for a date in front of a fire, cheeks flushed and eyes wide, a dwindling bottle of red wine at your side.


“Everytime” cover by Glen Hansard

“Everytime” is already sad: it does that magic trick that only breakup songs can pull off where simple, cliche lyrics strung together start to sound powerful. (Breakups, when you get down to it, almost always rest on cliches. That’s part of why the experience is so universal, and the breakup song genre persists.) The video takes that sadness to a new level by having Britney Spears drown in a bathtub, and showing glimpses of doctors unsuccessfully trying to revive her.

You might remember Glen Hansard from “Once,” a lovely film with a killer soundtrack that won a Best Song Academy Award. The cover is fairly true to the original, with the inclusion of Glen Hansard’s lovely brogue and a fiddle. “What have I done/ You seem to move on easy” stands out as a wrenching moment from the original that, in this cover, momentarily knocks the wind out of me.

 

Master Class: Covers and Cultures (by E.c. Fish)

The oft-told tale of post-WWII American popular music– and baby, that is rock and roll, among others– is a tale of cultural cross pollination, of white musicians adopting African American forms for a mass (that is, white) audience and creating a new kind of music that conquered the world. Depending on your point of view, it can also be seen as a story of outright theft, of riffs, songs, styles, publishing rights, and record sales as conquered colonies of the majority’s cultural empire. It is also the context for the cultural give and take of the second batch of covers in this master class. Notebooks ready, here we go…

“Karma Chameleon,” by Beat Farmers

For “Covers and Culture,” a cover of Culture Club by The Beat Farmers, an ’80s cowpunk outfit. The self conscious irony and DIY ethos of the postpunk era made it a new golden age of covers– Velvets songs, Monkees songs, old cereal commercial jingles, whatever the hell else you wanted to throw in there– mostly because writing songs was something a lot of these bands couldn’t do themselves. While this wasn’t necessarily true of the Farmers, this is a stellar example of the phenomenon, with the band using the original’s already copped from country harmonica line and drummer Country Dick Montana’s natural status as the anti-Boy George to turn the song into a sort of semiotic jamboree that flatly insists on the ridiculousness of both the original and the whole cultural enterprise.

“Dedicated To The One I Love,” by The Mamas and the Papas

A gorgeous record, and a near perfect example of an old school cover. Back in the age of vinyl long long ago, the record business was geared to the sale of 45s like the one you see in this video. LPs (or, for our younger readers, those big round things in the cardboard jackets with the nice graphics down in your parents’ basement) were tacked together from singles, b-sides, and cover versions. Covers were thus common, accepted, and thick on the ground, an A and R tradition that continued clear into the ’60′s and records like this one. It’s also an example of another cover tradition: a bunch of white people taking a song by a bunch of black people, buying it on the cheap, and throwing class privilege in the form of money and studio technology at it. The resulting record is quite beautiful, meticulously crafted, and very, very white. Also an example of a cover too few people know is a cover. School yourselves, people.

“Sail On, Sailor,” by Ray Charles and The Beach Boys

This is arguably not so much a cover as a live take with a guest vocalist, but with this particular guest vocalist that becomes a distinction without a difference: Ray Charles is going to change the Beach Boys much more than the Beach Boys are going to change Ray Charles. This is a nice reversal of the racial politics of “Dedicated”. As a slim and sane appearing Brian Wilson tells us in the intro, it was Ray’s voice that he heard when he originally wrote this song, making this both a performance closer to the original intent of the song than the recorded version and a solid homage to Ray and the African-American roots of rock and roll. Much nicer than the more common practice of taking a song by a black man (for example, Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”), changing the lyrics (to something about, oh, I don’t know, water sports), and claiming the result as original work, thus screwing said black man out of his publishing rights and royalties. Sad but true: Before Brian Wilson was God, he was Pat Boone.

“Norwegian Wood,” by Cornershop

Unless you’re a Punjabi speaker, this comes dangerously close to the cover as novelty record, but it actually represents another turn of the cultural screw twisted by Ray Charles above. Cornershop takes George Harrison’s imperialist hipster rip on Indian music (grafted rather superfluously  onto a Lennon song) as an excuse to wrap the whole thing up and ship it to the subcontinent. Plus, as my favorite seven year old music critic aptly pointed out, the sitar is much prettier on this one.

“Tears Began To Fall,” by The Persuasions*

More cultural reclamation. Frank Zappa was heavily influenced by doo-wop, and the Persuasions take that influences right back to the originating genre. One doesn’t even miss Flo and Eddie until after the two minute mark, when, like most middling doo-wop, this gets a little repetitious before (gulp) adding some instruments. Doo-wop fail.

(*Most videos of this song were recently taken off of YouTube. If you find a good video link, send it to Charmcityjukebox@gmail.com and we’ll post it here. Thanks!)

Can’t get enough covers know-how from Professor E.c. Fish? Come back next week for the final Master Class, and check out last week’s lesson

Master Class: Covers in Context (by E.c. Fish)

With no little thanks to the tens of thousands of cover bands that strive to make it sound like the record in the motel lounges and sports bars of this great nation of ours every Thursday through Saturday, the whole concept of the cover version has a somewhat dodgy reputation, carrying with it a taint of unoriginality and mercenary intent. This is a shame, because every cover (yes, even the “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’ ”  Who Cares and the Who Gives a Shits will use to close their second set this weekend at the Lonely Salesman lounge out in Nowheresville) represents a recontextualizing of a song into… something else, even if it’s just something a little off (hey, you try singing like Steve Perry four shows a week). In the best examples, it can be much more than that, to wit:

“Bizarre Love Triangle,” by Frente!

An undercover cover, so completely recontextualized that for a long while in the ’90′s I was familiar with both this and the New Order original without realizing they were the same song. They are, and it’s a rather beautiful one, a point made nicely in the stripped down Frente! (love that superfluous punctuation) take. You can no longer dance to it, I give it a 98.

“Oops! I Did It Again,” by Richard Thompson

Another dance floor evac and rescue job, and musical proof positive that there is nothing whatsoever in this world that is completely beyond redemption. Hear also: John Wesley Harding’s “Like A Prayer,” for which I could find no link that didn’t cost money or hurt.

“Creep,” by Carrie Manolakos

An amazing live take on the Radiohead original, both musically and interpretively. Manolakos’ minimal arrangement reduces the song to its essentials, while her vocal interpretation neatly flays Thom Yorke’s original, stripping it of any hint of hip ironic distance to reveal the stone cold painful motherfucker beneath. She means this, and it’s crushing her soul while you watch.

“Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” by Joe Jackson

A cover nailed through sheer force of personality. Jackson’s interpretation is a straight up if necessarily stripped down take on the hyperproduced Steely Dan studio original. Jackson’s persona (a guy you’d meet at the pub for a couple of pints), however, is a much better messenger for the wise compassion of the lyrics than singer/songwriter Donald Fagen’s (a hipster you’d meet at a lounge bar for some vodkas and maybe some hard drugs).

“Wonderwall,” by Straight No Chaser

More a capella as the ultimate strip-down, presented in lieu of an even sparer guitar and  fiddle cover I saw some buskers do down by the river in Iowa City right about the time the Oasis record came out. As in “Creep”, removing the song from the hipster Englishmen who originated it gives it a genuine kick upwards in the sincerity department.

Looking for more Covers in Context? Stop by next week for Lesson 2 by E.c. Fish

Master Class: Cake

Now it’s time to get right down to it. If we were eating birthday cake, the first week would be the icing: The first taste, beautifully sweet and supple. The second week would be the cake itself, firm yet delicate, with just the right amount of sugar. Today’s entry is the fork: it’s nothing like the birthday cake, but it’s entirely essential to eat the cake properly.

Uhhh…What?

Ok, I was going to write something else here, but I love that analogy so much. These are the songs the Workaholics crowd would be proud of: “Let’s get weird!”

“Jolene” on Motorcades of Generosity

This is the most straight-up rock song Cake has, but I think it’s also one of their best songs overall. It doesn’t sound much like the sound they’ve become known for, but it’s off their first album – they were just figuring out what they wanted to do. Having said that, it’s a brilliant song, and one of my favorite break-up songs, having helped me through the last one I went through. The lyrics to the chorus are particularly effective:  “every time I pull you close / push my face into your hair / cream rinse and tobacco smoke / that sickly scent is always, always there.” What separates it from the rest of their music, however, is the outro. It’s raw and truly angry. I have to wonder how often they play this song anymore. It can’t be a fan favorite. At least, not your average fan.

“You Part the Waters” on Motorcades of Generosity

Oh, what a fun, fun song. And weird. I’m convinced that the chorus, with the repeated use of the word “piano,” is just a distraction from the fact that John McCrea couldn’t come up with a rhyme for “piano.” In earnest, this song is all over the place. But I’ve found that it’s an incredible song to drive around and sing along to. The re-entry to the music after the strings-break is one of my all-time favorite Cake moments. It’s fun, it’s funky, it’s totally odd. It’s exactly what I want from a Cake song.

“Mr. Mastodon Farm” on Motorcades of Generosity

It’s pretty much a spoken word track; you’re just going to have to accept that. The lyrics in the verse sound like a college freshman got too stoned one afternoon and wrote a very, very odd poem. I can’t imagine the truth of writing this song is that far off from the previous description. But there’s something super soothing about this song, as if you could put it on while taking a bath. I’ve never been able why exactly I like this song as much as I do, but I do. And you probably should, too.

“Nugget” on Fashion Nugget

If you’re pissed off and need to listen to some angry music, most of the time Cake will not be your answer. The few exceptions are the song above, “Jolene,” and this song. The verse lyrics make little to no sense but are really fun to angrily shout, and the chorus is perfect those who are angry: “Shut the fuck up!” And it’s filled with “YA!’s” and vibraslaps a-slapping. It’s angry and silly at the same time – something only Cake could pull off.

“Thrills” on B-Sides and Rarities

I was very recently introduced to this track by my friend Karee. I was ecstatic to find a Cake track I hadn’t yet heard! And this song did not disappoint. It’s great, and singularly weird. A true spoken word track, this time with a seriously kick-ass beat and a liquid guitar line. There isn’t much to say about this track: In the immortal words of Mitch Hedberg, you’re either gonna love or hate it, or think it’s ok.

Master Class: Cake (by Joshua)

Last week’s introduction of Cake wasn’t really a fair shake. To put it simply, it just wasn’t weird enough. Cake has the ability to get really weird, but I don’t think you’re quite ready for the truly odd stuff. So today I’m going to give you a little insight into what makes Cake so awesome, and then we’re gonna delve a little deeper into their discography and get a little harder…and maybe a little weird.

Fan-Status

Cake has an incredibly unique sound, one that I imagine would be nigh impossible to duplicate. From the beginning, they suck you in with guitar riffs that you, if you played guitar, could probably pick out relatively easily, but would never think to do on your own. Then, the bass kicks in. Oh, the Cake bassists are legendary for their funkiness and precision timing with the drummer, who is always, always in the pocket. And then the voice comes over – it’s nearly monotone but has a tender quality to it, and always very jovial. You come to realize the deeper you delve into their songs that it’s almost never serious, too: Cake writes funny – or at least, deeply ironic – songs all the time.

With that in mind, here are some songs that you probably wouldn’t listen to if you weren’t already a fan of Cake. Consider it a glimpse into the mind of one who loves their sound, and knows that their strength lies in their humor…and their ridiculous covers. They can cover a song like nobody’s business.

“Arco Arena” on Comfort Eagle

I wanted to bring you in on a song that does two things: First, it gives you a glimpse (albeit a short one) into the harder side of Cake. They can rock out. Second, it lets you in on the ubiquitous Cake “YA!” John McCrea shouts “YA!” in almost every single song. Now that you know this fact, you’ll never be able to ignore it again, and like me, you’ll come to love it.

“Wheels” on Pressure Chief

This was a narrow miss for one of my Top 5 Album Openers. It’s an excellent track, and sequenced perfectly at the top of Pressure Chief. This album was a bit of a departure in sound from the previous album, but it became a fan favorite. It also has one of the funniest lines ever uttered in a song: “And the muscular cyborg German dudes dance with sexy French-Canadians.” And, oh yeah, the groove. Holy balls, what an amazing bass line. And the in-the-round fade-out? Amazing.

“The Guitar Man” on Pressure Chief

The other day we asked you what covers you thought were better than the original. If there was any shoe-in for that category, it would be this cover of a pretty lame ass Bread song. It doesn’t have to stray far from the original, but they give it the Cake flair (and of course, the Cake “YA!”) to great effect. And if I haven’t mentioned this before, Cake does harmonies like no other, and this song certainly showcases that.

“I Will Survive” on Fashion Nugget

The cover that started it all. That bass, man…sheesh. It’s lumping perfect, from hilariously restrained vocals (with cussing) to the aforementioned bass to the wicked awesome guitar solos, including my favorite one-note solo of all time after the guitar and bass breakdown. Fun fact: Gloria Gaynor, the original singer of the song, hates this cover. Well, tough shit, Gaynor, this is hands-down better than your version. And, if you notice, McCrea doesn’t change the gender of the subject either, singing “his eyes” over and over. It also has a mid-song count-off! And a badass trumpet solo! It’s easily one of my favorite covers of all time, and in the top 10 of Cake songs.

“Sheep Go to Heaven” on Prolonging the Magic

Ok, yes, this is an odd song. The lyrics truly make very little sense, but they are hilarious. I have an ex-girlfriend who could never get into Cake because of the inanity of the lyrics. She obviously missed the point of the band – the lyrics aren’t there to be deep and evocative (though they can be on occasion) – they’re there to have fun. That’s what this song is all about. And if Cake wasn’t there to teach us about the afterlife of livestock, would we ever know? I highly doubt it. Bonus: The video is good. And weird.

Master Class: Cake (By Joshua)

An introduction to Master Class: In the coming weeks, we here at Charm City Jukebox will be giving you an education into some of our favorite bands. The segments will be in-depth looks at what makes the bands so good at what they do and why they have become our favorites. Each week we will dig a little deeper into the band’s oeuvre in an effort to expose you not just to what you’ve already heard but some of their more obscure tracks. Hopefully you’ll come to love these bands as much as we do!

Beginner’s Luck

Cake is a very easy band to get into, simply because the songs they put out into the world are so good. Singles can come to define a band’s existence in the public eye. If that’s the case with Cake, they’ve done an amazing job at picking songs that both are representative of the sound of the band and make you want to listen to more of their music. Each song below is a great statement of what Cake is and are superficial enough to make you want more. And they’re funny and quirky and generally poppy enough to get good airplay – not an easy combination to create.

“Short Skirt/Long Jacket” on Comfort Eagle

This is a great introduction to the Cake sound: It leads with a long, sustained trumpet note, then the beat drops immediately. It’s a fat, thick, bass-heavy sound; it’s an easily repeatable and remembered groove. The singer, John McCrea, has a voice that’s not going anywhere. He sing-talks, sure, but it’s so fun and funny you forget. And the lyrics are hilarious and punctuated by the ubiquitous Cake sing-a-long background vocals. And it has a hefty dose of the vibraslap, what it obviously their favorite percussive instrument. (It’s mine as well.)

“Love You Madly” on Comfort Eagle

This is a great way to find out the kind of love song Cake likes to sing: It’s silly. Very silly. But it’s also sweet in its own way. It’s like they’re saying great love comes with silliness, or that great love is only great because of the lack of dignity. And it also typifies the kind of guitar work you’re like to hear: lots of short, punctuated, syncopated riffs rather than overwrought riffs like you’d find on Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin.

“The Distance” on Fashion Nugget

If you haven’t heard any Cake, or think you haven’t, you’re wrong. You’ve heard this song. It’s been in many, many movies and countless commercials and television shows. My favorite instance of this showing up on television is in The Simpsons in the episode where Bart gets a racing horse…with attitude. And it’s tough not to like this song. And just try not to tap your hands or sing along if it comes on while you’re driving. It’s impossible.

“Let Me Go” on Prolonging the Magic

Here’s the other side of a Cake love song: Simplicity. The lyrics are not overdone, just…done. It’s sung without affectation or dishonesty – You can almost picture McCrea looking you right in the eye as he sings these lyrics. And it’s a little fucked up, too, right? He’s singing about how amazing this woman is, how effortlessly beautiful she is, and she’s playing a game with him. It’s not quite playing hard to get, but it’s somewhere in that realm, isn’t it? The guitar work is impeccable, too.

“Waiting” on Pressure Chief

The only non-single on this list – and it’s a great way to get into the bulk of Cake’s albums. It has a killer drum sound, like the snare was run through a filter of some sort. It’s badass. And the acoustic guitar has the kind of simplistic-but-kickass riff you’ve now come to know as the Cake sound. I just love the up and down riff on the keyboard, too.