Everything Feels Like The Movies - My Six Favorite Cover Songs of 2020
6. “Total Eclipse of The Heart” performed by Angie McMahon
At this point, if you’ve been following the career of Australian singer and songwriter Angie McMahon, it should come as no surprise to you when I say that she can sing the absolute hell out of a cover. Her own original material is, of course, incredible and emotionally devastating, but the steady stream of cover songs she has to her hame, including a turn of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and an absolutely flooring version of the iconic Fleetwood Mac song “Silver Spring,” as well as the two covers she included on her recently issued Piano Salt EP show the wide spectrum of artists and songs she’s willing to take on, and that she isn’t afraid to make the song her own, while still paying homage to the spirit of the original.
Unfortunately released as Amazon Originals1, McMahon recorded not one, but two versions of the Jim Steinman penned2, Bonnie Taylor sung 1983 dramatic pop ballad “Total Eclipse of The Heart”—one iteration featuring McMahon’s band helping craft a slow burning, woozy musical atmosphere behind her; the other, a visceral solo performance with just McMahon and her guitar.
Available as a mp3—the full band version of “Total Eclipse” is one of the few Angie McMahon songs that features what I could only call “slick” production values. Known for her raw, ramshackle energy, there is a lot of studio trickery, and a lot of density to the layers of the arrangement. The production technique on the percussion makes it sound crisp, but ultimately flat, so it almost sounds like a drum machine, keeping slow, but steady time as the rest of the instrumentation builds throughout the course of the song. Right from the beginning, there is a little reverby, chugging noise that runs just underneath for almost the entirety of the song, the strong, rumbling groove of the bass, a piano and ripples of synthesizers, and at least two guitars, if not three.
On top of this is McMahon’s voice—which features perhaps the most slick production and trickery of all. Outside of the effects placed on it through various points in the song, and the different layers of background vocals she ends up providing for herself, her voice is overlapped and stacked to accommodate the song’s call and response to itself—the “turn around”’s, and the subsequent lyrics that follow: “Every now and then I get a little bit tired,” or “nervous,” or “terrified,” or the song’s quintessential line, “Every now and then I fall apart.”
The thing about both the full band version is that is an example of how, when she wants to be, McMahon is an expert at practicing restraint—you wouldn’t know it from the explosive moments throughout her debut Salt, but here, she’s holding the whole thing back from reaching the bombastic, theatrical heights of the original recording, or even the early 90s version by Nicki French. Truthfully, it never seems like it’s at risk of becoming that dramatic, with McMahon’s voice, at times, barely rising above a whisper and she plods her way through the layers of music.
The solo version, available to watch on YouTube, finds McMahon in her element. There isn’t a ‘night and day’ difference between what she put together in the studio, but it is like looking at the same thing through a funhouse mirror. With a guitar coated slightly in reverb, McMahon works here way up to, and totally earns, the moment when she completely lets loose with the song at about the three minute mark, letting her voice falter and show its imperfections while she belts out guttural, wordless vocal sounds, then doubling down on that within the refrain, shredding her voice, and manifesting the real, tangible desperation buried within the song’s lyrics.
As classic, or at least iconic, as Bonnie Taylor’s original recording is, nearly 38 years later, the camp and theatricality of it hasn’t aged well. It is a love song, of sorts, but it’s a dark love song with a palpable, dangerous longing that in the hands of McMahon, in both iterations—the hazy, swooning full band arrangement, and the howling solo recording—is intensified, harrowingly and beautifully so.
5. “Weird Fishes” performed by Lianne La Havas
Truthfully, I hadn’t realized how many good, or compelling, or interesting cover songs were released this year until I had been introduced to Lianne La Havas’ cover of Radiohead’s 2007 In Rainbows track, “Weird Fishes.” In a sense, it was this song that inspired me to even reflect on this aspect of the year in contemporary popular music, and find the pieces that I felt were the best.
For the last year or so, ever since I heard Lucy Dacus’ take on Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” I’ve thought about this quote from a very, very old Pitchfork piece3 about how cover songs can be like wrestling a bear—and I think about that when I say you can break down covers, generally, into three camps: ones that really work, ones that aren’t great but aren’t terrible and in the end are forgettable, and ones that are miscast or absolute train wrecks from the start.
Pulled from her self-titled third full-length, more or less a ‘break up album’ written and recorded after the tumultuous separation from her partner, La Havas’ version of “Weird Fishes” works, and works well, for myriad reasons. To begin with, she literally draws no attention to it. It’s placed at the halfway point on the album—opening up the second side of the LP; the album itself was not advertised to feature a Radiohead cover, and I really would not have even been aware of this if not for Hanif Aburraquib4 mentioning it in one of his Instagram stories shortly after the album’s release. Practically unassuming, it’s simply treated as another song on the album—a part working towards the building of a whole.
“Weird Fishes,” in the hands of La Havas, works because she both stays relatively true to the structure of the original Radiohead recording, but she also strips away some of the ominous gloom, and replaces it with something that I hesitate to say is ‘fun,’ but it’s rollicking, especially in the second half, there are moments where you can tell that she is having fun while playing it—much like the rest of Lianne La Havas, it is full of soul, both in the literal sense, as well as metaphorical.
It begins the same way the Radiohead original begins—with crisp, precise percussion; however, here, it’s almost a “gotcha” moment, as after a single measure, the tempo doesn’t change, but percussionist Dan See suddenly makes the rhythm less frenetic, and exponentially more soulful—creating an actual groove, which serves as the foundation for the warmth of the electric piano to come in, filling in for the electric guitar from the original, and La Havas’ smoky voice to sing the words that, if you are a fan of Radiohead like me, you know by heart.
Within the context of Lianne La Havas, how does “Weird Fishes” even work? It is, inherently, a break up album—but is “Weird Fishes” a ‘break up song’?
It’s tough to know, really, what a lot of Radiohead songs are about—Thom Yorke is a master of ambiguity, vague, shadow, and fragmented lyrics that, simply, sometimes just sound good in a melody over the music. There are a number of lines here, though, that are a little easier to understand thanks to La Havas’ slightly clearer singing voice, that lend themselves to the idea of the ending of something: “Why should I stay here?,” she asks in the first verse, and then in the second, concedes, “Everybody leaves if they get the chance.”
While La Havas’ version is musically working within a different affect in comparison to the Radiohead original, and while it is a lot less densely layered, that means it is no less bombastic, captivating, or moving. And it really soars in the song’s second half, after the break where La Havas sings the song’s eerie bridge: “I get eaten by the worms, and weird fishes.” “Weird Fishes,” then, kicks into high gear, while still maintaining that R&B, funk edge—the drumming hits just a little harder, and the electric piano is replaced with a guitar—both it, and the bass, becoming slightly distorted and fuzzed out as the instrumentation's energy continues to build, and La Havas belts out, “I hit the bottom and escape,” which is, maybe the lyric that can, almost effortlessly, make this a break up song.
Covering Radiohead is audacious; and there are a lot of shitty Radiohead covers out there, but Lianne La Havas has the unassuming grace, intelligence, and confidence to pull this off and leave you absolutely speechless in its wake.
4. “Everybody Loves You,” performed by The (Dixie) Chicks
For their first album in well over a decade, the trio formerly known as The Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”5) partnered with pop impresario Jack Antonoff as producer, and concocted an album that, at times, is a stark reflection of our current tumultuous existence, but is also mostly a ‘divorce record’ that reveals the brutal narrative of Natalie Maines’ messy divorce from her husband of nearly 20 years.
Sequenced halfway through Gaslighter’s first side, though, is “Everybody Loves You,” a harrowing and tender ballad that falls into neither of those conceits, which is I suppose what draws so much attention to it in the first place; while it lacks the contemporary social commentary or the painful first person account of separation that is found in the rest of the album’s material, it does not lack commentary overall—though it’s dressed up in ambiguity; and it certainly does not lack pain.
“Everybody Loves You” is one of the few songs on Gaslighter that isn’t credited to members of The Chicks; originally co-written and recorded by Charlotte Lawrence, it was released two years ago on Lawrence’s debut effort, the Young EP. Here, with Antonoff’s name included as co-writer, presumably through his contributions to the music’s arrangement for The Chicks, it’s a song that literally grabs ahold of you from the moment you hear the sorrowful acoustic guitar strings and Maines’ low voice utter the first line: “I am so tired. I have to tame my mind before I get too frustrated.”
At the time when Gaslighter was released—originally slated for May, then delayed until July due to the ongoing pandemic—I speculated, while sitting down with the album and working on a lengthy piece about it—what “Everybody Loves You” is about. Lawrence, apparently6, confirmed my suspicions during an Instagram live broadcast over the summer, stating that it is, in fact, about sexual assault—specifically, her reflection on an assault that she more or less suppressed the gravity of, only to wake up one day with the realization that it was, in fact, traumatic and is something that should not be downplayed.
The antagonist in “Everybody Loves You,” though, is the titular ‘you’—a person adored by others, which makes the assault all that more difficult to grapple with, and the hatred harder to justify.
Lawrence’s original, her voice youthful, husky, wounded, is primarily based around a cavernous sounding piano and dramatic pop music glistenings and flourishes in the background. With The Chicks, the deliberately slow and emotional pacing is retained, but the instrumentation is more in line with the pop-country you would come to expect from the group—the acoustic guitar does a bulk of the heavy lifting, alongside a similarly ancient sounding piano; the other main instruments for sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire arrive midway through, at first understated, then soaring during the song’s instrumental break. And the group’s tight harmonies, as demonstrated throughout the album Gaslighter, haven’t changed at all since their late 90s breakthroughs—the three of them singing together, especially on the refrain, only adds to the seriousness of the song.
There are specific lines that stand out in “Everybody Loves You”—lines that you can remove from the overall context of the song and they still resonate, like, “I try not to talk about it; I’m too mad, I’m too late, I’m too gentle—it’s too hard to explain, I’m not helpful,” but it’s really the song’s harrowing refrain that, in the hands of the group and their layered voices, becomes rolling hypnotic waves that you get swept up on: “It’s my body, and I’m trying to hate you ‘cause I want to,” they sing; then later, “It’s my body, and I’m trying to forgive you—I don’t want to.” Then the central question of the song, which lingers with no resolution: “Why does everybody love you?”
A fascinating and dark choice of a “cover”7 to include in an album full of darkness, yes, but also big pop energy at times, “Everybody Loves You” is song that literally grabs ahold and never lets go until its fragile, heartbreaking conclusion—and even then, this is the kind of song that lingers with you long after it’s finished.
3. “You Said Something” performed by Waxahatchee
Apparently the poorman’s Pitchfork music website Stereogum needed to be saved.
For as much shit as I talk about Stereogum, I still read it, or at least peruse the headlines to look for things that other music news websites aren’t giving coverage to. Though I had stopped reading both it and Consequence of Sound for a majority of the summer because they both had pretty backhanded things to say about Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Side B.
Once and independent music ‘blog,’ it was purchased by Spin Media in 2007; Spin Media, in 2016, was then purchased by the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group, which would explain why, for a time, Stereogum was more or less rewriting content that had originally been published on Billboard’s website.
Last year, the founder and editor-in-chief of Sterogum announced that he was buying it back from the conglomerate that owned it—but due to the ongoing pandemic, the site’s advertising revenue suffered, and to continue functioning as an independent website, it needed to be ‘saved.’
Save Stereogum: An ’00’s Covers Comp was released to crowd funded donors at the beginning of September—a staggering 55 tracks, it’s well over three hours in length and boiling over with nostalgia for the years 2000 to 2010, a time for ‘peak indie rock,’ though the choice of covers isn’t limited to ‘indie’ (e.g. the miscast Illuminati Hotties’8 take on Britney Spears’ “Lucky.”)
55 tracks is, like, a lot of tracks, so the whole thing is an overwhelming zip file to open, and there were a lot of things that I was, truthfully not interested in sitting through; there were even covers by artists I do like (Julien Baker and Wye Oak) that just didn’t seem to land.
But then there is Kate Crutchfield’s sparse, honest, gorgeous turn on the P.J. Harvey song “You Said Something.” (p.s. right click, save as, etc.)
Pulled from what is arguably Harvey’s best album, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea9, often referred to as her “New York album,” Crutchfield, her voice drenched in the Southern twang that is all over her excellent record Saint Cloud, strips away the swooning, playful, damn near youthful longing and grandeur of Harvey’s original, and replaces it with a tenderness, and wistfulness that weren’t so much missing in the first place, but were never the central focus of the song.
Whether being creeping and ambiguous or straightforward, during the high points of her career, Harvey could be, when she wanted to, an incredible lyricist, and “You Said Something” is one of the countless moments on Stories From The City that overflows with evocative imagery—right from the get go, she sets the scene of late nights, or early mornings, depending on how you look at it, time spent with a loved one, and long, meaning conversations held on a rooftop.
The trick she pulls with the song, though, even as rich it is in the picture it paints, she never reveals what the titular something is—just saying it was something both important, and that she’d never forgotten.
With her strummed acoustic guitar, and wildly earnest delivery of the lyrics, Crutchfield’s striped back version is not the ‘antithesis’ of Harvey’s original, but in this other presentation, 20 years later, the best way to describe it is this: P.J. Harvey’s recording of “You Said Something” is about when you are living in the moment that she’s describing; Crutchfield’s is about looking back on it, later on, with a bittersweet pang attached to the memory. It doesn’t change the meaning, or intent of the song, but just adds another layer to it—it tries to capture these beautiful, important, yet fleeting moments, and the insight from somebody close.
I’ve always had a fondness for Harvey’s original, and within the last year and a half, it has come to mean something more to me—this cover, now, in its simplicity, resonates a little deeper, because even though they didn’t take place on the rooftop overlooking New York, I have been a part of long, heartfelt conversations where something is said that is both really important, and unforgettable.
2. “About Today,” performed by Bartees Strange
What I realized around three years ago is that we’ve all had “About Today” moments.
I came to this realization when The National released their album Sleep Well, Beast, and after feeling simultaneously seen and attacked by the glitchy, brooding single, “Guilty Party,” which is, in a sense, a continuation, or an extension, of the feeling from their 2004 song “About Today.”
Tucked into the band’s Cherry Tree EP, “About Today,” eventually, as their profile began to rise in the mid-2000s, found new life in a deconstructed, reconstructed, and expanded arrangement that changed the song’s tempo, and slowly brought the song to a cacophonic peak.
There are lyrics in the domestic scene that National frontman Matt Berninger paints with his rumbling baritone that will haunt me for the rest of my life—“Can I ask you about today?,” he mumbles. “How close am I to losing you?”
I would have liked to have written about Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, the audacious debut EP from Bartees Cox Jr, who performed under the name Bartees Strange; announced in February, released digitally (in part) in March, then physically on vinyl at the beginning of the summer, I was never really quite clear on what material, exactly, was included on the EP.
The reason that it’s an audacious debut release is because at its heart, and as it arrived in its physical form, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is an EP comprised entirely of National cover songs—seven in total. But here is where I had a hard time understanding how the EP was intended to be experienced: early versions of the digital download of the album, released months in advance of the physical iteration, included fewer songs, with additional tracks, like “The Geese of Beverly Road,” for example, to be added on later in promotion for “Bandcamp Fridays.”10 The digital EP also includes three Cox originals—“Going Going” is one of the most exhilarating tracks of 2020, let’s keep it funky—but those originals were nowhere to be found on the physical edition of Say Goodbye, and only one of them was included on Cox’s full length debut as Bartees Strange, Live Forever.
And by the time my physical copy of Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy had arrived, I wouldn't say that the moment to write about it had already come and gone, would I would say that by the summer, I was already burning myself out and overwhelming myself with self-imposed deadlines for the site.
There’s a part of me, from the moment that I first sat in my living room back in February, in the ‘before times,’ listening to Cox’s cover of “About Today,” that instantly wanted to compare his sound, or his affect, to TV on The Radio, but is that because he is a black man performing inherently ‘white music?’
That, I guess, is kind of the conceit behind Say Goodbye—a person of color finds himself at a National concert and wonders why very few others in the audience look like he does; the songs are deconstructed, then reconstructed, at times in a blistering fashion, to perhaps, introduce them to new sets of ears that might never consider checking out ‘sad white people music’ like The National.
While there are other excellent moments on Say Goodbye—Cox’s takes on both “Mr. November” and “Lemonworld” are both impressive in the way they both honor the original but take the feeling of the song in totally different directions—“About Today,” the EP’s opening track, is high point, and it is the kind of song that, like so many songs before it, stopped me in my tracks the first time I listened.
It just starts; “Today,” Cox utters, in a hushed voice, with a warm synthesizer accompanying him. “You were far away,” he continues. “And I,” each word falling into place where it is supposed to as he plays with huge pauses in between words. “Didn’t ask you why.”
We’ve all found ourselves in an “About Today” moment, where there is a distance that feels like it can never be closed, and I stop short of saying you and your partner go to bed ‘mad at one another,’ but there is a tension that you can still feel in the darkness. “Hey,” Cox asks near the ending of the song. “Are you awake?” The response is “Yeah I’m right here”—“Well can I ask you about today? How close am I to losing you?”
Musically, with its layered synthesizers and glitchy beeps and boops creating what resembles a rhythm (part of the charm is that this song just kind of floats in the ether without any real direction leading it) it is completely in line with the eerie, iciness of Thom Yorke’s solo material, specifically pieces from The Eraser. And with the sound of rain falling in the background, Cox as built a desolate landscape where he purposefully shows restraint, never letting his vocals, or the arrangement get out of hand—a surprising contrast from the way he performed this live for a radio session, which allows his powerful voice to lift toward the rafters, really selling the drama, and more importantly, the soulfulness he is capable of putting into a song.
There is a terrible, dizzying feeling of loneliness to “About Today,” in the way he lets the music just swirl and exist around you. And we’ve all been in those moments—where the distance feels like it can never be filled, or the tension is still very present, even in the darkness, and all you want is to drift away.
1.“Iris” performed by Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers
It began with a tweet—singer and songwriter Phoebe Bridgers stating that she would record a cover of the iconic Goo Goo Dolls 1998 single “Iris” if Trump lost the 2020 Presidential Election.
A second tweet, this time from Maggie Rogers, offering to contribute additional vocals followed, and less than a week after Joe Biden was declared the victor in the election, the two young performers made good on their promise—available for only 24 hours (on Friday the 13th) via Bridgers’ Bandcamp page, their cover of “Iris” (right click, save as, etc) was downloaded nearly 47,000 times. The single, set as a “pay what you want” download, generated $173k and change for the Georgia-based voting rights group, Fair Fight.
The Goo Goo Dolls original—realistically their most successful song, and arguably their most ‘well known’ song, is probably one of the most dramatic, earnest, over the top pop songs I can think of. Written for the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan vehicle City of Angels, the lyrics, yes, do their best to truncate the plot of the film into song, but are also wild in their theatrically—that’s what makes it what it is—it lacks the self-awareness to know it is borderline camp, and the earnestness makes it powerful and memorable, nearly 25 years later.
Bridgers and Rogers don’t do away with the theatricality of the original, but they certainly pair it down—both in its instrumentation, as well as in the almost tender way they deliver the lyrics, and in the end, it is far more devastating than the Goo Goo Dolls could ever hope to be.
Taking a very folky, or almost bluegrassy approach to the arranging, “Iris” is gently plucked out on acoustic guitars, a banjo, mandolin, and a violin, only reaching a moment of dramatic tension during the song’s sweeping instrumental break—but through only one string player, rather than many, a lot of the cinematic grandeur is removed, though the song, in the hands of Rogers and Bridgers, is no less impactful.
One of the reasons that this is such a successful cover is that Bridgers and Rogers both walk the line carefully between sincerity and irony. The winking, cutting sense of humor Bridgers has on social media doesn’t always appear in her music, and with “Iris,” she sings in a very fragile, almost soothing voice—it’s sincere, but there is the underlying in-joke of the very fact that she has chosen to cover this song that keeps a smile on your face while you are listening, and presumably put a smile on hers while she was singing—the meme generated cover art to the mp3 also blurs the line with the sincerity.
Rogers, who provides devastatingly gorgeous harmony vocals during the infamous refrain of the song, takes the second verse on her own, and opts to belt it out, with a slight twang in her voice, just a little more enthusiastically: “When everything feels like the movies—yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive.”
Both Bridgers and Rogers were four years old when “Iris” was originally recorded; however, as dramatic of a song as it is, it is the kind of slice of the 90s that endures. Their arrangement, emotional for less manipulative reasons and more for the delicate way they allow the heart of the song to come through, never tries to be ‘better’ than the original—it pays its respects, but in that blurred line between earnestness and irony, the idea of wanting to be ‘seen’ for who you are by someone you love, and that kind of terrible, beautiful longing that comes along with it, is magnified and ruminated on because in the end everything really is made to be broken, and we all just want somebody to know who we are.
1- I don’t really fuck with Amazon because Jeff Bezos is a trash person, but I shelled out the $1.29 or whatever to cop this mp3; however, I did totally use a YouTube to MP3 ripper to grab the ‘solo’ version of the song.
2- Knowing Jim Steiman is behind this song is really not surprising given how dramatic it is, and literally all he can do is huge, lengthy, theatrical pop songs. This, allegedly, was pulled from some kind of vampire-themed musical he had written, which also makes so much sense.
3- The review in question is of the Mark Kozelek album made up of Modest Mouse covers, Tiny Cities.
4- I talk about Aburraquib a lot in my writing; he is my favorite living writer and one of the handful of individuals that truly inspire me. His taste in music is 100% more eclectic and diverse than my own, and I am always willing to give anything he recommends a chance.
5- I am still uncertain how I feel about this name change. I ‘get it,’ though it seems borderline performative. And also “The Chicks” is a fucking terrible band name.
6- It’s cited now as annotation on the Genius page for this song.
7- For some reason, something is preventing me from really recognizing this as a cover, even though it’s on this list. Maybe because it’s not a song I knew; I guess when you hear the expression ‘cover song,’ you think of a well-known tune, or at least something you are familiar with.
8- Illuminati Hotties might be a worse name than The Chicks. I said what I said. I said it with my chest.
9- I had every intention of writing a think piece about Stories From The City this year but was A) maybe a little too depressed and overwhelmed to sit down and do that in October, but also B) am going to be patient and wait for the vinyl reissue, which is expected out next year as part of Harvey’s massive reissue campaign of her entire catalog.
10- Bandcamp Friday is the first Friday of every month where the music site waives its cut, and artists retain 100% of the money earned from downloads and merchandise in an effort to help musicians during the pandemic.