Stevie Wonder – “We Can Work It Out”

Rubber Soul marked the point when the Beatles moved away from pure teenybopper pop and on to more mature musical themes. “We Can Work It Out,” recorded during those Rubber Soul sessions, plays at first like a plea for compromise, yet the desire to “work it out” is hardly convincing after repeated demands that the other person back down from their argument. The song comes from the point of view of a person used to being in control, someone who is willing to threaten to break up if they do not get their way. That lyrical position is combined rather ironically with a mellow, playful melody, making “We Can Work It Out” a creepy little passive-aggressive attack.

Six years later Stevie Wonder, also moving away from his teen image at the time, released his version of “We Can Work It Out.” Drenched in delicious early 1970s Motown sound, Wonder’s cover is punctuated with disembodied shouts, both intensifying the funk and celebrating the passion within conflicts. Wonder never tries to hide what “We Can Work It Out” is: angry, a little sorrowful, an expression of frustration in a man willing to make a few mild threats in a desperate attempt to keep love alive. It’s an exhilarating reflection of Western culture at the end of the 1960s, more honest and compelling than the Beatles’ tepid version could ever have been. – Stacia Kissick Jones

Johnny Winter – “Highway 61 Revisited”

It’s easy to take potshots at Bob Dylan’s originals on the basis of his thin, nasal voice. Still, his raw tone made some of his songs, like “Masters of War,” more powerful. But despite having slide guitar guru Mike Bloomfield punctuate the changes on “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan’s version is a fun, throwaway romp. The jaunty blues structure supports his oddly phrased drawl, but it’s just a setting for his cool sounding lyrics.

On Second Winter, Johnny Winter sets the tune on fire. He abandons the restraint that Bloomfield brought to the original and packs every available moment with singing slide work. The manic intensity retains the fun of the original but adds a frantic methamphetamine edge that suits the dystopian slant of the lyrics. Winter isn’t a spectacular singer, but he’s much more engaged in the story of the song. His guitar is still wailing as the track fades out. Live versions like the one on A Rock ‘n’ Roll Collection show how far Winter could take the tune. – Jester Jay Goldman

This Mortal Coil – “Song to the Siren”

This Mortal Coil’s covers of 1960s and 1970s psychedelic and folk tunes transformed into sparse, pretty, female-led melodies blow away their original counterparts. Tim Buckley’s (yes, that’s Jeff Buckley’s dad) “Song to the Siren” is a shining example of what their rearrangements accomplish. Buckley’s almost Cher-like voice doesn’t even compare to Elizabeth Fraser’s (Cocteau Twins) angelic reinterpretation. Many people don’t know that these are cover tunes and that’s fine. The quality of these covers strips away the 1970s hokey qualities and elevates them to new levels. – Cedric Justice

“Jesus Was a Crossmaker” by Frida Hyvönen

“Jesus Was a Crossmaker” is one of the most lasting songs Judee Sill wrote before her death in 1979. It remains one of those folk songs so well-written that just about every artist’s take is worth a listen. The Hollies’ cover is a perennial favorite, but Frida Hyvönen’s is a more contemporary interpretation that feels wholly more true to Sill’s original, a powerful ballad recorded for Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill. It’s a fitting nod to the original’s simple beauty that shies away from the Hollies’ energetic drum kicks and twangy guitar jangle. Instead she opens the song with a sparse piano track, rich and resonant, her voice softly recorded with an airy, spacious aesthetic. Her voice channels the song’s power with many small variations, multitracked harmonies and a fluttering delivery building to a momentous, haunting refrain. Hyvönen’s performance makes the song her own while safely cradling the soul of Sill’s tale. – Michael Merline

The Replacements – “Black Diamond”

Bands don’t always have a fixed meaning, and if Kiss and their ilk once represented blue collar pride and empowerment, they have obviously become, over time, a more meaningful symbol of rock excess and, through Gene Simmons’ increasingly common television appearances, celebrity narcissism. But in covering an early Kiss gem called “Black Diamond,” the Replacements somehow brought the music closer to the intended meaning at its core. This street-smart rocker (“Out on the street for a living,” it begins) toughens up in their capable hands, less a cocksure strut than a raging prole anthem. Even the most vague lyrics (“They’ve got you under their thumb“) attain all the meaning they could possibly need in the context of this album, which champions the androgynous, the too-shy loners and all those who are unsatisfied. Compared to the Replacements’ version, the original sounds too controlled: only in retrospect did we realize that the Replacements’ drunken sloppiness is the true sound of working class survival. And best of all, unlike Kiss, the passage of time has eroded none of the power of the Replacements. “Black Diamond” will forever be a ‘Mats tune. – Trevor Link

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One Comment

  1. iembalm

    October 20, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Pictures of Matchstick Men. Camper Van Beethoven’s version far exceeds the rather slight original.


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