learning love songs

est. 2008




What is it about a cover? Is it the familiarity, or the novelty? Is it the feeling of comfort you get, the intimacy between a listener and a work they are already familiar with? Or is the spine-tingling newness that makes it feel fun, edgy, extra worthwhile?

Tonight, this absolutely stunning cover of “Wicked Game” from James Vincent McMorrow has me swooning. There isn’t exactly a shortage of covers of this song, it’s true, but this one stands out for its stark minimalism. His voice is ethereal, the guitar is simple, and I love love love that way he holds out the note during the final chorus. Mastery! The live recording adds another dimension — as an audience member, you feel like you’re capturing something unique and special when a performer whips out something that isn’t in their catalog. As a listener six years later, it captures something about that room, that moment, that cannot ever be replicated.

I think that’s one of the things I love so much about performance. That it is ephemeral, that it is fleeting, that it cannot ever be replicated or copied. You can sing the same song and have it come out an entirely different way.

“The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do
I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you
And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you…

~Wicket Game
As covered by James Vincent McMorrow, Live at Killkenny Arts Festival 2011.


Tonight I read through the 25th anniversary piece of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that Stereogum put out last week and I have to give it up for such a great, in-depth piece. It goes through everything — from the inspiration of its songwriters, to how it landed into the hands of the inimitable Bonnie Raitt, to how its legacy has lived on today in numerous covers and iterations. It’s one of the most beautiful songs that late 20th-century pop had to give, and I remember loving it as a girl, crying to it as a teen, and relating to it as a young woman, like so, so, so many others out there (it’s one of Adele’s favorites, too!) — so crazy to think all these years I thought I knew who wrote it, having no idea there was a songwriting duo behind the demo given to Bonnie.

What’s especially cool about this to me is the very concept of doing an anniversary piece for a song — mainstream music writing is largely focused on  what’s hot, what is trendy, but there is this growing appetite for revisiting older music and doing anniversary tours and re-issues and all that jazz, and stories like this show that music writers are paying attention, and finding new ways to tap into it. Reading about how Bruce Hornsby didn’t listen to the demo and tried to make it his own, how they at first tried to clutter it up with other sounds…it’s all a part of a story of how a meaningful song got made, one that listeners across generations have now embraced.

With an infinite buffet of options over what to read on the internet, it’s tough to get readers attention. But I think if you invest in pieces like this, you’re going to raise the bar by putting out quality works that are interesting and indulge in the creative process. It is one thing to write about how something sounds, it is another entirely to write about how it was made, and how that plays into what it sounds, and if we as listeners/musicians/artist advocates are going to make sure that musicianship remains respected in an age when some bro-dudes with a looper and Pro Tools can make the song of the summer, it’s going to take a semblance of education into what goes into making music. That being said, you’re not going make everyone read a piece this long, and you’re not going to get people to care about artists they aren’t invested in. But if you keep plucking on those heart strings of what audiences love, and give them something extra such as the story behind it, you might be creating audiences that have an even deeper connection to the songs they’re connected to.

Turn down the lights
Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices inside my head
Lay down with me
Tell me no lies
Just hold me close, don’t patronize
Don’t patronize me

‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
Here in the dark, in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power
But you won’t, no you won’t
‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t
~I Can’t Make You Love Me
Bonnie Raitt, Luck of the Draw


“You are the hole in my head
I am the pain in your neck
You are the lump in my throat
I am the aching in your heart

We are tangled
We are stolen
We are living where things are hidden.”

One of the things I truly enjoyed about Judd Apatow’s “Love” Netflix series was the closing credit soundtrack – each song was a cynical, desperate kiss-off to match the episode’s screwball relationship defeats. I have an extra reason to love it now, because it reminded me that this song exists – probably my favorite thing Eddie Vedder has ever recorded.

I’ve never been much of a Pearl Jam fan – I just wasn’t around at the right time!! And there’s only so much retrospective listening one can do!! – but any time I hear Vedder’s solo work and folk-acoustic tracks it leaves such a good impression on me. His voice will go down in history as one of the most recognizable of our generation, and one of the most unforgettable, too. This cover of John Doe’s (of the formative punk rock band X) “The Golden State” is probably one of my all-time surprise favorites – I rediscover this song every year in some form or fashion, via TV or Pandora or whatever, and fall in love with all over again.

The harmonies are so, so perfect, using this really open, obvious counterpoint that makes the two voices sound like they’re in different worlds but still meshing purposely. The result, and the sentiment, is really quite fitting. I ought to stop forgetting to put this on every playlist I ever make, learn to play it, and find out more of John Doe’s original work because I would love to hear more of this.

“We are luck
We are fate
We are the feeling you get in the golden state

We are love
We are hate
We are the feeling I get when you walk away.”
~The Golden State
John Doe feat. Kathleen Edwards, The Golden State, as covered by Eddie Vedder and Corin Tucker


Saturday! SaturdaySaturdaySaturday. On Saturday I finally get to see Marianas Trench, one of my most favorite bands due to their musicality and lyrics and being an all-around good time. I’ve been binging a little bit, in the middle of putting Kanye West’s discography on repeat in anticipation of “Waves.”  The contrast is a little rough, but energizing through long, grey days nonetheless.

While I’m expecting a total barrage of hooks and harmonies from “Astoria” during this Marianas Trench tour, my fingers are crossed for some special covers and old favorites, perhaps like this “Iris/Good for You” one. It’s a pretty simple transition, nothing fancy, the connection is all in the chords and the sentiment. I could do without the crowds screaming along, but I can’t say I won’t be acting in a similar fashion in four days time.

And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand
When everything’s made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am….

Everyone’s around, no words are coming now.
And I can’t find my breath, can we just say the rest with no sound.
And I know this isn’t enough, I still don’t measure up.
And I’m not prepared, sorry is never there when you need it.

And now I do want you to know 

I hold you up above everyone.
And now I do want you to know 

I think you’d be good to me
And I’d be so good to you

~Iris/Good to You, as performed by Josh Ramsay  


This is one of my favorite pop hits of the past 10 years covered by an artist, who,musically, has never received the highest of accolades but has cemented celebrity through other mediums. But credit where credit is due – Jared Leto crushes this performance of Rihanna’s “Stay” that I stumbled across on YouTube tonight.

From the moment Leto begins to sing, he promises a fierce performance. The first crack in his voice on “cold sweat hot headed believer,” sends shivers down my spine. For a cover, I love how dedicated this is to the original, strict and dramatic piano with subtle percessuion to highlight slow builds to a melodic climax. His voice in the final chorus, bellowing and screeching those long high notes, is nothing short of rock star status. Just when I was getting tired of spending bored afternoons and lonely evenings practicing the same old chords and songs, feeling like I can’t bring anything new or original to the performance with my barebones skills, there is some evidence that keeping true to the song, in its,message and sound and integrity, is worthwhile indeed.

“It’s not much of a life you’re living
It’s not just something you take, it’s given
Round and around, and around, and around we go
Oh now, tell me now,

Tell me now, 
Tell me now you know…

Not really sure how to feel about it
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay.

Rihanna, Unapologetic


“Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh
But I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds
It gets so hard in times like now to hold on
My guns they’re waiting to be stuck by
At my side is God

And there ain’t no one goin’ turn me ’round
Ain’t no one goin’ turn me ’round.”

~Ballad of El Goodo, #1 Record.
Big Star

Over the past week or so I’ve learned I cannot get enough of Big Star, the best band of the latter 20th century whose mass-market destiny was shot down by forces beyond their own control but whose talent never faded.

They were on my radar, in the background, back in the day for their authorship of “Thirteen” and its subsequent gorgeous covers, but learning about the band via Netflix doc has me floored, unable to grasp the fact that there was music this good being created that most listeners, as far as the masses were concerned, never heard.

Their story is an exceptionally tragic pairing of ego and industry, both in states of implosion. This sound is so perfectly encapsulating what would’ve been a hit … “Radio City” is as close to a perfect album as I have heard in some time. “Back of the Car”is the greatest teenage love song I never heard before,  the harmonica counterpoint in “Life is White” is blues rock at its best, and the outro harmonies on “What’s Going Ahn” are ghostly, and haunting. This record has no dull moments.

But, their debut, “#1 Record” is so good, too, so rich and pure, full of contrasting melodies, sing-a-long hooks cloaked in a cynicism. I believe someone in the Netflix described it as close to a perfect record, and I am inclined to agree. Alex Chilton and Chris Bell follow in the footsteps of Lennon-McCartney, with the added benefit of free-wheeling rock ‘n’ roll of the 1970s informing their efforts. These songs have a softer edge than “Radio City,” which brings an edgier tone and a little more structure. Then we get to “Third/Sister Lovers,” and there we find this band exploring boundaries it only previously toed, as far as dynamics and range and scope. Each record of theirs is progressively wild, pressing boundaries, but still so centered on what it means to write rock songs of weight and consequence.

Discovering this band has re-centered me musically, in the way that I was shifted as a teenager when I discovered Zeppelin. Just because something was released decades ago doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated in today’s environment – in fact, it deserves more of a spotlight if only to better compare against those who are trying to make moves and be the greats today.  I think what gets me the most is that no matter how many listeners did or did not get to absorb and adore Big Star in their heyday, is how absolutely breathtaking their sound is decades later. True style, true talent, it does not fade with the trends of the times.

“I like love but I don’t know
All these girls, they come and go
Always nothing left to say

And I resigned everyone
Ever since I was young
I’m starting to understand
What’s going on and how it’s planned.”

~What’s Going Ahn, Radio City
Big Star


“So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go.”

~Leaving on a Jet Plane
Eisley/John Denver

Beautiful song, beautiful interpretation. On replay now. Can’t believe this is the first time I’ve heard it with a string section behind it. Let me reiterate how stunning I think Sherri DuPree Bemis is as a singer and human being. And, knowing the life she lives as a musician who is also married to one, I can only imagine the sentiment of goodbye and return with the one you love as so eloquently displayed in this song have a meaning near and dear to her heart. While there are not shortage of covers of this track, I am very glad to hear this one from this vantage point. Some songs, some sentiments, do not get old or tired no matter how many times you encounter them. Some just floor you every time.


“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Another day, another discovered “Hallelujah” cover. Hearing Brandi Carlise’s version for the first time today led to me seek out a compiled list of its best versions; little did I know this was a timely search. The first performance of the familiar, timeless ballad turned 30 last month.

 I think the first version I ever heard was Jeff Buckley’s. The iconic one. The most broken one, with the crying guitar. It is sadder than the John Cale version that perhaps is considered the standard beyond Leonard Cohen’s initial creation, even though I agree that the uninitiated listener might assume the song is Buckley’s own. He is in it. He is it.
Interesting with how many versions there are, this song retains mystery, in its haunting structure and veiled innuendo. Among covers, it is one of the most (obviously) common to tackle,but it is also a challenge. This song isn’t easy to sing, especially at as slow a tempo as most wind up choosing, and how do you make someone hear the same story and make it sound like new?


One could argue the world doesn’t need more covers of the same song, but I would counter that with the importance of the capacity to adapt and authenticate. Six years ago, I felt differently. But here, after I’ve taken time to explore and understand my own creative impulses, I see why you would want to honor the work you are inspired by, and pour yourself into it. The best of the best make it work, by the choices they make – an arpeggio here, a breath or gasp there. Acoustic or full band, head voice or soft whispers on the high notes? Choices large and small, in music as in life, make all the difference to success of the whole. Take Brandi’s version – completely her own, in her own strong and emotive style. Her voice soars past the octave effortlessly, and fully. The feminine take is not to be ignored. Not to mention the fact I’m a sucker for brilliant singer-songwriters playing with symphonies. Is there a more glorious, holy sound in the world than peaking strings and subtle woodwinds backing up a familiar melody?

The minor fall, and the major lift.

“So maybe there’s a god above
But all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

It’s not a cry that you hear at night,
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Leonard Cohen, Various Positions
Brandi Carlise,Live at Benaroya Hall
Jeff Buckley, Grace


“Hey now, the past is told by those who win
My darling, what matters is what hasn’t been.
Hey now, we’re wide awake and we’re thinking,
My darling, believe your voice can mean something.”

Jimmy Eat World, Futures

The first time I heard those opening chords on this title track, from the computer speakers in the basement where I spent so much time alone listening to so many songs, I wonder if I knew I’d be playing it 10 years later. 

The future looked exciting then, if not amorphous. I knew I had one, knew it was inevitable, and I knew what made me feel good: music, friends,writing, creativity. But did I know how those things would coalesce? Did I know the highs and lows to come would rival the  best and worst I’d experienced in 16 years? Did I know how much I’d one day be able to make sense of myself, all the while holding onto the notes and messages and stories of those songs I took in at that very moment? Then, as now, I saw hope in what was to come, even if I didn’t know how it would play out. I knew what feelings mattered and I followed them – ten years later, I’ve learned the importance of that.
I’d loved Jimmy Eat World for several years before this release. I’d already fallen in love with Clarity and already rattled off their name in the list of my favorite bands. This record was an anticipated arrival that did not disappoint, it carried hope and yearning and pensive struggle with some of the best hooks this band has created, while recapturing an alt-rock throne that cemented this band’s legacy as royalty among a certain crowd. How many other bands can walk the line so well between assertive punk (“Pain,” “Just Tonight”) with radio-ready choruses (“Work,” “Kill” ) and cinematic melodies (“Polaris,” “23”)?  Who even has since? 
I remember playing “23” and wondering where I’d be when I was that age. I remember singing it loudly in my car on that birthday, driving around Main Street with a friend who told me it was OK to sing. Hearing it today is funny. What I wouldn’t give to be 23 again, to do so much so differently…but I suppose I must be happy it is this way, now, because once more there is a future ahead.

“You’ll sit alone forever 
If you wait for the right time
What are you hoping for?
I’m here and now, I’m ready 

Holding on tight, 
Don’t give away the end, 
The one thing that stays mine.”
Jimmy  Eat World, Futures

On this one, every track is a memory. Every memory is a place, a person, a feeling. Every transition on this record is seamless and I find I can listen to it from start to finish and reflect kindly on the years that have passed. Friends, lovers and internal discord from different chapters of life are interwoven with Futures maybe moreso than most of my others favorite albums, because it has never stopped feeling present, never stopped being relevant. Beyond that, it is incredibly listenable, and interesting. These songs are confident and dressed just-so. This era was before the too-many-instruments, too-much-laptop sound really found a foothold, and Jimmy Eat World, with their smart parts and truly dedicated post-production, exemplified the best that rock music could be in that age. The auxiliary on this album is more than background effect. It is a supporting character, illuminating pop structures with higher depth. Mostly I think this record has beautiful tones, a warm heavy mood from the combination of great songs, great guitar and subtle production – timeless, timeless qualities.

The title track became an instant anthem, full of sentient optimism. It is probably my favorite song from this collection. I believe it is also timeless, because of the reality it captures. I think those opening chords are the  perfect hint at the darker edges and fuller swells to come, I think they are a bold statement that commands attention. Such a Track 1 choice is risky, because you’re trusting the rest of your album to match those first grand gestures – this is what separates Jimmy Eat World from other bands who try a big, open sound, is they can deliver it. 

Of course I cannot talk about Futures without talking about the cover art, as iconic as any of the age. Pay phones, imagery that would return on “Damage,” and the dim spotlight of loneliness. It is pensive, and perfect. 
In continued tenth anniversary commemoration, here is the only song I know how to play from this album. I didn’t do a very good job performing it cleanly, but it comes from a place of respect and admiration, and also, the heart.

“Don’t think we’re not serious, 
when it’s ever not?
The love we m
ake, it’s give and it’s take, 
I’m game to play along.”
Jimmy Eat World, Futures

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