Versions and Duplicates (and Elvis)

I have a playlist on my iTunes called Versions and Duplicates. Here I stick all the various versions of songs I like by different artists – whether it’s Sons of Anarchy, Rod Stewart, or Bob Dylan singing Forever Young, or the Sons of Anarchy version of Bohemian Rhapsody vs. Queen, or six different versions of Hallelujah (I still like Leonard Cohen’s best from the soundtrack for Watchmen, followed by perhaps the Canadian Tenors, and a couple of on-line ones). I love Alice Cooper’s version of Eleanor Rigby almost as much as the original, so this file is actually kind of large.

Years ago, I’d read in the Book of Lists that Yesterday by the Beatles was the most-sung song ever, with more than a thousand people recording their version of it. Forty years later, it still holds the record, with more than 4,000 recordings. I only have two on my playlist.

So when a disk came through my hands – Train Does Led Zeppelin II, I had to listen to it. I liked Drops of Jupiter, their biggest hit, and I liked Led Zeppelin. I love, love, love Iron Horse’s bluegrass version of Zep, Whole Lotta Bluegrass: A Vocal Bluegrass Tribute to Led Zeppelin (it really works, and you can understand the lyrics), and the Rock a Bye Baby lullaby series’ version, played on marimba of all things, is strangely beautiful and calming.

Although the first track, Whole Lotta Love, is perhaps the best of the album, it blew me away. Outside of a word or two, and perhaps the depth of a couple of riffs, Train nails the music dead on. It’s hard to tell it’s not Zep or Robert Plant himself. Truly, if you’re a fan, this is an album you should listen to.  Most of the criticisms of the album revolve around “Why did we need this album?” “Who is Train to think they can play Zeppelin?” I say, “Why not?” and “Who cares?” These are proficient musicians; if they want to play Zep, then let them play it.  Those critics have never heard me pick out Stairway to Heaven on the piano, the only two-handed piece I know.  And here’s why those critics don’t matter:

On the internet (stupid move) I wound up poking into a bee’s nest of Led Zeppelin tribute albums in a mind-boggling array of styles. If you don’t like rock music, if you don’t like screechy lyrics, that is absolutely no reason to skip Led Zeppelin. The music triumphs over the style, and the true genius appears.

Is banjo your favorite instrument? Check out Iron Horse’s album.

Just like bluegrass?  Try Pickin’ on Led Zeppelin, by the Pickin’ On series. A lot of harmonica mixed with banjo and fiddle. Yes, Led Zeppelin on the harmonica.

Prefer Metal? Dead Zeppelin: A Metal Tribute, by Dead Zeppelin. The Immigrant Song sounds like someone left the crypt open and all the demons are headbanging.

Classical tastes?  Chamber Maid: The Baroque Tribute to Led Zeppelin. Imagine you were invited to visit Louis XVI, and a quartet was playing in the corner, and you realized you knew that tune. Like that. Light and flutey, and always beautiful.

Prefer classical guitar? Richard DeVinck plays classical nylon strings on his album Going to California. Too plinky for me, but remember, Stairway to Heaven is a guitar song anyway, so it sounds lovely.

Celtic roots? High step to A Celtic Tribute to Led Zeppelin. The rhythm’s a bit faster, but it’s catchy!

Too laid back for rock? Prefer the reggae beat? Try Dread Zeppelin: Dejah Voodoo: Greatest and Latest Hits. This isn’t just a band that travels around singing Zep songs in reggae style, but with a lead singer who’s an Elvis impersonator.  Definitely a more funky beat, but the style, to me, was lacking, and sounded way too much like a guest star in a pretend cabaret on The Love Boat. I warned you.

Prefer to chill? Try Dub Tribute to Led Zeppelin, full of ethereal dub beats that will put you into a trance to familiar (or maybe not quite so familiar in this style) music.

And all that diversity doesn’t begin to touch on the number of top musicians paying tribute by cranking out serious Zeppelin tunes.  Troll elsewhere, critics.

Now, Zeppelin’s not the only band that attracts cover artists. I wouldn’t begin to count the number of Beatles covers, or Rolling Stones. Rock a Bye Baby covers everything from AC/DC to ZZ Top. Iron Horse does an amazing array of artists in bluegrass style, including Modest Mouse and Metallica. So dare to be different. Try a familiar song done in a new way, or by a new artist. You may just find a new favorite.

Same Old Tune

unnamedI am a semi-hard-core Pink Floyd fan. I’ve likely spent more hours listening to them than any other musical group, and I think I know the entire Wall album from memory – lyrics and orchestration. So when David Gilmour, who, along with Roger Waters wrote many of their greatest hits, came out with a new album, Rattle that Lock, of course I had to listen to it.

The album, I must admit, left me with mixed feelings. It’s a varied album, with some pieces (The Girl in the Yellow Dress) being almost classical jazz, and others being such classic Floyd in tone you can almost recognize lines from Learning to Fly (Echoes), and riffs straight from The Wall. Parts of it are cranking rock, and other parts are very ethereal and New-Agey in feel – not unlike inventive Floyd tracks from Dark Side of the Moon. There are even two instrumental tracks. It was good, it was fresh, but I’m still not sure if I liked it. I’m not a jazz person, no matter how hard I try, and though I love my Floyd, it’s 2015, not 1979, and I want to say, “Yes, it’s good, but what are you doing now?”

Which got me to thinking: Why is it often so easy to pick out a band/singer on the radio? Because they are often stuck in the same style that made them famous. Their songs are caught in a groove of sound – it’s a good sound, but it doesn’t change. Sometimes they try but the fans turn away, because it’s not “their” sound. Sometimes they do and it works beautifully (how many heavy metal bands have one or two incredible slow ballads, like Kiss’s Beth, or the Scorpions’ Still Loving You?). Listen to The Police’s Every Breath You Take – the first four songs are almost identical in format, all hits, but identical. I love R.E.M., but they get monotonous if you listen to six albums in a row. As George Thorogood said, “I only know four chords on the guitar, so of course all my songs sound alike.”27club-660x300

According to the internet, some of today’s popular bands are guilty of unoriginality and being one-trick ponies. Not even getting into Boy Bands, or Brittney, or other manufactured stars (it’s fair to place The Monkees here, too), too many artists sound – well, too much like themselves. Pete Townshend’s last albums drifted song to song like a dream; you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began, and he’s a music legend. Ed Sheeran, Oasis, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, and the often-unfairly picked on Nickelback are among the worst offenders, by internet polls. Having a trademark “sound” is good, but a truly talented musician masters versatility.

So who, then, has successfully changed their tunes and embraced versatility over the CyndiLauperBodyAcousticyears? Both Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have attempted branching out into classical music, but classical music doesn’t rake in money on radio ads. One I would consider would be Cindy Lauper – she’s older than you think. Before she was a shock-haired icon of the 80’s, she fronted a rockabilly band called Blue Angel. They put out one album, Blue Angel (duh), which did well in the Netherlands, but you could see the genius. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36MgP5Hg6KU. To go from Money Changes Everything to Above the Clouds on her Body Acoustic album – she has an impressive range. What a Broadway career she could have had! Oh wait – she wrote all the music for Kinky Boots, winner of 6 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score!  She’s not as ditzy as she looks.

Robert_Plant_and_Alison_Krauss_-_Raising_SandAnother would be Robert Plant – the former lead singer for hard-rocking Led Zeppelin. Post-Zeppelin he formed the R&B group The Honeydrippers in 1981, and they shot up the charts with their # 3 slow-dance hit Sea of Love. If that wasn’t different enough, he’s recorded several folksy albums with Allison Krauss – my personal favorite being “Trampled Rose” from the album Raising Sand. Truly, no one would guess this soulful folk singer is one of heavy rock’s legends.

A third I would nominate would be David Bowie (yes,ZiggyStardust I’ve chosen all older musicians, because 40-50 year careers are living, breathing entities). Ziggy Stardust is a far cry from his later success with Suffragette City, and another layer removed from 2013’s The Next Day album, let alone his (in)famous duet with Bing Crosby on The Little Drummer Boy – and the soundtrack to Labyrinth.

So now we know David Gilmour can write and play good jazz, even if it feels like the jazz is being played in the dance hall of a Pink Floyd dream. Is it progress or stagnation? You have to decide that for yourself.