Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Covering Our Bases - The Ted Leo Covers Mix

There are some bands or artists that you just grow up with. They're seminal to your musical development and act like cool older siblings, showing you the musical ropes, opening your mind and pointing out other cool things worth checking out along the way. To me, Ted Leo is certainly an artist who fits this bill. Sure, I was waned on the Beatles, cut my teeth on the Clash and first held indie rock's hand with the Pixies, but all those bands were gone before my time and traded in a lot of classic touchstones I'd grown up with. Ted, on the other hand was still hitting his stride as I got into him (even if he was already into his second decade of his career) and thus he came to serve a my guide to a number of musical and intellectual worlds.

Leo's catholic musical taste (no, not in the religious sense), voracious appetite and seemingly natural playing aptitude have mad him a voracious cover-er of songs, such that his number of recorded covers has now topped the quarter-century mark. Along the way he's hit everything from classic rock to dance pop to rap and Top 40. Oh, and soul. And reggae, and folk, and alternative, and... well you get it.

So here's a collection of what is, in my view, the best of his musical reinterpretations. These are all bootlegs so to get his amazing versions of, say "Little Girl In Bloom", "Ghosts" or "Rappaport's Testament", you'll have to pony up for the albums. Instead, these are the otherwise undiscovered gems from a man with a deep love of music and an ability to turn honor others in a way that is uniquely his own, enjoy.

P.S. There is one cover that I didn't include, not because it isn't good, but because it became an onerous touchstone for Ted for so long that I'm more than happy to let it fade into obscurity. If I never hear another shouted request for it, it'll be too soon.

The On Warmer Music Ted Leo Covers Mix
Download Mix As A .rar (with working link!)

1. Do Anything You Wanna Do [Eddie & The Hotrods]
A pub/proto-punk classic with the type of lyrics that just give you hope and energy to keep pushing through the crap. Ted started working this into live sets around his late '08 solo tour, which is when this rough but representative live recording dates from. I've seen him do it live more than a few times and I've never been able to get people to come in with me on the handclaps in the third verse - yet.

2. Angelfuck [The Misfits]
So yeah, if you want the full Ted/Misfits experience, check out TV Casualty. This is the song Misfits song I've heard him cover most often and though he's also done it with the Pharmacists, I rather enjoy this solo version, also from the '08 solo tour.

3. Spirit of the Radio [Rush]
As his solo career has progressed, the Pharmacists have become a live unit tighter than a , his sound has gotten spikier and more reminiscent of his 70's/80's punk influences. But when Tyranny of Distance first came out, Ted was known to tour in a "Rush" emblazoned jean jacket and his 70's rock radio influences shown much more clearly. "Spirit of the Radio" is a song with both the guitar acrobatics and boldly earnest lyrics to have nearly been written by the man himself. Oh, and because he's the fuckin' man, he also throws in a bit of "Way Down In The Hole" aka the theme from The Wire.

4. Union City Blue [Blondie]
Like the rush cover, this was recorded at the 2008 WFMU fundraiser where he introduces the same way he's does this mixes' final song - as a "Jersey folk song". When he came to Chicago on that year's solo tour I remember him debating whether to close with this song or another "Jersey song". This lasted for a few minutes until his charmingly drunk wife Jodi started chiding him from the audience until he agreed to play both. Watching her dance and sing along with pure, delighted abandon when he then started playing is something I'll always remember.

5. Brass In Pocket [The Pretenders]
The 2007 WFMU fundraiser had Ted on acoustic guitar covering AM radio hits, none more effectively than his take on the Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket". Leo's falsetto allows him to cover high vocal parts with relative ease and he sounds right at home as Chrissie Hynde. His appreciation of a great pop hook is evident in the way he sings each line and Tom Scharpling even jumps in for backing vocals.

6. The Ballad of el Goodo [Big Star]
This recording taken from a radio appearance, which is the only place I'm aware of him performing the song. "The Ballad of el Goodo" is another one of those songs that just makes so much sense for Ted to cover. It's earnest embrace of perseverance, religious overtones, ample falsetto and unstoppable melody are woven into all his music through and through.

7. The Outdoor Miner [Wire]
Taken from a 2002 appereance on WLUW (which also included a rare Chisel song and a stunning solo version of "Parallel or Together?"), the nearly acoustic sound of his trademark Gibson here is remarkable and serves the song perfectly. Wire's version was full of harmonies and vocal overdubs but Ted's simplification loses little of the original's charm or impact.

8. Between The Wars [Billy Bragg]
Ah, Billy Bragg. The Bard of Barking. The man whose aesthetic was clearly a huge influence on Ted's solo career from the guitar tone to the subject matter to the man's voluble, approachable attitude. This was the cover that got ME into Billy Bragg and it's perfectly suited for Leo's style. This might as well be a lost Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead [EP] track.

9. I Guess I Planted [Billy Bragg & Wilco/Woody Guthrie]
Leo joined the many artists supporting union efforts against collective bargining cuts in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere this song with not just solidarity but some free songs. He spelled out his own beliefs in a post worth reading on his website and then delivered a great take on a new classic from Bragg and Wilco's 1998 Woody Guthrie covers album. A fascinating choice lyrically as Guthrie equates the union movement's music with its political success, the passion and hooks shine through Leo's recent, muddy basement recording style. I saw Leo play the UW student union's lakeside patio on the first warm night of spring this year and I can't tell you how cathartic it felt to hear this echoing over a silent Lake Mendota.

10. Ex-Factor [Lauryn Hill]
Leo's known as a flashy, nimble guitar player, able to carry two or three guitar parts by himself, which is impressive. But this cover proves that he knows just as much about mood, pacing and soft soul. His spikey guitar and impassioned singing do Hill's song total justice while simultaneously making it all his own. A barvura performance that you should play immediately to anyone who sees Leo as just a pop-punk one note Charlie.

11. By Your Side [Sade]
In early 2010 Leo started posting a spate of home demoed covers to his twitter account, at the heart of which were three pop covers of female artists. Here he takes Sade's chill, mid-tempo "By Your Side" and burns it down, turning it into a slow, dark meditation on fidelity. The lo-fi shown in these recordings is notable for being bass, rather than treble-heavy and that tone lends weight and solemnity to the attempt. As always, Ted's voice carries the tune off spectacularly.

12. Joey [Concrete Blonde]
On the other hand, Ted gives "Joey" almost the opposite treatment from "By Your Side". Here, he takes the plodding late 80's college rock song and gives it a kick in the teeth. He ups the tempo, fuzzes out his guitar and turns it into a heart-on-the-sleeve Westerbergian love-punk anthem. The androgynous title and ambiguous lyrics mean that his singing it plays with and twists the song's original message of a woman singing to her alcoholic boyfriend and let you take it as a comment on the codependent nature of relationships of all kind.

13. Freeway [Aimee Man]
Ted's covers often point the way towards his next sound (for example, it's no coincidence he started cover Nick Lowe just before The Brutalist Bricks, as "Bottled In Cork" is practically a medly of "So It Goes" and "Nutted By Reality"). This year Ted busted out this cover of Aimee Mann's 2008 minor hit right around the time he also debuted a new song "The Smug Little Supper Club" whose vocal cadence bears more than a little resemblance to the former. It's a straightforward cover, but one I can't seem to get out of my head.

14. Keep On Pushing/Amen [Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions]
Now this cover goes back. Ted's been playing this Impressions hit since he first hit the road by himself after Chisel in 1999. His take on the soft, falsettoey original is not dissimilar to the Clash's gritty rework of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves". It's a song whose hope and passion shine through every seam and is the perfect marching song for any punk whose still fighting the good fight. Ted's inclusion of a few verses of another hymn from the same album give the songs a rousing close and show that, though Ted's now an avowed atheist, his Catholic roots haven't totally left him because he knows the gut-level power of faith, no matter what ideal you place it in.

15. Fisherman's Blues [The Waterboys]
Another song that started creeping into his sets around 2008, this jangly performance was recorded live for NPR and it showcases the song's original folky feel. Without the Celtic fiddles and backing musicians, Leo's version is a bit more mournful and it's open-hearted romanticism is so palpable, it fairly bleeds. This also needs to become a crowd favorite so someone with join me chirping along to the "woo-ho-HOO!" parts (not that their absence has ever stopped me before).

16. Dancing In The Dark [Bruce Springsteen]
And here we are. At what many consider THE quintessential Ted Leo cover. The song that many believe he recorded for the Balgury EP but couldn't afford to clear for the record. It's a take on the Boss's 1984 hit that you very well may have hated before hearing Leo tackle it. And who could blame you? The synths, the insipid pacing, the horrible Courtney Cox video, it all seemed pretty awful. But Leo saw something in the song and determined to, in his words "save it from it's own production" and that he did. Once you put Springsteen's words over a chugging guitar and add a little soul to the singing, you realize what a great song it is. A classic Springsteen tale of love and longing, of hard living with the ghosts, broken dreams and a protagonist who keeps going despite it. The first time I ever saw Leo, I was blown away but it wasn't until he walked out for his encore and I slowly realized what he was playing that I fell in love with man. That concert was one of those moments when I KNEW that music could change the world. It's something I keep telling myself despite all the less idealistic information to the contrary and it's something I can still convince myself of. Even if I'm just dancing in the dark.

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