Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mononymic Artists -> Other People's Songs: Nico's These Days

Nico: These Days


Though I have it listed in my archives as a Jackson Browne cover, this 1967 song is actually the original recording, written by a sixteen-year-old Browne for the mononymic Nico to record, with Browne on acoustic guitar and Velvet Underground chums Cale and Reed on everything else...and only later taken back by the songwriter, as his stature as a performer began to truly take off. As such, as I noted over at Cover Lay Down back in May of 2008,

cover versions of These Days tend to fall into two camps: those that cover Nico, and those that cover Jackson Browne. The former seem more popular among a certain indiefolk crowd, especially after her version lent hipster cred to the soundtrack for The Royal Tannenbaums, calling us back to its fragile, anxious, somewhat spacey sound; you can hear the secondhand influence of Nico in more recent covers from fringefolkers Kathryn Williams, St. Vincent, and Mates of State. Meanwhile, fellow seventies icons Gregg Allman and Kate Wolf clearly have Browne’s slow, simple poetics and clear, open-hearted delivery in mind; so, a generation later, do relative newcomers Denison Witmer, Fountains of Wayne, and Tyler Ramsey.

But as others have pointed out long before me, the bifurcated trunk of the musical tree that is These Days versions is relevant to an evolution of song not only because of the curious history, but because the choices made in each version affect the meaning of the song. And here we are not just talking musical interpretation, either: Nico’s version is lyrically different as well as musicially distinct, and the lost second-person subject of the penultimate line, the focus on belief (I don’t think I’ll risk another) over feeling (It’s so hard to risk another), changes the narrator into someone more narcissistic, less historied, and — some believe — less believable overall.

Our new theme this week is a bit tricky to define precisely - we're not looking for cover songs; we're looking for songs written by recognizable songwriters, artists known as performers in their own right, but which were originally recorded by others - but more common than you might imagine, given the tendency of many artists to start their careers as songwriters and small-scale performers, famous within the music community before they record their first record, not to mention the wont of some famous artists to pen songs for other voices as a sort of side-project. Not all thematic entries will have as rich a history of coverage as These Days, of course - some songs that fall into this theme are never recovered by the original artist; others are, but don't end up standing on their own as well in the hands of others. But it can be a delightful surprise to uncover authorship in these cases. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what the Star Maker community comes up with.

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