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St. Vincent’s Best Cover Songs

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While Annie Clark has earned a lot of well-deserved acclaim as a songwriter and guitarist, she’s also a brilliant reinterpreter of other artists’ songs. From Big Black and INXS to Tom Waits and Dolly Parton, Clark has put her own distinct brand on everything from classic tracks to beloved obscurities since she burst onto the indie rock scene five years ago. Here are several of Clark’s best cover songs from over the years.

The Beatles – “Dig a Pony”

What: The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony”, from 1970’s Let It Be

When: Regularly while touring behind Marry Me and Actor. This version is from her performance at All Points West in Jersey City, New Jersey, on August 1st, 2009.

As far as St. Vincent cover songs go, this is where it all begins. Clark’s version of one of the best tracks from The Beatles’ final album was a staple of her setlist as early as 2007, and she’s offered up several different variations of her own rendition over the years. In most, Clark takes advantage of her own guitar chops and rockabilly-s up the main riff, muting her chords while singing John Lennon’s mostly nonsensical lyrics. She utilizes the breaks between verses to issue some real noise from her guitar, which makes the sudden transitions to her soft voice that much sweeter.

Big Black – “Bad Penny” and “Kerosene”

What: Big Black’s “Bad Penny” and “Kerosene”, from 1987’s Songs About Fucking and 1986’s Atomizer

When: At the Our Band Could Be Your Life 10th Anniversary Show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on May 22nd, 2011

On a night that included Ted Leo performing as Minor Threat, Dan Deacon as the Butthole Surfers, and Tune-Yards as Sonic Youth, author Michael Azzerrad’s greatest display of curatorial prowess was in selecting the doe-faced Annie Clark to play the harsh, intentionally ugly noise rock of Steve Albini’s Big Black. Clark doesn’t back down in the least, taking the songs as an opportunity to spit, scream, and downright shred her guitar in tribute to Big Black’s buzz saw assault. When the lyrics to “Bad Penny” come from Clark’s lips, they seem every bit as threatening as Albini intended them to be. This one’s stunning.

Nico – “These Days”

What: Nico’s “These Days”, from 1967’s Chelsea Girl

Where: On tour as early as 2007. This version is live in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 11th, 2010.

Like “Dig a Pony”, Clark’s cover of the Jackson Browne-penned song “These Days” has long been part of her live repertoire and was even included as a bonus track on the Japanese release of Marry Me. The St. Vincent version is a pretty, acoustic rendition featuring excellent fingerpicking work that falls somewhere between Nico’s softly sung version and Gregg Allman’s more countrified approach.

Tom Waits – “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore”

What: Tom Waits’ “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore”, from 1985’s Rain Dogs

When: During the Rain Dogs Revisited show in London, England, on July 13th, 2011.

Last July, an assortment of musicians gathered at London’s Barbican to cover Tom Waits’ classic 1985 album, Rain Dogs. Clark was on hand to give her take on Waits’ “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore”. For the former, Clark cranks up the already-pounding percussion present in Waits’ original and smothers the song in dissonant guitar noise and orchestral squeals, her voice alternating between shouted growls and hushed whispers. Clark hits all the right marks in the song but makes it distinctly her own; it’s a cover of which I feel Waits might even approve.

Clark’s cover of “Tango Til They’re Sore” sticks closer to the source material, dropping the jazzy piano in favor of stop-stutter guitar work and muted trumpet wails. The star of the song is Clark’s voice, which really gets a chance to belt out several of the lyrics here. With all of the praise that’s heaped upon her for her guitar playing, it’s sometimes possible to forget that she’s also a great singer.

The Magnetic Fields – “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” (with John Vanderslice)

What: The Magnetic Fields’ “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”, from 1999’s 69 Love Songs

When: On tour with John Vanderslice in 2007. This version is from the last stop of the tour on May 10th, 2007, in Los Angeles, California.

Annie Clark and John Vanderslice’s take on this 69 Love Songs track is actually softer and less noisy than The Magnetic Fields’ original version. Trading off verses, Clark and Vanderslice give a heartfelt rendition with only minimal acoustic accompaniment.

Bob Dylan – “Oh Sister” (with Andrew Bird)

What: Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister”, from 1976’s Desire

When: Regularly during encores when touring with Andrew Bird in 2009. This version is from the Columbus, Ohio, date of the tour on October 19th, 2009.

For their duet, Annie Clark takes the role that had been filled by Emmylou Harris on Dylan’s original recording. Here, the harmonica fills have been replaced by whistling, making the song a step more upbeat, with additional instrumentation coming in as the song moves along.

INXS – “Need You Tonight” and “Never Tear Us Apart” (with Beck)

What: INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and “Never Tear Us Apart”, from 1987’s Kick

When: On March 3rd, 2010, at Beck’s house.

On March 3rd, 2010, a group of musicians including Annie Clark gathered at Beck’s home studio to lay down the fourth installment of his Record Club project: a full-album cover of INXS’s Kick. Other musicians included were Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross of Liars, Sergio Dias of Os Mutantes, and Brian LeBarton and Daniel Hart of St. Vincent. Video of the jam session was later released in installments on Beck’s website.

Annie Clark takes the lead vocals on “Need You Tonight”, which has the clear touch of Beck’s techier work, with electronic beeps and drum machine beats leading the instrumentation. This version of “Never Tear Us Apart” could almost pass as a cut from St. Vincent’s own Actor, with Clark singing over lush strings and light piano playing, giving it a very orchestral feel. It’s really astounding that this arrangement came together in less than a day.

Readers with any interest should definitely check out the full session on Beck’s Record Club website; Annie Clark’s role isn’t as center stage on the rest of the album, but their take on tracks like “Kick” and “Sensation” are rather brilliant.

Neil Young – “Harvest Moon” (with Bon Iver)

What: Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, from 1992’s Harvest Moon

When: Bowery Presents and Brooklyn Vegan’s A Night of Comedy and Music to Benefit Haiti at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, on January 23rd, 2010. (See also: the Dolly Parton cover below.)

Annie Clark and Justin Vernon divide up the lyrics to the title track from Neil Young’s pseudo-sequel to Harvest. Vernon pulls off a rather close Young impression with his part, while Clark channels her inner Loretta Lynn on her verses.

Dolly Parton – “Jolene” (with Bon Iver)

What: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, from 1974’s Jolene

When: Bowery Presents and Brooklyn Vegan’s A Night of Comedy and Music to Benefit Haiti at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, on January 23rd, 2010. (This is the same show as the Neil Young cover above.)

Dolly Parton’s tale of a housewife confronting her husband’s mistress was covered by Annie Clark and Justin Vernon at a Haiti benefit in 2010. It’s a song that’s been redone almost as many times as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, but the pair put their own individual stamps on the song by taking turns with the verses on this darkened version.

The National – “Mistaken for Strangers” (with members of The National)

What: The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers”, from 2007’s Boxer

When: On tour in 2010. This version is from the July 13th, 2010, show in Lyon, France, with The National.

Solo versions exist of Clark’s cover of “Mistaken for Strangers”, as well as cuts where she performs the song with members of The National. This particular rendition falls into the latter category and features Annie Clark singing a duet with Matt Berninger. The cover is not far off base from the original at all, but the results are quite beautiful.

Crooked Fingers – “Sleep All Summer” (with The National)

What: Crooked Fingers’ “Sleep All Summer”, from 2005’s Dignity and Shame

When: On SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Covers, released in 2009

To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Merge curated a collection of music that featured contemporary artists covering classic songs from the Merge catalog. Annie Clark and The National’s Matt Berninger teamed up again to record Crooked Fingers’ heartbreaking “Sleep All Summer”, taking a soft approach backed by a beautiful horn accompaniment.

Copies of SCORE! are still available from Merge, and proceeds from the compilation benefit select charities.

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