Front & Back, track by track

Longtime readers of Lemming’s blog may recall his track-by-track review of a mix CD I gave him last year called Some Disassembly Required. I’ve now received a CD from him in return, Front & Back. He did not provide a tracklist with the CD, which seemed like a strange choice, but upon hearing it I realized that the element of surprise was part of the fun of the first listen for this particular disc. However: in order to maintain the obsessively-detailed organization of my iTunes library, I needed the title, artist, and year of each track before I imported the disc, so I hit the internet and filled in all the gaps in my knowledge. I’m providing my track-by-track review of Front & Back in the form of an annotated tracklist, below the fold.

[Spoilers follow, for those of you who are also receiving a copy and haven’t listened to it yet.]
So if you’ve heard it you know that all the songs are covers, hence the title. I’m pleased to say I recognized all but three of the songs; on the other hand, I only recognized nine of the artists represented (I did get Cash both times). Fortunately I was able to determine the rest using Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, iTunes, and Rhapsody. I’ve put the artist who originally recorded each song in italics along with the appropriate year.

  1. Johnny Cash, “Ring of Fire” (1963)
    Anita Carter, 1962
    The first song on a mix CD serves to set the tone for what is to come. “Ring of Fire” has a kind of narrative feel that puts the listener in medias res, and indeed there is a kind of circularity here: the CD begins and ends with Cash singing about pain. I’m convinced the structure of the tracklist is meant to represent the cyclic nature of human relationships, symbolized by the ring of fire and by the way the tracklist connects to itself.

  2. Metallica, “Turn The Page” (1998)
    Bob Seger, 1973
    Johnny Cash transitioning into Metallica works surprisingly well here. With the theme of loneliness and the key line “turn the page”, it sounds like an ending but is actually a beginning, as the next page—the next song—will start a new phase in the emotional flow of the cycle.

  3. Aerosmith, “Come Together” (1978)
    The Beatles, 1969
    I’m sure I’ve heard this version before but it never registered that it was Aerosmith. The song is an introduction to the person (people) being described, and here serves as a bridge between the darker themes of the preceding songs and the happiness of the forthcoming tracks.

  4. Lou Reed, “This Magic Moment” (1995)
    The Drifters, 1960
    Major rock snob points for including a former member of the Velvet Underground! This is the first in a sequence of happier songs, a high point in the cycle.

  5. Mary Lou Lord with Semisonic, “Sugar, Sugar” (1995)
    The Archies, 1969
    It was at this point in my first listen to the CD that I realized, “This disc is entirely crazy fucked-up covers!” The original version of this song is completely ridiculous, but Mary Lou Lord’s voice is perfectly suited to it and somehow makes it work.

  6. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (2001)
    Judy Garland, 1939
    The hardest song to track down: tons of people have covered this song, and although I found Iz fairly quickly, the version he’s famous for is different and works in Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”, so I missed this one on my first pass.

  7. Green Day, “Knowledge” (1991)
    Operation Ivy, 1989
    Although I live mere blocks from 924 Gilman, I am woefully ignorant of East Bay punk, so this was one of the songs I didn’t recognize. There’s a thread of frustration running through this song that makes it an effective follow-up to “Rainbow”.

  8. Fatboy Slim, “The Joker” (2004)
    The Steve Miller Band, 1973
    Quite a departure from the original version, and presaging the upcoming set of songs with its carefreeness. But first…

  9. Jim Broadbent & Nicole Kidman, “The Show Must Go On” (2001)
    Queen, 1991
    The first serious downturn in a while, this marks the halfway point of the CD. I’ve never seen Moulin Rouge! so I don’t know exactly how this fits in to the movie, but that’s where it’s from.

  10. Salsa Celtica, “Auld Lang Syne” (2003)
    Another tricky song to track down, since all I recognized was the basic “Auld Lang Syne” melody. Given it’s association with New Year’s, it represents new beginnings and here kicks off a new phase after “The Show Must Go On”; the songs to follow return to a happier mood and take a more whimsical and comfortable tone than anything that has appeared yet.

  11. They Might Be Giants, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (1990)
    The Four Lads, 1953
    The best song TMBG ever recorded, it continues the theme of new beginnings from “Auld Lang Syne” with its contemplation of name changes.

  12. Rednex, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (1994)
    Ah yes, this song brings back memories. Wasn’t it a Ride chaser at least once?

  13. Alvin & The Chipmunks, “The Time Warp” (1998)
    Richard O’Brien, 1973
    Another song that brings back memories, the version from Rocky Horror Picture Show was a standard request from my group of friends at high school dances. The Chipmunks rendition could only be placed after the Rednex song, where it seems slightly less silly simply by contrast.

  14. Gipsy Kings, “Hotel California” (1990)
    The Eagles, 1976
    This song would mark the end of the whimsical phase if we weren’t all thinking of Jesus licking the bowling ball in The Big Lebowski.

  15. Seu Jorge, “Rebel Rebel” (2004)
    David Bowie, 1974
    Not only have I not seen Moulin Rouge!, I also haven’t seen The Life Aquatic, but I knew that had to be the source of this song. It’s appropriately paired with the previous track, as they both take on additional context from their appearance in film.

  16. Cake, “Mahna Mahna” (2002)
    Piero Umiliani, 1968
    I’d never heard this version before, it’s delightful. Did you know the original song was for an Italian porn movie? I found that out while writing this post. The last song in the whimsical phase, with the next track serving a transitional role.

  17. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Higher Ground” (1989)
    Stevie Wonder, 1973
    I keep seeing the Guitar Hero screen when I hear this song, although it’s not as bad as when I hear “Take Me Out”. It’s a shift away from the tone of the previous few tracks, but ironically after the push for higher ground the CD finds itself in a lower place emotionally.

  18. Gary Jules, “Mad World” (2001)
    Tears for Fears, 1982
    The darker phase of the cycle starts here. I knew this as “that version of Mad World that was in Donnie Darko“, which like this CD has a cyclical structure. Donnie’s role in the movie is to connect the end with the beginning, and likewise this song serves the same function by drawing the mood downward.

  19. Pearl Jam, “Last Kiss” (1999)
    Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders, 1962
    I was pleased to see this song, as it was the first song I was able to play confidently on the guitar. (It only uses four chords, which happened to be the first four I learned.) I didn’t know it was a cover, but something seemed weird about it and the fact that it was written in 1962 explains why.

  20. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (2002)
    Nine Inch Nails, 1994
    And so the disc ends where it began, with Johnny Cash. It’s a painful ending, but at the same time it’s a new beginning (If I could start again / a million miles away) and hints at the way the cycle will maintain its essential nature, the second time around (I would keep myself / I would find a way). And so it does, especially if you leave the CD in the player and it starts over again.

There you have it. Even though it ends in a sad place, it’s by and large a fun CD, and I have a feeling it’ll hold a slot in my car’s CD visor for a while. (However, I may end up skipping the Chipmunks in the future.)

5 thoughts on “Front & Back, track by track

  1. Mason

    Hmmm… I feel like I shouldn’t read the description until I get a chance to hear the CD. Maybe you’ll still be accepting comments on this post by then? 😉

  2. Lemming

    Crazy-long post!
    First of all, I finally found my stack of CDs, so I can hand them out to whoever else wants them.
    “Ring of Fire”
    Did you know Johnny Cash is one of only a handful of individuals to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll and Country Music halls of fame? He’s one of the few artists where my father’s tastes and mine overlap, so I’ve been exposed to a bit of Johnny Cash trivia, such as the fact that something most people think of as one of his definitive songs is a cover. He changed the timing of the chorus and added some spanish brass, and it gave the song a whole new feel. It has always been a favorite of mine.
    Also, I specifically opened with a more “subtle” cover to throw people off the trail a bit.
    “Turn the Page”
    Shep actually introduced me to this cover, though I hadn’t heard the original Seger version at that point. I just happen to think it’s a particularly good song, and Metallica did it justice. I placed it early on the CD because, yes, it does feel like more of a “beginning” to me, though I’m not sure why.
    “Come Together”
    Allegedly just about the only good thing that came out of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie was Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together”. I can’t help but think of their version as the definitive one–the style of the song resonates so very well with Aerosmith’s vibe that it’s just right.
    “This Magic Moment”
    I like Lou Reed’s style, and keep meaning to listen to more of his work. His vocal style reminds me of Cake, a band that holds a special place in my heart. I originally bought this soundtrack (it’s from the Lost Highway soundtrack) for a single song by the Pumpkins, but this has long since become my favorite from that CD.
    “Sugar, Sugar”
    Not much to say, but it’s a damn fun song, isn’t it?
    “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
    If I try to add more words to the description of this song, it just waters it down. Iz kicks some monstruous ass with this one, because I don’t think there exists a mood bad enough that his recording doesn’t make you feel a fair sight better.
    I do actually have both versions by the way–this one and the one that transitions to “What a Wonderful World”, and was torn between which one to include.
    Okay, deep breath…
    This has been one of my favorite songs all-around for a very long time. Back in high school, when Dookie first came out (the album that catapulted Green Day onto the scene), I scrounged up what money I could find in my room and headed down to the record store. Not only was I going to buy an album for the first time, but it was also a big step for me in parental defiance–don’t laugh! In any case, when I finally got there, I realized I couldn’t afford Dookie. I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk away empty-handed, so I picked up a copy of 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, another strangely-titled album by the same group. To this day, I listen to it far more than I listen to Dookie.
    The album is actually a combination of two earlier albums that were never mass produced–“1,000 Hours” and “Slappy”. For the most part, all of the songs feel a bit awkward and amateurish, but nonetheless have a great deal of charm. “Knowledge” stands out from the rest of the album, however, with far more polish than any other track. Oh, it’s because someone else wrote it. :)
    Green Day have refined their skills at songwriting over the years (American Idiot has earned them dietyhood as far as I’m concerned), but “Knowledge” is still a very special track. They still play it at every single concert, and it’s always been (in my experience) a high point in an already reliably-awesome show. Sadly, I haven’t personally been to a Green Day concert in a long time.
    “The Joker”
    “Carefree” is dead-on. While it’s a departure in some ways from the original, the mood is spot-on for me, which is why I like this cover so much. Sure, the music is quite a bit different, but the emotion hits me in almost exactly the same way, so this version had me hook, line and sinker from the first listening.
    “The Show Must Go On”
    I had trouble finding a good place (not sure I did, at that) for this on the CD. The context of the movie is actually part of why I included it–it’s an already-powerful song that becomes much moreso when you know a bit of the history behind it, and the presentation in the movie isn’t much of a departure from that. The context in the movie was appropriate enough that I actually felt the song was able to pull a lot of the pre-existing emotional response to the song into the story, which worked very well. When I finally watched Moulin Rouge, the moment this song came on I went, “Oh shiiiiit.”
    “Auld Lang Syne”
    The fusion style actually works surprisingly well for this song, don’cha think?
    “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
    I don’t need to tell anyone about this song, but it would have been a crime not to include it.
    Oh, and I gotta disagree with you–I would have in the past, but I no longer think it’s their best song. It took a while to grow on me, but at this point “Angel” is the TMBG song to me.
    “Cotton-Eyed Joe”
    First off, I grew up listening to traditional versions of this song. At some point I think I knew both the standard line dance and the clogging version.
    Another flashback to high school. The “other” alternative rock station had a nightly musical showdown, I think at 8pm every day. They would play two songs, and whichever song got the most call-in votes would be the returning champ the next day. Pretty much every new song would get a shot.
    The second-longest winning streak I can recall was somewhere between one and two weeks. The longest winning streak I ever heard was “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, which held it’s spot for approximately three months (IIRC).
    Oh, and yes, I’ve used it as a chaser. Who wouldn’t?
    “The Time Warp”
    Yeah, it’s a bit ridiculous. I still can’t get over the notion of Alvin & The Chipmunks covering a song from Rocky Horror–I used to watch the cartoon as a little kid, so I really associate The Chipmunks with childhood innosence. So much for that!
    “Hotel California”
    The Gipsy Kings are very talented musicians. It’s easy to get so caught up in the novelty of this cover that you miss out on the fact that it’s actually rather well performed. Huh.
    “Rebel Rebel”
    Yeah, so I’ve been on a Seu Jorge shtick lately–you would be too if you’d seen him at Coachella.
    “Mahna Mahna”
    Are you fucking serious? An Italian porno? Now *that’s* hilarious. Anyway, I still find the song amusing, and was pleased when I heard Cake do their own spin on it.
    “Higher Ground”
    You know, it really irks me that in Guitar Hero the screen says, “Made famous by: Red Hot Chili Peppers”. If not for RHCP’s bassist’s god-like powers of low-frequency rocking, I’d like the Stevie Wonder version better.
    “Mad World”
    This song single-handedly slowed down my preparing this mix CD by several months. I was focused intently on including it, but was unwilling to make the dreaded “Album Only” purchase on iTMS. It also proved to be hard to find through other, *cough* networks, but I eventually found a satisfying solution–a few months ago someone served up a torrent of the full soundtrack, along with some of the songs included in the movie but never released on the soundtrack.
    “Last Kiss”
    I really like this song, except for one thing:
    “The Lord took her away from me,”
    What, the Lord? THE F&#$KING LORD?!? You killed her with your reckless driving, you irresponsible fucktard!
    But yeah, I like the song.
    I think it takes a man like Johnny Cash to take a NIN song and make it sound like it belongs to him. It is one of the most powerful songs written by NIN, and Cash really takes it and runs with it. I still remember the resounding jaw-dropping on the blogosphere when it came out a few years back.
    Anyway, I don’t know how serious you were being, but your interpretation actually hit right on. I wasn’t conciously thinking of the word “relationships” in particular, but I was thinking, “the people and things that move us emotionally in life”, so you’re close enough for me. I’m also not 100% satisfied with the track ordering, and occasionally have second thoughts about the selection as well, but I think it worked out alright.
    I’m impressed, and now I doubly owe you cookies–I bought cookie-making goodies a few weeks ago, and was going to have them ready for Coachella, but forgot. I forgot again last weekend, pulling a massive “D’oh!” when I walked into my kitchen Monday evening to see the bag of ingredients on top of the fridge.

  3. Arcane Gazebo

    I’ve been thinking about what songs I would include on a CD like this. I would have a number of choices available from Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, and Ted Leo… I’d probably also use Iron & Wine’s “Such Great Heights”, and TV on the Radio’s a capella “Mr. Grieves” (which I have yet to hear myself, but I’m told it’s good. I need to find a copy of Young Liars for this reason). And of course, the Futureheads’ brilliant “Hounds of Love”, which has already appeared on several of my mix CDs…

  4. Mason

    I can respond for real now because Tim dropped off the CD this afternoon (or “morning,” according to when I woke up today) and I finished listening to it a few minutes ago.
    I caught the cover thing too. I caught it for sure at song 3. I hadn’t heard this version of “Turn the Page” before. I prefer the original.
    For “Ring of Fire,” why is the original version listed as Anita Carter instead of June Carter? Was Anita her real name? I didn’t realize Cash didn’t write it until I saw Walk the Line, but I was under the impression that Carter wrote it at least partially about her relationship with Cash. I take it the 1962 version is an actual recording of it? I knew she wrote the song, but I never knew she recorded it.
    I prefer the original version of “Come Together” (granted, I’ve also never been an Aerosmith fan, so this is more of a statement of stylistic differences than anything else).
    The Green Day song is one of the ones I didn’t previously know.
    This is my favorite TMBG song (even though it’s not originally theirs), although “Why Does the Sun Shine?” holds a special place in my heart as well. It’s funny that my favorite two songs of theirs are both covers. In each case, I greatly prefer their version to the original.
    The Chipmunks version of “Timewarp” is simply wrong on many, many levels.
    The Gypsy Kings’ cover of “Hotel California” is bloody awesome.
    As soon as I realized this was an album of covers, I was waiting for which Seu Jorge song would occur and when it would occur. In other words, your obsession has been noted. (And the revolution will be televised…)
    Tim and I were discussing this version of “Mad World” recently. The original is one of my favorite Tears for Fears song, and it is sadly not as well-known as it should be. (It wasn’t commercially successful and was doomed to obscurity, aside from devotees like me.) I very much appreciate having a copy of the cover, although I need to figure out if the hiccups I heard were from the CD or from computer.
    I remember this Pearl Jam song. I remember DJs discussing how they found it odd that this group had chosen to cover that song. I’ve never actually heard the original version, or at least I don’t remember having heard it.
    This Johnny Cash song is another one Tim and I discussed recently briefly (after his version of “Personal Jesus” came up). Beginning and ending with Cash was a very nice touch. It’s also worth noting that Cash is a young man in track 1 and an old one in track 20. I don’t know if this and the possible implications thereof were pointed out above. (I don’t remember seeing this written down, but maybe it was there and flew under my radar.)
    At some point, I was thinking of making a blog post listing the songs that form a sort of soundtrack for my life. Tim’s CD made me think that maybe I should make a CD of it instead, but on further thinking, I like his MO of not giving any titles or artists, so maybe I’ll come up with another theme (perhaps a specific one within the theme of my entire life’s soundtrack) and do that. I’ll need to think a bit more (maybe more than a bit) to see what I actually want to do.

  5. Arcane Gazebo

    Anita Carter was June’s sister, and was the first to record “Ring of Fire” (June Carter was indeed the songwriter). Johnny Cash then recorded his version, adding the mariachi horns (as Lemming noted above).

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