Cover Version Showdown #4

Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives” – Duran Duran v The Henry Girls

It’s kind of amazing to me that I’ve made it this far without writing about Elvis Costello, who, more recent disappointments aside, is my all-time favourite musical artist. He came along too late for Pazz and Jop (that’s going to change big time once we reach 1977), and none of his individual tunes fits with Classics Revisited. I didn’t think there were enough noteworthy cover versions out there – my apologies to Linda Ronstadt – for this space. And then I heard The Henry Girls sing “Watching the Detectives”.

But first, let’s go back to the original. It wasn’t a hit in North America – it fell outside the Billboard Top 100 at 108, and peaked at 60 in Canada – but it was certainly one of the songs that EC was known for in his late ‘70s heyday, when his albums were selling over a million copies each and everyone kept waiting for that hit single that would put him on the same level as contemporaries like Joe Jackson. That hit never came, but he made great album topped by (maybe) greater album year after year, and that has pretty much sustained him through 40 years of musical adventurism. Every record is a surprise – I’m a big fan of “Painted from Memory”, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and there is a crazily diverse palate of albums with The Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Allen Toussaint (I own all of these) and, as the proof of my theory that a great musician can work in any genre (see Hartman, Dan), Wendy James. I finally checked the latter record out recently, and it might be the most fun I’ve had listening to an album he was involved in. I hope he enjoyed writing it.

Elvis’ original is a menacing little thing, with booming drums and throbbing bass with a staccato reggae-lite beat. The entire thing is sung with a sneer and a rising sense of danger, the score to a film noir that ends with the protagonist wondering how the fuck did he get so turned inside out. Written in a fever after a night spent slowly falling in love with The Clash, it is certainly among the punkier of his recordings, in attitude at least.

Our first competitor is Duran Duran, and I am very surprised to be writing about them again. They were a band I paid as little attention to as possible, which was pretty darned challenging from 1982 to 1988. Lots of hits, very few of them memorable, yet so tinged with nostalgic value that they now give me great pleasure to revisit. They tackled “Watching the Detectives” on an album of cover versions released in 1995. There are versions of songs from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Sly and the Family Stone, Public Enemy, and, holy shit, how can I be sitting here writing when that record exists in the world and I still haven’t listened to it 27 years later. It’s lush and jittery, a haunted doomscape out of Godard’s “Alphaville” nightmares. It practically vibrates, Simon Le Bon’s breathy vocal laced with faux sexiness, the messy backing tracks digging under your skin in about a dozen different ways.

And then we come to The Henry Girls. If, like me until recently, you’ve never heard of them before, then you’re in for a treat. Three sisters from Ireland, their music has been described as a blend of Irish roots music and Americana. Their melodies are a thing of genius. This is the record that would’ve been created if the “Rum and Coca Cola” version of The Andrews Sisters had met 1977 Nick Lowe (Elvis’ producer) on 1967 Carnaby Street right after Nick had completed a fellowship with Phil Spector and then rejected everything Phil taught him except for the stuff about harmony, and if you understand that I loved writing that sentence, then you get me, and I thank you. It’s sort of goofy and so personal and unique, and highlights Elvis’ intricate wordplay in a way his own singing never does. 

The Winner: Duran Duran

I had this locked and loaded for The Henry Girls from the first listen, but then a weird thing happened. With each play, Duran Duran’s version revealed new layers, while The Henry Girls remained the same piece of wonder it was from the beginning. And that gives the Brits the edge over the Irish right now. This could easily switch in another day or two, and then back, which is sort of fantastic. Each artist put their personal mark on the song, and I love both, and how they respect Elvis and sort of piss in his eye at the same time. I’m pretty sure he’d be good with that, and so am I.

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