When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Atlas Sound takes on Connee Boswell’s “Blue Moon.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
It’s hardly a stretch to assume most people were introduced to classic ballad “Blue Moon” by way of Elvis Presley or the Marcels, who in April 1961 made the song a number-one hit for the first and only time. But like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a song with a history of backstabbing and outright cruelty as vicious as Enron’s (read: “Where Does The Lion Sleep Tonight?”), “Blue Moon” was written decades before it became ubiquitous. It was penned in 1933 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart while under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the melody that we now so easily recall featured different lyrics; its original title was “Prayer (Oh Lord, Make Me A Movie Star),” as it was written with actress and singer Jean Harlow in mind. For one reason or another, that collaboration never happened, and it wasn’t until the next year when Shirley Ross sang the song in Manhattan Melodrama that its longing chords began to make their way into the popular conscious. Even then, it wasn’t a hit until MGM’s head of publishing, Jack Robbins, decided to take the song commercial, prodding Hart once more to alter the lyrics and the title to be more romantically salient for pop audiences. Quite simply, the rest is history: Beginning with Connee Boswell’s vintage, jazz-vocal styling, recorded in 1935, “Blue Moon” has gone on to be recorded by dozens, if not hundreds, of artists, from vocal giants like Billie Holiday and Dean Martin to punk stalwarts MxPx and Less Than Jake. It even found its way back into film via 1978’s Grease.
Last week, I wrote about how Grizzly Bear’s spacious, experimental pop has, in part, been influenced by the girl groups of the mid-20th century, made all the more obvious by the band’s excellent cover of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss).” The same could be said of Atlas Sound’s Bradford Cox, except in his case, the influence of the golden age of radio is much more recognizable. Visit the website used by him and his Deerhunter brethren as a repository of news and detritus related to the band and its litany of side projects and you’ll find this era’s influence everywhere; bubblegum-pop and doo-wop artists are heavily represented on the micromixes and online-only covers he releases with equal and prolific abandon. And, the best part: He gives them all away (the mixes, covers, singles and whatever else he decides to record on a whim) for free.
Fortunately for us, the law of diminishing returns means nothing to Cox; the more often he records, the better his product gets. Recorded on the occasion of Father’s Day 2008, Atlas Sound’s “Blue Moon” croons with a lazy, hushed pulse that captures the sadness of the tune succinctly, giving Boswell’s more-spirited take a nice counterpoint. Listen closely, though, and you’ll find the two versions evoke strikingly similar feelings, almost as if Boswell’s subtle big band could be interchanged for Cox’s sparse, three-instrument arrangement without missing a beat.
Cast your vote wisely.