When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Wooden Birds take on Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
“A she-cat tamed/By the purr of a Jaguar.” The whole of straight man-kind is both ruined and elated by the type of woman described here in Hall & Oates’ massive 1982 hit “Maneater.” But its ability to resonate with a colossal slice of the world’s population has little to do with its staying power. The song, disarmingly simple but elusive as an educating force for writers (we still haven’t figured out how to replicate this level of talent), is as provocative and infectious today as it was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when it sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks straight. Its red-blooded, cautionary themes persist, to be sure, but it’s the groove, clockwork but soulful, that keeps pulling us back. That and its clever use of saxophone as a way to conjure dark secrets of the night. In that sense, “Maneater” could probably be just as effective as an instrumental, like Santo And Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk,” but darkened for the modern, more cynical era. Add Hall’s always consistent turns of phrase, and that’s the ballgame. Pop perfection. Something to truly revere.
So can you tweak the formula and achieve the same results? Many have tried and failed, however nobly. But the Wooden Birds, led by Andrew Kenny of the now-defunct American Analog Set, come bracingly close to capturing the sinister nature of the original. Rendered in Kenny’s trademark style (earthy, as if he and his band were in the adjacent room), the Birds’ cover contains only the most essential elements, down to a melodica transplanting the iconic sax line and the drum parts being traded for tapping on an acoustic guitar. It’s an approach that Kenny has been perfecting in one form or another for years, one that works wonders on the Birds just-released Two Matchsticks, out now via Barsuk.