Who remembers Borders? An outbreak of civilisation, it always seemed to me: books, music, movies, coffee shop. Joy! The Leeds branch was actually in the same premises as Virgin Records had occupied when I worked there. So it was amusing to sit in the first floor cafe and sip my large Americano while looking out of the window, down onto busy Briggate, in what used to be the (always chaotically untidy) stock room of the record shop.
Anyway about twenty years ago I was sitting in the basement at Borders on a boiling hot Saturday afternoon; ostensibly so my then-infant son could play in the little ball pool they had down there, and then choose him a new book. However I lingered because the air conditioning was such a divine relief. In this semi-stoned state I sat on one of the little chairs next to the play area and over the sound system came a beautiful noise. Bit of slide guitar, very sweet, then a faintly familiar melody cleanly picked out on a banjo. What was that toon? I was sure it was an instrumental piece and then all of a sudden, a high, dulcet voice came in. Of course! It’s ‘I Will’ one of Paul McCartney’s bucolic acoustic tunes from 1968’s The Beatles double LP aka ‘The White Album’. But who is singing it? Sounds a bit like Dolly Parton from the early 70’s – maybe it’s an oldie? So I go and ask the girl on the till; she doesn’t know, as the music is controlled from upstairs. This is before the days of streaming of course but there’s an in-store playlist; it’s ‘I Will’ by Alison Krauss. By now my investment of time and energy had reached a certain pitch of engagement from which there was no return: is it on an album? Yes, it’s a compilation called Now That I’ve Found You. You know how this story ends. That’ll be £11.99, sir, thank you.
Turns out this was already a very popular album, a combination of recordings from her career as a solo country and bluegrass singer, tracks with the band Union Station, and a few oddities and one-off collaborations, the category into which ‘I Will’ fits snugly. Of course if you are a ‘genre’ act looking to broaden your appeal and break into a mainstream, poppier market then covering a Beatles tune is a very smart move. As we noted in the previous Pete Sounds on covers, the song is doing a great deal of work for you and it will likely be widely heard and recognised in a way an original tune would rarely be. It’s a tried and tested technique, going right back to the 60’s, when people would have hits with Beatle album tracks that didn’t make it onto 45’s (off the bat I’m thinking of The Overlanders, Marmalade, Apple hopefuls Trash, and many more). The ‘White Album’ has a number of these well-covered tunes on it – ‘Blackbird’ seems a particular favourite, especially in more recent times: again just sitting here I am thinking of Zac Brown, Julie Fowlis (who recorded the song translated into Scots Gallic) and Jacob Collier who, as ever with him, took it off into jazz-pop-prog-superspace. I recently discovered a cache of Czech language covers of White Album era tracks from 1968 which of course coincides exactly with the Dubcek era, the brief and beautiful ‘Prague Spring’ that ended on August 20th 1968 with the Soviet invasion. (More on this in our next Covers blog.) So it’s a gesture of aspiration, defiance, as well as being business savvy and – lest we forget! – an opportunity to try on a great song for size.
So, the Alison Krauss album Now That I’ve Found You proved an unlikely hit partly due (in the UK anyway) to the title tune becoming a favourite with the country’s most-listened to DJ at the time, Terry Wogan, who played it frequently on his BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show– the song fits into our cover-as-calling-card model too, being a slowed, modulated remake of the hit by The Foundations from the Summer of Love 1967.
The album also contained the original of ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, itself covered by Ronan Keating as the theme to the hugely successful Richard Curtis film Notting Hill in 1999. All in all this was a sleeper of an album which, by accident as well as design, delivered slap-bang-centre mainstream presence to La Krauss. It accomplished this while also carefully remaining true to her roots: most of it is at the Bluegrass end of Country, and all of it is blessed with her fabulous voice.
Sticking with her A1 superfine band Union Station she ambitiously embarked on a ‘dual career’, recording more traditional material with Union Station on albums like New Favorite (American spelling) but also venturing deeper into pop with her 1999 album Forget About It, assembled to prise open the market further in the wake of this success: its title track was a near-hit single and she covers Todd Rundgren and Michael McDonald. She and Union Station were also involved in the zillion-selling soundtrack to Joel Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), put together under the auspices of T. Bone Burnett. You can hear Alison on ‘Down To The River To Pray’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away’ with Gillian Welch. Union Station guitar player Dan Tyminski sang and played on ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, lip-synched by George Clooney in the film, the song which provides the plot’s impetus by becoming a hit record for the escaped prisoners.
Her most successful record in the mainstream market under her own name was the 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant on Raising Sand. Massive sales worldwide and global touring of the album really introduced her to a wider audience and led to the stellar success she has now – there is certainly no other Nashville-approved act who hasn’t flipped completely to pop (such as the blessed Taylor Swift) who can fill venues in the UK like Alison Krauss.
Now: if you know me, you’ll know I have never been a fan of Led Zeppelin. As a kid they seemed to represent everything I didn’t like about ‘rock’ pre-punk, with all that strutting, private plane trashing, curly mane tossing carry on. And I was made (by my pal and his Elder Brother who scoffed at my Lovin’ Spoonful and Monkees records) to sit through the film The Song Remains The Same at a special screening at the old ABC cinema in Leeds (North Street end of Vicar Lane, cinema demolished years ago, site still ugly and undeveloped). Awful. Turned me right on to The Damned. Anyway despite this impediment I really adore and recommend that album. Here’s my favourite track, ‘Please Read The Letter’, which was actually written by Messrs. Plant and Page, so fair do’s.
Back to ‘I Will’. The ‘White Album’ version is deceptively simple: it is actually a ‘Threetles’ recording with McCartney on vocal and guitar, Lennon and Ringo on assorted percussive tik-toks. It is a light acoustic number, almost childlike in its apparent directness – the lyric is very sweet and matches the melody perfectly. It’s the sort of song people who want to criticise him point to:
Love you forever and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we’re together
Love you when we’re apart
Yet this is to miss the point entirely: it’s a song about what Thomas Hardy called ‘The Well-Beloved’, the person we have not met yet but that we somehow sense is out there, living and moving and slowly, surely, making their way toward us.
Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will
So far from being a saccharine love song, I’d say this song is tapping into something very primal and humane, something which makes people feel connected and better about their lives . Maybe only love and music can do this.
Retrospectively we can hear that Paul is discovering his early 70’s, immediately post-Beatle voice: try this next to ‘The Lovely Linda’ or (yes!) ‘Ram On’. See? It is also of course a brilliant example of his way with a tune, so simple it feel-flows as natural as a fish in a stream. Yet labour had gone into it, as with all effortless sounding creation: begun in Rishikesh where the band had gone to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968, it apparently started out with some help from Donovan which I can just about buy. Returned to now and then in the intervening months it was recorded at Abbey Road in September ’68 , five months after they had come home, somewhat disillusioned, from India : check Lennon’s ‘Sexy Sadie’, a put down of the Mia-Farrow-fancying Guru.
Mark Lewisohn tells me that ‘I Will’ took 67 takes and who am I to say otherwise: that’s a lot of takes for something that sounds like it simply dropped from McCartney’s tree. What a craftsman he is! Here you go.
So we finally get to our cover version! It may have been on Krauss’s breakthrough album but actually the source of the song is more obscure– it was a vocal guest spot on an album called Within Reach by ace Californian guitar and banjo player Tony Furtado (no relation to Nelly as far as I know) which was issued in 1992, a whole eight years before I heard it on that boiling hot summer’s afternoon in downtown LS1.
This may be a heresy – in fact, I am certain it is – but I’d place this in a very select subset of covers that I like more than the ‘originals’. Where the ‘White Album’ version is 1.45 (and what a world is there in those 105 seconds!) the Furtado/Krauss version allows the song 4.05 to stretch out. Now clearly the longer version isn’t necessarily the better version but the extra space lets the melody really blossom and surround the listener; it is taken at a slower pace too, and there is none of the clippity-clop pantomime horse percussion that somewhat striates the Beatles version, just a relaxed marking of the beat. Curiously there is a bit of steelpan which sneaks unexpectedly into the arrangement and then ghosts away again; it gently sails alongside the melody for a while, like a pod of dolphins swimming alongside a schooner just for the pleasure of it.
The opening 95 seconds of the track are instrumental; Furtado’s dobro opens with a mellifluous noodle around the home notes and then at 0.17 the banjo ushers in the unmistakable melody, picked clearly and cleanly, note by note – no flash, frailing or fistfuls of chords here, just exquisite melodicism. You’d swear this was going to be a highly agreeable mellow bluegrass instrumental take on the song well into the second minute of the recording: it’s not until 1.35 (a mere ten seconds short of the entire duration of the original) that the vocal begins.
I’ll tell you something; the moment Alison Krauss begins to sing is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. In fact, I’m not sure I have in fact ever heard the exact moment; her voice seems to gently push forward out of the melody as if it were simply another part of the natural growth of this delicate blossom. This may be perfect pitch or somesuch; I just feel the effect of it. Have a listen for yourself; I can never quite distinguish where she starts. Maybe I just refuse to notice. It wouldn’t be the first time. Funnily enough there are a couple of flaws in the vocal – it’s clearly not a single take (check the Impossible Overlap at 1.52 making an edit plain) and toward the close, where Furtado joins her for a very low level harmony, she nearly tips over into the almost-shrill.
But this is like saying Van Gogh could have used less yellow.
At a time where we need music to provide a free and clear space to bask in and nourish our souls, here’s one that can do it for you.
2 thoughts on “Covers #2: I Will”
It is an almighty track and yes her voice on the introduction is the sweetest thing …
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What do you think about Donovan’s claim to have ‘helped’ Paul with this one…he says this sort of Zelig thing often but I can see it here.