Of all the songwriters we like to heap praise upon here at the Post-Rockist, the diminutive and droll Stephin Merritt is often near the very top. But since one sign of a strong songwriter is how well his or her songs stand in the hands of others, here are a few of the most competent covers of his songs that I've heard.
Tracey Thorn & Jens Lekman - "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!"
(from SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: THE COVERS!)
When the Magnetic Fields performed "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" at Detroit's Second City theater in 2004, Stephin Merritt decided to ham up the performance by chasing Claudia Gonson around the stage with a fake plastic knife. Relishing his role as prop comic, the typically glum Merritt was winkingly acknowledging the song's ironic undertones - each refrain of the title was admitting to increasingly exaggerated exasperations; the joint "Na na na"s were as tauntingly tongue-in-cheek as they were harmonious.
The cover version by Tracey Thorn and Jens Lekman seems to play things at face value. No hyperbole, no droll humor, just a sad account of a wife's murder at the hands of her unloving husband. As artists, they're allowed to interpret the song however they wish, even if I would have gone in a different direction. This version plays into a very literal reading that I think many people probably share of this song, and because of its honesty I wouldn't be surprised if some came to enjoy this cover over the 69 Love Songs original. The arrangement is, at the very least, decidedly more graceful.
The Shins - "Strange Powers"
"Strange Powers" is probably my favorite Magnetic Fields song, and the first verse contains, without a doubt, one of Stephin Merritt's all-time best metaphors. But while the original clomps around and buzzes with synthesizers, the Shins strip the song down to its pristine pop core - the major chords F, C, and G repeated on a brisk acoustic guitar, and the earnest vocals of a man hopelessly and unflappably in love.
Tullycraft - "Falling Out of Love (With You)"
(from The Singles)
The story behind the 6ths, at least as I've heard it, is that Merritt conceived and executed the group as a mock tribute to himself, so it's only fitting that songs recorded by the 6ths lend themselves well to covers. "Falling Out of Love (With You)" was originally sung by Dean Wareham on Wasps' Nests (which, in my humble opinion, is every bit as essential as any proper Magnetic Fields album), but Sean Tollefson's cloying and vulnerable vocals are a perfect match for the hurt and deliberately childish chorus.
Two additional notes about Tullycraft:
-I actually prefer their cover of "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" to the Thorn and Lekman cover above, but I just wish I could find a full clip.
-Rumors are circulating that Tullycraft will be playing their last show ever at the San Francisco Popfest next month. St. Louis's Bunnygrunt will also be at the festival as performers, and I'm incredibly jealous.
I know there are plenty more covers that I'm missing (Superchunk's cover of "100,000 Fireflies" comes to mind), but I'm hoping our dear readers and/or fellow Merritt-o-maniacs can help clue me in. What else stand out?