I shouldn't have to tell you about the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Though his albums haven't sold much since his conversion to Islam in the late seventies, his songs remain firmly in the popular psyche, both as soft-oldies radio standards and as fodder for the interpretive skills of newer generations. Of the latter, the best cuts include those from the popworld, and they tend to hit the charts about once a decade; depending on who you ask, these might include 10,000 Maniacs rockin' cover of Peace Train, and Sheryl Crow's recent chartbusting re-remake of The First Cut Is The Deepest.
Though I saw 10,000 Maniacs in the right era to have seen their Peace Train live, I was born too late, and came to folk rock too late in life, to be a true Cat Stevens fan. With a few exceptions -- most notably his 2006 pop album An Other Cup, his first mainstream release since 1978, which includes a gorgeous, brooding, poignantly yearning cover of Nina Simone's Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood -- the music he's produced since a near-death experience caused him to change his name to Yusuf Islam, while beautiful in its own way, is truly designed for less Western ears than my own.
And though his back catalog continues to garner recognition, the Western world hasn't been kind to Yusuf Islam the man. His chance for a triumphant return to the global stage was stolen when he was bumped from Live Aid in 1985 after Elton John went long. He made the news in the late eighties for comments which were perceived at the time as support for the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, and again in 2004 when the US refused to pull him from their no-fly list, which tainted this icon of non-violence with an unproven association with terrorist causes.
But the more I encounter his older songs through the performance of talented others, the more I appreciate his skills as a songwriter -- and the more it becomes evident that an uncanny ability to put words and melody to peace, love, and a connection to the earth has always existed in Cat Stevens.
Such is the lot of the great cover: while it stands on its own as a performance, it also reminds us of the genius and truth of those that pen and first perform those songs. And such is the lot of the coverblog, too, for as long as there are still folks out there who think Sheryl Crow was covering Rod Stewart, it falls to us to set the record straight. What better way to do so than to celebrate those who, like Stevens himself, eschew the electric guitar wail, preferring instead to find the simple, melodic core of these songs, that quiet, spiritual peace which made them beautiful and memorable in the first place?
Today, then, the folkworld's best stripped-down Cat Stevens covers, which expose the heart of song and songwriter through the acoustic and the slow. And bonus songs: the aforementioned Cat-as-Yusuf cover of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, which serves as a powerful response to a Western world from an Islamic ambassador of peace who has himself been misunderstood, and a sweet solo acoustic cover of Where Do The Children Play from Jack Johnson woven skillfully into one of his own. You won't hear these songs on the radio, but you'll be glad you heard them.
- Kristen Hersh, Trouble
- Gary Jules, How Can I Tell You
- Eli, Morning Has Broken
- Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Father and Son
- Liz Durrett, How Can I Tell You
- The Holmes Brothers, Trouble
Yusuf Islam's 2006 An Other Cup is a stellar return to pop and circumstance well worth owning; keep reading to hear a choice cut, and get his entire catalog here.
Throwing Muse Kristen Hersh's majestic Trouble lends a modern indie sensibility to an old standard; find it on soloproject Sunny Border Blue.
Gary Jules brings his subtle orchestration and an uncanny Stevens-esque vocalization to How Can I Tell You on out-of-print all-cover Valentines Day compilation Sweetheart 2005: Love Songs.
Christian folksinger Eli bends Morning Has Broken -- a hymn made famous by Stevens -- just barely enough to sweeten it; thanks to Tim for promoting song and singer.
Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple collaborate to bring us a memorable, raw Father and Son retold through the haze of time. From Cash outtake collection Unearthed.
Liz Durrett's breathy-soft, tinkly How Can I Tell You is available from her website; pick up her three solo albums while you're there.
Today's genre-appropriate take on Trouble from rootsy folk/bluesmen The Holmes Brothers is available on the previously mentioned Crossing Jordan soundtrack, but you can and should buy their 2007 release State of Grace from Aligator Records.
Today's bonus coversongs:
- Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam covers Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (orig. Nina Simone)
- Jack Johnson's Fall Line segues into Where Do The Children Play