Thursday, May 05, 2005

Great Songs: Amazing Grace

From time to time, I'm gonna take a great song and do some quick reviews of different versions that have been recorded. The first song I'm going to try is "Amazing Grace." I really can't imagine a bad version of this one. Maybe a version that disregarded its intense emotion and spirituality would be bad. Otherwise, I'd think it's pretty tough to screw up. Here are some of the noteworthy versions I've heard (many of them on Rhapsody):

  • Dropkick Murphys (from The Gang's All Here) - To be honest, I find the Dropkick Murphys to be a rather contrived stab at Oi, but not on this track. They play it with such conviction that it makes me reconsider my previous impression of them.

  • Ditchdiggers (from Light and Salvation) - Americana is as natural a format for this song as gospel and the Ditchdiggers pull it off naturally.

  • Five Blind Boys of Alabama (from Spirit of the Century) - You'd think this would be one of standards, but the Five Blind Boys actually do this one to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." It's a surprise, but a great version nonetheless.

  • Ani Difranco (from Dilate and Living in Clip) - The studio version on Dilate has a really interesting sublime groove that, along with the reading of the lyrics that interjects in the background, makes it one of the most original versions without abandoning the true feel of the song. The live version on Living in Clip has the same groove with somewhat different instrumentation and does an even better job of showcasing Difranco's voice without trying to outshine the song itself.

  • Mighty Clouds of Joy (from Mighty Clouds of Joy Live) - Do you believe? You will after hearing this version. They're so into it that the song loses it's structure altogether at times.

  • Neville Brothers (from Live on Planet Earth) - This is, in my opinion, the best live album of all time and this is its emotional climax.

  • Aaron Neville (from Believe) - This isn't quite the live version, but it's still hard to argue with Aaron Neville.

  • Holmes Brothers (from Jubilation) - This one starts off like a sermon at a Baptist church and settles into country-tinged gospel (or maybe it's gospel-tinged country) that's one of the more emotional versions. When that falsetto takes off, it gives me goosebumps.

  • Ralph Stanley (from Clinch Mountain Gospel) - You expect the full bluegrass treatment, but this one is a capella. Nonetheless, Ralph Stanley and company give this version the stamp of great traditional music.

  • The Soul Stirrers (from When the Saints Go Marching In) - This is a decent Motown-ish soul version. It's not bad, but it's more upbeat and lacks the emotional elements of many of the better versions.

  • Elvis Presley (from He Touched Me) - I expected better from Elvis, but this was recorded in the 70s. At least he didn't sing, "I mustasaida..."

  • The Zion Harmonizers (from New Orleans Gospel Glory!) - This is serious gospel, all a capella. This is another one that'll just make you believe!

  • Al Green (from Greatest Gospel Hits) - Ever soulful, Al Green delivers just as expected.

  • Jeff Beck (from Merry Axemas) - This is a strangely ethereal track, but Beck plays with some emotion. This is one of the oddest versions I've heard.

  • Willie Nelson (from Freedom: Songs from Heart of America) - No surprise here other than it being a little more bluesy than country.

  • Yes (from Yesyears) - I hadn't heard this before, but when I saw it I figured it would either be incredible or incredibly awful. Sadly, it was the latter. I guess my theory that you can't screw up "Amazing Grace" was wrong.

  • Statler Brothers (from Radio Gospel Favorites) - This would be a pretty mediocre version if it weren't for Harold Reid's bass parts. They do harmonize well, but the backing track is lame.

  • Fats Domino (from Christmas Gumbo) - Not only is there no vocal, but the whole thing sounds like it was recorded on a Casio keyboard. More evidence that great songs can be utterly wrecked.

  • Aretha Franklin (from Amazing Grace) - This is every bit as good as Aaron Neville's version on Live from Planet Earth. Aretha may be the one person who was truly meant to sing this song.

  • Cedarmont Kids (from Hymns) - Man, I thought this would be a cool one with kids pulling it off with the honesty that only kids truly have. Instead it sounds like Disney's "It's a Small World." I'd say this is worse than Yes, but still better than Fats Domino.


Anonymous Chuck said...

Because I'm a big dork, I decided it would be fun to listen to each of these songs and jot down my own reactions before I read Bob's comments.

Dropkick Murphys - Great energy. I was afraid they were going to do the generic "quirky intro to a rock song" thing but the bagpipes are a focal point of the whole song. I really like the way they kept the vocals but buried them.

Ditchdiggers - Hey, let's do a cover of a slow song but we'll be crazy and we'll play it FAST! Isn't that crazy? Nobody's ever done that before. Man we're a buncha crazy geniuses.

Five Blind Boys of Alabama - Even with a heads-up from Bob, this one floored me. It reminds me of those old Reese's commercials: "You got your 'Rising Sun' in my 'Amazing Grace'! Mmmmmm... tastes great together!" To parrot something Bob said to me, it's even better when you consider that 'House of the Rising Sun' is all about sin and 'Amazing Grace' is all about salvation.

Ani Difranco - I think Dilate is an amazing album except for one or two songs. This, unfortunately, is one of those songs. The production is interesting but there's no emotion. If there is one thing that 'Amzing Grace' should have, it's emotion.

Mighty Clouds of Joy - Now this has emotion. Too bad that in the midst of all of their joy and gratitude, they kind of forgot to sing the song.

Neville Brothers - All of the "fou-ow-ow-ow-ow -owwwwwwww-owwwowww -wowowow-ound" nonsense keeps distracting me. I hate commercially viable emotion. Mr. Neville has a great voice but I don't think this is the song with which to show it off. I keep waiting for him to bust into some Mariah Carey-esque squeaking, just to prove that he can.

Aaron Neville - Certainly better than the live Neville Brothers version. Still heavy on the affected singing but I can discern some emotion. I like where he stops with the words and just starts singing, that feels like the most honest part of the song. (For more on Aaron Neville, see Daniel Lanois, below.)

Holmes Brothers - Powerful voices. Nice contrast between the different singers, and between the instruments and vocals. It's good. Not a stand out, but certainly good.

Ralph Stanley - Weird that it took ten versions before we reached an a capella version. I expected a full-on bluegrass take from Ralph Stanley. The emotion is very restrained. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it adds an interesting tension to the song.

The Soul Stirrers - Bah. Totally generic. Not bad, just bland.

Elvis Presley - Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis was a complete and utter caricature of himself by the second half of his career. The only thing that saves this performance is the backup singers. Terrible.

Zion Harmonizers - Another a capella rendition. Their voices work very nicely together but I'm just not feeling it.

Al Green - I've tried, but I don't understand the love for Al Green. I think he's kind of boring and this isn't changing my opinion.

Jeff Beck - About 2 minutes in, he starts playing in a higher octave and his guitar sounds like a toy amidst the overbearing chorus.

Willie Nelson - I don't like the musical arrangement, but Willie is feeling the love. His vocal delivery is probably my favorite so far. I wish this were either a capella or just him and his guitar.

Yes - Oh, dear God help me... I forgot that this was a Chris Squire bass solo. I was braced for Jon Anderson's infernal wimpiness when all the sudden I'm hit with a distorted Rickenbacker. It's like having coffee grounds dumped on your head when you're expecting to be flogged with a wet noodle.

The Statler Brothers - Both the musical arrangement and the vocal harmonies are unlike any other version I've heard yet. The straightforward but interesting vocals more than make up for the overly-arranged background.

Fats Domino - The couch on the album cover is the best thing about it. That is one sweet, sweet sofa, Fats. Too bad the song is awful.

Aretha Franklin - Just hearing her "mmmmmm"s before the song starts is enough to make me smile. The vocal gymnastics seem to come from a place of genuine excitement rather than a desire to please an audience. Unfortunately, like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, I feel as if the song got lost somewhere in all the excitement.

Cedarmont Kids - What the???? I thought this was going to be like the Get Up Kids or the Riddlin' Kids. That was almost as bad as the Fats Domino version.

And now for some others that Bob didn't review, just for fun:

Bryan Ferry (from Taxi) - If he'd taken the musical arrangement and written his own words and melody on top of it, it might have been a decent Bryan Ferry song. As it is, it's just bad pop.

Pras (from Ghetto Supasta) - This is the first version that actually gave me a chill, but that's largely due to the transition from the "stop the violence" phone message to the pleasantly unaffected vocals. I like the idea of bringing the song into a modern inner-city setting. Unfortunately, after a few lines, the vocal performance kind of falls flat.

Mahalia Jackson (from More Gospel Soul) - Straightforward rendition from a great singer.

Charlie Daniels Band (from How Sweet the Sound) - It was okay until the vocals started, then they lost me. It's like a really, really bad cover of Ralph Stanley's version.

Charles Brown (from These Blues) - I expected some heart and soul from this one. All I got was bored.

Daniel Lanois (from Acadie) - Aaron Neville sings on this very unusual version and his performance is one of my very favorite so far. While the music is not overtly emotional, there are different moods that subtly play against and challenge each other. I've always liked the contrasts present in 'Amazing Grace' (despair and hope, loss and salvation, humanity and godliness), and this version captures a lot of that. The production is exceptional and adds to the song's tension. As a musical experiment, it is much more successful than Ani Difranco's version.

Rod Stewart (from Vintage) - I expected to beat up on this one really harshly but it's surprisingly good. The song is short (two minutes) and he doesn't start singing until it's almost 3/4 over. When the vocals start, his gritty voice sounds like that of a desperate man finding salvation. He only sings the first verse and then the song ends. Short and simple and surprisingly effective.

Ray Charles and the London Symphony Orchestra (from Music of Hope) - Ray's vocal performance is beautiful but the symphonic arrangement sounds like the Titanic music. His vocal performance is incredibly emotional on its own, and it doesn't need all that bombastic crap to get the point across.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Rev. Brandy said...

Fascinating read, both the post and comment. Great use of the word "bombastic."

3:06 PM  
Blogger Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

and I need to check out Ani Difranco's version since I recently picked up two of her albums...she's righteous

6:05 PM  

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