Take the city as my sister, and the nighttime as my lover...

I'm just now listening to the CD compilation that came packaged with the June issue of The Believer, and I gotta say it's already worth every penny I spent on it, mainly for the covers of songs by Joanna Newsom and The Constantines.

Songs can move me for many reasons, but I have always understood the difference between an amazing song and an amazing performance. Sometimes you find both in the same track, sometimes just one, usually neither. It's hard to kill, say, a Bob Dylan or Neil Young song, no matter what kind of talentless hack is covering it. The song survives the performance. And even though I'm a huge fan, it would be hard to imagine anyone else making most Tori Amos songs sound as good as she does. Her performance makes the song.

I was subconsciously putting Joanna Newsom and The Constantines in the latter category, until I heard covers of their songs on this Believer compilation. Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, with his strummy acoustic and Mangum-esque vocal, revealed Joanna's "Bridges & Balloons" to be a folk masterpiece. Take away Joanna's creak and squeak voice and dreamy harp -- and her melody, phrasing and lyrics emerge to knock you over. I can see this cover being used to trick Joanna-haters into giving the lass some well-deserved respect.

Jim Guthrie completely re-imagines The Constantines' "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)" into a relaxed swagger, removing much of the grit and tension from the original, but the darkness and mystery remain. It's still not a strong song in the classic sense, but Guthrie shows the song has legs and can live apart from its creators. I'm now obsessed with hearing some of Jim Guthrie's own music.

(And in case this post makes it seem otherwise, The Constantines are one of my favorite discoveries of the past year. They fill the hole that Shiner left behind when they broke up (although The Life and Times will rise). Hearing the new Constantines record and seeing them live for the first time are two of my wishes for 2005.)

I haven't gotten into the other Believer songs yet, but I have a feeling they'll be causing more discoveries and revelations. Check out the track listing here. Then buy it before they run out of 'em.

P.S. Read this week's When The Lights Go Down In The City, please and thanks.

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