5 Songs is a weekly series where we point out the strange, the grand, and the unique connections between our favorite songs. Let’s get weird.
Words by Chris
Welcome to another special edition of 5 Songs. Today we will leap headlong into some demo collections, which is like jumping off the nice clean path into the scraggly briar-country of obsessive music collecting—C’mon!
“The Way He Sings” / My Morning Jacket
Appearing on the At Dawn & Tennessee Fire demos collection, released in 2007 for the especially hungry (ahem the REAL fans) of MMJ’s first two brilliant LPs, this song comes without the slam-banging backing band and instead features Jim James alone with a multi-track. Each layer of the song is really exposed to the listener, especially how James’ two vocal tracks trade the lead.
“Slow Show” / The National
Any studio material released by The National is a real gift to fans because anyone really interested in their songwriting process is allowed inside. This version of the last track on Side A of Boxer sounds really new, the guitar melody maybe too lively for the lyrical content and the mix a little unprepared. Included is Matt Berninger mumbling over the parts he hasn’t finished. There are rejected lyrics in this song that re-surface in “Brainy” and the whole chorus in this version was completely dropped, only to turn up again in “Blank Slate”. And some things just never show up again like the awesome line, “Somebody bring me the head of a love song,” which makes this version special.
“Sterling” / Strang of Oaks
If there was a way to strip a confessional song closer to the bone, it’s done here on this chilling earlier version. I try to unpack the lyrical content every time I hear it, and something truly dark seems to hold me back. Although this song about having a blacked-out fever dream about JFK’s illegitimate child plays as fictional, it definitely shuts me up. Here, the song sounds like it was recorded in a huge open room with far less support-structure save a drum loop and Timothy Showalter’s guitar. I definitely recommend purchasing the pay-what-you-want Pope Killdragon Demos from Showalter’s bandcamp site.
“Tomorrow is a Long Time” / Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos is a ridiculous thing to be sitting on for 50 years. Dylan had written most of his first 4 records before he was ever famous, before commercial artists performed their own songs. These “tossed-off” versions were recorded for the song publishers to be distributed and recorded by other artists. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was covered in the early 60’s a bazillion times. This song though is like buried treasure, because it’s not anywhere but on this collection. Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent played it in his mini solo set when I saw him last April, giving strange new life to this great forgotten song.
“Sugar Pill” / Ambulance LTD
Whatever happened to Ambulance LTD? They have one unstoppable record and one EP with a Pink Floyd cover, some bits of new stuff, and this demo version of “Sugar Pill”. Their songs are bright and catchy, but have a great sense of songwriting density. I included this here because of its rarity and trying to nudge you into picking up their only record, LP, released way back in the last days of the compact disc, 2004. This version differs from its older sister in that it is a dance-rock take on what later became a kind of barroom slide guitar song. Do it up.
Demos are the bomb, especially when they’re lo-fi, raw, and passionate. Can you think of any other demo versions that just blow your mind? Leave us some love in the comments section.