For me, very few songs have the power to summon the visceral sensation of my early-seventies childhood like “Summer,” the languid, Latin-tinged single released in June 1976 by War, a band then at the end of an exceptional run of singles. Somehow the tempo, abetted by scraped percussion and lyrical references to C.B. radios and carefree motoring, conjures the humid languor of bicentennial-era Me Decade in a way I can almost smell.
Apparently, John Darnielle sees the song in somewhat similar terms. Enlisted by Amazon Music to contribute a track to its “Songs of Summer” playlist, coming June 3, Darnielle's Mountain Goats opted to cover War’s warm-weather wonder because it holds a secure place in his memory. War’s music, he writes, brings him back to a specific stretch of his southern California childhood.
“War’s music was an AM radio standby—"Low Rider," "Summer," "Why Can’t We Be Friends," "Cisco Kid"— these were songs you heard coming out of car windows," he says, "playing from radios inside the snack bar near the Little League dugout, and from portable radios at parks.”
To my mind, a good cover of an already great song should, like a doctor, first do no harm. It’s not enough to simply make the song live again. There has to be something new about the redo, something to justify its existence. By those criteria, Darnielle and his mates succeed here. They deliver on the song’s innate allure—its insinuating melody and overall aura of torpor. Various production and instrumentation choices, tempo shifts, and stacked harmonies enable you to re-imagine the song’s charms. The main motifs—the brass lines, the subtly surging background harmonies—are intact, yet rendered so as to hum at a slightly different frequency than before.
The original doesn’t budge from its laid-back cadence, but the cover gains a kind of urgency. By the final chorus, something of a head of steam is attained in its forward-leaning rock feel. It’s an interesting difference, perhaps inevitable given the restless quality of the Mountain Goats catalog.
One small quibble: In the War song, Leroy "Lonnie" Jordan makes the line, “We'll give a big 10-4 to the truckin’ man’" seem somehow timeless. In the remake, Darnielle adds one word at the beginning—“We’ll all give a big 10-4 to the truckin’ man." It adds a note of formality that feels oddly stiff. Oh well, it’s just a moment, and it's pretty tough to own a line like that, in 2016 anyway.
The most satisfying new touch is saved for last. The original wraps up with a giddy vocal vamp that fades out, as if still playing on eternal loop somewhere in the universe. The Mountain Goats song ends with a sax-happy coda that lingers beguilingly, just like that perfect summer feeling you never want to end.