Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Mulder and Scully – Catatonia

mulder-and-scullyRiding on the back on the mid-90s phenomenon (or over-hyped, media-defined throw-back, dependent on your perspective!) that was Britpop, Catatonia briefly shined at the end of that decade.

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Hailing from Cardiff, Wales, and always proud of their nationality (singer Cerys Matthews welsh accent is fully in evidence), Catatonia were seen as part of an upsurge in popular music in Wales at the time that included the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics and Super Furry Animals, which received the slightly dodgy epithet of “Cool Cymru“. It was with their second album, 1998’s International Velvet, that the band really broke through big time, spawning two classic singles in the shape of the excellent Road Rage (my personal favourite) and this one.

Making a direct reference to the at-the-time hugely popular “X Files” sci-fi TV series staring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, here was a pop-culture collision that couldn’t fail to be a success. Whilst the references to the series were more incidental to the actual content of the song than direct, the references clearly made the song stand out at the time and would certainly have contributed to getting it noticed, ultimately resulting in the song peaking at number 3 in the single charts.

And so to the song sheet. First things first, it’s not quite as straightforward as it might come across. There’s a few more chords than you might expect, but nothing too tricksy as long as you’re comfortable with barre chords. Otherwise it’s just a question of bashing through it! I’ve made an approximation of the opening (and occasional occurrence in the song) riff which (a) may or may not be right, and (b) you may or may not include. Enjoy!

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Kiss Me – Sixpence None The Richer

kiss-meMostly remembered as a one-hit wonder (although – in the UK at least – this was successfully followed up by a cover of The La’s classic There She Goes) Kiss Me is one of those songs that has stood the test of time, being a song that has passed the rather haphazard selection process to become a staple of oldies radio.

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Sixpence None The Richer were that rare thing, a band that broke out of the Christian music scene to achieve some proper commercial success. Admittedly that success was mainly limited to a couple of singles and their corresponding album, but all the same such a breakout is unusual. With something of a jangle-y sound (which probably inspired the choice of There She Goes as a cover) Kiss Me is no more – and no less – than an encapsulation of a shimmering, golden moment in a romantic relationship. The world needs songs like this.

And so the song sheet. It’s a simple song that relies on that D / Dmaj7 / D7 rundown (I’ve taken it down a semitone to make it easier to play – use a capo on the first fret to play along) during the verses, and a similar rundown towards the end of the chorus. The strumming pattern can be a bit tricksy, but as usual listen to the original and get the feel from there.

Enjoy!

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Make You Feel My Love – Bob Dylan / Adele

bob_dylan_-_time_out_of_mindadele_-_make_you_feel_my_loveI remember the first few times of listening to Bob Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out Of Mind and being particularly struck by this song. I guess that, as a stark, piano led ballad it had a clear, distinctive sound amongst the swampy, Daniel-Lanois-produced songs.

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And yet I didn’t realise at the time how massive the song would become. Originally surfacing as a Billy Joel recording, and then the following year by Garth Brooks, the song has become something of a modern classic, covered by a myriad of artists from many genres. But I don’t think it was until Adele covered the song on here debut album 19 in 2008 that it really seemed to take off. In doing so she really made the song her own, with a simple, piano-led stripped back performance that gets to the emotional heart of the song. Personally I love them both – the Dylan original, with its slightly cracked vocal, has a world-weary feel, whilst the Adele version with just the vocal and piano works equally well. Both proving what a great song this is.

The song sheet is transposed from the originals, not just to make it easier to play but mainly so I could sing it! There’s nothing tricky chord wise here, just some lovely sounding changes. Clearly this isn’t designed for the ubiquitous ukulele strumming pattern, and so requires a bit more sensitivity. But this one is definitely a case of less is more. [Note : See the video in the comments for a suggestion for a simple accompanying picking pattern for this]

Enjoy!

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He’s On The Phone – Saint Etienne

phoneBy the 1990s I’d started to lose track of contemporary pop music. Much of the dance scene that dominated the charts didn’t really interest me, and my focus was veering towards more country, folk and singer-songwriter sounds. As a result Saint Etienne passed me by.

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Which was a shame really. Because here was a band who combined a classic pop sensibility with a very british outlook, and blended that with facets of the contemporary dance sound. And in the process created a quite special and unique vibe that gave dance music genuine songs with a knowing, melodic twist. Over the years the more overt dance sounds became less prominent as their sound matured, but that mindset still pervaded their work. Songs took on my grown-up themes (although they also recorded a set of children’s songs as well!), reaching – to my mind – a peak in the truly extraordinary Teenage Winter.

He’s On The Phone was the bands biggest hit. The song was a reworking of a “Week-end à Rome”, a previous collaboration with French singer Etienne Daho. Introduced by a simple descending piano riff, the song powers along on a pulsating dance beat and tells the story of a hotel-based liaison between a young academic girl and a married man.

So not obvious material for a ukulele cover, clearly. But I think this works quite well. There’s a few unusual chords in there, and the Bsus4 to Bm transition may be a bit tricky to start with. But generally this shouldn’t be too tricky to pick up. I’ve also included the tab for that piano riff as well, which happens at the beginning of the song and then appears at various stages throughout. Give it a go. And enjoy!

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Missing – Everything But The Girl

By the early 90’s Everything But The Girl had been going for 10 years. Whilst they were still having success, they seemed to have plateaued, a loyal fan base, but unlikely to break out beyond that.

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1994’s Amplified Heart continued the trend of tasteful acoustic songs with a folk and jazz influence. But buried within it was this low-tempo song based around a subtle laid-back groove. Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn (the duo/couple that essentially *were* Everything But The Girl) had always though of the song as a dance-oriented track, and gave the it to American DJ Todd Terry to remix for use in nightclubs. The result was revelatory.

Giving the song a strong New York house direction, Missing was transformed with a sparse, beat-driven sound that contrasted with the mournful, lonesome vocals of Thorn (who, if you’re at all interested, has what I would consider to be one of the most beautifully textured voices in pop). And the world agreed – Missing became a huge global hit, one of *the* defining songs of the decade. The band were so taken with this new direction (alongside Tracey’s involvement with the Massive Attack track “Protection”) that they executed a radical career reinvention, embracing a more electronic sound, picking up on the emerging drum-and-bass sounds and ushering in a newly successful period for the band, something that Ben Watt then took further when the band entered an indefinite hiatus in his role as dance music producer and DJ.

As with many dance tracks, the song has a very simple structure based around a simple repeating chord structure. So nothing difficult in terms of chords here – the only challenge is getting the rhythm right in a way that keeps the song moving forward. Follow the acoustic version or the dance version – the choice is yours. Enjoy!

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Star – Oasis

definitelymaybeIf I’m out in the car by myself for a drive, I like to dig out a CD and crank the volume up. A couple of days ago I had that opportunity, and was in the mood for a bit of noise and attitude. Having a quick scan through my CDs I noticed a copy of Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe, and thought that would certainly fit the bill. So as I pulled away the open bars of this opening track filled the car with a wall of noise, and we were off.

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Definitely Maybe was, alongside Blur’s Parklife, the defining starting gun for Britpop. Although arguably a somewhat backward-looking phenomena, being heavily influenced by british guitar pop of the 60s and 70s, for a while it was a breath of fresh air that usurped the early 90s grunge sound, although – as these things always do – it eventually petered out amongst repetition, diminishing returns, and cheap third-rate imitations of itself.

However, Definitely Maybe can rightly be held up as a classic, and certainly blows the cobwebs away. A blend of the attitude and noise of punk bands with the melodic intents of 60s guitar bands, the album drives forward on an enormous wall of guitar sound, great dumb songs (don’t go looking for too much meaning in here) mostly from the pen of Noel Gallagher, and the rock and roll attitude of vocalist brother Liam. Rock ‘n’ Roll Star sets the tone from the off, and the album retains a remarkable consistency all the through to closing acoustic number “Married with Children”, taking in classics such as “Live Forever” and “Cigarettes and Alcohol” along the way.

Clearly a ukulele version is never going to achieve the sound of the original. But the basic song underneath all of that is a good one, and so I believe it works well (see here for an example of how it might). It’s relatively straightforward – essentially one verse and chorus, repeated! I’ve raised the key by half-a-tone to make it easire to play, and I think that works OK. Play with attitude, and enjoy!

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This Old Town – Nanci Griffith

othervoicesNanci Griffith has one of those voices that some people find hard to love. I get that. No matter. For me she is a fine writer of songs, and when she performs them they are very obviously Nanci Griffth songs. Sitting in a place somewhere between folk and country, she’s never really been part of either scene – too country for the folk crowd, too folk for the country crowd. But since her debut in 1978 she has ploughed her own furrow, and in the process built up an impressive body of work. The songwriting craft and tradition is one that Nanci is clearly part of – economical with language, painting vignettes that tell the stories of “ordinary” lives – little slices of life as it is lived, of the loves, hopes and fears of people.

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So as an artist for whom songwritting is such a big part of who she is, it is somewhat surprising (and possibly dissappointing) that her most successful venture has been an album of other people’s songs. In actual fact it’s not that surprising, as she has always sung the virtue of the great (if unacclaimed) song writers, and has regularly included the songs of others on her albums. But 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms album (and it’s 1998 follow-up Other Voices, Too) was a focussed and deliberate project to highlight songs that had been influential on Nanci’s songwriting and her career. With it’s title lifted from a Truman Capote novel, and featuring songs by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph MacTell, Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot and many others, Nanci proved that she is not just a great songwriter, but also a great interpreter of other’s songs, making many of the songs her own, and creating a wonderfully cohesive collection in the process.

One of those songs was this one, This Old Town, which was written by Janis Ian. At the time it was unreleased by Janis, not appearing until 1999 on a collection of previously unreleased songs. So whilst this was a cover of somebody else’s song, Nanci’s version was essentially it’s first outing, and as a result she claimed it. The song is very clearly one set in a small dust bowl town (Nanci grew up in Texas, an area much impacted by the dust bowl) and paints brief sketches of that town from the 1920s, highlighting all the things that could have destroyed it, yet rejoicing in the fact that the town and its people have weathered those storms, and that it is the people at the heart of that town which make it the community it is.

So here’s the songsheet. Nothing too complicated here, although the timing is sometimes a little tricky. Best to listen and play along to the original to get the feel for it. Play with a sprightly feel – ideal for strumming, or some fancy picking (but that’s beyond me!). Enjoy!

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