I have generally attributed my taste in music (certain pop divas notwithstanding…hi Cher, hi Celine) to two events that occurred around the same time in my life. The first is whatever weird twist of fate led thirteen-year-old me to randomly pick up Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and the Indigo Girls’ Swamp Ophelia in the music section of my hometown Barnes and Noble. Up until then, I had been blindly following the one halfway-decent radio station we had—and by “halfway-decent,” thirteen-year-old me means it played the current stuff—and these women straight up destroyed everything I thought I knew about music before laying down a new foundation of piercing lyrics and stellar harmonies. Suddenly that halfway-decent radio station paled in comparison to the stories woven within the songs I stumbled upon, and there was no turning back.
The other came about when I found out that Megan Mullally was in a band.
By this point, I was already deep in my love for Will & Grace, so initially I wondered why the hell no one told me that not only did Karen Walker sing, but also had two albums of covers with Supreme Music Program (a third would come out a few years after this discovery). But once I actually started listening to these songs, I realized that a) I just found my new favorite band, and b) these albums were opening the doors to music I might not have found on my own. I was so enamored of these songs that I had to find the original versions. And in finding the original versions, I picked up some new favorite artists along the way, and those new artists led me to music with a similar vibe. In some cases, I even started appreciating genres that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. All because I found out one of my favorite actresses is EXTREMELY multi-talented. Who would have guessed?
So while this is structured like a journey into what I’m about musically, this is essentially an excuse to showcase an incredible artist, first through the songs of SMP, and eventually turning into a laundry list of all the reasons I love her latest venture, Nancy and Beth (and there is a lot to love about Nancy and Beth). Basically, I just wanted to talk about something I think everyone needs to know, and that is this: Megan Mullally has been making music for years. And she’s really, REALLY good at it.
What better way to kick this off than with the biggest influences on my taste in music? Supreme Music Program’s first two albums, The Sweetheart Break-In and Big as a Berry, were loaded with covers of Tom Waits and Randy Newman, and I absolutely fell for it. The tracks on those albums opened the door to a deep love for the darker songs, the grittier songs, the sad songs, and the songs with impeccably crafted lyrics. So by the time I got to middle school, while everyone else was listening to whatever music they gleaned from the halfway-decent radio station, I had albums like Heartattack and Vine and Sail Away in my Discman (oh god, remember those?). These two artists constitute a large portion of what I turn to when I just want to hear something brilliant. And Supreme Music Program is completely responsible for that.
What gets me the most about Tom Waits is the sheer poetry of his lyrics; that mixed with the sound of his voice makes an irresistible aesthetic to me. There will be times where I’ll listen to a song and a line grabs hold of me and refuses to let go. For its beauty, for the way it’s worded, for whatever reason, it’s important and I feel it in my core. I think I’ve had that experience more times with his music than I have with any other artist. And when you hear Megan sing his songs, you can hear that importance in her voice, whether it’s a deceptively simple love song like “Johnsburg, Illinois,” or the bittersweet beauty of “Take It with Me.” But it’s the SMP cover of “Ruby’s Arms,” a song about leaving your love behind, that gets to me the most. Megan carries this carefully controlled intensity in her voice throughout the whole thing, slowly amping it up until she reaches the actual point of leaving (“Jesus Christ, this goddamn rain/Will someone put me on a train/I’ll never kiss your lips again/Or break your heart”), where you’re not only convinced she’s setting out to crush your heart, you are 100% willing to let it happen.
Although, with years of loving Tom Waits comes years of dying to hear what something like “Martha”—probably my favorite song of his, and definitely one of my favorite songs of all time—would sound like in her voice.
Up until I came across SMP’s catalog, the extent to which I knew Randy Newman’s music reached to Toy Story and Toy Story 2 (SUCH a wide range, I know), because I was all up in that demographic at the time. So to get a taste of the work that isn’t as Pixar-friendly was pretty fantastic. Megan’s gorgeous version of “Marie” has an entire setting attached to it; the addition of that chatter in the first few seconds before the music starts makes it feel like you’re in the bar hearing this grand—slightly intoxicated—declaration, and that addition takes the song to the next level; it’s amazing how such a short clip of audio can completely alter an experience. The band serves up straightforward covers of “Lonely at the Top” and “Real Emotional Girl” on Big as a Berry that honor the originals so well. They come one right after the other on the album, too, so the preceding brassiness of “Lonely at the Top” really highlights the (excuse me) emotion of “Real Emotional Girl” in contrast. I’m going to single out “Guilty” here, though, because I’ve always been stunned by what SMP did with it. They took an already great song (here’s the original for comparison) and made a completely uninhibited rollercoaster out of it that I could honestly stay on forever.
Bless Free Again! for being an album that exists. The third Supreme Music Program outing has always been my favorite. That combination of covers just gets so much of what I’m about; and part of what I’m about is killer music from insanely talented women. Let’s start with PJ Harvey, because I can’t believe there was ever a time when I wasn’t listening to her. I remember seeing Supreme Music Program perform at the Kennedy Center in 2005 and hearing “Down by the Water” there for the first time. That song felt like a goddamn revelation, one of those “Where the hell has this been all my life?” moments. When it appeared on Free Again! in 2007, it lost none of that appeal, and even to this day there are times where I’ll listen to the SMP cover and be taken aback for a second, even though I’ve heard it about 8,000 times before. The original “Down by the Water” is one of those songs that is open to so much interpretation musically; the instrumentation could go in a thousand different directions while keeping the integrity of the song. SMP incorporates a darkly intriguing instrumentation that fits so well with the lyrics; that piano intro is so damn good, part of me wishes it was somehow in the original.
If “Down by the Water” is my favorite track on Free Again! (and it is), “Talk to Me” is a very close second. The only way I can think to describe the original song by Frogpond is that it is so deliciously ‘90s, it hits a sweet spot in my aesthetic. SMP decided to play with it a little bit, making it almost twice as long and incorporating some impeccably timed peaks and valleys within the instrumentation, squeezing every last bit of anxiety and questioning out of the song in such a satisfying way.
Of course, that list of badass women wouldn’t be complete without Bobbie Gentry, who was represented twice on Big as a Berry in stellar ways. But since she fits into the next segment, too, and I know a good segue when I see one…
I had stayed away from this kind of music for the longest time, thanks to that oh-so-misguided rebellion against my mother’s and my grandparents’ music (basically, I was younger, so clearly I had my finger on the pulse of all of the good music…I was a kid, what do you expect?). So thanks, Supreme Music Program, for helping me get over myself. Because these songs are phenomenal, and I would have been missing out on something huge.
Big as a Berry sparked in me a flat-out love for Bobbie Gentry’s music that is deep and real. SMP’s slower, bluesy approach to “Ode to Billie Joe” just feels so right with the lyrics. And then on the other side of the coin, there’s the more up-tempo “Fancy.” Everything about this cover works, down to the effects on Megan’s vocals. It was great to get this kind of Bobbie Gentry sampler, because I am a sucker for a songwriter who can tell a compelling story with their lyrics, and I completely bought it. (PS, when I had Maggie listen to these albums, she told me that “Fancy” was basically Karen Walker’s origin story, and I am so here for that. Also, hi Billy Porter with your crazy amazing background vocals!).
Also on Big as a Berry is a cover of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour.” It’s pretty much like Megan’s saying, “I’m going to destroy your heart for three minutes, is that cool?” And yeah. It’s cool. But one of my all-time favorite Supreme Music Program songs is their cover of “For the Good Times.” I have never been able to get over how beautiful it is (tack another reason why Free Again! is my favorite onto the list). It’s gentle but heartbreaking at the same time, which I always thought was such a hard combination to nail down, but Megan makes it seem so easy. And it’s another one of those cases where the lyrics stick with me forever (“There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning?” Come on…)
Megan’s no stranger to the Broadway stage, so it only seems natural that she would throw some show tunes across her albums. These covers helped Past Me, who didn’t know too much about musical theatre back then, to ease into that world. SMP featured three heavy-hitters across their three albums. Sondheim is represented twice in The Sweetheart Break-In, with the band’s dark and stormy cover of “Johanna,” and with my favorite of the two, “I Remember.” I feel like by now, you know that Megan is an expert in conveying the right amount of emotion in whatever she sings, and this song is no exception. You are taken on a journey in these four minutes, and every second of it is compelling.
Weill is pretty well represented across The Sweetheart Break-In and Big as a Berry, with “It Never Was You” (THOSE HIGH NOTES), “Surabaya Johnny” (that descent into madness!) and “Barbara Song” (that emotional range!). And then let’s throw in a couple Rodgers and Hart songs for good measure! Depending on whether or not you count the whistling track at the beginning of the album, The Sweetheart Break-In opens with “Ten Cents a Dance,” which sets a pretty great tone for the album, and at one point led me to a deep dive on taxi dance halls (hi boredom, meet Google). And Free Again! contains an insanely spirited version of “You Took Advantage of Me.” She goes all out on this one, I love what she does with it so much.
“Talk to me, boys…you know how your mama likes it.” Are you kidding me right now? SLAY.
“It’s a queer romance…”
(Yeah, I’m quoting from “Ten Cents a Dance,” and that line is not supposed to be gay, but I’m going to totally make it gay for a second, bear with me.)
This isn’t so much an influence on my taste in music as it is a really important side note that I couldn’t let go of. I mentioned in my first Will & Grace top 20 post that the show had been my first positive exposure to gay representation, and how that meant everything. But while the show was crucial to me, it also helped a lot to hear Megan cover things like “Ruby’s Arms,” “Marie,” “Johnsburg, Illinois,” “The Grand Tour” and “Far from Me” without changing the names or pronouns. Those songs were just there on the album like it was no big deal, because it shouldn’t have to be a big deal. But in a music landscape where pop covers regularly switch up the lyrics to fit some heteronormative ideal, hearing these songs peppered throughout Supreme Music Program’s three albums was amazing, especially in my formative years. And for that, I am thankful.
And speaking of side notes…
Remember that time Megan recorded a song for Kristen Bell’s character to lip-sync to in Burlesque, and then it was conspicuously absent from the soundtrack because apparently it was too much to ask to have Megan and my diva on the same album?
Nothing more to add, except where is the version of this I can throw my money at? (…No, seriously, where?)
It’s incredible to me that one band was able to turn me on to so much amazing music. Free Again! proved to be the last Supreme Music Program outing, but I’m not upset. Three distinct albums seamlessly jumping from genre to genre like it’s nothing? That’s a pretty great run. I’m so glad they were the stepping stone for so many of my musical loves, and I’m so glad I get to keep coming back to them.
But wait…what’s this?
It’s starting again.
Nancy and Beth!
You guys, Megan has a new band, and I could not be more thrilled. Honestly, I’ve been waiting for a Nancy and Beth album since their appearance on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast a few years ago. I lost my shit over how incredible her harmonies with Stephanie Hunt were, and I needed to hear more; it sounded like they were always meant to perform together. Earlier this month, their self-titled debut was released, and holy mother of god, I was not disappointed. I have tried so many times to listen to other things since the album’s release, but I always end up coming back to it; this album is so much fun, and I can’t get enough. Like Supreme Music Program, Nancy and Beth is a cover band that jumps from genre to genre without sacrificing their own unique sound, but they manage to give a completely different yet equally enjoyable vibe.
For some reason, I figured that this time around, I could appreciate the album for what it was, without having to conduct frantic searches for the original versions. Then I heard “Please, Mr. Jailer” for the first time, and that notion was promptly thrown out the window. And let’s be real, I should have known better. Thanks to stuff like Spotify, which wasn’t around during my quest for originals during the Supreme Music Program years, finding the original versions of these songs is 1000% easier (which maybe takes some of the fun out of it? I haven’t quite decided yet), so I get into the original artists 1000% faster. And about five seconds after “Please, Mr. Jailer” ended, I had Wynona Carr blaring through my speakers as a result of the first of many “HOW HAVE I NEVER HEARD THIS SONG?” moments I had listening to these tracks for the first time. Their versatility is stunning; they somehow managed to take a song that should never be okay under any circumstance, and turn it into something I can’t stop listening to. Someone please tell me what sorcery they possess to make “I Don’t Love Her” work like that. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to recover from Megan shouting “DICK IN HER BUTT” like she’s Oprah throwing new cars at everybody. And for the album to transition from that to something so starkly opposite like “Cab Driver” is brilliant.
Then, of course, there’s their take on artists I love and songs I’ve known forever. I have really fond memories of my Senior year of high school, when my friend Brandon and I would sing Rufus Wainwright at the top of our lungs while he drove us to one of our regular hangouts, so to hear their beautiful rendition of “Vibrate” was satisfying on so many levels for me. And I know I must have heard George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a million times before, thanks to having grandparents whose jam is that kind of old-school country, but it took me until hearing the Nancy and Beth cover to really hear this song and fall in love with it (in addition to this and “The Grand Tour” mentioned above, I found out through one of those “Falling down the YouTube rabbit hole” moments that he was also the first one to sing one of my favorite Cher songs from the ‘60s, so I guess I’m really into George Jones now?).
The cherry on top of all of this is the video for their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” that was released a few weeks ago. That song—and the album of the same name—has always been important to me, for the pure catharsis every time I hear it. So between that, the flawless three-part harmony, and maybe a touch of the fact that one of the women responsible for my taste in music is covering another woman responsible for my taste in music, right around “Crown and anchor me, or let me sail away,” there were tears the first time I heard it…at my work desk, no less (how come no one stops me from doing this in public?). “Blue” is another one of those straightforward covers—which was probably the right decision, because I feel like Joni Mitchell is one of those artists where if you cover her, people are just waiting to pounce on you for taking creative liberties—but the addition of those harmonies elevates the lyrics for me. It wasn’t like I didn’t feel it before, but the Nancy and Beth cover makes it seem like I’m fully surrounded by these words, and I really like that feeling.
I’ll leave you with this: if you ever get the chance to see Nancy and Beth live, DO IT. I was able to catch their show at Joe’s Pub on April 10, and it was easily one of the most fun shows I have ever been to. The album is a delightful as hell journey in and of itself, but to actually see them perform these songs—choreography and all—takes it to a whole other level. They’ve still got a few tour dates left, so what are you waiting for? Bring a little more joy into your life.
Do you have a favorite cover? Maybe one that I didn’t list (there are definitely some I wish I could have fit into one of these categories…*cough* Shakedown on 9th St. *cough*)? Or a song you’ve always wanted to hear Megan sing? Have you seen Nancy and Beth in action? Let’s chat in the comments!