May 212018

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

frightened rabbit covers

As a musician that avidly records cover songs, I often think about what draws me to putting my stamp on a particular song.

In the thirty years I’ve playing covers, I find myself drawn to music that could be described as “emotional” without always fitting neatly into a genre box. I connect with a song’s content craft enough to try to reinvent it from the inside out. I am always drawn to songs of love lost, forlorn, or unrequited. The “breakup” song itself is something I immediately can empathize with, which is why a lot of my covers fall under the category of “ballad,” for better or worse.

Now one of my favorite writers of such songs has left us, and it’s really hit me hard. Having first seen Frightened Rabbit live in an intimate setting in Chicago after the release of The Midnight Organ Fight about a decade ago, lead singer Scott Hutchison was one of those frontmen that I immediately identified with.

There was a reckless abandon to the way Scott would pour his insides out, with notes that would shake and tremble, slightly veering off-key. But there was such sublime purity in all that Scott did. He sang the songs as if the wounds were still fresh. You couldn’t tell if he was sweating or crying on stage, and you would absolutely buy the latter.

For me personally, when I saw that concert, I was still processing wounds from a relationship that should’ve never taken place. This was one of the few live shows where I felt comfortable drinking more alcohol than usual. Partially because I was sad, but also because I wanted to tap into the same primal energy that the band was manifesting in front of an incredibly enthusiastic crowd. “Poke” especially brought me to tears. I also knew that after that show, the band would be moving on to bigger venues and a following that could very well match a band like The National. In tribute to that show and that memory, I covered “Poke.”

This was a time for me when I really wanted music to be raw and intense, but yet melodic. Bands like Frightened Rabbit stood out for me because it wasn’t always about the most clever turn of phrase or the need for attention. It was about honesty, catharsis, and connection.

That sense of connection that Scott found in art was clearly beneficial, but certainly not going to serve as any kind of “cure” for what ailed him. Any sense of release is temporary. Scott wrote a lot about the need for human heat, a warmth that I also seek out in others. A song like “The Twist” is clearly about physical intimacy, something that’s always been a challenge and a struggle for me personally. Which is why I covered that song as well, in attempts to get comfortable with the instinct to be closer than close to someone.

I know from my own experience that once the act of connection is satiated, whether with an audience or another person, there is a dopamine drop that could be mistaken for melancholy or a deep, dark depression. When I came home from tour once, I felt not joy, but an immediate sense of longing. Prolonging the euphoria of music indefinitely is impossible; there are bills to pay and relationships to experience. But that connection has an all-consuming power – and so does the come-down that follows.

There are ways to cope and there are ways to seek help, but during a vulnerable state of self-imposed isolation, any human being – whether a talented musician or not – might dive off the deep end as a means to alleviate the suffering they can’t escape from. We don’t know if Scott is in a better place, but of course, we want to envision that for anyone who suddenly seeks refuge from the pains of living.

Scott once sent me a MySpace message saying that he liked my synth-heavy “Purple Rain” cover. This was truly encouraging, coming from a musician from whom I had recently been screaming front and center at one of my favorite music venues.

Music can be a savior for so many. I’ve told the story many times about how seeing the film Pump Up the Volume – which involves music, honesty, and intimacy – saved my life. At the age of 13, I decided it was time to end it all. My parents were on the verge of divorce, I had become unhealthy and anxious, and my body and brain were becoming enemies. I had tried once before, and I was set to try again. But then I saw that movie and decided to give life another chance.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t days where I veer close to the edge again, but I found many reasons to persevere – and music is one of them. I wish Scott had found his own reasons. My favorite songwriters would write music for those who not only felt emotional extremities but fell deep inside of them to the point of losing all sense of self. I think that’s why musicians love the art of songwriting. It confronts the emotion while trying to make sense out of it. That’s also what sometimes draws to me to recording a cover. Here’s another I did, of “Fast Blood.”

I plan to cover more Frightened Rabbit songs soon. There is strength in connecting with an artist through their art, whether they’re still with us or further away than ever. I know I felt in tune to the songs Scott wrote because felt pure, honest, and true. Often in this world, we shun away from that vulnerability but Scott faced it head on. I’m sure Scott possessed a lot of love for so much in his lifetime, even if he felt otherwise to the point of true despair.

Regardless, I am grateful for having corresponded with him and seeing his band live. His truth and remarkable talent will continue to carry so many away from the darkness that is sometimes difficult to escape from.

May 212018
the districts love will tear us apart

One of the most gut-wrenching songs ever written, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is
regularly included in lists of greatest rock songs of all time. And on their punky new cover, Pennsylvania quartet the Districts update the dark classic. Many artists have covered the 1980 post-punk classic, but the Districts brings a 2018 sound to the track, with a less pronounced bass and synthesizer. And although some old schoolers will contend what made the original so great was Ian’s non-standard voice, I’d argue the Districts’ vocals are a significant improvement. Continue reading »

May 212018
metallica kirk covers

Watching the Swedish band Europe’s epic 1986 video for “The Final Countdown” is like going through a checklist of all the cliches of ‘80s hair metal. Perfectly styled hair (check); pretty-faced lead singer (check); massive double bass drum kit (check); revealing leather pants (hell yeah); pyrotechnics (check); guitarists swaying back and forth in perfect unison (check); young girls reaching out for the band (check), etc., etc. etc. Now for those of you old enough to actually remember the ‘80s, you’ll recall that Metallica was supposed to be the antidote for all of these excesses. Fist-pumping, kick-ass metal written to piss off your parents and teachers and give the proverbial middle finger to authority. God, it was beautiful.

Continue reading »

May 192018
grace jones covers

Here’s a stumper: Is it more correct to ask who Grace Jones is, or what Grace Jones is? The model-actress-singer-diva-icon turns 70 today, and her appeal—which might once have appeared to be a particularly long-running flash in the pan—shows no signs of abating. The documentary Bloodlight and Bami, an intimate look at the performer, came out this year, and her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs was a notable book of 2015.

Jones materialized onto the dancefloors and catwalks of mid-70s New York as if dropped from a passing spaceship. Single-handedly redefining “exotic”—back in the days when that questionable term meant “non-Caucasian”—Jones brought a fierce and, for the time, shockingly confrontational androgyny to the pages of fashion glossies. Simultaneously tribal, futurist, techno and primitive, Jones and her trademark glare fairly leapt off the page, daring you to look away. Many could not, and her modeling career, launched in 1966 when she was 18, has never truly ended. Continue reading »

May 182018
jerry garcia long black veil

Jerry Garcia was not exactly known for his talkative stage persona. Though the legendary singer/guitarist of the Grateful Dead was adept at providing quality sound bites during interviews, whenever he stood before a large stadium crowd he was more likely to tune his guitar than engage in the typical “Hello, Cleveland!” stage banter. That’s what makes his recently released cover of “Long Black Veil” so intriguing. On May 4, 1963 while performing the song at Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto with his then-wife Sara (Ruppenthal) Garcia, Jerry was practically Mr. Chatterbox on stage.

“We had a request, or at least I did, after this last set, to do a song called ‘Long Black Veil,’ which is a modern country song,” he told the crowd, during a lengthy introduction to the tune. “But it’s pretty anyway, even at that. It’s not even a folk song, or anything. It’s just a song. Somebody wrote it and it’s on records with electric guitars and everything. But anyway, it’s a good song.” The track was included on the new box set Before the Dead, which chronicles Garcia’s live recordings with various groups in Northern California from 1961 through 1964. Long before the days of YouTube, somebody was seemingly always following him around with a tape recorder.

In early 1963, “Long Black Veil” was hardly the standard it is today. Originally recorded by country singer Lefty Frizzell in 1959, it had only been released commercially by a handful of artists at this point. The most notable version was by folk revivalists the Kingston Trio in 1962. Many of the more famous renditions had not yet hit vinyl. Joan Baez’s live recording would not be released until November 1963 and Johnny Cash did not put out his cut until 1965.

Garcia’s take on the song is simple and straightforward. He plays it, strumming his acoustic guitar without a psychedelic solo anywhere in sight. His voice strains a bit as he attempts to hit the high notes. Listening to Garcia sing, it feels as if he does not quite know who he’s supposed to sound like. While the song is by no means an essential addition to the Garcia canon, listening this track, and in fact the whole collection, is a bit like reading the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Though hardly a finished product, the music provides a fascinating window into an artist developing and honing his craft.

Click here to listen to more covers of “Long Black Veil.”

Pick Five: Wussy

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May 172018

In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.

wussy cover songs

Next year marks the fiftieth birthday of Robert Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” record reviews. His blurbs pioneered the idea of giving albums letter grades, and he’s graded thousands over the years. In the 2010s, though, he’s only awarded a coveted A+ four times. The recipients: A Tribe Called Quest, Laurie Anderson, Vampire Weekend, and… Wussy. As if that wasn’t high enough praise, in that Wussy review for 2014’s Attica! he dubs them “the best band in America.”

He’s not alone, either. This Ohio band, based around the duo of Chuck Cleaver (formerly of Ass Ponys) and Lisa Walker – middle and left in that top photo, respectively – has become a critics’ darling in recent years. Their new album What Heaven Is Like should only continue that trend. Billboard’s already called it “a concise 10-song meditation on hope and fear,” and it doesn’t come out until tomorrow.

Two of those ten songs are covers, the first time the band’s included any on a proper album. Not that most listeners will probably realize that they’re covers; these music superfans dig deep into the vaults, covering cult favorite folkie Kath Bloom’s “Oblivion” and 1970s garage rockers The Twinkeyz’ “Aliens in Our Midst.” Listen to the latter: Continue reading »