They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Forty-six years old. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Jeff Tweedy, the songwriting genius behind Wilco, has hit his late forties. On the other hand, think back, way back through his recorded output. When Wilco released their first album 18 years ago, Tweedy was already a groundbreaker, having co-founded Uncle Tupelo with Jay Farrar eight years earlier. Together, they practically invented the genre of alt-country before their acrimonious split, when Tweedy was just 26 years old.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tweedy assembled Wilco out of the ashes of Tupelo’s touring band and slowly built a following. The band teetered on the edge of disaster when they presented their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to their label, only to have it rejected. Instead of going back into the studio to record a boy-band album or whatever the hell the label wanted, they bought the master tapes back and walked. Eventually they signed to a subsidiary of the same company (go figure), and the album came out and went gold. From there on, Tweedy & Company have continued to push the sonic envelope and remain just as vital as ever.
The last time we celebrated Tweedy’s birthday, we commented on the difficulty of finding covers of his work. That is still the case. Sure, you can find YouTube videos of small groups of nobodies bashing out crappy versions of “Handshake Drugs” or “California Stars,” but the real gold is rare. Don’t worry, though, we’ve sifted (and sifted and sifted) through all that to bring you five (okay, six) covers to celebrate Mr. Tweedy’s special day.
Norah Jones – Jesus, Etc. (Wilco cover)
Despite her early success with soft jazz, Norah Jones has managed to avoid being pigeonholed while still carving out an accomplished career in an industry not known for its tolerance of change (see Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). This track, taken from the bonus disc of 2009’s platinum-selling The Fall, shows why. She strips “Jesus, Etc.” down to its bare essentials, providing a subdued interpretation that allows you to fully explore the depth of Tweedy’s lyric.
The Wallflowers and Counting Crows – California Stars (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
When folk legend Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind notebooks with the lyrics to over 1000 songs, but little or no music. His daughter Nora tapped Billy Bragg to write music for and record an album of these songs. He enlisted Wilco, not just as a backup band, but to also write some of the music as well. The resulting albums, Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II are superb (as we’ve said before), and “California Stars” is arguably the best of the bunch. The Wallflowers and Counting Crows have had careers that have followed similar trajectories – huge success in the ’90s, not so much since – so perhaps it’s no surprise that they’ve been touring together of late. Here they are at the legendary Warfield Theater in San Francisco, delivering a respectable raucous singalong version of the Guthrie/Wilco classic.
Punch Brothers – Poor Places (Wilco cover)
The penultimate track on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this track encapsulates the entire album perfectly. A seemingly straightforward, keyboard-driven ballad at first, the instrumental track gradually disintegrates in a jumble of electronic noise. You can just picture the record company suits sitting in a boardroom with confused looks on their faces, shifting around uncomfortably and wondering just what in the hell is going on. Priceless. Here, bluegrass wizards Punch Brothers recreate the same jumble with acoustic instruments in a Daytrotter session from 2008.
The Low Anthem – A Shot in the Arm (Wilco cover)
Really, the execs at Reprise shouldn’t have been surprised when they heard YHF. It’s not like Wilco’s previous effort Summerteeth was all sunshine and wooden roses. “Via Chicago” is awash in chaotic noise, and the meaning of “A Shot in the Arm” is not too difficult to figure out. Here, The Low Anthem tackles “A Shot in the Arm” in the confines of the A.V. Club for the A.V. Undercover series. They deliver a fairly straight-up version of the song with interesting instrumentation, including a clarinet and (hey, why not) a saw!
Ruby Jane – I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (Wilco cover)
The apparent lack of prominent (or semi-prominent) artists covering Tweedy songs led us to YouTube and an extensive perusal of the more amateur end of the cover universe. We watched a lot of video before coming across this gem from 17 year-old Texan Ruby Jane. She takes an instrumentally complex song right down to the basics, but loses none of the complexity along the way. This is mostly due to her unbelievable fiddle playing that will leaving you looking around the floor for your jaw. Don’t let her instrumental prowess obscure her mature-beyond-her-years voice that delivers Tweedy’s lyric with its strange combination of vulnerability and menace.
Bonus: Sarah Humphreys – Jesus, Etc.
Australian Sarah Humphreys delivers a casual and twee version of “Jesus, Etc.” that we just had to include as a special bonus for our very own Mr. T.
You can get all kinds of Tweedy treats at the Wilco website.