Matt Vadnais

Matt Vadnais is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver, a collection of stories exploring the notion of the cover in a variety of literary contexts. He wrote extensively and autobiographically about music in a social media project, The Best 200 Songs in My iTunes Library. He hosts “The Liminal Space,” a cover-heavy weekly radio show on WBCR, the campus radio station for Beloit College where he is an assistant professor of renaissance literature and creative writing.

Jun 302015

brightersideAs long as there has been Western art, there has been a debate regarding the nature of the simulacrum, a Latin word that originally meant representation but has come, in philosophical circles, to mean any kind of imitation or copy. Plato distinguished between a noble type of simulacra – an exact copy – and an inherently dishonest image that has been distorted or altered (usually by a painter, sculptor, or actor) in order to seem true and elicit a particular emotional response for the viewer. Leaving aside Plato’s alarmist anxiety regarding the power of artist to willingly manipulate a populace via dangerous and immoral entertainments, his two “types” of simulacra represent two poles of a continuum that might be used to describe covers. Covers inherently create simulacra that, depending on the intent of the cover artist, fall somewhere between the perfect replica and the “distorted” copy designed to reposition a song in a new historical or generic context so that it might feel true to a new audience.

The thirteen covers on The Brighter Side: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo‘s ‘No Depression’ all lean toward the latter variety, taking significant liberties to reimagine the album as one that neatly and cleanly fits into the genre of alt-country, a genre that more or less didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. The question of representation becomes even more complicated, though, when one considers the fact that the alt-country lens through which these songs are here replicated is one that is largely believed to have been created or codified by the release of No Depression itself. In other words, No Depression is here being translated into a genre that, in theory at least, it helped invent.
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Jun 092015

keepcalmI have long held it to be a covers truism that people who love covers are most compelled by musicians who can re-imagine a song in order to create something new. The whole point – I’ve said and written – of covering a song is to merge the acts of making and enjoying music in order to say something through song while also saying something about the song itself. Good covers discover or reveal. Good covers surprise.

The expectation that a cover should make something new, however, starts to feel unfair when one is attempting to evaluate covers of songs that have been covered as often as the sixteen Beatles songs on Keep Calm & Salute the Beatles. Covering the Beatles is a bit like taking a picture of THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA, an act that Don DeLillo describes not as capturing an image but maintaining one. What is there left to say, discover, or reveal about these songs beyond the tautological notion that they are good enough to be covered again and again?
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May 012015

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.


Anyone attempting to make the argument that Pickin’ On Modest Mouse: A Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse is a Cover Classic – an argument that was promised/threatened by my response to this Q&A a few days ago and is related to a defense of bluegrass covers we made a while back – needs to refute two rational, gut-level reactions to the artifact that is this album. First, one needs to establish that the album is not simply another gimmicky entry in the Pickin’ On series, a collection of fairly obvious mid-oughties albums that attempted to pin the banjo on unlikely donkeys in ways that were often funny and almost always “pretty good for a novelty album.” Second, one needs to demonstrate that this album is somehow different than other albums attempting to strip away all of the Modest Mouse noise to reveal the sensitive songwriting lurking just beneath the shouting.
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Apr 172015

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Of all the songs inextricably linked to moments in movies, few pairings initially appear more incongruous than the closing minutes of Real Genius that follow Lazlo driving away in his mobile home after a house has exploded due to a space laser and a giant tin of Jiffy Pop. As Roland Orzbal sings about hating “this indecision / married with a lack of vision,” neighborhood children fill wagons with edible detritus and Val Kilmer laughs in slow motion, biting popcorn snowflakes out of the air.

Though illogical, the scene is far more successful than the song’s on-the-face-of-it-more-fitting incarnation as a spooky Lorde cover on the soundtrack for the second installation of The Hunger Games. The reason children playing in popcorn works better than children forced to kill children is simple: the song isn’t about the fact that “everybody wants to rule the world” so much as it is about the more heartening notion that “when they do / I’ll be right behind you” and that we’ll be “holding hands as the walls come tumbling down.”
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Apr 072015

Death has a way of flattening out a life into a simple narrative that can be approximated by a few lines of obituary newsprint. This is especially true for the sort of death that is the result of life-long addiction and tendencies toward self-destruction. In the case of Jason Molina, a quintessentially midwestern artist who died in 2013 of complications due to alcoholism, the teleological power of death is such that it is easy to hear his entire catalogue as a sort of suicide note.  There is, for example, a tidy simplicity to understanding the apocalyptic seven minutes of  “Farewell Transmission,” arguably his most important sonic document, as a prophetic and self-fulfilling Book of Revelations.

However, like most of Molina’s work with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., “Farewell Transmission” doesn’t prophesize a ghost-filled world at the brink of demise so much as it builds that world as a fictional landscape, one filled with endless deserts and a predatory midnight that we all must actually live in. Set in the moments wherein “the big star is falling,” the song is not panicked at the prospect of the end of things so much as it grimly satisfied by its final arrival and the fact that we made it this far. Even as the end arrives, the song’s images of impending doom are undercut by a repeated exhortation for all us to “come on, let’s try.” The song’s most obvious prediction of death is immediately tempered: “I will be gone / but not forever.”
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