On “Bastard Son,” one of the early recordings by John Wesley Harding, the singer, songwriter, novelist and overall renaissance man self-describes himself as the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a description that seems to be pretty much accurate. Whether you are listening to one of the albums released under his nom de plume or reading one of his novels under his given name Wesley Stace, the conclusion is the same. This is one talented guy.
With the exception of a small-minded baker in Colorado with a penchant for litigation, the wedding-service industry has mostly welcomed the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. because of the new business it brings. Same-sex couples strutting down the aisle in greater numbers presents another hot-button cultural issue: how to find the perfect song for that first dance? Despite the fact that pop music has been loosening its collar since Elvis first shook his pelvis, when it comes to gender roles, mainstream songs tend to be as heteronormative as a ‘50s sitcom, no matter how suggestive the lyrics may be.
To address this issue, and no doubt tap into a lucrative commercial market, MGM Resorts sponsored a six-track EP called Universal Love. The collection features reworked versions of popular love songs with altered pronouns to celebrate same-sex love. The company must be betting big as they tapped serious star power, namely Bob Dylan, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke (lead singer of Bloc Party), Valerie June, Benjamin Gibbard (lead vocalist of Death Cab for Cutie) and Kesha.
When Ethan Gold began recording cover songs in his bedroom closet, they were more than his tributes to artists that mattered to him – they were therapy. Gold had sustained a head injury in a warehouse accident that left him unable to speak, let alone do the complex sound engineering his work required. He had also just been forced to leave the condemned residence that inspired his previous album, Songs from a Toxic Apartment. So these covers, one-take performances filmed for YouTube, were Gold’s road to recovery. Now they’ve been compiled and released as a digital-only album, Live Undead Bedroom Closet Covers, and it’s a pleasure to see that his recovery is complete.
Chess Records, considered by many ears to be the redheaded step-child to the Motown and Stax labels and immortalized in the movie Cadillac Records, was the preeminent blues record label of the 1950s and ’60s. At the forefront of the birth of Rock and Roll with the release of “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, the label was the musical den of inequity for Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. And now, at last, with definitely a particular place to go, Elise LeGrow has released a tribute to the denizens of 2120 South Michigan Avenue: Playing Chess.
Having now spent several listening sessions with this gem, it looks like, to borrow some Olympics imagery, a spot on the “Covers Albums of the Year” medal stand should be reserved for this one. Bronze at least. Certainly not taking the easy approach, LeGrow has meticulously researched and curated every song that she presents. Take the relatively obscure Sugar Pie DeSanto tune “Going Back Where I Belong”; the even more esoteric “Searching for My Love,” a hot 100 hit for Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces’ or album-closer “Sincerely,” the last single for The Moonglows. Every song will have you cranking up the way-back machine to search out the original versions.
Mark Erelli seems one of the good guys: prolific in the often solitary and lonely furrow of singer-songwritery, under the radar of most observers, weaving his nuanced mix of country and folk that never fails to beguile my ears. Lord knows how he makes a living. Along with others like Jeffrey Foucoult (with whom he has collaborated) Damien Jurado and the Joshes Rouse and Ritter (another collaborator) he seems always there in the background, a reliable source of well-crafted songs, never troubling the mainstream nor stealing the show.
Although he has a healthy and extensive repertoire of his own songs, covers are very much also his stock in trade, as a visit to his website soon reveals, with a monthly free download of the month – often a cover – unavailable elsewhere. (As I write his excellent version of “Midnight Rider” is serenading me, the January freebie.) He also performs an annual series of shows entitled ‘Under the Covers’ – sadly in the wrong continent for this writer to ever catch.
Let’s be blunt: No one needs novelty songs.
Loosely defined as “a satirical or comedic parody of popular music,” most people instinctively leave the room – or the house – at the first whiff.
Or do they? What, then, explains the enduring popularity of Dr. Demento, querulous-voiced prankster and legitimate, if puzzling, cultural icon? A rock ’n roll writer, label A&R man, and sometime roadie, he began broadcasting a rock and oldies show at Pasadena station KPPC in 1970. He quickly found that the novelty songs he slipped in – notably Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion,” a truly demented tale about reckless driving, and a precursor to the Cramps’ psychobilly – were what his listeners really wanted to hear.
Now 76, Dr. Demento – a.k.a. Barret Eugene Hansen – ceased terrestrial radio broadcast in 2010, though his program persists online. And now we’re treated to Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, by some counts his 15th official album release. If you’re already hooked on the good doctor’s offbeat charms, you’re likely not in need of encouragement to purchase this collection of supposedly “punk” covers (more on that later) interspersed with the Doctor’s commentary. But can we rightfully recommend this 2+ hour compilation to the rest of the record-buying public? The answer, surprisingly, is: “Yes!” Sort of.