Aug 142020
 

tanya donellyjenn champion the blue albumTanya Donelly has a long history, as both singer-songwriter of Belly and solo artist, of interweaving emotionally charged originals with covers similarly forged from despair, heartbreak, and loneliness. The results have frequently been sublime, as when she complemented “Gepetto” with a heartfelt version of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” on the Gepetto EP of 1992, or when she accompanied “New England” and “Days of Grace” with an equally fervent rendition of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” on 2006’s This Hungry Life. The covers have usually taken the backseat as B-sides and deep cuts, or as contributions to tribute albums to the likes of The Smiths or Elliott Smith. Yet now, in this topsy-turvy year of 2020, they are the main event; Donelly has not only released a series of quarantine covers for charity (featuring Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone,” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), but has also polished off a covers album in collaboration with the Parkington Sisters, Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters.

It’s Donelly’s first all-covers album, therefore, that stands before us, but it’s clearly no ordinary covers album. The Belly, Breeders, and Throwing Muses star initiated it out of a desire to do something different with the format in the wake of Juliana Hatfield’s recent successes with Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018), and Sings The Police (2019). She might well have followed in the steps of her sometime collaborator and fellow doyen of New England alt-rock by making, effectively, a tribute album to one of her musical heroes: Kate Bush, say, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But instead, Donelly has attempted to bring a sense of unity to nine reinterpretations of songs that have been hugely meaningful to her, by way of the moody string arrangements and somber vocal harmonies that the classically trained, Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters are known for.
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Aug 142020
 

Blonde on the Tracksjenn champion the blue albumPutting together a cohesive, flowing covers album has always been no small feat – even more so in the age of streaming and playlists – but it can be done. Proof of this has recently been provided by Bob Dylan, who spent the mid-to-late 2010s releasing a series of Great American Songbook cover albums that, once he had finished with them, sounded like he could have written them himself. Now, Nashville-based singer songwriter Emma Swift has taken on a similar challenge with eight of Dylan’s own songs, for her new album Blonde on the Tracks.

The title references two of Dylan’s most famous records, 1966’s Blonde On Blonde and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, but it’s the spirit of the latter album that comes through the strongest. Like Blood on the Tracks, Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks seems to be a snapshot of the end of a relationship. Also like Blood on the Tracks, there is sense that the story is being told out of sequence, with past, present and future melding into one.
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Jul 232020
 

Gillian Welch David Rawlingsjenn champion the blue albumGiven the slow, unsteady cadence of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings release schedule, their many followers take delight in news from either one of the pair. (They always come as a pair, though they are not always billed that way.) Even if a new offering is not new, original material—even if the songs are covers, and older ones at that—it’s newsworthy.

So here’s what’s new: All the Good Times, a collection of 10 covers, some of their “favorites,” recorded during the pandemic lockdown. It’s their first such collection, and the first album in their 25-year career to be credited as “Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.” The partners share the billing because, for the first time, they split the vocal duties right down the middle.

And here’s what’s old: Everything else about the release. (That’s not a diss.) Welch/Rawlings apply the same tried-and-true formula they’ve honed for a quarter century now: all-acoustic, duet-style, singing into a single mic. Even the recording method is antiquated: they dusted off a reel-to-reel to capture these songs; no DAT or hard drives for these two. (On one track, the tape reel runs out well before the last verse is over. It’s one of the more charming technical glitches in recent memory, a bug shrugged off as a feature. For a few seconds there I thought my laptop died.)
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Jul 092020
 

ryley walker covers epjenn champion the blue albumThe most basic, clinical way to describe singer-songwriter-guitarist Ryley Walker’s signature sound would be to liken him to legends like Bert Jansch, John Martyn or Michael Hedges. Which is to say he’s jazzy, folky, eccentric and joyfully unpredictable. But the ideal way to describe his sound requires that we get flowery and overly sentimental for a second: He infuses such an undeniable brightness into whatever he plays that he quite literally sounds like the sun peaking through the trees on a quiet street in the summertime.

On his new cover EP, titled, yes, covers, his slips his beautifully optimistic style onto tracks by Grouper, Cass McCombs, Isotope 217 and Amen Dunes. You don’t need to be familiar with the originals here to appreciate the EP’s sweet, embraceable sound. In fact if you aren’t, Walker’s engaging versions of these tracks might inspire you to check out the originals (in which case you are in for a treat). Continue reading »

Jun 292020
 

Saving for a Custom Vanjenn champion the blue album

Adam Schlesinger died on April 1st from COVID-19 complications. Not even three months later, “collaborators, tourmates, friends, and fans” put together Saving for a Custom Van, an extensive tribute album spanning songs from his varied career. Schlesinger is best known for being a founding member of Fountains of Wayne, but he also was in the more indie band Ivy and the supergroup Tinted Windows (with members from Hanson, Cheap Trick, and The Smashing Pumpkins). He also wrote songs for a variety of movies (Music & Lyrics, That Thing You Do!, Josie and the Pussycats), television shows (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Broadway (the postponed show, The Bedwetter) that also make an appearance on this tribute album.

The resulting collage of covers is heartfelt and plays like a personal mix tape of sorts. This makes it hard to pass any judgment. Overall, it is a powerful homage that also educates listeners on the history of Schelsinger’s work. In the sad context of the album, lyrics stand out as especially poignant, from the sad irony of “All Kinds of Time” to the evergreen “Troubled Times.”

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Jun 262020
 

John HartfordOn the Road: A Tribute to John HartfordSongwriter, banjo-picker, old-time fiddler, dancer, tv star, radio dj, and, perhaps most importantly, professional riverboat pilot. Welcome to the weird, wide world of John Hartford.

Hartford was a cross between Bill Monroe and Mark Twain—he titled one of his albums Mark Twang. He was among the first to join hippie sensibilities with hillbilly ways. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hartford was both a vivid reminder of America’s past musical heritage, and also a harbinger of things to come; he shaped contemporary music almost in spite of himself. “Newgrass,” which in turn fed into the jam band phenomena, is basically Hartford’s concoction (though mandolinist Sam Bush gets some credit too). Even Americana, as it is currently defined, is impossible to imagine without him—the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou project has Hartford’s fingerprints and spirit all over it.

So a new John Hartford Tribute album is most welcomed, and now we have one in hand: On the Road, from LoHi Records. It’s a dang good tribute album, too, starting with the opening cut (by Hartford’s co-conspirator Sam Bush), and never letting up.
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