Oct 282016
 

alr-0039_grandeWhen Elliott Smith was alive, nobody covered his music. He covered a lot of musicians himself, but whether it was considered sacrilegious to cover his songs or there was a lack of interest, it’s hard to say. I know, because after finally getting on the Elliott bandwagon after hearing “Waltz #2” on MTV in the late ’90s, I was hooked, and searched Napster in vain for cover songs of his work. The drought of Elliott Smith covers outlasted Napster (or at least the first incarnation), but now both are reborn again.

As a cover fan AND a Smith fan, it’s often a road of sorrows. I’ve written about Elliott Smith before, of course, and that’s because there’s way more attention paid to him post-mortem, and thus more covers are recorded of his music. The drawback is that while I’m all for artists repurposing songs to their own liking, there is so much nuance in Smith’s output that many cover songs sound like the stereotypical photocopy of a photocopy: all of the emotion and heart is lost. However, that’s changed for the better over the years, and now culminates in the fantastic compilation Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith (American Laundromat Records). Continue reading »

Oct 252016
 

John Scofield Country for Old MenOK, let’s not mess around, but is this not the best title of the year, that alone nearly enough to nail it for me as an essential purchase? And John Scofield has the billiest billy goatee ever on the sleeve, delineating this is one cool (old) dude. (Actually I was quite disappointed he is only 64.) But don’t get carried away here, this is not country music in any received sense of the word, country in anything other than the songs, which are all instrumental, suggesting some knowledge (and love, probably) of their original. And these versions take the merest slip of melody and fire it up into the sky, a 52 card pick-up, a melange of a snippet here and a snippet there into a, yes, damn it, hard jazz explosion. I know I have now lost most readers with the J word, it seldom getting much of a shout in these pages. But maybe this is the day someone takes a chance. So come on in, the water’s lovely.
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Oct 072016
 

essentials Scott Bradlee deserves a victory lap. For five years as the founder and leader of Postmodern Jukebox, he’s taken the hits of today and given them the vintage sounds of yesteryear, with the assistance of many very talented friends. His live-in-the-living-room rearrangements have earned him more than half a billion views on YouTube, all without major label support or corporate sponsorship. You would think that The Essentials, a collection of greatest hits, would be an ideal capper to this remarkable achievement.

But there’s still the sense that Bradlee has something to prove – he’s looking to place this album high on the Billboard charts as he takes PMJ on its North American tour this month. “No more talk of Postmodern Jukebox as a ‘YouTube act,’ or ‘online viral sensation,'” he says. “This is real, we’re here to stay, and we’re ready to change the music industry.”
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Jul 052016
 

train led zepThe whole reason for a good cover to exist at all is that it takes the original source material, gets to the heart of the song, and extracts the most important elements, which are then refashioned in the image of the cover artist. There must be an element of band or artist doing the covering within the cover itself; otherwise it’s simply a note-for-note recreation of a superior (often iconically so) performance. Furthermore, there’s little in the way of artistry behind strict recreations of popular music. This approach is little more than an impression that ultimately serves little to no purpose aside from existing to remind listeners how much better the original was, is and always will be.

For a band like Train – whose music has served as the backdrop for innumerable cloying “romantic” moments in film, television and perhaps even real life – to take on the decidedly heavier sounds of Led Zeppelin would initially seem like something of a joke. What qualifies the group behind such saccharine megahits like “Drops of Jupiter” and the insufferable “Soul Sister” to cover a band like Led Zeppelin, let alone replicate an entire album? Well, it seems that when you reach the level Train has, you can do pretty much whatever you want and no one will question you.
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Jun 282016
 

to_emmylou_coverTo Emmylou, the Fleeing Ghost Records’ compilation of LA-based artists covering the songs of Emmylou Harris, features eleven reverential performances. Each of the largely unknown artists collected here do a fine job of recasting her songs, both those well-known and those that run a little deeper, in a contemporary framework without sacrificing the heart and soul of the original. Not surprisingly, the primary focus throughout is on each artist’s voice, something for which Harris has long been known both on her own, as a collaborator and as one of the finest interpreters of Americana.

Fittingly then, opening track “Timberline” from Harris’ 1985 release The Ballad of Sally Rose is performed by the Silver Lake Chorus. Unfettered by musical accompaniment, the chorus of voices help establish the primary focus of the collection from the start. And while there are plenty of fine instrumental performances throughout, the over-arching element running through these songs – performed in styles ranging from straight country to contemplative indie rock – is the purity of the human voice. And in this case, the “voice” in question is that of Harris as a songwriter, something that is occasionally lost due to her high-profile collaborations and the immaculate nature of her voice.
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Jun 232016
 

Tribute_to_Pet_Sounds_ReverberationFifty years on, Pet Sounds still stands as one of the definitive statements 20th century pop music has to offer. Its production, song craft and performances remain so powerful and influential they continue to resonate with generations of musicians and listeners. It is the former who have gathered here to pay their respects to an album that regularly tops “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists. That the majority of the artists collected on The Reverberation Appreciation Society Presents: A Tribute to Pet Sounds take their stylistic cues from pre- and post-Pet Sounds styles seems to have little bearing on the consideration for those included.

In fact, the majority of the artists assembled here owe more of a debt of gratitude to the earlier Beach Boys recordings – many, including Shannon and the Clams, the Black Angels, and the She’s sound as though they could have been contemporaries of the pre-LSD Beach Boys. That they would attempt to reimagine – there are no recreations here – such revered material in their own image is a fairly brazen move. Yet instead of relying on the studio expertise of Brian Wilson, the focus is placed on the songs themselves.
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