Sep 252015

1989Last year, when Ryan Adams released “Gimme Something Good,” the first single from his self-titled album, my first thought was this: That chorus sounds a LOT like “Mine” by Taylor Swift.

Even though they do sound similar, the thought of Ryan Adams- a guy known for intense genre-hopping, releasing albums like a song factory, and being an all around cool guy – being a Taylor Swift fan seemed unlikely.

Apparently, he’s a fan. Enough of a fan to cover her newest record, 1989, in its entirety.
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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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Jun 022015

ahistoryOriginally a one-off offshoot of 80s/90s indie stalwarts the Wedding Present, the Ukrainians bizarrely continue to exist, plowing their singular farrow, long after their parent band have become a distant nostalgic tear in the eye. With a mission statement of mingling western rock with eastern folk, and never straying far from that, the band has a history of liberally including the odd quirky cover in their repertoire, notably of the Smiths and the Sex Pistols. Now, the five grizzled individuals in the current lineup have decided to devote an entire album to cover versions. This was a project capable of falling flat or becoming parody; however, I am delighted to inform that, both on record and (especially) live, such is their fervor and dedication to their craft that A History of Rock Music in Ukrainian is a delight.
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Apr 142015

Listening to Wallflower, Diana Krall’s new covers record, a question comes to mind:

Who’s the intended audience for this?

It’s a strange beast of an album, in which the jazz star (is she even really a jazz artist these days?) takes some of the most obvious choices from the pop/rock cannon and goes full lounge singer on them.

A lot of the blame for this album can probably be tossed onto producer David Foster (whose daughters, weirdly enough, currently have a mockumentary-type show on VH1). The whole album is drenched in dreamy strings, gentle (or non-existent) percussion, and whimsical piano. Not that the production on any one song ruins the whole thing, but the arrangements all seem to be exactly the same. If these songs weren’t currently playing in every dentist office in the country at this exact moment, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
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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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Mar 312015

I had high hopes for Robert Earl Keen’s new album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions. My first exposure to REK was 1989’s West Textures, still for me his best work, partly because the acoustic band accompanying him on that is a bluegrass band, even if the songs aren’t. Keen’s style, for me, has never quite suited electricity. Combine this with my love of bluegrass, and surely this would be a no-brainer?

Well, I liked it, but if I’m honest, I only liked it some. Positives first: Keen has the ideal woebegone plaintiveness for this sort of material (think Droopy with a recording contract), as he plumbs death, prison and heartbreak in turn. (Have you ever heard a truly happy bluegrass song?) The band, including Danny Barnes of Bad Livers repute on banjo, underpin his singing with zest and vim, and a plethora of guests add to an agreeable mix. Of these, special mention to erstwhile Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (daughter of Lloyd Maines, the album’s producer), bringing more sprightliness to the oft-covered “Lonesome Stranger” than can be found on some of the album’s other numbers.
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Mar 242015

Let’s get this out of the way first: Elliott Smith’s songs are not easy to cover. This isn’t necessarily related to virtuosity, but might even be related to the exact opposite. Smith’s voice (squeaky, usually double-tracked, always on the verge of slipping off key) was something that he used as a weapon, tearing right into the heart of his music. Pairing that voice with soul-baring lyrics and melodies that never strayed too far from the Beatles and Beach Boys school of pop music, Smith carved out a segment of the singer-songwriter genre that was all his own.

That being said, Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers) and Jessica Lea Mayfield have a decent go at it on the informatively titled Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. Upon first listen, the album’s most glaring problem (for Smith fans, at least) becomes apparent: most of the selections fall very close the originals. “Between the Bars,” probably the most covered song of Smith’s songs (over-covered, if you ask this reviewer), hits all of the original’s beats. “Angeles,” too, is played (albeit a little slower) like a straight transfer of the Either/Or cut. Though, this does raise a question: what’s the alternative? How do you rearrange “Angeles” (perhaps the best candidate for the most wholly representative song in the Elliott Smith catalogue) without losing what makes it special? I imagine these are the questions that Avett and Mayfield asked themselves, too – presumably without finding any satisfactory answers.
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