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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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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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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Jan 272015

“She may be young, but she only likes old things. And modern music ain’t to her taste.”

Death Cab for Cutie only released one album, Codes and Keys, during lead singer Ben Gibbard’s brief marriage to She & Him singer, Zooey Deschanel, but that album gave us with the lyric above, from the song “Monday Morning.” The line is likely about Deschanel, and perfectly sums up Classics, She & Him’s new covers record. The selections were all written before the 34-year-old singer was born, and the production (the album was recorded live with an orchestra) does nothing to make these songs sound like they came out any time recently.

For the most part, that’s okay. She & Him is a band that sounds like they belong from another era, so you have to come to their albums with expectations about the song. While it might have been more interesting to hear newer songs performed in the style of older hits, what they give us is still charming in its own right.
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Why?

That’s the first question that comes to mind when listening to A Little Help From My Fwends, the Flaming Lips’ album that covers all of the Beatles’ seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This isn’t an inherently bad question to ask, though, especially with this band. From making a 4-disc album meant to be played simultaneously (or in any combination) to releasing a USB drive of love songs inside a chocolate, anatomically correct heart, the Lips have always had a degree of quirky, unbridled (and seemingly unchecked) compulsion guiding their career. This seeming inability to reign in their impulse to do whatever idea comes to mind has resulted in a ton of great music and a feverish cult following.
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With the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, no movie director has been more closely identified with his soundtracks than Wes Anderson. He has consistently selected songs by well-known artists that, through no fault of their own, have become three-quarters forgotten over the years, and reintroduced them to the world as the classics they had always been. If someone calls a song a prime candidate for the next Wes Anderson soundtrack (Guilty!), an instant and accurate picture is created. The soundtracks show a cohesion that’s rare in these days of we-want-a-hit soundtracks, where the earmarked smash doesn’t play until the final credits have started rolling, and they have become high points in the experience of watching Anderson’s movies. Now the American Laundromat Records label has collected covers of some of those high points on I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson, resulting in the best tribute album of the year.
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In a sense, this is only an Everly Brothers cover album because the Everlys got to the songs first. Released 55 years ago, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was comprised of just that, Everly Brother renditions of classics and standards. Billie Joe Armstrong, having fond memories of said album, decided to pay tribute to it, and he invited Norah Jones to join him. “Of course; what an obvious pairing,” said nobody.

The resulting album, punningly titled Foreverly, is a song-by-song (in a slightly modified order) rerecording of the Everlys’ classic album, and a potential introduction of the Everly Brothers to a whole new audience. There’s also the possibility that it introduces a whole new audience to Norah Jones. Or Billie Joe Armstrong. Who knows, but there’s a good chance that the number of people who are big fans of all three are few and far between (and likely thrilled).
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When Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs recorded their first Under the Covers collaboration, they were surprised that it was released with the subtitle “Vol. 1.” Whatever genius at the Shout! Factory label chose to do that deserves a raise and a promotion, as it led Sweet and Hoffs to record two more volumes. Where Volume 1 consisted of songs based in the ’60s, and Volume 2 was made up of ’70s songs, Volume 3, released this week, is all about the ’80s, the decade when Hoffs came of age as a musician and Sweet wasn’t far behind.
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