Mar 282016
 

desperate timesIs it bad form to promote your own tribute? It almost makes you think about the crass sort of person who, say, slaps his last name on every building, golf course, airline, casino, steak, or bottle of wine or water that he has anything to do with. Now, what about if it is an employee who instigates a tribute to his employer? That seems pretty cool, especially since so many employees would probably be more likely to spit on something that glorifies their bosses than to work, unpaid, to create a monument to them.

So, let’s give kudos to Jeff “Jefe” Neely, the “website guy” for Old 97’s, who decided that it would be a good idea to get other musicians to cover Old 97’s songs and to use the project as a fundraiser for charity: water, whose mission is to “bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.” The charity was founded in 2006 by Scott Harrison, a former nightclub and fashion promoter after a life changing trip to Liberia.

The band got behind the project, which became known as Desperate Times, and helped to get artists to contribute covers to the project, which was funded through a Pledge Music campaign. In fact, many of the artists had toured with Old 97’s at some point in the band’s two-decade-plus career, and a significant number are from Texas, where Old 97’s formed. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of them inhabit a similar Americana/country/rock space as the band they are covering. The contributors, all well-respected artists if not chart-toppers, seem to have embraced the challenge. For the most part, although the covers don’t generally stray too far from the originals, each is distinctive and all are of exceptional quality.
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Mar 222016
 

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“Any time I take a cover and wear it on my sleeve, it’s because it had something good to do with my life and still marks a time in my life when I needed that song more than ever.” – Jeff Buckley

You and I is a posthumously released collection of ten songs (eight of which are covers) Jeff Buckley chose as a showcase for Columbia Records in 1993. They have lived in the vaults of Columbia Records for the past twenty-three years. Up until the point of these recordings, Buckley’s career was that of a cover artist, gradually working on his own material, performing often at venues in Lower Manhattan, such as Sin-é. Despite vast interest, Buckley was apprehensive about signing with a record label. Eventually he signed with Columbia and recorded what would be his only studio album, the otherworldly Grace, in 1994. An album David Bowie chose as a desert island album, an album whose release saw Bob Dylan knighting Buckley as  “one of the great song writers of this decade,” and an album that convinced Rolling Stone that Buckley was one of the greatest singers of all time.

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Mar 082016
 

god dontAugust Wilson’s play Seven Guitars depicts the tragic death of a black blues musician unable to take advantage of his stardom because he can’t get his guitar out of the pawnshop so that he might return to Chicago and record another hit single on a better contract. The play is set in 1948, a year after real-life inspiration Blind Willie Johnson, the gravely voiced musician eulogized in the new tribute album God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, succumbed to pneumonia while living in the ashes of a house that had burned down a week earlier. Despite having recorded thirty songs, Johnson died broke, famously using wet newspaper as blankets during his final days.

There are a million ways to evaluate God Don’t Never Change; most of them, I think, will settle on the fact that it will likely go down as one of the best American roots albums of 2016. I think so too. However, the lengthy discussion that follows will not just be about the incredible music of Blind Willie Johnson or even the deserving covers featured on this album. In what is perhaps a risky move in the world of music criticism, I want to frame my discussion of this album around issues of race and culture because we are a site dedicated to covers: the origins of the blues raise questions germane to any discussion of what it means to cover songs belonging to a genre that originally existed to give voice to the experiences and suffering of a specific group of people.
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Nov 252015
 

joyTo all reports, Ewan MacColl was a difficult man. It’s perhaps hard to believe that a man who could write as sensitive a song as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (for Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half-sister and MacColl’s third wife), the song made into a cross-genre standard by Roberta Flack in 1972, could be so uniformly feared and vilified, yet still admired. I guess it’s the usual case of ignoring the man and embracing the music, and this man, who arguably invented the UK folk boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s, had little interest in embracing any of the young acolytes drawn to his flame – he called Bob Dylan’s work “tenth-rate drivel.”

Born James Miller in Manchester, his life was a series of reinventions, as he became a communist rabble-rouser in his teens, then a George Bernard Shaw-admired  playwright and, in his mid-30’s, self-acclaimed champion of a fiercely curated folk idiom, wherein such modern anachronisms as make-up for women (and possibly women in general) were decried and denied, while Dylan, Paul Simon, and others of those young acolytes were freely liberating the repertoire into their own.
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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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