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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Jun 062016

day of the deadWhen I was five, my brother and I were digging in the yard and we dug up some jelly beans. Being jelly beans, we ate them. As you would expect, as they weren’t really food and since they didn’t really decay, they were pretty much intact. And they were delicious. Our Mom apparently didn’t seem to think this was a very smart thing to do, so we were punished. But it  seemed oh-so-worth-it in the end.

Listening to the Red Hot Organization’s 25th release, the sprawling 5-CD Day of the Dead, I kinda feel the same way. There’s a lot more digging though, and way fewer jelly beans.
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May 252016

dylan fallen angelsThere’s something inherently ironic about a musician long criticized for his vocal abilities releasing an album of covers, each of whose success is predicated on the strength of the vocalist in question. While there have certainly been a handful of performers with admittedly “unique” voices covering this territory – Jimmy Durante and Willie Nelson immediately spring to mind – vocal-oriented pop derived from the so-called Great American Songbook has long been the purview of singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and scores of others.

That none other than Bob Dylan should look to tackle the Great American Songbook is intriguing not just for his admitted vocal shortcomings, but also his early positioning as the polar opposite of everything the supper club set stood for. Perhaps it simply has something to do with the maturation process – something of a rite of passage for aging musicians – in that a certain level of nostalgia begins to creep in and an overwhelming urge to explore the music of their youth starts to take hold. That they would have largely scoffed at the idea of endeavoring such a feat during their formative proves all the more interesting now decades removed from the idealism of youth.

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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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