Sep 072018
 

kilonovaWilliam Elliott Whitmore is 40, but he has always sounded like a much older man, with a deep, soulful voice that gives everything he sings a certain gravitas.  Think Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan, or most of all, Johnny Cash at his most apocalyptic.  If Whitmore sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” you’d still worry, and probably be unhappy.  I first heard Whitmore in 2006, opening for Lucero, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and was immediately transfixed by his timeless voice, dark songs, austere banjo, guitar and foot stomping accompaniment, and intense performance.

Born and raised on a 150-acre farm in southeastern Iowa, which he inherited from his parents and still owns, Whitmore grew up singing and playing guitar and banjo, with musical influences that started with country and moved toward punk as he got older.  At a certain point, though, Whitmore realized that he needed to focus on the folky, rustic, blues music that he grew up on–but with a punk edge.

So when Bloodshot Records released Kilonova, an album of covers of (mostly) lesser known songs from many musical eras, the question was, how would such a distinctive artist put his stamp on this block of diverse songs? “Diverse” barely begins to tell the story–artists range from Dock Boggs, to Johnny Cash,  to the Magnetic Fields to Bad Religion.

In short, the answer is, remarkably well.
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Jun 152018
 

KidjoBono, whom Angélique Kidjo has taken heat for performing with on account of the collaboration signaling a lack of African purity on her part, famously and pretentiously begins the bombastic and mostly successful cover of “Helter Skelter” that kicks off U2’s concert album Rattle and Hum by proclaiming, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” I was reminded of this line when I eagerly volunteered to review Kidjo’s full album cover of Talking Heads‘ most Afro-inspired album, Remain in Light. I anticipated the album to be an act of musical liberation that brought traditional instrumentation to the most famous set of songs that had appropriated polyrhythmic composition in service of the definitely Western agenda of documenting David Byrne’s typically anxious anticipation of the Reagan years. The review, I thought, was going to write itself. It is inevitable, I imagined concluding, that removing the veil of cultural appropriation allows us to feel like we hearing these songs for the first time, “same as it ever was.”

This will not be that review. Continue reading »

May 222018
 

john wesley harding coversOn “Bastard Son,” one of the early recordings by John Wesley Harding, the singer, songwriter, novelist and overall renaissance man self-describes himself as the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a description that seems to be pretty much accurate. Whether you are listening to one of the albums released under his nom de plume or reading one of his novels under his given name Wesley Stace, the conclusion is the same. This is one talented guy. Continue reading »

Apr 132018
 

With the exception of a small-minded baker in Colorado with a penchant for litigation, the wedding-service industry has mostly welcomed the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. because of the new business it brings. Same-sex couples strutting down the aisle in greater numbers presents another hot-button cultural issue: how to find the perfect song for that first dance? Despite the fact that pop music has been loosening its collar since Elvis first shook his pelvis, when it comes to gender roles, mainstream songs tend to be as heteronormative as a ‘50s sitcom, no matter how suggestive the lyrics may be.

To address this issue, and no doubt tap into a lucrative commercial market, MGM Resorts sponsored a six-track EP called Universal Love. The collection features reworked versions of popular love songs with altered pronouns to celebrate same-sex love. The company must be betting big as they tapped serious star power, namely Bob Dylan, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke (lead singer of Bloc Party), Valerie June, Benjamin Gibbard (lead vocalist of Death Cab for Cutie) and Kesha. Continue reading »

Apr 062018
 

Ethan Gold Bedroom ClosetWhen Ethan Gold began recording cover songs in his bedroom closet, they were more than his tributes to artists that mattered to him – they were therapy. Gold had sustained a head injury in a warehouse accident that left him unable to speak, let alone do the complex sound engineering his work required. He had also just been forced to leave the condemned residence that inspired his previous album, Songs from a Toxic Apartment. So these covers, one-take performances filmed for YouTube, were Gold’s road to recovery. Now they’ve been compiled and released as a digital-only album, Live Undead Bedroom Closet Covers, and it’s a pleasure to see that his recovery is complete.
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Feb 272018
 

elise legrow playing chessChess Records, considered by many ears to be the redheaded step-child to the Motown and Stax labels and immortalized in the movie Cadillac Records, was the preeminent blues record label of the 1950s and ’60s. At the forefront of the birth of Rock and Roll with the release of “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, the label was the musical den of inequity for Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. And now, at last, with definitely a particular place to go, Elise LeGrow has released a tribute to the denizens of 2120 South Michigan Avenue: Playing Chess.

Having now spent several listening sessions with this gem, it looks like, to borrow some Olympics imagery, a spot on the “Covers Albums of the Year” medal stand should be reserved for this one. Bronze at least. Certainly not taking the easy approach, LeGrow has meticulously researched and curated every song that she presents. Take the relatively obscure Sugar Pie DeSanto tune “Going Back Where I Belong”; the even more esoteric “Searching for My Love,” a hot 100 hit for Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces’ or album-closer “Sincerely,” the last single for The Moonglows. Every song will have you cranking up the way-back machine to search out the original versions. Continue reading »