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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Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Lemmy has admitted to being more of a slot machine man than a poker one, but the Motorhead bassist knew which topic would make a better lyric (“when it comes to that sort of thing… you can’t really sing about spinning fruit”). “Ace of Spades,” his paean to gambling that sure sounds like it’s about more than your typical deck of cards, is his band’s signature work and the proto-speed metal song. Anyone can perform it and sound dynamic – even a bunch of plastic dolls.
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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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In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

When you consider their longevity, the sheer number and variety of their live performances, and influences as diverse as bluegrass, country, soul, rock, psychedelia, blues, and jazz, it is likely that the Grateful Dead may have recorded and/or performed more covers than any other band that is best known for its original songs. (There’s probably a wedding band out there that has a bigger songbook, but that’s not really the point.) Grateful Dead fans have been trading and cataloging their favorite band’s performances since long before the idea of digital music and the Internet even existed, and now there are numerous databases available online — one of which shows 343 separate covers performed by the band (and solo projects and offshoots), including soundchecks and performances with guests.

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Cover Me has never turned its lovelight directly on the Grateful Dead. We have written numerous times about covers of Dead songs, but a quick review of the archives indicates that only three covers by the band have been featured—Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried.” So, that leaves us a mere 340 to choose from today. To make this project (inspired in part by Phil Lesh’s 75th birthday this Sunday and by the recent announcement of the band’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago this summer) somewhat less insane, we will limit ourselves only to recordings or performances by the Grateful Dead, proper — no solo projects or anything from after the death of Jerry Garcia.
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Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

The way Adrian Edmondson tells it, he bought a mandolin after an inebriation-inducing lunch near Denmark Street in Soho, “a very dangerous place to be with a group of friends, drunk, if you have either cash, or a credit card about your person.” The next day, he picked it up and began playing the songs of his youth – by bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and other bands that certainly informed his portrayal of Vyvyan Basterd in the beloved Britcom The Young Ones. What came out was something very special indeed – so much so that Edmondson went out to find like-minded folk musicians to play this music with him, and when he found Uilleann pipe player Troy Donockley, the Bad Shepherds were born.
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Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Writing about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seems a little like eating at a buffet right before closing. There may be a few good things left, but it is pretty well picked over, and what’s left has lost its flavor. Few rock albums of the past 20 years have been discussed and analyzed as much as YHF. Yet we proceed, undaunted, because what we do is different. And maybe, just maybe, listening to a full set of covers of each song of this great album will allow you to hear it anew. Because you never know when the buffet is going to get restocked with something fresh.
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Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Tusk‘s reputation as an infamous failure is pretty much cemented at this point. But it didn’t actually fail at all.
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Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).

Today’s question: What’s a cover song that introduced you to an artist?
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