Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

pickin

Anyone attempting to make the argument that Pickin’ On Modest Mouse: A Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse is a Cover Classic – an argument that was promised/threatened by my response to this Q&A a few days ago and is related to a defense of bluegrass covers we made a while back – needs to refute two rational, gut-level reactions to the artifact that is this album. First, one needs to establish that the album is not simply another gimmicky entry in the Pickin’ On series, a collection of fairly obvious mid-oughties albums that attempted to pin the banjo on unlikely donkeys in ways that were often funny and almost always “pretty good for a novelty album.” Second, one needs to demonstrate that this album is somehow different than other albums attempting to strip away all of the Modest Mouse noise to reveal the sensitive songwriting lurking just beneath the shouting.
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They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Willie Nelson, 82 years old today, has always been an awkward cuss. Still relentlessly on the road and putting out record after record, somehow it would seem a cop-out to “let others do the work for a while,” as is the norm for these pieces (and besides, been there done that), so this is more a celebration of the myriad and varied covers he has performed over the decades. The germ for this idea came as the staff pow-wow took place around our best country covers of non-country songs Q&A, with Mr. Nelson featuring twice.

His career in music has lasted, so far, a staggering 59 years, his first recording being 1956’s “Lumberjack.” Since then, he has passed through many incarnations, from clean cut C&W performer, consummate Nashville standards songwriter, self-imposed banishment and his counter-intuitively hippie redneck years (copyright me), banding up with and as like-minded (the) Outlaws, before settling into iconic status as a national treasure, lauded by presidents and paupers alike. Somehow his skirmishes with the I.R.S. and his enduring support for marijuana has but strengthened his appeal, even within the staunchly conservative country demographic. And, of course, all of us longhairs just love him. Don’t we?
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They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Björn Ulvaeus may not be a household name, but the same cannot be said of ABBA, the band he cofounded with his songwriting partner Benny Andersson. This is a band whose greatest-hits album Gold went to number one in England on five different occasions over a span of sixteen years. A band who numbered Bono, Kurt Cobain, and Vladimir Putin among their biggest fans. A band whose breaking-up songs rivaled Rumours for intraband romantic schadenfreude.

Ulvaes built on this legacy after ABBA dissolved. He cowrote the music for the stage show Chess, the origin of “One Night in Bangkok.” The ABBA-based stage show Mamma Mia! has grossed over two billion worldwide; the movie, over $600 million. Speaking of money money money, today he is a key figure in turning Sweden into a cash-free society. He had an umlaut in his name thirty years before Motörhead did. Not even his distressing resemblance to Kato Kaelin could put an end to his coolness.
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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 favorite country & western cover of a non-country & western song?
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Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Of all the songs inextricably linked to moments in movies, few pairings initially appear more incongruous than the closing minutes of Real Genius that follow Lazlo driving away in his mobile home after a house has exploded due to a space laser and a giant tin of Jiffy Pop. As Roland Orzbal sings about hating “this indecision / married with a lack of vision,” neighborhood children fill wagons with edible detritus and Val Kilmer laughs in slow motion, biting popcorn snowflakes out of the air.

Though illogical, the scene is far more successful than the song’s on-the-face-of-it-more-fitting incarnation as a spooky Lorde cover on the soundtrack for the second installation of The Hunger Games. The reason children playing in popcorn works better than children forced to kill children is simple: the song isn’t about the fact that “everybody wants to rule the world” so much as it is about the more heartening notion that “when they do / I’ll be right behind you” and that we’ll be “holding hands as the walls come tumbling down.”
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Listening to Wallflower, Diana Krall’s new covers record, a question comes to mind:

Who’s the intended audience for this?

It’s a strange beast of an album, in which the jazz star (is she even really a jazz artist these days?) takes some of the most obvious choices from the pop/rock cannon and goes full lounge singer on them.

A lot of the blame for this album can probably be tossed onto producer David Foster (whose daughters, weirdly enough, currently have a mockumentary-type show on VH1). The whole album is drenched in dreamy strings, gentle (or non-existent) percussion, and whimsical piano. Not that the production on any one song ruins the whole thing, but the arrangements all seem to be exactly the same. If these songs weren’t currently playing in every dentist office in the country at this exact moment, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
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Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

 

Kings are not born. They are made by artificial hallucination. – George Bernard Shaw

The first time I heard Kings of Leon, I wondered if I hadn’t dreamed them into being. A quartet of charming Southern gentlemen playing the kind of bluesy rock that I really needed to help me get through the aha shake and heartbreak of my early twenties? It couldn’t possibly be real.

Luckily for the rest of humanity, this was so much more than an artificial fever dream trapped in my pop-culture-addled mind. In the decade since I discovered them, I’ve done some roaming around, but no one fills the places I can’t reach like Kings of Leon.
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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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