There are few songs more quintessentially ‘80s than A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” From the iconic synth-driven keyboard riff to the then-groundbreaking animated video, everything about it is reminiscent of that decade. In the years since it was an MTV staple, it has been covered by ska bands, punk bands, bluegrass outfits, folkies and even the likes of Weezer and Metallica. The song rejoined the animated world when it was included in the recent release of the video game The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to one of the most beloved games of the 2010s about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease and zombies.
Adam Schlesinger died on April 1st from COVID-19 complications. Not even three months later, “collaborators, tourmates, friends, and fans” put together Saving for a Custom Van, an extensive tribute album spanning songs from his varied career. Schlesinger is best known for being a founding member of Fountains of Wayne, but he also was in the more indie band Ivy and the supergroup Tinted Windows (with members from Hanson, Cheap Trick, and The Smashing Pumpkins). He also wrote songs for a variety of movies (Music & Lyrics, That Thing You Do!, Josie and the Pussycats), television shows (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Broadway (the postponed show, The Bedwetter) that also make an appearance on this tribute album.
The resulting collage of covers is heartfelt and plays like a personal mix tape of sorts. This makes it hard to pass any judgment. Overall, it is a powerful homage that also educates listeners on the history of Schelsinger’s work. In the sad context of the album, lyrics stand out as especially poignant, from the sad irony of “All Kinds of Time” to the evergreen “Troubled Times.”
Songwriter, banjo-picker, old-time fiddler, dancer, tv star, radio dj, and, perhaps most importantly, professional riverboat pilot. Welcome to the weird, wide world of John Hartford.
Hartford was a cross between Bill Monroe and Mark Twain—he titled one of his albums Mark Twang. He was among the first to join hippie sensibilities with hillbilly ways. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hartford was both a vivid reminder of America’s past musical heritage, and also a harbinger of things to come; he shaped contemporary music almost in spite of himself. “Newgrass,” which in turn fed into the jam band phenomena, is basically Hartford’s concoction (though mandolinist Sam Bush gets some credit too). Even Americana, as it is currently defined, is impossible to imagine without him—the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou project has Hartford’s fingerprints and spirit all over it.
So a new John Hartford Tribute album is most welcomed, and now we have one in hand: On the Road, from LoHi Records. It’s a dang good tribute album, too, starting with the opening cut (by Hartford’s co-conspirator Sam Bush), and never letting up.
Bob Dylan just released his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways and in case you haven’t heard, it is very, very good. “I Contain Multitudes” was the LP’s second single and remains one of its undeniable highlights. Upon first listen, the song feels very stream of consciousness, with Bob reeling off, well, absolutely everything rumbling in his head about his life from the seemingly trivial (“I eat fast foods”) to the profound (“I sleep with life and death in the same bed”) and listing the sounds, pages, and images that have enveloped and defined it. And yes, the sound you just heard was Bob explaining the meaning of life in under 5 minutes because unlike the rest of us, he can just do that.
Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift has recorded an album of Dylan covers titled Blonde on the Tracks which is set for release in August. And the first track she opted to release was not a familiar classic but a stunningly warm, heartfelt version of “I Contain Multitudes.” She serves it up as a hypnotic, melodic hymn, very reminiscent in style of vintage Gillian Welch, resulting in something exceptionally beautiful.
“Creep” is the song that made Radiohead. It didn’t happen overnight, as it went only to #78 in the UK when it was originally released. But it soon became a hit in other countries – including the US, where it is still their biggest hit – and was re-released in the UK, this time going to #7. There are still people out there who think Radiohead are the “Creep” band.
There have been a lot of acoustic covers of “Creep,” especially lately. In June 2020 alone there have been at least three prominent covers. Whether it’s the pandemic, or whether it’s because “Creep” is really a ballad, it’s become a staple.
Hildegard von Blingin’ seeks to change that. A “bardcore” artist who has sprung up on YouTube just recently, she covers pop hits of the last few decades as Medieval music. (The name is a reference to Saint Hildegard of Bingen, often recognized as the first major composer of European music.)
Barrett Strong‘s “Money” was Motown’s first serious hit (though it was released it when the label was still known as Tamla). Though many prefer Strong’s original version, the song’s fame increased with a fairly straightforward version by The Beatles and the cheeky New Wave one-hit wonder by The Flying Lizards (a fave of Barack Obama’s in his college years). In the Strong and Beatles versions, the lyrics are a celebration of greed and avarice. Only the Flying Lizards’ interpretation really hints at the likely tongue-in-cheek nature of the words.
Nick D’Virgilio is the drummer for American prog rock band Spock’s Beard and English prog rock band Big Big Train. For his upcoming second solo album Invisible, due out June 26th, he assembled a bunch of famous prog rock musicians to take on this classic track, with a pretty different approach from the most famous versions.