“Holes” is the lead track to Mercury Rev’s chamber pop classic Deserter’s Songs, a musical left-turn for them which saved their career. The songs feature elaborate, orchestrated arrangements around Jonathan Donahue’s fragile voice and “Holes” is no exception. The song begins with mellotron approximating an orchestrate but more and more instruments join the wurlitzer and tambourine accompanying his voice, slowly building to a massive crescendo featuring, among other things, a musical saw.
With their surprise success “Africa,” Weezer delivered easily the biggest cover-song news of 2018. And they similarly seemed poised to dominate this year’s cover-album news when they dropped a full set of similar songs in January (that album’s not on our list, because it is – and I say this as a fan for going on 20 years – terrible).
Thankfully, that album got forgotten about five minutes after its release. A slate of other high-profile cover albums took its place, and delivered more staying power. Angelique Kidjo, Morrissey, and Juliana Hatfield all released covers albums, and a host more stars contributed in one way or other to tribute compilations, from Norah Jones and Margo Price covering Bobbie Gentry to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile tackling Wilco. Some of the aforementioned made our list and some just missed it, but all are worth investigating.
That’s to say nothing of the many lesser-known artists who came out of nowhere, amazing covers records by bands and singers I’d never heard of before. Covers albums can offer a wonderful entry point for discovery, and I’ve now got a lot of new favorite bands to dig deeper into. Hopefully you’ll find a few here too.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Beck – Tarantula (Colourbox cover)
Few expected the movie Roma to be as big a hit as it was (it’s tied for the most Oscar nominations). Even Sony must not have, as they’re just getting around to releasing a soundtrack two months after release – and as Music Inspired By The Film Roma, i.e. must that doesn’t actually appear in the film. But Beck’s beautiful cover of 4AD group Colourbox arrives better late than never. Accompanied by an orchestra and Leslie Feist on backing vocals, he’s never sounded more like Peter Gabriel.
Last month, Connecticut rockers The Philistines Jr. took self-deprecation to a new level when they released their latest full length If a Band Plays in the Woods…? As the title gloomily predicts, the album’s twelve experimental and electronic tracks haven’t exactly landed them widespread recognition, but the band has a few tricks up its sleeve to fix that.
See, you may never have heard The Philistines Jr. frontman Peter Katis, but a lot of your favorite artists probably have. Katis is actually one of indie rock’s foremost producers, having helmed albums by Interpol, The National, Sigur Rós, Frightened Rabbit, and many more. Leading up to the October 19th release of the latest album, he called on his friends in some of these bands to record songs for a remix/cover companion piece. The resulting album, entitled If a Lot of Bands Play in the Woods…?—titles seem to be a The Philistines Jr. specialty—is due out sometime this fall.
It’s the first Monday of the month, and that means it’s time for another full album covered. Last month’s Nevermind post was probably the most popular one I’ve done, so here’s to hoping this keeps the momentum. This isn’t one of Young’s most famous albums, but it’s my favorite. It’s got the country groove, but with more balls than on Harvest. Plus, some of the songs are just badass. And once again, the nice cover on the right comes courtesy of Garrison. Now let’s get to the songs.
Jeff Tweedy – Walk On
Tweedy covers this one a lot in his solo concerts, and here he’s joined by Wilco bandmate Nels Cline on dobro. It’s less rocking that the original, but instead swings gently with some nice instrumental duets interspersed. This recording comes from Chicago’s Mandel Hall in 2006.
The Byrds – See the Sky About to Rain
None of that wavering piano here, just McGuinn and co’s signature jingle-jangle guitars and harmonies. It gets a little mariachi vibe when the vocals stop, but keeps a strong beat throughout. From their final studio album, which also featured a cover of Cowgirl in the Sand.
The Waco Brothers – Revolution Blues
A pretty hardcore song already, the Wacos bring out that element even stronger with pounding drums, brash organ, and train-whistle harmonica. Incredibly aggressive, the last line of each verse especially. Does a more killer line exist than, “We’ve got 25 rifles just to keep the population down”?
The Be Good Tanyas – For the Turnstiles
A similar feel to the original, but with more lush production and great country vocals with plenty of back-up. Kind of like the Dixie Chicks, but less…bad.
Mercury Rev – Vampire Blues
The song with “blues” in the title that actually lives up to its name, it’s probably the worst track on the album by virtue of being too generic. Mercury Rev does some nice things with it though, with a buzzy Leadbelly-esq slide acoustic guitar and enough dynamic and intensity changes to keep the 12-bar blues interesting.
The Walkabouts – On the Beach
Another one of my favorites from the album, these guys (and gals) nail it with dark organ and echoey guitar riffs. Haunting from beginning to end, with a great guitar solo.
Scott Miller and the Commonwealth – Motion Pictures
Another live one here, Miller makes a full band arrangement of this acoustic number that helps keep the momentum going for seven minutes. Plenty of jamming, but with purpose in a long instrumental outro that builds and builds.
Grapefruit Ed – Ambulance Blues
Plenty of slide guitar in this live rendition of what some consider the masterpiece of the album. I wouldn’t go that far, but it does have some killer lyrics, for which this singer’s voice is perfectly suited.