Aug 032016
 
DominoMajesticstill

Many of the best Tom Waits covers polish off Waits’ most oddball tendencies to bring out a more conventional beauty (Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl,” Baez’s “Day After Tomorrow,” Cash’s “Down There By the Train,” etc). Here’s a band that went in the opposite direction.

Swedish trio Domino Majestic climbed a nearby mountain to cover “God’s Away on Business,” dragging a harmonium with them. Now in most bands, the harmonium would be the strangest instrument, but here’s it’s the most conventional. It’s accompanied by a bass made of an old gasoline can (it’s worth watching their video about this bizarro instrument) and a guy pounding on a suitcase with a mallet. Continue reading »

Jul 152016
 

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.


Because I decided to fight for what was rightfully and legally mine, a full album that I recorded was never released. I’m not being paid, nor have I ever been paid, as an artist for “Sea of Love.” I never received justice and to this day have not received justice. – Phil Phillips

The author of “Sea of Love,” John Phillip Batiste (he Anglicized it for the benefit of non-French-speaking DJs), got more pain than joy from his big hit. Written to woo a girl he didn’t wind up with, co-credited to a record store owner who Phillips claims had no hand in writing it, the original “Sea of Love” went to number one in 1959, but only earned its author $6800. His album was permanently shelved after the label got in a dispute with the record store owner, and Phillips was unable to get out from under his five-year contract; by 1964, Beatlemania had hit and Phillips’ time in the spotlight was over.

“Sea of Love,” on the other hand, was just beginning to shine.
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Mar 182016
 
TomWaits_wolynski

Back in 2006, Tom Waits released an outtakes and rarities compilation called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. At 56 tracks, it had a lot – but not nearly everything. So fans dutifully compiled a companion collection of everything left on the cutting room floor, cleverly titled Forgotten Orphans. In addition to more outtakes and b-sides, this fan bootleg included something the main set lacked: live performances. Many of those were super-rare covers, none of which have ever been officially released. But they are worth hearing. Tom Waits is widely regarded as an excellent songwriter, but these covers showcase Tom Waits’ power as a song interpreter. He’s never gone the Bob Dylan route of periodic forays into cover albums, but if he ever did, these songs show how great such an album could be. Continue reading »

Mar 082016
 

god dontAugust Wilson’s play Seven Guitars depicts the tragic death of a black blues musician unable to take advantage of his stardom because he can’t get his guitar out of the pawnshop so that he might return to Chicago and record another hit single on a better contract. The play is set in 1948, a year after real-life inspiration Blind Willie Johnson, the gravely voiced musician eulogized in the new tribute album God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, succumbed to pneumonia while living in the ashes of a house that had burned down a week earlier. Despite having recorded thirty songs, Johnson died broke, famously using wet newspaper as blankets during his final days.

There are a million ways to evaluate God Don’t Never Change; most of them, I think, will settle on the fact that it will likely go down as one of the best American roots albums of 2016. I think so too. However, the lengthy discussion that follows will not just be about the incredible music of Blind Willie Johnson or even the deserving covers featured on this album. In what is perhaps a risky move in the world of music criticism, I want to frame my discussion of this album around issues of race and culture because we are a site dedicated to covers: the origins of the blues raise questions germane to any discussion of what it means to cover songs belonging to a genre that originally existed to give voice to the experiences and suffering of a specific group of people.
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Feb 262016
 

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.

tift-merritt

Tift Merritt came out of Raleigh, North Carolina, back in 2002. Her debut, Bramble Rose, was well respected, finding itself on multiple best-of lists, but it was her second album, Tambourine, which was truly respected, getting Album of the Year nominations from the Grammys (country category) and the Americana Music Association. She’s toured hard, opening early in her career for her friend Ryan Adams and for Elvis Costello. She’s continued to release critically acclaimed albums, both on her own and in joint projects such as Night, her 2013 collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Her work has led to a great deal of respect from people in the industry, but not a corresponding amount of fame. Even so, fans in the know recognize her as a leader within the field, and her talent shines through no matter where she shows up. Emmylou Harris said that Merritt stands out “like a diamond in a coal patch.” Emmylou is right. Tift Merritt may not be played on your local radio station very often, but she deserves a place in your listening library.

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Feb 032016
 

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

MatesofStateCrushesCoversMixtape

When Mates of State‘s Crushes (The Covers Mixtape) came out in 2010, we ranked it the sixth best cover album of the year. If I were redoing that list today, I’d make it #1 (or, at worst, #2 – I do still love that Peter Gabriel album). The reason Crushes holds up so well is the same reason a lot of people might hate it: Its almost gleeful irreverence to its source material.

On Crushes, the husband-wife indiepop duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel draw their song selections equally from indie hits of the past decade and classic singer-songwriters. But they are beholden to neither group. Americana laments become dance celebrations. Outsider indie-prog becomes glossy toy-store pop. Electronic beats and gorgeous harmonies coexist in worlds far different than the ones the original artists envisioned. Continue reading »