Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
In 2008, Melissa Rich Mulcahy died, leaving behind two-year-old twin girls and her husband Mark. That would be Mark Mulcahy, leader of the ’80s college radio favorites Miracle Legion and Polaris (Adventures of Pete & Pete – ’nuff said) and a solo artist who was suddenly not just a widower, but one who was unable to record or tour because he needed to be there for the kids. What he didn’t know was that plans had been set in motion to put together a tribute album whose proceeds would assist him in his hour of need – plans which evolved into what Big Takeover called “a sort of indie-rock equivalent to the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Ciao My Shining Star, released a year after Melissa’s passing, featured a few big names – most notably Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., whose sound Miracle Legion emulated. More importantly, it featured Mulcahy’s songs. Most of them were unfamiliar to the general public, but they were venerated by his peers to a near-unbelievable degree. More than three dozen artists recorded songs for this tribute; the Shout! Factory label wound up having to release a three-disc deluxe edition to accommodate them all. The fact that covers by unknown bands resonate just as strongly as those by famous ones shows the strength of these songs. These aren’t half-baked bedroom demos, either – all the musicians involved clearly invested themselves in the material, resulting in an album that radiates smarts, care, and excellence. Mulcahy calls it “a giant love letter” in his liner notes, and it is – both to his songs, and his unforgotten Melissa.
Thom Yorke – All For The Best (Miracle Legion cover)
“When I was 15, the best song in the entire world and the most beautiful voice I had ever heard sang ‘All for the Best’ on Miracle Legion’s Surprise Surprise Surprise. It was the voice of someone who was only truly happy when he was singing. It affected me a great deal…. My brother & I played that record until it was completely unplayable. It changed the way I thought about songs and singing.”
Thom Yorke said that (or something like it; we’ve adjusted spelling and punctuation), so it was no surprise that he agreed to take part in this album, nor that he produced a cover that would have been a highlight on Kid A. Bonus: he sang it with his brother Andy, whose band the Unbelievable Truth perform the title track elsewhere on Ciao.
Dinosaur Jr. – The Backyard (Miracle Legion cover)
“The Backyard” was Miracle Legion’s signature song, the one casual fans hollered for night after night. Dinosaur Jr. pull it out by its jangle-folk-rock roots and turn it into a thick, guitar-heavy slab, with J Mascis’s unmistakable vocals lazily drifting around Lake Nostalgia.
I Have Patience – The Butterflies of Love (Mark Mulcahy cover)
Leave it to the French to find the romance in crab lice – they call them papillons d’amour, which translates to “butterflies of love.” Here’s a lesser-known band on the tribute that was smart enough to take that for a name, and good enough to produce one of the standout tracks in “I Have Patience.” Mulcahy’s song keeps turning on itself – the opening line “You’re pretty” is followed by the slam “You’re pretty naive,” which is followed by the nakedly confessional “I wish that I / Could be naive again.” The Butterflies of Love convey that message on a “Sister Ray” riff raft that could float the length of the Nile without becoming tiresome.
A.C. Newman – Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call (Miracle Legion cover)
The songs that appeared on the deluxe edition weren’t has-beens by any stretch of the imagination, and neither were their interpreters. A.C. Newman, for example, has won more than a few fans for his solo work and his membership in the New Pornographers. Here, he takes “Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call,” a song about the end of a long distance relationship, and brings Mulcahy’s melancholy back to sad survivalhood.
Syd Straw – Hey Self Defeater (Mark Mulcahy cover)
Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, a collection of music essays, has a chapter dedicated to his discovery of Mulcahy’s “Hey Self Defeater.” The song “made it on to just about every compilation tape I made that year,” says the author of High Fidelity; he goes on to say that “it was only ever going to find its audience through word of mouth and recommendations by the like-minded.” Thanks to Ciao My Shining Star, and thanks to Syd Straw, a.k.a. Pete & Pete‘s math teacher Miss Fingerwood (who says of “Hey Self Defeater,” “It’s one of his best songs… That’s a great message for the world right now”), the message keeps getting passed along. Now it’s your turn.
The complete track listing
1. Thom Yorke – All for the Best
2. The National – Ashamed of the Story I Told
3. Michael Stipe – Everything’s Coming Undone
4. David Berkeley – Love’s the Only Thing That Shuts Me Up
5. Dinosaur Jr. – The Backyard
6. Chris Harford and The Band Of Changes – Micon the Icon
7. Frank Black – Bill Jocko
8. Vic Chesnutt – Little Man
9. Unbelievable Truth – Ciao My Shining Star
10. Butterflies of Love – I Have Patience
11. Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne – Cookie Jar
12. Frank Turner – The Quiet One
13. Rocket From the Tombs – In Pursuit of Your Happiness
14. Ben Kweller – Wake Up Whispering
15. Josh Rouse – I Woke Up in the Mayflower
16. Autumn Defense – Paradise
17. Hayden – Happy Birthday Yesterday
18. Juliana Hatfield – We’re Not in Charleston Anymore
19. Mercury Rev – Sailors and Animals
20. Elvis Perkins – She Watches Over Me
21. Sean Watkins – A World Away From This One
Disc 2 (deluxe edition only):
1. A.C. Newman – Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call
2. Buffalo Tom – Butterflies
3. Laura Veirs – Mr. Mingo
4. Joe Purdy – Resolution #1
5. Syd Straw – Hey Self Defeater
6. The Pressure Room – Tempted
7. Dumptruck – Apartment Murders
8. The Parkway Charlies – 4:04
9. Winterpills – And Then?
10. Biet Simkin – Be Sure
Disc 3 (deluxe edition only):
1. The Gravel Pit – Closer To The Wall
2. The ‘mericans – Country Boy
3. The Autumn Defense – Even Better
4. Lo Fine – Everywhere
5. Tw Walsh – I Hate To Needy Need You
6. School for the Dead – I Just Shot Myself In The Foot Again
7. Slugos – Nothing But A Silver Medal
8. Spouse – Pasadena Love Story
9. Senator – The Way That She Really Is
10. The Late B.P. Helium – You’re The One Lee