As long as there has been Western art, there has been a debate regarding the nature of the simulacrum, a Latin word that originally meant representation but has come, in philosophical circles, to mean any kind of imitation or copy. Plato distinguished between a noble type of simulacra – an exact copy – and an inherently dishonest image that has been distorted or altered (usually by a painter, sculptor, or actor) in order to seem true and elicit a particular emotional response for the viewer. Leaving aside Plato’s alarmist anxiety regarding the power of artist to willingly manipulate a populace via dangerous and immoral entertainments, his two “types” of simulacra represent two poles of a continuum that might be used to describe covers. Covers inherently create simulacra that, depending on the intent of the cover artist, fall somewhere between the perfect replica and the “distorted” copy designed to reposition a song in a new historical or generic context so that it might feel true to a new audience.
The thirteen covers on The Brighter Side: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo‘s ‘No Depression’ all lean toward the latter variety, taking significant liberties to reimagine the album as one that neatly and cleanly fits into the genre of alt-country, a genre that more or less didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. The question of representation becomes even more complicated, though, when one considers the fact that the alt-country lens through which these songs are here replicated is one that is largely believed to have been created or codified by the release of No Depression itself. In other words, No Depression is here being translated into a genre that, in theory at least, it helped invent.
On the one hand, the fact that the alt-country represented by these thirteen songs doesn’t particularly sound like the album that spawned the genre is simply an attestation to the fact that genres change over the course of twenty-five years. On the other, the dissonance between the tributary and the river itself is admissible because alt-country isn’t just a genre defined by sounding a certain way but a genre intending, above all else, to sound real (whatever that is). If (and this claim is hardly universal) alt-country (or insurgent country or Americana or American indie or whatever we want to call it), began when Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, and Mike Heidorn tried to raise the ghost of Woody Guthrie via a punk rock séance, then the genre began as one defined by a desire to be a more faithful representation of middle-American life than country music was becoming in 1990 when the first party busses arrived full of Bald Eagles who cried “America” while soaring about with star-spangled postcards of Heaven that looked exactly like your home town. Interestingly, mainstream country music today is collection of increasingly hypertrophic replicas of the sorts of hypertrophic replicas of the American small town that were being mass-produced in the ’90s. The mainstream country radio format is a version of simulacra that has less to do with Plato’s binary than it does a notion of replication conceptualized by Jean Baudrillard for whom the simulacrum is a replica of a replica that becomes wholly symbolic and, despite having no real relationship with reality at all, becomes its own reality: mainstream country music doesn’t replicate America but creates America anew, vis-à-vis nothing.
While Baudrillard’s definition of the simulacrum describes contemporary country music, my real point here is that – to the extent that these thirteen covers are representative – it also accurately describes the state of alt-country. I don’t mean to suggest that the thirteen bands here aren’t “real country” or that these versions aren’t good covers. I am spending so much time thinking about replication and distortion in part to think about the complicated legacy of No Depression itself. In 1990, the album felt important and groundbreaking because most of us believed that the lines separating genres were mostly impermeable. More to the point, we believed that genre was real. A very real result of albums like No Depression is that genres just don’t exist in the same way that they did in 1990. Each evolution from a section in a music store to a Pandora station to a Spotify playlist increases the porousness of the boundaries between genres. Introducing new listeners to No Depression is often awkward because the album’s most important magic trick – sounding like “real” punk and “real” country somehow simultaneously – is something that new listeners don’t think requires magic at all because bands have been doing it for so long that they’ve inspired bands who do it differently with better recording equipment.
As such, The Brighter Side has almost nothing to do with the moxie and energy and anger and drunkenness that made the original album so important: even in the very best of these covers, you can hear very little of the lonesome bravado that allowed three people who were in their early twenties to make No Depression in 1990. Instead, the tribute album pays homage to the boundless horizons of the genre (non-genre? post-genre?) that the album helped form. These covers are good covers that are united by little more than the fact that – as alt-country inspired American Indie music – they can sound like anything at all.
Across the board, these songs do become new things, usually satisfying. Mikaela Davis’s “So Called Friend” converts the original’s bitterness into ethereal-but-not-weightless mourning, finding solidity and heart in a harp-heavy instrumentation and vocals that are robust and tipped with just a hint of a twang. Bodies of Water injects some flamenco into “That Year,” converting what is perhaps the angriest two minutes on No Depression into a reverie in which the anger has long since cooled into regret. The Last Bison incorporate noises befitting a Wes Anderson score – the thing is orchestrated – while trying to find a new way to generate the energy necessary for “Graveyard Shift.” Most impressive of all, Wooden Sky slow down the title track (itself a Carter Family cover), liberating the song from its fundamentalist origins so that we are left with something elegant forged by the very depression it desires to outrun.
Ultimately, this is a good album full of good covers that do much to recommend listening to the bands assembled here. It probably matters very little that people who love the original album may not be the same people that listen to this one again and again. Perhaps that is the nature of tribute albums. Still, as good as The Brighter Side is, I can’t help dwelling on the fact that, where No Depression supplied a soundtrack for the middle America of my teenage years, this tribute album provides a soundtrack for a middle America that only exists as indie escapism. Luckily for the makers of this album, that America sounds like a nice place.
Complete Track Listing for The Brighter Side:
1. The Last Bison – Graveyard Shift
2. Bodies of Water – That Year
3. Big Blue Sky – Before I Break
4. Wooden Sky – No Depression
5. Peculiar Pretzelman – Factory Belt
6. Elliot Brood – Whiskey Bottle
7. Crow Moses – Outdone
8. Leeroy Stagger – Train
9. Smoking Popes – Life Worth Livin’
10. David Stuart – Flatness
11. Mikaela Davis – So Called Friend
12. Cheap Girls – Screen Door
13. Beta Radio – John Hardy
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