April was the best month for covers of the year so far. There’s no particular reason for that, I suspect. These things just ebb and flow. But the fact remains that it was a proverbial embarrassment of riches, as the length of the list below confirms.
As always, there’s no quality difference between the main picks and the honorable mentions; a cover’s categorization is only determined by how much I had to say about it.
Billie Eilish – Call Me Back (The Strokes cover)
Billie Eilish follows another Billy – Corgan – in Jimmy Fallon’s “Cover Room” video series. She rescues “Call Me Back” from the Strokes’ much-maligned 2011 album Angles with a beautifully fingerpicked duet.
Blake Skidmore – Runnin’ Down a Dream (Tom Petty cover)
Columbus singer-songwriter’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” starts off sounding like your run-of-the-mill acoustic Petty cover. But his voice keeps you listening, and you’re glad it does. The song great-wide-opens up on the first chorus, building into a lush landscape of sound.
Jack White – Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers cover)
Jack White’s third solo album Boarding House Reach has received, to put it mildly, mixed reviews (Stereogum: “It sounds like a man disappearing permanently up his own asshole.”). But superfans and haters do agree on one thing: The album is bonkers! For better or worse. Now, White covering the Modern Lovers might seem like him getting back to basics. It isn’t. White keeps his freak flag flying on an insane six-minute workout, crazy guitar riffs and solos and something that sounds like a flute (some sort of a synth maybe?). This would have fit right into his new album. Opinions might differ as to whether that’s a good thing.
John Moreland – Big Weather (Cheyenne cover)
John Moreland is from Oklahoma. This is not incidental to his story; he’s part of a wave of young singer-songwriters following in homestate hero Woody Guthrie’s footsteps, including John Fullbright, Parker Millsap, and Samantha Crain. So it’s appropriate that he pays tribute to an earlier Oklahoma breakout, defunct roots-rock band Cheyenne, on a new tribute album.
Josh T. Pearson – Damn Straight (Jonathan Terrell cover)
Josh T. Pearson doesn’t make his life easy. To push past a bout of writer’s block that had stymied follow-ups to his breathtaking Last of the Country Gentlemen (my favorite album of 2011), he imposed some White Stripes-esq limitations on his songwriting. He even gave them a name: The Five Pillars.
1) All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge.
2) The lyrics must run 16 lines or less.
3) They must have the word “straight” in the title.
4) That title must be four words or less.
5) They must submit to song above all else.
It worked. His new album came out this week, and in addition to his own songs, he found a song to cover that fit the criteria: Jonathan Terrell’s “Damn Straight.”
Julian Baker – No Children (The Mountain Goats cover)
Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle called Julian Baker’s live cover “the best version of ‘No Children’ I’ve ever heard.” Sure, we could quibble – has he never heard Kiki and Herb’s?? But Baker’s is undeniably moving.
Melvins – I Want to Hold Your Hand (The Beatles cover)
On their 27th studio album, punk-rock mainstays the Melvins quietly deliver one of the best Beatles covers in years. Loud and raucous and fun as hell, the song adds extra beats here, guitar-bass freakouts there, and a drum performance that would give young Ringo a panic attack. Bonus points for resurrecting one of the band’s bubblegum classics, which have gone out of favor in the cover world in favor of more “serious” White Album or Abbey Road cuts.
Mutoid Man – She’s a Lady (Tom Jones cover)
A metal trio covering Tom Jones? It’s a gimmick, but damn if they don’t execute it perfectly. The key is the band members play it straight, actually putting their all into making this super-cheesy oldie a real hard-rock banger. It pays off in (ace of) spades. This is apparently the first of three covers from them; can’t wait to hear the others.
One Grass Two Grass – Praise You (Fatboy Slim cover)
On their amazing Fatboy Slim cover, Oakland bluegrass quintet singlehandedly invent a new genre: electrograss. The ’90s dance hit holds up better with banjos and mandolins than you might expect, likely because of that prominent ’70s vocal sample, which gives a much less modern band something to latch onto. They do stick to Slim’s arrangement though, right down to manually imitating that stutter sample leading into the chorus.
Patti Smith – For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield cover)
Bruce Springsteen joining Patti Smith last week for “Because the Night” – and then Michael Stipe joining them for “People Have the Power” – made international news. I was at the concert, and it was indeed amazing (though I notice my “Patti Smith and the REM Street Band” supergroup name hasn’t caught on). But almost as cool was another surprise that came earlier in the short set, when Smith and her band dedicated a roaring cover of the Buffalo Springfield classic to the Parkland students.
Positive Tascha – What I Am (Edie Brickell & New Bohemians cover)
Natascha Bell was a contestant on Germany’s The Voice in 2014. This is not something you would guess from her new cover; her music has clearly taken a different direction since then (though the red dreadlocks in that Voice appearance might have been a sign). She uses various keyboard effects, looping devices, and even a spiky hand-massage ball to build a layered and interesting track to sing over. And that singing is powerful – I guess that’s another Voice holdover.
Ratboys – I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon (Sesame Street cover)
I watched a lot of Sesame Street as a kid, but I have no recollection of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.” Not sure how I missed it, since the show has reprised Ernie’s wistful 1978 ballad with everyone from Shawn Colvin to Aaron Neville. No matter. Ratboys’s cover is a dreamy introduction to a wonderful song. In a month where we lost Schoolhouse Rock composer Bob Dorough, this is a reminder that children’s music can be plenty mature.
Wendy Rae Fowler – Plain Gold Ring (Nina Simone cover)
In the month where Nina Simone was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (see out covers feature here), how perfectly timed for Wendy Rae Fowler to drop her stunning “Plain Gold Ring” cover. It doesn’t sound remotely like Simone – which seems appropriate, because Simone didn’t sound remotely like anyone else.
’68 – Summertime Blues (The Who cover)
On Live at Leeds, the Who famously turned the dial on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” up to 11 (I interviewed Roger Daltrey about it for my book). On their roaring new cover, noise-punk duo ’68 turn it up a few notches further.
Alabama Shakes – That’s All (Rosetta Tharpe cover)
Angelique Kidjo – Once In A Lifetime (Talking Heads cover)
Ben Gibbard – And I Love Him (The Beatles cover)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Wild Is the Will (Susanna cover)
Death Hags – Le Temps De L’amour (Francois Hardy cover)
Father John Misty – Ride (Lana Del Rey cover)
Haley Heynderickx – Rex’s Blues (Townes Van Zandt cover)
Jenn Champion – Owner of a Lonely Heart (Yes cover)
Kacey Musgraves – Roy Rogers (Elton John cover)
Kendra Morris – Virgin (Madonna cover)
Laura Veirs – Mountains of the Moon (Grateful Dead cover)
Ry Cooder – Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
Say Sue Me – Dreaming (Blondie cover)
Shinyribs – Strange Things Happening Every Day (Rosetta Tharpe cover)
Six O’Matic – 100,000 Fireflies (Magnetic Fields coveR)
Soft News – Six Different Ways (The Cure cover)
Wreck and Reference – Game of Pricks (Guided By Voices cover)