I was drawn to review Ruston Kelly’s Dirt Emo Vol. 1 by Kelly’s bold move of putting a T-Swift cover on an “emo” cover album. The choice of “All Too Well” was oddly prescient, given Taylor Swift’s recent Tiny Desk performance. To be fair, I dare you to find something more emo than these lines: “Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” The choice seems less strange once you learn that Kelly is no stranger to country music. He is based in Nashville and has helped pen country songs, including Tim McGraw’s “Nashville Without You.”
Digging into Kelly’s emo cover album, I found that the teaser Taylor song was actually not one of the standouts. Instead, the strength of the album comes from the songs where he specifically taps into his country roots in more unexpected ways. Two songs made me move beyond reminiscing about the originals and allowed me to hear the songs from a new perspective.
Saves the Day’s original version of “At Your Funeral” starts fairly softly, but the pop-punk style you may expect from a ’90s rock band dominates the rest of the song. A harmonica kicks off this cover, and I’m into it. Kelly offers a mellow version of the song that captures the sentiment of the tragic lyrics. The words maintain the emo element, but the simple instrumentation and more soulful than pleading vocals help us hear this song in a new context. This one goes out to all of the ’90s kids who have grown up and whose angst has matured into existential dread. “This song will become the anthem of your underground.”
“Dammit,” Blink-182’s first hit single, gets a subtle hint of banjo in Kelly’s cover. The original melody pairs fairly monotonous verses with a catchy chorus; a constant backbeat permeates. Arguably, emo music is about burying deep feelings in heavy guitar and drum crashes. Again, Kelly strips down a classic so that we can hear more of the pain in the lyrics and connect with the message once again. Even acoustically, we get a sense of buildup to the choruses and then a fadeout to the resigned “Well, I guess this is growing up.”
Something about the context switch that the hints of country give these two covers makes them stick with you. The other songs on Dirt Emo Vol. 1 are solid acoustic covers; they just lack the reinvention needed to boost the album up a star-level. However, Kelly’s album is certainly worth a listen, and I’m standing by for Vol. II.
Dirt Emo Vol. I Tracklist
- Screaming Infidelities (Dashboard Confessional cover)
- Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
- At Your Funeral (Saves the Day cover)
- Dammit (Blink-182 cover)
- All Too Well (Taylor Swift cover)
- Teenage Dirtbag – Acoustic (Wheatus cover)
- Weeping Willow (The Verve cover)
- Helena (My Chemical Romance cover)