Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Is the Church’s A Box of Birds the stock contractual filler for a band bereft of ideas, or a vivid introduction to those influences that begat the inspiration to form in the first place? In truth, it’s a bit of both. At a first listen it even begs whether it deserves status as a Covers Classic. Bear with me, it does, if only saved by the bell of the closing track.
A Box of Birds is a curious mix of songs, from hit singles familiar to all to deeper cuts known but to the few. Gone, by and large, is the space and counterplay that had made the Church’s name, with very little demonstration of how dual guitars can sparkle off each other. Sure, it sounds fun, with an image of the band playing these songs on the hoof, in a garage, that picture added to by the slightly muddy mix and the contrived run of one track into the next. If they hadn’t fully decided what to play until they began, well, that too seems not unlikely. But it all becomes a little wearing, particularly in the build-up to the finale. If ever an album cries out for a grand finish, this is it. And, praise be, the Church deliver.
Needle down and the first track, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “The Faith Healer,” succeeds against the odds of this ambitious choice. Unable to reproduce the manic threat of Alex Harvey’s vision, who could, they maximize the metronomic menace inherent, extending all the preludes to the vocals to way beyond anticipation. That beyond, little else is done, but the respect is that they even tried. And the lazy drawl sound of Steve Kilbey’s vocal is spookier, more believable even, than Harvey’s grand-guignol.
Continuing with a brisk take on “It’s All Too Much,” George Harrison is clearly the coolest Beatle in their book. With pleasing sweeps of distorted guitar, it fails to grasp the opportunity offered, suffering from rushed vocals, an odd coda lifting from Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” as well as Merseybeat staple “Sorrow” (The Merseys, via the McCoys, later Bowie), and drums that would embarrass even Ringo. It sounds, gulp, like Oasis.
With what sounds like a drum machine, however faithful that may be to the original, John Foxx’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” straddles the divide between choosing a song you might like and one malleable to your personal style. On balance, and it is a wrench, the Church just about manage. Luckily, they then manage to transform “Porpoise Song” into a gloriously trippy haze, chucking every Syd-era Floyd meme into the mix. The Monkees? Surely not, until you remember “Head,” their swansong, came out of the “satirical” film of the same name, the sort of satire that could only involve a lot of contraband material. The Church merely expand that a tad further, the original pretty damn hazy, if on softer drugs. (Bet you didn’t know it was originally a Gerry Goffin/Carole King co-write.)
At a little over nine minutes, “Decadence” must have seemed an inspired near-segue, unfortunately falling over itself to extend the mindset desired. In Kevin Ayers’ hands, agreed, it it almost as long, but has the advantage of his idiosyncratically nuanced vocal, part the charm of any of his songs in fairness. Where Ayers sounded decadent, Kilbey just sounds wasted. With “The Endless Sea,” a hidden Iggy Pop nugget, the ennui seeps in further. Were they getting bored? Hell, here they sound like Echo and the Bunnymen.
A spin through Televison’s “Friction” comes as a bit of a tonic, frankly, even if they do little with it. Which then makes the next pair of tracks inexcusable. Quite why anyone thought either Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” or Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” might possibly warrant covering escapes me, both so indelibly stamped to the originals. Sure, it was worth Bowie “covering” “Dudes,” it being his own song and all, but the only purpose was to hear how he would have tackled it. Here, it is at best pub-band poor, a weak facsimile, not even bothering to mix the spoken word outro high enough to hear. And “Silver Machine” is just dire. As in please. Just. Stop. Now.
Hmm… Box of Birds a Cover Classic, you say? I know, two decent tracks, a couple other OK, and the rest unmitigated sludge. Celebrated dual guitar melodicists? Well, hang on a moment more, or eleven-plus minutes even. Somehow, from nowhere else apparent on this recording, here, suddenly here is a stone baked classic. It is as if the band suddenly got what they were doing: rather than merely having fun, this was the band remembering that they were a band, that this was their job, their vocation.
“Cortez the Killer” must be the epitome of Neil Young’s epic essence, the melding of his gloriously fumbled guitar play, allied to a keening vocal and some extravagant mythologizing. Behind him, Crazy Horse in their prime, the acquisition of equally scratchy fingered Poncho Sampedro adding to the mix with his subtraction of finesse. A difficult song to cover well, expressly more so if you stick to the idiom of electric guitar.
But carry it off the Church do, exquisitely so, completely replacing the sense of reportage in the original. These guys play like they were there, stumbling through the forests as they come to the flatlands, high on, I don’t know, ayahuasca, stoned out of their gourds. Rather than Young’s slow soloing, the choruses to his sung verses, the twin guitars of Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes weave and wobble, frazzles of feedback and fuzz searing through the dense undergrowth of Kilbey’s bass and Tim Powles’ drums, playing barely enough to keep the motion going forward. But always enough. Immaculate.
So that’s why.
A Box of Birds Tracklisting:
- The Faith Healer (Sensational Alex Harvey Band cover)
- It’s All Too Much (Beatles cover)
- Hiroshima, Ma Amour (Ultravox! cover)
- The Porpoise Song (Monkees cover)
- Decadence (Kevin Ayers cover)
- The Endless Sea (Iggy Pop cover)
- Friction (Televison cover)
- All the Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople cover)
- Silver Machine (Hawkwind cover)
- Cortez the Killer (Neil Young & Crazy Horse cover)