Tanya Donelly has a long history, as both singer-songwriter of Belly and solo artist, of interweaving emotionally charged originals with covers similarly forged from despair, heartbreak, and loneliness. The results have frequently been sublime, as when she complemented “Gepetto” with a heartfelt version of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” on the Gepetto EP of 1992, or when she accompanied “New England” and “Days of Grace” with an equally fervent rendition of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” on 2006’s This Hungry Life. The covers have usually taken the backseat as B-sides and deep cuts, or as contributions to tribute albums to the likes of The Smiths or Elliott Smith. Yet now, in this topsy-turvy year of 2020, they are the main event; Donelly has not only released a series of quarantine covers for charity (featuring Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone,” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), but has also polished off a covers album in collaboration with the Parkington Sisters, Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters.
It’s Donelly’s first all-covers album, therefore, that stands before us, but it’s clearly no ordinary covers album. The Belly, Breeders, and Throwing Muses star initiated it out of a desire to do something different with the format in the wake of Juliana Hatfield’s recent successes with Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018), and Sings The Police (2019). She might well have followed in the steps of her sometime collaborator and fellow doyen of New England alt-rock by making, effectively, a tribute album to one of her musical heroes: Kate Bush, say, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But instead, Donelly has attempted to bring a sense of unity to nine reinterpretations of songs that have been hugely meaningful to her, by way of the moody string arrangements and somber vocal harmonies that the classically trained, Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters are known for.
Donelly describes the album as constituting “some of the most honest, moving, beautiful, unfiltered, true and cool songs that have ever been written,” with “those same adjectives applying to the Parkington Sisters as well.” There’s no goofy “Love Shack” cover here, in other words, nor indeed “Rock Lobster.” No, these are predominantly serious and profound songs by the all-time big hitters – McCartney, Cohen, Hynde, Finn – dealing in dark, universal truths about love and life. They’ve been covered hundreds of times before, but Donelly gives them a considerable refresh, her distinctively wispy voice now more Emmylou Harris than the wailing banshee of past masters like “Slow Dog” (Belly) or “Not Too Soon” (The Muses). The multi-instrumentalist trio of Rose, Sarah, and Ariel, meanwhile, are simpatico to her Nashville leanings, further distinguishing the tracks with the dark and melancholy country sound they perfected on such remarkable singles as “September” and “Cruel.”
First single “Automatic” is not a cover of the Pointer Sisters song (although that would be interesting), but rather the Go-Go’s number, penned by Jane Weidlin for the girl group’s 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat. It turns out to be the perfect calling card for the album, being tight, direct, melodic, and deeply sinister. Tanya and the sisters are perfectly at home with this material, which centers on a female narrator lamenting the fact that she feels cold and heartless towards her lover during nighttime intimacies. They accentuate the gothic flavor of the song with hushed, echoing vocals, plucked violin strings, rumbling double bass, and vigorous use of the e-bow in the creation of eerie sonic effects. With the addition of some fine howling on the outro, it’s one heck of a sound they create here.
The group also work wonders on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let Me Roll It,” giving the familiar Band on the Run track the feel of a country ballad. The gritty guitar riff of the original is replaced with nimbly played violin, around bluesy piano lines and a twangy guitar solo. Tanya pours plenty of soul into the words that address the failure of words (“I can’t tell you how I feel”) and the need for (spliff-related?) action to repair a relationship. It’s clear, indeed, that she means it, especially when those sweeping Parkington strings contribute to an upsurge of emotion on the chorus.
Perhaps not quite as successful is the group’s rendition of The Kinks’ “Days.” It’s mighty brave to even attempt this most reflective of break-up songs in view of Kirsty MacColl’s definitive version of 1989, and it pales slightly in comparison (Tanya just doesn’t have the same level of world-weariness in her voice). The same might be said of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love,” now widely celebrated because of Madeleine Peyroux’s jazzy version of 2014. Yet it’s so bathed in glorious melancholy here that it’s impossible to resist, especially with that highly appropriate line: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.”
Echo and the Bunnymen’s 1984 classic “Ocean Rain” similarly benefits from the Parkingtons’ lush string arrangements, with Tanya and the sisters clearly reveling in the epic, goth-infused beauty and poetry of it all (as well as the abundance of shipping metaphors!). Their version of the late-period Split Enz song “Devil You Know” (1983), on the other hand, succeeds on a level of extreme intimacy and human fragility, enough hopefully to turn a wider audience onto the ruminative majesty of this underappreciated gem in the Neil Finn canon. Then there is an almost a cappella version of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again” (1988), in which, alongside Tanya’s whispery vocals, those famous Parkington Sisters harmonies really come to the fore. They sure can sing!
Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters, then, is a compelling set of covers that is earthy and honest, never schmaltzy. It not only sheds new light on old songs, but it offers a pleasing insight into how Donelly learnt her craft as a singer and songwriter. Indeed, it has the feel of a hugely personal project, these being the tracks that she grew up with and that have meant the most to her. It has a rare sense of unity, too, over its 32 minutes, never straining to be eclectic or experimental. It’s as honest as any covers album has ever been.
Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters tracklist
- Automatic (Go Go’s cover)
- Dance Me To The End Of Love (Leonard Cohen cover)
- Days (The Kinks cover)
- Ocean Rain (Echo and the Bunnymen cover)
- Let Me Roll It (Paul McCartney and Wings cover)
- Kid (The Pretenders cover)
- Different Drum (Michael Nesmith / The Stone Poneys cover)
- Devil You Know (Split Enz cover)
- You Will Be Loved Again (Mary Margaret O’Hara cover)
Buy ‘Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters’ at American Laundromat Records.