Mar 122021

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Camper Van Beethoven Tusk

Rumours was a tough act for Fleetwood Mac to follow, so they didn’t follow it. Instead of giving an audience more of the same, they took a big leap with their next album, Tusk in 1979. It was the most expensive album to be recorded at the time, and although it did not reach the same level of commercial success as Rumours, there were pockets of critics and fans alike that appreciated the post-punk experiment. (Did I know Lindsey Buckingham was a big Talking Heads fan before writing this piece? No!)

Camper Van Beethoven is a band somewhere between alternative and indie rock who decided to take on Tusk in all its double-album glory.  Not to be outdone in terms of drama, their version has a conspiracy theory-esque origin story. The band claimed to have unearthed it years after recording it on a whim in the late ’80, but they actually recorded it in 2001 and then released it in 2002 as a test run to see whether they could work together as a band after an earlier breakup. Oh, the intrigue! It is good to see a little of the Fleetwood Mac drama carry on in this work, although it is a little ironic that an original album that represented a band being divided by romance gone wrong actually brought another one back together in cover form.

Tusk is no ordinary Fleetwood Mac album, and in the spirit of that fact, this is no ordinary Fleetwood Mac cover album. Let’s hear some of the contrast in sound and approach.

The album starts with a cover of “Over and Over” that sounds fairly reverent. It’s in a different style, sure, but it isn’t over the top or unrecognizable. Camper Van Beethoven then doubles down on the bluegrass elements in “The Ledge.” I know it’s just a deep bass in the song, but I can’t get the image of someone blowing on a jug out of my mind’s ear.

The reverence starts to unravel a bit at times as the album progresses, starting with “Save Me a Place.” Some songs get more, shall we say, avant garde. Or maybe, just to put it plainly, weird. Take the noise elements that dominate in their “Sara” (I can’t not talk about Stevie Nicks’s major contribution to the original album), or the violin in the style of a child’s first lesson that drones in “Storms.” Overall in “Sara,” Camper Van Beethoven takes a heartfelt request to “never change, never stop” and ignores it. They still provide a tinge of sadness, but in a distracting and hazy kind of way. We’re drowning in something, for sure.

In “What Makes You Think You’re the One,” Camper Van Beethoven goes back to a sparsity of sound. The lyrics are amenable to becoming a punk rock song, and the vocals on this cover give us a sense of what that would sound like in a quiet moment in the setlist–a “punk goes acoustic,” if you will. The mournful violin, this time upgraded in pitch from the one found in “Storms,” provides a surprising genre contrast, mirroring the change in style between the well-defined pop rock of Rumours and the amorphous genre of Tusk.

Then there’s the title track, written by Lindsay Buckingham, whose vision is generally considered to dominate the album. The original’s plodding drums and brass band with a mix of whispered and shouted chanting of “Tusk!” is a slow-burn kind of fight song. It definitely escalates sonically; there’s a new element that sticks out every time you listen.

The Camper Van Beethoven version is three times as long as the original, so there has to be some new stuff in there. Their version starts us off in a trance of a different kind, a sitar giving us a stereotypical hippie ambiance. The first time the brass band is introduced, it’s like we’re listening to a half-time show marching band recording on fast forward. This part of the song marks the transition into uncharted territory, beyond the three and a half minutes of the original. We’re in a sonic wormhole with a variety of sounds and voices passing us by. Right after the six-minute mark, we get back into something resembling the original song again. Variations on the psychedelic yet futuristic “Tusk” theme continue until the end.

“Tusk” would be a strange place to end an album, in either the original form or in this cover version, but the final song “Never Forget” stabilizes our impression of the overall album. Just as the original album ends with a less experimental tune, this cover can be described as a more typical alternative-rock cover, with a dash of country thrown in via a fiddle, without the more surprising noises we’ve experienced so far.

Are you still looking for the full compare and contrast experience? Conveniently, this Spotify playlist lets you listen to the original and the cover album back to back, alternating between songs. What sticks out to you that I missed? Share in the comments!

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