Adam Mason

Adam Mason lives in Warwickshire, England, with his partner and two small daughters. He's written stuff for PopMatters and Ad's Vinyl Adventures (his blog), and once wrote a PhD thesis. He edits and proofreads stuff (for money) and enjoys films, collecting vinyl, the occasional play by local-boy William Shakespeare, and beer. He also has an autobiographical novel in the works called 'A Life as a Stranger', named after an Ultravox lyric from 1983, and featuring Ultravox quite a bit. It's gonna be big.

Jul 012021
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

The Pet Shop Boys’ final release of the ’80s, the decade they helped define, was the apocalyptic yet uplifting summer single “It’s Alright.” Concerned that their “imperial phase” was behind them, the British synth-pop duo enlisted producer Trevor Horn to help launch a fresh assault on the UK #1 spot, by remixing what they first recorded as an epic album track. The architect of ABC’s “The Look of Love” and Frankie’s “Relax,” in turn, bolstered it as only he could, by plying it with calamitous sound effects, machine-gun-fire samples, a harp, a string section, extra synthesizers, horns, backing singers, and (why not?) a soprano. Singer Neil Tennant, meanwhile, supplied additional lyrics – “Forests falling at a desperate pace” – to pile eco-anxiety on top of the political anxiety. All of which resulted in a typically dramatic, commercial, and strangely moving slice of Pet Shop Boys pop.

Which was credited to “Sterling Void.”

It was hard to know from the single, but Tennant and Chris Lowe sourced “It’s Alright” from the Chicago house scene of the late ’80s, out of love for crudely made electronic dance music marked by all-conquering bass lines, and sparse lyrics of the “jack your body” and “rock your body” variety. They didn’t repeat the trick of applying a synth riff and distinctly un-country vocal to a country song famously recorded by Elvis Presley, but instead adopted a track known only to those attuned to the underground club sounds of the Windy City. How they zoned in on Sterling Void, though, is still a point that needs clarifying, as is the way they found in a six-minute dance record, on a specialist Chicago label, the raw materials for a top 5 hit in July ’89.
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Apr 202021
 

3 Imagined“Different” was one word applied to McCartney III upon its release in December 2020 (a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure). But other descriptors were, quite rightly, “fresh,” “adventurous,” “surprising,” and “chameleonic.” Never “dull.” The album was, accordingly, a UK #1 and US #2 success, elevated by its poppy first single, “Find My Way,” and its much-touted availability on a hierarchy of exclusive colored vinyl: yellow, blue, white, black, and numbered red, or, if you were ludicrously quick off the mark, yellow with black dots.

With or without the brightly hued grooves, it was impossible to resist the sheer versatility on display on McCartney III, with its plethora of highlights. Album-opener “Long Tailed Winter Bird” impressed as an inspired, near-instrumental slice of acoustic blues that built unpredictably from a stunning guitar riff. “Slidin'” hit home as a supremely dirty rocker, “Deep Down” a groovy, soulful joy, and “Women and Wives” a poignant ballad touching upon the questions of mortality and personal legacy. And they were all, of course, written and performed almost entirely by Paul McCartney of Liverpool, in the fine DIY tradition of 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, but with added Covid restrictions.

So now comes, well, what is it? A covers album? A remix album? A tribute album? Let’s just go with the catch-all term “album of reworkings,” particularly as some of its tracks feature the great man himself, and some don’t. It’s made up, according to the promo material, of “an A-List assortment of friends, fans and brand new acquaintances, each covering and/or reimagining their favorite ‘McCartney III’ moments in their own signature styles.” It also emanates puns galore in the aftermath of “recorded in Rockdown,” which serve to enhance its experimental, melting-pot vibe: “III-imagined,” “What’s Your Take On It?” etc. You see, the songs aren’t set in stone, man! They aren’t limited to one viewpoint, or subject to boundaries and rules. Roll the dice for different results!
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Apr 092021
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

Holding Back the Years

UK band Simply Red have a fine line in soulful covers that owe a profound debt to singer Mick Hucknall’s powerful and committed vocal performances. There’s the brilliant “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” for starters, a gritty and relevant 1985 take on the Valentine Brothers’ 1982 original, imbibed with Hucknall’s righteous indignation not only of Reaganomics (“cut-backs!”), but also the Thatcherite policies behind the snake-like dole queues of ’80s Britain. There’s “It’s Only Love,” originally by Barry White, and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes fame. Then there’s “Holding Back The Years,” a deeply moving lament on a broken family and neglected childhood, first released by a punk band called the Frantic Elevators in 1982.

Yes, that’s right. Punk band. Frantic Elevators. 1982.
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Mar 032021
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down

At the dawn of the ’80s, Elvis Costello was the guy you’d least expect to release a cover version as a single. He was one of the most successful songwriters of the “New Wave,” fresh from a run of six self-penned top-30 hits in the UK (five with the Attractions) that stretched from “Watching The Detectives” in 1977 to “Accidents Will Happen” in 1979. He was at the top of his game as a composer and lyricist, who drew from a seemingly infinite pool of anger, cynicism, and bitterness. He might easily be supposed, therefore, to have written “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” a UK #4 for him in March 1980. Two reasons: (1) because the original was so little known, and (2) because he injected it with his own compelling brand of nerdy desperation and punk-rock intensity.

Costello, in fact, reinterpreted a Sam & Dave B-side as the sixth consecutive single with his breathtaking backing band, the Attractions. Yet few knew he’d plucked the song from the illustrious catalog of Stax Records in Memphis, in an effort to incorporate some deep Southern soul into his punk-fueled sound. Few knew he’d adopted it to stimulate his first major shift into a new genre as a songwriter and arranger. Few, indeed, knew he’d covered the song to serve as the advance single for an album, Get Happy!!, that was packed with an incredible 18 Costello-penned tracks embodying ’60s R&B/soul and ska, an act which proved to be more than a little bit political.
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Dec 112020
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” is not as widely known as it should be, considering the musical legends who’ve stepped up to cover it: Roky Erickson, Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon. These artists were drawn to the raw emotion of this seemingly most simple of doo-wop songs, as well as its hypnotic quality, and its juvenile, rock ‘n’ roll spirit. They were drawn, in other words, to its peculiar mix of ’50s-style ingredients that made for one of the most exciting, unpredictable, and, yes, eerie tracks to emerge from that post-Buddy, pre-Beatles period of ’59 to ’62.

At least 13 other artists have attempted to reinterpret “Angel Baby” since it entered the US Billboard Hot 100 on December 12, 1960. David Lynch also, no doubt, took notice, as did the creators of creepy 2018 Netflix drama Dirty John, who exploited the track for an unsettling montage (in series 1: episode 3) of Eric Bana as a seductive confidence trickster. Certainly the way the sweet innocence of the song is embedded in a badly recorded and slightly off-kilter sound helps account for both its eeriness and its otherworldliness. But how did the song come by such an atmosphere, and what was its initial appeal?
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Nov 132020
 

MarikaMarika Hackman kicks off Covers with a rendition of Radiohead‘s “You Never Wash Up After Yourself,” a pretty clear indication that the album is born from the ennui of lockdown. We hear flies buzzing, and a slow intake of breath, before Hackman languidly sings over a sparse synth soundscape:

I must get out once in a while

Everything is starting to die

The dust settles, the worms dig

The spiders crawl over the bed.

With her multi-tracked harmonies, Hackman brings an intimate, desolate beauty to this short and simple song of hopelessness. And she makes you wonder where the hell she is headed.
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