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.

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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Oct 012020
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Everything in Its Right Place coversIt’s 20 years today since Radiohead first perplexed us with the lyrical mantras, “Everything in its right place,” “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and, of course, “There are two colors in my head.” It’s a significant anniversary, as who could forget the first time they heard track 1 of Kid A?

“Everything in Its Right Place” was, in the absence of a single to promote the fourth Radiohead album, the initial indication that the most revered British rock band of the ’90s had not only downgraded coherent lyrics, but also guitars, traditional song structures, crescendos, and anything, really, that might sound good in the car with the windows down. Now they were hellbent on something altogether different. Something introspective, hypnotic, and electronic. Something composer Steve Reich and cover artists from Frightened Rabbit to Robert Glasper would demonstrate to be not so much rock, as minimalism, indie-folk, and jazz.

The song has traveled a rocky road to classic status as a result of its unclassifiable nature, while spawning in the region of 25 cross-genre reinterpretations. To the multitudes previously won over by “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” and the whole angsty, proggy majesty of 1997’s OK Computer, it was a shock. To adherents of the band’s earlier, surging, arena-friendly hits like “High and Dry,” “Just,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and particularly “Creep,” it was a kick in the teeth. For while there was nothing new in witnessing a rock group go nuts from the pressure of huge commercial success and fame, as had Nirvana on the brutal In Utero opener “Serve the Servants” in 1993, none had appeared to cast off their fairweather friends by dropping practically all of their most powerful musical weapons. None had sought to express what they really felt by taking up synthesizers, adopting a strange time signature, and singing about sucking lemons.

“Everything” alone divided the critics in 2000, who quite reasonably assumed it to be a Thom Yorke affair rather than a group project, with the singer indulging a new love for digital technology in collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich. It’s a “weirdly hymnal dreamscape of ambient keys,” said one reviewer (a good thing, I think). Another asked, “Whose crackling old keyboards were those?” (bad). Then there was the accusation that it was a “messy and inconsequential doodle” (definitely bad). But once the furor died down, it was obvious that Yorke and co. had set a new bar with the song, having instilled it with plenty of meaning and significance, thank you very much.
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Aug 142020
 

tanya donellyjenn champion the blue albumTanya 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.
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