Adam Mason

Adam Mason lives in Warwickshire, England, with his partner and two small daughters. He's written stuff for PopMatters and once wrote a PhD thesis. He edits and proofreads by day (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.

Jun 132022
 

When Neneh Cherry made that huge international splash in 1989 with her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, it was the result of a big collaborative effort, or, as she put it, “just having fun with my friends.” The Sweden-born and US- and UK-raised singer-songwriter put the record together with producer Cameron McVey (her soon-to-be husband), Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass, and various members of the Bristol (England) Wild Bunch collective, including DJ Nellee Hooper, and future founders of Massive Attack 3D, and Mushroom. But she also happened to be one of the most charismatic female performers of her generation, who galvanized the 11 distinctive pop/rap/dance songs with her energy, attitude, sexiness, and bomber-jacket cool, while providing the perfect street-tough antidote to the ubiquitous girl-next-door tweeness of Kylie Minogue. She was central, indeed, to a new era of defiant women in hip-hop, who influenced everyone from MIA to Rihanna to daughters Mabel and TYSON, without letting a little thing like being six months pregnant compromise her dance moves on Top of the Pops.

Cherry now cites a collaborative spirit in the revival of such iconic Sushi tracks as “Buffalo Stance” and “Manchild” on The Versions, billed as a Neneh Cherry album while, in fact, featuring a bumper crop of current female artists taking the lead on her tunes. You might call it a tribute album, but Cherry calls it a collection that came about by “asking some of the favorite divine women of our time to record their own versions of these pieces.” She also says it’s the outcome of “a new generation of visionaries” reworking the tracks on the understanding that she doesn’t “own” them. And while the Sushi numbers are the most prominent of the ten included here (with both “Buffalo Stance” and one version of “Manchild” having been released as singles), the assembled artists also offer new takes on material across the singer’s subsequent two albums: 1992’s Homebrew, and 1996’s Man.
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May 202022
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

The 2021 album I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico is, without doubt, packed with glorious covers of tracks from the seminal New York band’s revolutionary “banana LP.” Yet it sounds, at times, ever so slightly predictable, when the assembled artists from the upper echelons of US alt-rock are found guilty of smoothing out the transgressive edges of the 1967 original. Matt Berninger of The National, for instance, takes a stab at “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and he sings it magnificently in that brooding style of his. It’s well played, and it has stylish motorik beats, and the production is slick, and it has squalling guitars and backing vocals in all the right places, and…it’s pretty straightforward, really.

The brave souls who choose to tackle any of the six more improvised, less celebrated, and decidedly less melodic tracks on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, on the other hand, can rarely be accused of being predictable. Whether for a tribute album or otherwise. Yes, Julian Casablancas may have remade the title track in 2016 in exactly the way you’d expect, as a singer who always made clear his musical debt to Lou Reed and co. But for the most part, the artists are outsider acts adopting songs that express their outsider status, recognizing that the Velvets’ notorious sophomore LP fits as well now as it did in 1968, when it scraped into the Billboard Top 200 as a monumentally uncommercial, poorly produced, avant-garde, anti-hippie, anti-everything work of anarchy. No one, in any case, could hope to tame tracks so strange, confrontational, and anticipatory of punk, glam-rock, and industrial music, especially not the frenzied “I Heard Her Call My Name,” or the epically deranged “Sister Ray.”

In short, the artists to most successfully cover a White Light/White Heat song are those who manage to tap into “the quintessence of articulated punk,” as Reed himself brilliantly described the album in 2013. They also appreciate the Velvets in the way Lester Bangs appreciated them when he lauded the foursome, in his 1971 assessment of the LP, as “one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock.” But the very best White Light covers over the whole 54 years of the album’s incendiary existence? Across the realms of alt-rock, lo-fi, proto-punk, and, erm, bluegrass? Well, they would have to be these…
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Feb 182022
 

Musically speaking, Yoko Ono (“ocean child” in Japanese) is still predominantly recognized as a primal screamer, an avant-garde provocateur, and an agent of harsh, visceral noise as a kind of feminist weapon. She’s accepted, in such terms, as a key influence in the development of female-fronted alt-rock along the lines of grunge and the riot grrrl movement, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Courtney Love of Hole, and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill having all spoken of her importance to them. Her shrieking, confrontational sound may, indeed, be considered her signature style. But it’s also a stereotype. One that’s been reinforced in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary, where Yoko’s to be seen, in footage from 10 January 1969, leading Beatles John, Paul, and Ringo in an impromptu freak-out session by wailing and howling into George Harrison’s recently vacated microphone.

Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is all too aware of the blinkered perspective many people have of Yoko’s music, doubtless aggravated by the fact that her songs still never get played on the radio. It’s this that’s driven him to curate Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono, a tribute album to coincide with the New York-based artist’s 89th birthday. He’s all about doing justice to her more underappreciated musical achievements here, contending that “the tallest hurdle to clear has always been the public’s ignorance as to the breadth of Yoko’s work.” He’s aware, at the same time, that the dust has long settled on previous collaborative efforts born of similar concerns, from the Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him tribute record of 1984 (for Yoko’s 50th birthday), to remix projects Yes, I’m a Witch and Open Your Box in 2007, and Yes, I’m a Witch Too in 2016. This is not to forget tribute album Mrs Lennon: Songs by Yoko Ono in 2010, consisting solely of female Brazilian artists.

Gibbard, then, resumes the good fight previously fought on albums that pitched Yoko as a versatile songwriter variously relevant to the genres of new wave, experimental pop, Brazilian pop, and dance music. Over 14 tracks, he aims to convince listeners of her particular skills in composing melodies “as memorable as those of [the] best pop writers,” as well as lyrics of “poignance, sophistication and deep introspection.”

And you know what? He makes you wonder.
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Nov 122021
 

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

Elvis Presley was finally convinced to get back, in true Beatles fashion, on “Burning Love,” the song he released as a single in August 1972. It was high time he reclaimed his throne as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, considering his recent dearth of hits in the US, and an audience seemingly weary of his ballads, his gospel numbers, and, ultimately, his “American Trilogy.” On “Burning Love,” he was able to reconnect with his incendiary late-’50s incarnation, to the point of ad-libbing a slice of his 1959 rocker, “A Big Hunk o’ Love.” In the 1972 song, he found the ingredients to catapult him back to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. (He was joined there by Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson, the first time all three had been in the top ten in fourteen years.)

What is less well known is that Presley achieved exactly the kind of resurgence with “Burning Love” that Arthur Alexander hoped for when he released it as a single six months earlier. What is also little known, therefore, is that Presley’s version is a cover. By a matter of months.
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Aug 202021
 

It would be easy to assume, on first acquaintance with the Aisles EP, that Angel Olsen is hopping on the bandwagon of artists who’ve found success making slowed-down and sulky covers of iconic ’80s pop tunes. She’s continuing a trend initiated by Gary Jules on “Mad World,” you might think, which M. Ward developed on “Let’s Dance,” Lorde on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Kari Kimmell on “Cruel Summer,” and Greg Laswell on (yes, honestly) “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” a brooding version of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” surely just around the corner.

It might also seem that Olsen is tapping into the Stranger Things-assisted revival of analog synthesizers so central to the ’80s sound, which “boy from Michigan” John Grant has done so much to bolster in recent times. But, while there may be some truth in all of this, Olsen is way too singular an artist to be remotely obvious or predictable in her reinterpretations of tracks made famous by Laura Branigan, Billy Idol, Men Without Hats, OMD, and Alphaville.
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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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