Jun 082021
 

So Low by Lowland HumIt might seem like an obvious choice to perform a minimalist version of Peter Gabriel‘s So. Gabriel’s fifth album, and the first with its own name, So is the most ’80s of albums. It features so many of Gabriel’s career trademarks: Fairlight and Prophet synthesizers (and many others), sequencers, early drum machines, gated drums, etc. If there is any one album that captures the sound of ’80s record production, it’s So. (And that’s only fair since Gabriel invented so many of those conventions during his solo career.) So stripping it all away to focus on the songs might seem like an easy and obvious approach.

But whether or not it’s simple or obvious, “minimalist modern folk”  husband and wife duo Lowland Hum has created a powerful record with their song-for-song cover of the entirety of So, cleverly titled So Low and released on May 19. The band mostly use few instruments, Daniel and Lauren’s voices, an acoustic guitar, a few loops, and a few judicial overdubs. It feels like the exact opposite approach to the material that Gabriel took when he wrote the songs.

But don’t mistake this for a record like Gabriel’s own New Blood, where Gabriel reinvented his own songs as orchestral pop. There’s way more space here and so few instruments that some moments are almost spartan. Lowland Hum play with Gabriel’s songs just enough to make some of them sound new, but mostly they adhere closely enough the originals that they are easy to place.
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May 262021
 

Cluster FliesI have always considered myself a casual Phish fan. Though I owned multiple CDs, including the six-disk box set Hampton Comes Alive, I only saw them play live once. I am not an authority on Phish history, such as the best live versions “Tweezer.” Still, I have always wondered on some level why their music inspires such derision from detractors. They’ve been a hardworking band for decades. Even though they’ve never scored a conventional hit, the group has a batch of solid original songs.

While listening to the new Phish tribute album Cluster Flies, I had an epiphany about why they have such a tough time attracting outside listeners. The band and its collaborators are great at writing catchy, interesting and thought-provoking songs. They’re just not that good at coming up with song titles. This may also explain why despite decades of listening, I have trouble keeping their song names straight in my head.

Cluster Flies was released by the website JamBase as a fundraiser for the site during the pandemic. It contains covers of all the tracks from Phish’s 2000 album Farmhouse, several songs from a bonus edition, and a few deeper cuts. Seven of the 12 songs from Farmhouse have one-word titles, with names like “Twist,” “Bug,” “Dirt,” “Piper,” “Sleep.” One can find multiple examples throughout Phish’s catalog: “Waste,” “Fee,” or “Free,” to name but a few. With names like these, the band undersells its greatest asset, making their music inaccessible for the uninitiated. Alas, I’m sure that’s just the way Phish fans like it. Fortunately, the songs, both on Farmhouse and Cluster Flies, show far more creativity than their titles.
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May 212021
 

Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & DollyIn times of trouble it is often to the sounds of comfort we retreat. We need those tunes of a bygone day that reflect happier times, especially if the songs are those of grief and heartbreak. Here we revisit the safe haven of country weepies, the duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, as performed by second generation music royalty, Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) and Jenni Muldaur (daughter of Geoff and Maria).

Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & Dolly is not markedly different in style than the recent trio of EPs by My Darling Clementine, beyond the age of the originals. The first of three announced tribute EPs by the duo, this one differs in that these are echoes rather than interpretations, and none the worse for that, if with a modern polish buffing up the 1960’s (and 70’s) productions.
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May 072021
 

Higher Than a MountainI know what you’re thinking right now. Upon hearing about Higher Than A Mountain: The Songs Of Andy Gibb, even I, who worshipped the late Andy Gibb as a child–straight-up poster-on-the-wall, scrapbook-keeping loved him–even I questioned the need for an entire tribute album. Not only did Andy release just three studio albums in his lifetime, he was unquestionably a singles artist, meaning those tracks were always the outright best songs on his full-lengths. I remember being actively disappointed by this fact after I’d spent several weeks of hard-earned allowance to buy his debut LP. So the question is unavoidable: are there enough great Gibb tracks to justify a cover compilation?

The answer is, surprisingly, mostly, yes.
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Apr 262021
 

Scouting for Girls "Easy Cover"Scouting for Girls, an English pop band, are preparing to unleash some pent up momentum and energy in the form of a UK and Ireland tour, their longest ever, starting in September. In preparation, they have released a new album, Easy Cover. It features 8 tracks throwing back to their ’80s childhood and 3 original tracks inspired by those good old days. This is one of those albums released recently that can’t be taken out of the pandemic context. It was clearly formed as a response to the all-encompassing gloom and doom and as an attempt to provide a soundtrack to crawling back out into the light.

Scouting for Girls say it themselves:

We’re not trying to do justice to these songs! That’s impossible. We’re just trying to have fun and take them out on the road to give people the night out they deserve after 2020!

With that framing in mind, this (mostly) cover album delivers. Will it change your life? No. Is it earnest and feel-good? Definitely!

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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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