Aug 302022
 

Under CoverIt takes some guts to cover songs as venerated as the ones on Valerie June’s Under Cover. As in, either you delude yourself if you think you can add to, or better, any the myriad other versions, let alone the originals. Or you are pretty damn good. Self-belief is certainly part the job prècis, and Valerie June has that in spades. She has the talent in spades as well.

You may have heard her name, maybe even some of her material, possibly whilst listening to a blues station on the radio. Or a country music station. Or pop, R&B, or folk. Gospel, even. For she straddles each of these genres, a woman of color from Tennessee, exposed to all and comfortable with each. Following self-releasing her first couple of recordings, she was spotted by Black Key Dan Auerbach, who, no mean gauge of talent, co-produced her 2013 eponymous label debut, which introduced her to a broader and welcoming audience, at home and worldwide. Europe has been especially supportive. Ahead of this, and also worthy of mention, is an EP she released independently, credited to Valerie June and the Tennessee Express. The Tennessee Express were Old Crow Medicine Show.

There have been a couple of albums since, each well-received, if remaining hard to classify under any one genre, perhaps explaining the changes of record label along the way. Fantasy Records demonstrate their faith by issuing this EP, on the back of last year’s album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, which had also been on this label.

Is it any good? Let’s see.
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Jul 252022
 

Melt AwayHaving released two Christmas albums, it is only fitting that She & Him move on to tackle summer. And what says summer more brightly than the Beach Boys? Even thinking about the band makes me (smiley) smile and look for garish Hawaiian shirts in my wardrobe. And of course, the Beach Boys wouldn’t have been the Beach Boys, whatever Mike Love might think, if it wasn’t for the genius of Brian Wilson, the last Wilson brother standing. Hence, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson. All the songs here have at least some input from Brian Wilson, largely the melodies, with lyrics also on occasion. (Mr. Love would want me to say he co-wrote many of them, I am sure, so I will.)

She & Him, then, a curious mélange. M. Ward, the somewhat-cerebral-seeming singer-songwriter from the Pacific Northwest, and Zooey Deschanel, the manic pixie dream girl in many a Hollywood comedy. The combination smacks of vanity project. Actually far from, with Ms. Deschanel responsible for the bulk of their own material, at least as far as the songwriting credits go. Taking most of the lead vocals, Deschanel plays guitar and ukulele (don’t panic), whilst Ward is content to supply a subsidiary presence, responsible for additional vocals, guitar and keyboards, as well as production duties. Which, in anything involving the songs of Brian Wilson, is going to be no small feat.
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Jun 282022
 

Tonight We RideJason McNiff may not be the best known of names, but this hard-working singer and guitarist has hewn himself quite a place in the annals of that awkwardly entitled genre, UK Americana. McNiff earned a degree in French and Russian, but the lure of his first love proved too strong. He immersed himself in the fingerpicked guitar of folk and blues, in particular the work and style of the late Bert Jansch.

Ahead his premature death, Jansch had had a residency at London’s 12 Bar Club, playing to the faithful every Wednesday. McNiff made sure he was there, week after week, soaking up the excellence. No doubt Jansch came to recognize the tousle-headed youngster in the front row; it’s no coincidence that McNiff’s first record deal was with Jansch’s brother-in-law’s label, Snowstorm. A slew of releases have followed, garnishing him, along the way with an Americana UK (a webzine) album of the year and a nomination for alt country best of year in the US Independent Music Awards. So, no slouch.

Like many current releases, COVID and lockdown birthed Tonight We Ride. McNiff spent his enforced vacation hunkering down with weekly on-line gigs: the “Sundowner” sessions. Exhausting both his own repertoire of songs and those he already loved by others, he had to learn a whole new catalog of material. Tonight We Ride was the logical conclusion: eleven songs encompassing artists McNiff holds the most in reverence, with a couple of his own for good measure. Unsurprisingly, this encompasses both the accepted great and good–in this case, Dylan, Townes, and the Beatles–as well as a couple from the next generation down. And, of course, a couple from Jansch, his idol, and whose percussive picking style permeates this album.
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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 302022
 

Jerry Jeff
Steve Earle’s getting good at these tributes to friends and mentors. Jerry Jeff is his third, following Townes and Guy. (Yes, of course there has also been J.T., but that paean to his prematurely deceased son was a force of necessity rather than choice, one which we reviewed here.) The latest tribute has more in common with the first two, and is maybe a bit of a surprise, not least as there is no recorded Bluebird Café gig to legitimize the link.

Indeed, those uncertain why Earle might be drawn to the works of Jerry Jeff Walker, seemingly less of a maverick, might need to think again. The outlaw-country icon is way more than just the “Mr. Bojangles” hitmaker, and that song, wonderful as it is, may not be the best marker of his styles, as he gravitated from Greenwich Village folkie to grizzled Austin veteran. (More about that song here.)

Walker, who died back in 2020, did cross paths with Earle a number of times. Once Walker invited him down to play a song for Neil. Not knowing who Neil was, Earle complied, and was delighted to find himself about to play a song for Neil Young. He was then appalled that Walker insisted he play a David Olney song, rather than one of his own. Ouch! But it goes further, Earle telling Vulture that “Mr. Bojangles” had been a (very) early stage favorite of his, it being performed at the specific request of his high school teacher for a school show.

Earle is older and mellower now, and arguably this set of Walker songs suits him a little better than his reputation(s) would predict. Plus, for those champing at the bit for some new Earle compositions, there is a promise that this is his last in his run of tributes. For them, good; for us here at Cover Me, maybe less so.
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May 272022
 

Dirt Does DylanProving there is nothing like a Dylan covers project to pep up flagging inspiration, and proving also you just cannot have too many of such a thing, Dirt Does Dylan is a worthy addition to the shelves of similar, proving the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, almost as aged an act as is the Bard of Hibbing, have still got legs. Legs and, indeed, arms and voices, the better as to play this collection of, largely, older Dylan standards.

Since kicking off, back in 1966, the band have actually been quite shy of Dylan covers, a glance of their early album credits suggesting they were putting more eggs in the Jackson Browne basket, and I struggled, wading through their myriad releases to find much beyond their version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two, and that potentially only down to the presence of Messrs. McGuinn and Hillman as guests.

That said, founding member Jeff Hanna claims he first found his muse upon hearing Bob Dylan, then locking himself away in his bedroom, working on the chord structures of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” sharing that passion with Jimmie Fadden, who would be his longtime partner in the band they together formed. Fast forward five and a half decades, and Hanna and Fadden are still in the fold, with longtime stalwart Bob Carpenter and three new players, including Hanna’s son, Jaime. And is “Don’t Think Twice” still on the menu? You bet it it is!
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