Anyone who was paying attention to cover songs a decade ago will remember The A.V. Club’s “Undercover” series. In the vein of the BBC Live Lounge and Triple J Like a Version, the entertainment web site would bring bands into their Chicago offices to cover a song. The concept, though, was the site started with a masters list of songs and the band had to pick one. The later they came in, the fewer song choices remained. It went on for years and the covers were ubiquitous (we must have posted a million of ’em). Practically every indie band of the era stopped by (many several times), and they often delivered something great.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“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.
Amy Helm – Twilight (The Band cover)
With their surprise success “Africa,” Weezer delivered easily the biggest cover-song news of 2018. And they similarly seemed poised to dominate this year’s cover-album news when they dropped a full set of similar songs in January (that album’s not on our list, because it is – and I say this as a fan for going on 20 years – terrible).
Thankfully, that album got forgotten about five minutes after its release. A slate of other high-profile cover albums took its place, and delivered more staying power. Angelique Kidjo, Morrissey, and Juliana Hatfield all released covers albums, and a host more stars contributed in one way or other to tribute compilations, from Norah Jones and Margo Price covering Bobbie Gentry to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile tackling Wilco. Some of the aforementioned made our list and some just missed it, but all are worth investigating.
That’s to say nothing of the many lesser-known artists who came out of nowhere, amazing covers records by bands and singers I’d never heard of before. Covers albums can offer a wonderful entry point for discovery, and I’ve now got a lot of new favorite bands to dig deeper into. Hopefully you’ll find a few here too.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Karine Polwart is a not a folk singer. Yes, she performs, arguably, in the folk tradition, but by and large, she sings her own material, covering weighty topics such as sex trafficking and depression, somehow contriving an upbeat mood to these often gloomy subjects. Fiercely intelligent, she is fit to stand alongside other Scottish songwriters, such as Dick Gaughan and Michael Marra. Apart from her own material, it has been from the canon of trad.arr. that she has drawn most inspiration, as well as a hefty number of the songs of Rabbie Burns. So I would say that Polwart’s new album Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook has come as a bit of a surprise to most. And it is the modern Scottish songbook she applies herself to, not broadsheets and bothy ballads. Indeed, apart from John Martyn’s 1973 song “Don’t Want to Know,” the earliest song on the album, Songbook draws nothing from any conspicuously folkie background. The catholic selection ranges through the Waterboys and the Blue Nile to current electro-poppers Chvrches and the eccentric oddball poet Ivor Cutler. No Rod Stewart, some may be pleased to recognize.
Daughter reveals their rendition of “Poke,” the latest release from Frightened Rabbit’s 10th anniversary album Tiny Changes. This version is a darker take on the original’s acoustic, moving towards the sound Daughter has always championed. The band trades in the acoustic guitar for fluttery piano chords, warm synths, and a heavy-hitting base line.