Jan 302021
 

They Say It’s Your Birthday  celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

There are few bands with such a way with covers as the Cowboy Junkies, that in no small part to the icy warmth of singer, Margo Timmins, an astonishing 60 this month. She was born in Montreal, 1/27/61, and I have long been a fan, maybe not from the very start, but certainly once ‘Trinity Sessions’ threw down the gauntlet, quietly and emphatically. Birmingham Town Hall, in the English midlands, used to be a dreadful venue, any sounds not completely muffled being left free to echo around the pillars, hopeless for any band with any degree of amplification. It has since had a refurb, and has lost, thankfully, that legacy, but the Junkies were perfection there then, every pin dropping with perfect clarity, the most important pin being that of Timmins, an ethereal shimmer filling the gap between the controlled calm of the instrumentation.

In the subsequent years the band, Timmins and her two brothers, Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, along with family friend Alan Anton playing bass, have strayed little from that template. Initially supplemented by the instrumentation of Jeff Bird and others, adding mandolin, harmonica, dobro, steel and fiddle, latterly it would become the core quartet, as blues became as much an influence as country had been before. The band had been started by Michael, a record-hungry youth who had been in bands since high school. Margo had never sung in public before he goaded her to add vocals, and she initially sang facing away from the stage, such was her crippling shyness, echoing the experiences of Michael Stipe and Jim Morrison, two other equally iconic vocalists.

Over a 35-plus-year career, the Cowboy Junkies have produced 18 studio albums, six live albums, and seven compilations, with innumerably more material courtesy their website. (Sadly it seems that much of that rare and archive material in currently unavailable.) Covers have always been a feature; most of their records containing one or two, and they’re staples on tribute projects, to artists as varied as Gram Parsons and Blind Willie Johnson. In 2009, Timmins also found the time to release an all-cover solo album, enticingly entitled Margo’s Corner: The Ty Tyrfu Sessions, Volume 1. She has also added her froideur to any number of other artists, as a backing or additional singer, usually to fellow Canadians.

Let’s drill down into some of the best examples of her transformative skills, starting with perhaps the best known and, arguably, the best example.
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Mar 312020
 

Check out the best covers of past months here.

best cover songs march 2020
Adam Green – All Hell Breaks Loose (Misfits cover)

Misfits go mariachi! Adam Green, best known as one half of the Moldy Peaches, plays “All Hell Breaks Loose” like it was “Ring of Fire.” He writes: “In The Misfits and in his glorious solo work, Danzig bridged punk and metal with the blue-eyed soul music of the mid-1960’s like The Righteous Brothers and The Walker Brothers. I’d had an idea for a while to do a Scott Walker / John Franz style production at punk speeds, and the Misfits song ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ seemed like the perfect vessel for the experiment.” Continue reading »

Jan 132017
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

keith richards

Over the years, the perception of Keith Richards has changed from “He’ll die any day now” to “How has he not died yet?” to “He’s never going to die.” In 2016, a year that wiped out Bowie, Prince, and Abe Vigoda, not to mention Emerson, Lake, and (Arnold) Palmer, the soul of the Stones kept right on glimmering. A popular meme shows him reading the paper and saying, “Hey, Mick, look who I outlived this week.” In a way, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy; Keith is rock and roll, and rock and roll – especially in the form of the Rolling Stones’ songs – will never die.

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Jun 282016
 

to_emmylou_coverTo Emmylou, the Fleeing Ghost Records’ compilation of LA-based artists covering the songs of Emmylou Harris, features eleven reverential performances. Each of the largely unknown artists collected here do a fine job of recasting her songs, both those well-known and those that run a little deeper, in a contemporary framework without sacrificing the heart and soul of the original. Not surprisingly, the primary focus throughout is on each artist’s voice, something for which Harris has long been known both on her own, as a collaborator and as one of the finest interpreters of Americana.

Fittingly then, opening track “Timberline” from Harris’ 1985 release The Ballad of Sally Rose is performed by the Silver Lake Chorus. Unfettered by musical accompaniment, the chorus of voices help establish the primary focus of the collection from the start. And while there are plenty of fine instrumental performances throughout, the over-arching element running through these songs – performed in styles ranging from straight country to contemplative indie rock – is the purity of the human voice. And in this case, the “voice” in question is that of Harris as a songwriter, something that is occasionally lost due to her high-profile collaborations and the immaculate nature of her voice.
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May 272016
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

almostblue

Some of us were just a wee bit old for punk. Hell, yes, of course we said we liked it at the time. Probably actually did, in truth, but with a throw back crossed-fingers of restraint, without the hard-core readiness to burn all before ’74. (OK, year zero was ’75, but scans less well, and what’s a year in the 40 [forty!] years since?) So my generation, teens in the age of prog, took to Elvis C., knowing he was one of us really, outwith the bombast and wardrobe design. And we knew he had heard the records we held dear, and more. At times he seemed he knew more records than anyone, ever, given the sometime less than subtle steals from ’60s rock and soul, something he honestly admitted to in his largely entertaining autobiography, Unfaithful Music. At 15 I was a twin aficionado of folk-rock and country-rock, desperate to make sure the hyphen-rock was included, terrified of being mistaken for a finger-in-ear folkie, or rhinestoned “and western.” I’d had a whiff of Elvis’ love for the latter – he had name-checked my poster boy Gram Parsons in interviews, and a couple country weepers showed up on the odds ‘n’ sods cassette-only Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How’s Your Fathers (released as Taking Liberties in the US). So it was both delight and affirmation when, in 1981, he issued Almost Blue, both his first album of all covers and his first album produced by other than Nick Lowe. I was in heaven, knowing the nay-sayers to my arcane listening were wrong, and I play the record a lot to this day.
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Jun 132014
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

There is very little that can be considered “new” in the world of popular music — everything builds on something that came before, and influences get combined in different ways. So the idea that you can declare the inventor of a musical genre is ridiculous. Uncle Tupelo didn’t invent alt-country, a mix of country, rock and punk (check out, say, Jason and the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, Rank and File, X, or the Blasters, for example, for proof that these strains were already well mixed when Uncle Tupelo emerged). But it cannot be denied that Uncle Tupelo’s debut album No Depression, which gave its name to the influential message board and magazine that spearheaded the movement, helped to kickstart the genre’s popularity and became one of its cornerstones.

And it all started with a bunch of high school kids.
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