Dec 012023
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Shane MacGowan covers

No matter how much longer than anyone’s expectations Shane MacGowan may have lived, the news that this polymath contradiction has died still manages to come as a body blow and a shock. Only last week there were sighs of relief, with his being discharged from his Dublin hospital bed, his home for most of the last year, with his wife Victoria citing he was being discharged for Christmas. Clearly it was to die, which he did, in his own bed.

Our job at Cover Me is not to replay all the tales of MacGowan’s excesses and exploits yet again; Lord knows, there will be plenty of that elsewhere. Here we come to celebrate his supreme gift of songwriting, through a prism of cover versions. MacGowan crafted songs that seemed drawn from the deepest well of Irish tradition, full of arcane and archaic imagery. He used a lexicon drawn from mythology, poetry and the gutter, yet imbued with a recognition of all the current ways and woes of the world. He thus confounded listeners, baffled by how all of this could emanate from his shambling and battered frame. How could someone who seemed barely able to speak manage to produce work of such beauty?

I caught the Pogues but once, early on in their career, mayhap 1986, in a dodgy venue in Birmingham, UK. It was, in turns, exhilarating and terrifying, the latter courtesy the howling, drunken mob of a pre-Christmas audience. Keeping a low profile, I was entranced, as the band rollicked through song after song after song. It was impossible to see the join between the traditional and the new, all soaked in a melee of whistle, accordion, banjo and guitars, the permaslurring frontman both totally out of it and totally in the moment. And this was well before they became TV favorites, on Top Of The Pops, first for their duet with the Dubliners, a version of “The Irish Rover,” and later with perennial Xmas favorite “Fairytale Of New York.” I was instantly hooked.

The first few albums have rightly become iconic–if anything, more so with the passage of time–as the quality of MacGowan’s lyricism has taken focus over the tunes. But, before losing sight of the tunes themselves, riddle me this: how many individuals and how many bands can lay claim to inventing a whole genre? That’s what MacGowan and the Pogues did, founding a genre that continues to have worldwide traction. In the same way as few places in the world fail now to have Irish pubs, so too there are Celtic punk bands from all four corners of the globe. But, returning to his lyrics, Bob Dylan apart, few writers have provoked such academic attention and praise as MacGowan, and there will be a whole lot more now.

So let’s have a look at some of those songs…
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Oct 132023
 

We stretched our own meaning of cover version previously, when we gave the earlier three volumes of the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project a belated review. Now, and against the odds, lo and behold, here is a fourth. Its title, The Task Has Overwhelmed Us, provides a small glimpse into the work that went into it and its end result.

As before, Task has been put together by London-based guitarist and one-time Pierce sideman Cypress Grove. Once again, it is based on demos and early recordings by the prolific Gun Club auteur, with earlier volumes stemming from cassettes squirrelled away in a drawer and found after Pierce’s untimely death. As with the others, it brings together quite the cast of contributors, many reprising roles from the earlier sets. In a reflection of the time it took to put this Task together, this includes both the living and the dead–perhaps fitting, as Pierce himself also “appears,” like a ghost at the feast, across a fair few of them.

With 18 tracks spread across four sides of vinyl, it would be impossible to talk about all the tracks here. Of course, there is the issue that few, if any, of these songs can be compared to any original. Even if you think you recognize the name of the song, possibly from one of the many Gun Club albums, the chances are that the words will be different; Pierce was notorious for writing completely different versions of, nominally, the same song.

A word is necessary for the production duties, which transcend the occasional slip from the sublime, transforming even the slightest melodic sow’s ear into a a golden purse. Sharing those duties with Grove is Australian singer, Suzie Stapleton, herself also based in London, and who appeared, if just as a performer, on the last volume. Here she steps right up, showing a sure and deft hand on the sound balance, as well as giving one of the album’s more striking vocal offerings.
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Jul 312023
 
best cover songs
Bob Dylan — Bad Actor (Merle Haggard cover)

Bob Dylan has been on a covers roll this year. On tour, he has primarily covered a number of Dead (“Truckin’,” “Stella Blue,” “Brokedown Palace”) or Dead-associated (“Not Fade Away,” “Only a River”) songs. But he’s dipped into other classic catalogs occasionally too. He did Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” for the first time and then, not long after, maybe the deepest cut yet: Merle Haggard’s 2016 track “Bad Actor.” The tape took a while to surface. It was worth the wait. Continue reading »

Mar 252022
 

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

decemberists covers

For this month’s Best Covers Ever, we polled our Patreon supporters. Voting among five 2000s (ish), indie-rock (ish) bands they’d previously nominated – Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The Decemberists, The Killers, Vampire Weekend – an underdog won by a single vote. Unless you scrolled so fast you missed the headline and photo, you already know who that underdog was: The Decemberists!

The Decemberists are arguably the least widely-known band of the bunch – they certainly don’t have Killers-level hits – but you wouldn’t know it from the depth and breadth of covers. Other musicians love the Decemberists, and have dug deep into their catalog to cover tracks from across their entire career. They lean a bit Americana on the whole, but some covers cross over into heavy metal, pop-punk, or even mariachi. Their songs have been covered by legends, sure – Patti Smith, Nick Cave – but even more often they get covered by under-the-radar bands, genuine fans who just happen to possess a heap of musical talent themselves.

As The Decemberists prepare to embark on their Covid-delayed 20th anniversary tour this summer, we salute their songs of crane wives and engine drivers, butchers and barrow boys, with thirty covers that were meant for the stage.

PS. Join our Patreon if you want a say in the next band we cover!

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Jan 142022
 

Cat PowerAt this stage of her career, Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, is as arguably well known for her cover versions as her own songs. Covers is her third dedicated album thereto (we’ve looked at the first two before), with a scattering more across the rest of her other output. When other artists reach their third such collection, whispers carry that this may be a sign of fading inspiration. If Marshall’s covers were just a stack of facsimile copies, cut’n’pasted from the usual culprits, possibly that worry could carry some weight for her as well. But Marshall has long since stopped having to defend her love of remorphing and remolding the songs of others, oft citing that being her approach, anyway and as well, to her own songs. It is only recordings that are ever frozen in time and space, and most performers with any lasting legacy are constantly rewriting and revising, a view we heartily here endorse. And, as if to underline that, one of the “covers” here is of one of her old songs, “Hate,” here newly named as “Unhate.”

So what do we get here? Twelve songs, from this century to just over halfway through the last, from artists some celebrated and some surprising, taking no heed of genre or expectation in the songs chosen. So Frank Ocean sits alongside Nick Cave, Shane McGowan with Lana del Rey, with Billie Holiday and Kitty Wells (Kitty Wells, fer chrissakes!) for good measure. Plus, as if deliberately to contradict my earlier comment, there is even a cover of Jackson Browne’s surely by now overly frequently presented “These Days.”
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Dec 102021
 

Follow all our Best of 2021 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

best tribute albums 2021

It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.

One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.

But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.

Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.

– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief

The list starts on the next page…

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