Legendary vocalists Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are founding members of The 5th Dimension, the venerable LA-based vocal pop group. As their otherworldly name suggests, The 5th Dimension had a knack for elevating novel tunes to new realms. Davis Jr. and McCoo’s lead vocals imbued hits like “The Worst That Could Happen” and “One Less Bell To Answer” with a buoyant blend of elegance, whimsy and surreal soul. The pair are old-school song interpreters in the most artful sense, illuminating new emotional planes in their powerful performances.
“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!
Transport yourself to a rustic farm by listening to Declan McKenna’s lo-fi banjo cover of Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram classic “Heart of the Country.” The English singer-songwriter’s version starts paired down to only his voice and a banjo, but gradually builds more harmonic layers with a funky bass line stays true to the original. The prominent banjo translates the swing of McCartney’s song well. Overlaid with the banjo, he sounds right as home and could give country singers a run for their money.
McKenna’s recently released album Zeros is a spaced-out glam-rock harmonic journey. And yet he retains a twang in both his indie style songs and in this cover. Even if you can’t visit any horse or sheep in the heart of the country right now, McKenna makes it a bit easier to imagine an autumnal adventure full of apple picking and hayrides this October.
Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
Tanya Donelly has a long history, as both singer-songwriter of Belly and solo artist, of interweaving emotionally charged originals with covers similarly forged from despair, heartbreak, and loneliness. The results have frequently been sublime, as when she complemented “Gepetto” with a heartfelt version of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” on the Gepetto EP of 1992, or when she accompanied “New England” and “Days of Grace” with an equally fervent rendition of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” on 2006’s This Hungry Life. The covers have usually taken the backseat as B-sides and deep cuts, or as contributions to tribute albums to the likes of The Smiths or Elliott Smith. Yet now, in this topsy-turvy year of 2020, they are the main event; Donelly has not only released a series of quarantine covers for charity (featuring Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone,” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), but has also polished off a covers album in collaboration with the Parkington Sisters, Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters.
It’s Donelly’s first all-covers album, therefore, that stands before us, but it’s clearly no ordinary covers album. The Belly, Breeders, and Throwing Muses star initiated it out of a desire to do something different with the format in the wake of Juliana Hatfield’s recent successes with Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018), and Sings The Police (2019). She might well have followed in the steps of her sometime collaborator and fellow doyen of New England alt-rock by making, effectively, a tribute album to one of her musical heroes: Kate Bush, say, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But instead, Donelly has attempted to bring a sense of unity to nine reinterpretations of songs that have been hugely meaningful to her, by way of the moody string arrangements and somber vocal harmonies that the classically trained, Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters are known for.
When it comes to the sub-genre of acoustic Beatle ballads, Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” from 1968’s White Album tends to get all the glory and attention. And while there’s no denying its greatness, the time has come to give long overdue props to another Macca ballad on the same album that’s equally fine. “Mother Nature’s Son” is sometimes perceived as a light bit of wistful, romantic fluff, especially when held next to to the weightier words of “Blackbird,” but when it comes to the actual melody, “Mother Nature’s Son,” with its descending guitar line and lush, swoon-inducing hook is a far superior animal. It features all the key demarcation points needed to shine in any style of cover.