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.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
All week we’ve been running features on every artist inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s unusually strong 2019 class. But the biggest tribute goes to the band least excited about the honor. And that’s maybe as it should be.
Their unenthusiastic reaction – as I write this, it’s not even clear if any of them will show up – reminds me of when Bob Dylan first played Obama’s White House. Bob didn’t come to his own rehearsal, or to the customary photo op with the president. He turned up at the last minute, played his songs, shook the President’s hand, and immediately left the building. And as Obama told Rolling Stone: “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”
Bluegrass giants the Punch Bothers appear to cover every genre except one: bluegrass. They’ve covered the White Stripes, Wilco, and Radiohead in recent years and continue their left-field picks with a wildly reimagined take on Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” for Spotify.
While many niche-genre bands (bluegrass, polka, etc) seem to cover pop or indie-rock hits for novelty and crossover effect, the Punch Brothers always find songs that genuinely work in their style, well-known or not. For Radiohead, they didn’t tackle “Creep” or “Karma Police,” but “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” – hardly the best choice for the band’s SEO.
Al Green – Before the Next Teardrop Falls (Freddy Fender cover)
Sorry, Beyoncé; the biggest surprise release of the year might be Al Green’s sudden return after a decade away. Well, not totally away; he still conducts weekly services at his Memphis church and, when I attended, was liberally sprinkling quotes from “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” into his sermons. Best of all: This Freddy Fender cover sounds like Al hasn’t lost a step. It’s apparently a one-off, but hopefully recording it will whet his appetite to do more.
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Forty-six years old. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Jeff Tweedy, the songwriting genius behind Wilco, has hit his late forties. On the other hand, think back, way back through his recorded output. When Wilco released their first album 18 years ago, Tweedy was already a groundbreaker, having co-founded Uncle Tupelo with Jay Farrar eight years earlier. Together, they practically invented the genre of alt-country before their acrimonious split, when Tweedy was just 26 years old.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tweedy assembled Wilco out of the ashes of Tupelo’s touring band and slowly built a following. The band teetered on the edge of disaster when they presented their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to their label, only to have it rejected. Instead of going back into the studio to record a boy-band album or whatever the hell the label wanted, they bought the master tapes back and walked. Eventually they signed to a subsidiary of the same company (go figure), and the album came out and went gold. From there on, Tweedy & Company have continued to push the sonic envelope and remain just as vital as ever.