Dave Richardson – Bright Phoebus (Lal & Mike Waterson cover)
Vermonter Dave Richardson digs deep into folk-rock history on his new album Palms to Pines, covering the title track of Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus. Deeply obscure at the time – only 1,000 copies were initially pressed – it became known as “folk music’s Sgt. Pepper” among the very, very few people who actually heard it. The record has seen a recent resurgence with champions like Arcade Fire and Jarvis Cocker leading to a 2017 re-release on überhip Domino Records. Richardson makes it sound like a classic all along.Continue reading »
The deliberately slow solo piano version of a peppy pop song is a covers cliché, especially with online covers. But in the right hands it can still have power. We’ve profiled A.A. Williams’ forays in this style throughout the pandemic. Now she’s collected all of these covers on an album, Songs from Isolation; a very appropriate title given the mood of the songs and her sole presence on the recordings.
Most of the songs here are indeed solo piano renditions of rock songs, at a slower tempo, and most of the songs are quite famous. So the album does at least flirt with the internet cliché. But both Williams’ performances and the context she recorded them in give weight to these versions in a way that some random YouTube piano cover usually doesn’t. Continue reading »
Black Country, New Road – Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)
If you’re expecting the “Time to Pretend” you knew and loved a decade ago, think again. UK post-punkers Black Country, New Road, one of the buzziest bands of the new year, deconstruct the song entirely. It starts pretty sane, then gradually veers off the tracks into chaos. By the end there’s a free-jazz sax solo leading a wall of noise only barely identifiable as this, or any, song.Continue reading »
Typically, the world of cover songs does not change that much year-to-year. You can point to big shifts across decades, sure, but the difference between cover songs in 2018 and 2019, broadly speaking? Negligible. But 2020 was – in this as in everything else – very different.
As concerts ground to a sudden halt, musicians turned to live-from-quarantine home performances, first on their social media, then, once some kind of business model got built up, on various paid platforms. And cover songs were a big part of that. Some musicians did themed covers nights, like Ben Gibbard on YouTube early on or Lucinda Williams’ more produced Lu’s Jukebox series more recently. Others just felt the freedom in such an intimate environment to try things out, spontaneously covering influences, inspirations, or even songs they only half knew. We collected dozens of those early home covers in our Quarantine Covers series, and still only hit a small fraction.
Musicians eventually settled in, and productions got a little more elaborate than the staring-at-your-iPhone-camera look. Witness the heavy metal comedy series Two Minutes to Late Night, which transitioned from a long-running live show in New York City to a series of YouTube covers with dozens of metal-scene ringers covering songs from their couches, corpse paint and all. Witness Miley Cyrus’s endless series of killer cover locales, from a fire pit to an empty Whisky a Go Go. Or witness long-running radio covers series like BBC’s Live Lounge or Triple J’s Like a Version – often the source of a song or two on these lists. First they had musicians tape special covers from home, then, in the BBC’s case, they moved to a giant warehouse studio for suitable social distancing. (Triple J’s pretty much back to post-coronavirus business as usual – sure, Australia, rub it in.)
There’s one other major way covers reflected 2020, and it’s almost too painful to think about, so I’ll just list their names. John Prine. Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner. Charley Pride. So many musicians taken by this virus, many reflected in some of these covers (Pride’s death happened after our list was finalized, but tributes are already rolling in). In a year filled with tragedies, covers offered one place for musicians and fans to find solace.
Many of the songs on our year-end list reflect this terrible year in one way or another. But you know what? Many don’t. Because covers can also offer a fun respite from all the stress. Doom metal Doobie Brothers? Post Malone on mandolin? A viral TikTok hit by a guy who calls himself Ritt Momney? Those have nothing to do with anything! But they’re what we live for.
It’s hard not to look at everything in 2020 through the mirror of the pandemic, and a few of the records on our list can be traced directly to it. One artist used her time in lockdown to cover every song on Radiohead’s The Bends, while another did the same thing with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. An indie label pulled together a tribute to one of the many great artists tragically taken by this goddamn virus, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner’s long-in-the-works T. Rex tribute album wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with current events, but Willner, too, died of COVID-19 in the spring.
That being said, the majority of the albums on our list have nothing to do with the news. Any year’s a good year for covering obscure Neil Young songs. And if you want to try to tie 28 different bands covering Blink-182’s “Dammit” to 2020, good luck. Even the klezmer-cabaret artist who recorded an album covering the recently deceased released it March 13, just before she’d unfortunately have many more names to add to her list.
In a way though, the whole concept of the covers record is appropriate for a bleak year. They’re all about paying tribute in some way or another, lifting up influences or even guilty pleasures, honoring those that came before. You can listen to these through that prism if you like. Or you can just take a break from thinking about such things and listen to 28 covers of “Dammit.”