Aug 072020

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

Satisfied Mind

I never understood why the Walkabouts were never huge. A consummate Americana noir sound, two terrific vocalists in Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson, an arthouse European ambiance… how did it not happen? Their history and geography ought really have defined a career in grunge, and their Seattle base and the Sub Pop label often had them sometimes lumped in with that movement. But they were always, even at the start, a step apart and a dust bowl away.

And if grunge, for all its worth, was in your face and shouting, this band seemed, well, just too literate. Too knowing. If their sounds were often the sounds of an Arizona dog day afternoon, the lyrics and moods evoked were more nighttime shades and Sartre, pavement cafes in Paris and Greek island Tavernas. Drawn to Europe and with the audiences there drawn to them, they spent a lot of road time away from the U.S., building up contacts and a fan base. With a doomy sound of keyboard swirls and steely whines, exemplified by 1994’s Setting the Woods on Fire, the band also gave good cover. Unsurprisingly drawn to wordsmith auteurs, they apply their studied murk to Dylan, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits, segueing well into their degree-level basement bar band vibe.

Satisfied Mind came out the year before Setting the Woods on Fire, and was the Walkabouts’ first full album of other people’s songs. Largely drawn from the vaults of country music, songs from other traditions are also included, Welshman John Cale and Aussie Nick Cave grabbing a royalty apiece. (Indeed, the band went the whole further step on their second covers recording, The Train Leaves at Eight, in being largely songs from non-anglophone continental Europe, songs originally in Greek, Portuguese, and French. No wonder their home audience was bemused.)

With some of its songs known and others barely, the overall mood of Satisfied Mind is somber and majestic. Vocals are shared between the dusky baritones of Eckman and the starker grandeur of Torgerson, who has a touch of Lucinda Williams about her, if after a tonsillectomy and elocution lessons.  Effective apart, when coming to together it is a desolately efficient pairing. The musicianship of Glenn Slater on keyboards is the main musical glue, with the steady rudder of Michael Wells and Terri Moeller, bass and drums respectively, keeping all in check. A shout out also for Wells’ harmonica, an integral part of the atmosphere, akin to Mickey Raphael’s work with Willie Nelson.

A slew of friends are also here alongside to assist, notably Ivan Kral’s guitar and Peter Buck, proving he can actually play more than one sequence on  mandolin. Plus the keening steel of Andrew Hare, who would later also grace Setting the Woods on Fire. O, and on the penultimate track, similar Seattle square peg Mark Lanegan on, what else, lead vocal.

It is to the cornfield of the sleeve art we first head for the title track, a lament from the pen of Jack Rhodes, and probably well-known from the array of those who have tackled it before, everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to John Martyn, the Byrds and Bob Dylan, Cashes Johnny and Roseanne, let alone those here mentioned already, Lucinda and Willie. I know the song and have many of the versions mentioned, but this one stands alone, initially unrecognized, never played straighter and never performed better.

If Eckman takes his claim on “Satisfied Mind,” Torgerson effortlessly reminds of her importance on a saloon bar shuffle through Nick Cave’s “Loom of the Land.” If Cave’s version is carried by less is more, this rendition demonstrates more is more still. Another Australian song follows, ushered in by that lonesome harmonica, before lurching up a gear altogether, up and away from erstwhile Go-Between Robert Forster’s somewhat janglier statement. With a maudlin take on Gene Clark’s “Polly” next, there is a rise towards an overdose of misery, however artfully done, needing a bit of a lift. Sadly, John Cale’s “Buffalo Ballet” doesn’t give that, the only fully missed step and the first song here that’s better as it was first written. The mood remains a little flat, a little generic, over the next couple of tracks, no matter how much instrumental whizz is thrown at them.

Emmylou Harris is evoked in Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Dear Darling,” and is competent enough, so thank the lord for a funereal “Poor Side of Town,” which eradicates the ’60s schmaltz of the original for perhaps how Gram might have done it, the Emmylou reference aflame again, or maybe even a slight hint of Richard and Linda Thompson as they tackled “Dark End of the Street.”

Guess which song Ivan Kral gets on and you’d be right, his having played on Patti Smith’s original. But his place here is within a completely different sounding song, his boss’s “Free Money” transported from a Bowery lament to an Austin aspiration, working well in the context, with an implied menace absent from the original.

Two nigh-traditional songs bookend the renewed grasp on the project. First, a sublime exposition of the Carter Family staple “The Storms are on the Ocean.” Torgerson’s voice is a harbinger of shipwrecks, loss and worse. What an ideal place to bring in Mark Lanegan.

The longest song on the album, Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home” is worked up here in an arrangement reminiscent of Percy Sledge and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” if without his exhilaratingly over-egged vocal. Torgerson leads, Eckman following and, however good they are elsewhere on this record, so far so hmmm. Suddenly all becomes clear: after a brief keyboard glissando, bang, here’s Mark, all grit and gravel, the drums kicking in with a celebratory flourish. Thereafter the three carry the song together, sensing, no, knowing the hoped-for homecoming to be inevitable, aided no little by a scorching display of guitar (Eckman’s, presumably) as it glides triumphantly into the fade.

After that, the palate cleanser (because that’s what it is) “Will You Miss Me When I’ve Gone” is merely that, albeit one that will undoubtedly beg the answer, to the song, the band and the record, in the affirmative.

Satisfied Mind tracklisting
1. Satisfied Mind (Red Hayes cover)
2. Loom of the Land (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds cover)
3. River People (Robert Forster cover)
4. Polly (Dillard & Clark cover)
5. Buffalo Ballet (John Cale cover)
6. Lover’s Crime (Pee Wee Maddux & his Lazy River Boys cover)
7. Shelter for An Evening (Gary Heffern song, first recorded by the Walkabouts)
8. Dear Darling (Mary Margaret O’Hara cover)
9. Poor Side of Town (Johnny Rivers cover)
10. Free Money (Patti Smith cover)
11. Storms Are on the Ocean (Carter Family cover)
12. Feel Like Going Home (Charlie Rich cover)
13. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? (trad. arr.)

May 122020

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

Good As I Been To You

Similar to Superman’s periodic retreats to his Fortress of Solitude, Bob Dylan occasionally turns to the music of the past to gather strength for challenges ahead. Most of the great comebacks of Bob’s career – including the one we’re seeing right now – have been proceeded by intense periods of covering old songs. In 1992, after a decade of butting heads with producers and wrestling with 1980s recording technology, Dylan decided to strip things back – all the way back. No producer, no band; just Bob Dylan, his guitar, and a bucketload of folk and blues songs.

The idea had probably been taking shape in Dylan’s mind since the summer of 1988, when he began what would soon become known as the Never Ending Tour (or NET to its friends). While the earliest NET shows were largely devoted to Bob and his band tearing through his back catalogue punk rock-style, the highlight for many fans were the mid-show acoustic sets, where Bob often unearthed traditional songs from the western world’s distant past. “Trail of the Buffalo,” “The Lakes of Pontchartrain,” “Barbara Allen,” “The Wagoner’s Lad,” and many others made regular appearances. Bob didn’t just perform these songs: he inhabited them.
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Aug 302019

Check out the best covers of past months here.

best cover songs august
aeseaes – Realiti (Grimes cover)

Bandits on the Run – Back to Black (Amy Winehouse cover)

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Jul 152019
bob dylan neil young will the circle

In 1975, months before the Rolling Thunder Revue began, Bob Dylan joined Neil Young for a huge benefit concert in San Francisco. As if that wasn’t enough, three-fifths of The Band joined them too: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. The spontaneous supergroup performed ramshackle versions of a few Neil Young songs (“Lookin’ for a Love,” “Helpless,” “Are You Ready for the Country?”), a few Dylan songs (Bob’s first-ever live “I Want You” and a weirdly retitled “Knockin’ on Dragon’s Door”), and a few covers. The final song they performed was one of those covers, a raggedy but charming version of country standby “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” popularized in the 1930s by The Carter Family. Here’s a stream: Continue reading »

Feb 152017

Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

Mike Pic_

Mike is back in his hometown of Cleveland after many years away. His return was not necessarily the reason the Cavs won the NBA finals, but it hasn’t been ruled out. He’s been writing his essays for Cover Me since 2011, 4 states ago. He still thinks the Counting Crows do a damn fine cover and he loved being part of the crew that got to find the best Bob Dylan covers for Dylan’s 70th birthday.
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Jul 192016

It’s no secret at this point that in addition to being a comedian, actor, and confused scientist, John C. Reilly is a more than credible folksinger. He recently joined Andrew Bird and Tom Brosseau on Bird’s living room couch for just about the best use of Facebook Live we’ve seen. The trio performed a bunch of folk covers, songs you might know from the Carter Family, Delmore Brothers, and more. They also do a more recent tune, “Cathedrals” by the Handsome Family, a band Reilly has opened for. Continue reading »