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.
Death has a way of flattening out a life into a simple narrative that can be approximated by a few lines of obituary newsprint. This is especially true for the sort of death that is the result of life-long addiction and tendencies toward self-destruction. In the case of Jason Molina, a quintessentially midwestern artist who died in 2013 of complications due to alcoholism, the teleological power of death is such that it is easy to hear his entire catalogue as a sort of suicide note. There is, for example, a tidy simplicity to understanding the apocalyptic seven minutes of “Farewell Transmission,” arguably his most important sonic document, as a prophetic and self-fulfilling Book of Revelations.
However, like most of Molina’s work with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., “Farewell Transmission” doesn’t prophesize a ghost-filled world at the brink of demise so much as it builds that world as a fictional landscape, one filled with endless deserts and a predatory midnight that we all must actually live in. Set in the moments wherein “the big star is falling,” the song is not panicked at the prospect of the end of things so much as it grimly satisfied by its final arrival and the fact that we made it this far. Even as the end arrives, the song’s images of impending doom are undercut by a repeated exhortation for all us to “come on, let’s try.” The song’s most obvious prediction of death is immediately tempered: “I will be gone / but not forever.”
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
My mother raised me on Dylan. In my house when I was a kid, there was the holy trinity — which was Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, with Bob sitting center. — Glen Hansard
Neutral Milk Hotel. Townes Van Zandt. Britney Spears. Yes, Britney Spears. Glen Hansard has been covering other people’s songs for 30 years, from the street corner to the stage. His music career started early, stemming from a deal with his headmaster when he was 13: he could leave school and follow his musical heart; if it didn’t work out in a year, he would be welcomed back with open arms. So off he busked.
When we think back to this year, we might remember 2011 as the year that the whole concept of the “cover album” became more fluid, and not always for the better. Thanks to the increased prominence of sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, a cover album could be conceived, recorded, and shared in the space of a weekend. This didn’t necessarily lead to better cover albums, but it certainly led to more of them. They came in all formats – digital, CD, vinyl, and even cassette-only – and from all directions – labels, blogs, and even some magazines.
Which, we like to think, makes this list that much more helpful. In a year where the biggest single-artist cover album we got came from William Shatner, it proved a particular challenge to dig through the many obscure artists and assorted tributes and extract the gems. Gems there certainly were though, be they from newcomers making an impression with their favorite songs or old-timers honoring groups that influenced them decades ago. It may have taken a bit more work to find them, but the end result is as strong a selection as we’ve seen.
Continue to page 2 to read the list…
Happy birthday to Van the Man, George Ivan Morrison, who as of today has completed 66 physical trips around the sun. The number of metaphysical trips the Belfast Cowboy has taken around the sun, or led others to take, may be too high to count. Throughout a career spanning nearly half a century, he’s pulled together threads of soul, R&B, folk, jazz, blues, and more into a magic carpet that lets him follow his muse wherever she may take him, generally leaving the world behind in the process. He’s also perhaps the most incantatory singer in rock history; the words tumble from his mouth so fast they become never-quite-meaningless sounds, or they emerge bound and struggling themselves raw, or they flow out like brook water. Truly, he’s mastered what he calls “the inarticulate speech of the heart.”