May 202022
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

The 2021 album I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico is, without doubt, packed with glorious covers of tracks from the seminal New York band’s revolutionary “banana LP.” Yet it sounds, at times, ever so slightly predictable, when the assembled artists from the upper echelons of US alt-rock are found guilty of smoothing out the transgressive edges of the 1967 original. Matt Berninger of The National, for instance, takes a stab at “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and he sings it magnificently in that brooding style of his. It’s well played, and it has stylish motorik beats, and the production is slick, and it has squalling guitars and backing vocals in all the right places, and…it’s pretty straightforward, really.

The brave souls who choose to tackle any of the six more improvised, less celebrated, and decidedly less melodic tracks on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, on the other hand, can rarely be accused of being predictable. Whether for a tribute album or otherwise. Yes, Julian Casablancas may have remade the title track in 2016 in exactly the way you’d expect, as a singer who always made clear his musical debt to Lou Reed and co. But for the most part, the artists are outsider acts adopting songs that express their outsider status, recognizing that the Velvets’ notorious sophomore LP fits as well now as it did in 1968, when it scraped into the Billboard Top 200 as a monumentally uncommercial, poorly produced, avant-garde, anti-hippie, anti-everything work of anarchy. No one, in any case, could hope to tame tracks so strange, confrontational, and anticipatory of punk, glam-rock, and industrial music, especially not the frenzied “I Heard Her Call My Name,” or the epically deranged “Sister Ray.”

In short, the artists to most successfully cover a White Light/White Heat song are those who manage to tap into “the quintessence of articulated punk,” as Reed himself brilliantly described the album in 2013. They also appreciate the Velvets in the way Lester Bangs appreciated them when he lauded the foursome, in his 1971 assessment of the LP, as “one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock.” But the very best White Light covers over the whole 54 years of the album’s incendiary existence? Across the realms of alt-rock, lo-fi, proto-punk, and, erm, bluegrass? Well, they would have to be these…
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Apr 152022
 

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!

Ukrainians

This post is not about the Ukrainians forced by circumstance onto the world’s stage. All our hearts bleed both for them and their country, subject to the cruelest and vilest of misjudgments, victims of Putin seeking to leave his mark. But it is closely related, being about the Ukrainians, the Leeds, UK-based band, who have been touting their postpunk take on the folk music of the mother country of founder/guitarist Pete Solowka for nigh on thirty years. And a whole lot more than just the folk music of Ukraine, as covers of their musical cohorts and influences, performed in a Cossack/Slavic style, all stentorian voices and balalaikas, also feature large in their repertoire.

Originally, and sometimes contemporaneously, Solowka has been a member of the Wedding Present, and it was that band that sparked the idea into ignition. When venerable and iconic DJ John Peel asked them to perform a session on his long running evening radio show, the Wedding Present decided to perform in the Solowka family language. They played “Hopa,” a traditional song the guitarist had been brought up listening to and singing along with.

Given the favorable reception, and with Solowka’s own grasp of the language not being up to it, they seconded in the presence of Len Liggins–or, to give him his full name, the legendary Len Liggins, a Russian (and Ukrainian) scholar, fluent in each language and a dab on the fiddle besides. This too went down well with the listeners, bar one Roman Romeynes, just possibly not his real name, a musician from another Leeds band, who jested they were taking the proverbial and bastardizing the tradition. So who better to then enroll, this offshoot now having a life of its own, spinning free from the Wedding Present. (The band had sacked Solowka; he said this was due to the greater acclaim given this experiment than the parent band.)

That groundbreaking 1989 Peel session, and the later sessions that followed, all eventually became available in recorded form, with 1991 seeing the debut release by the now-official band, with both band and release being named The Ukrainians. When Romeynes left shortly afterwards, the band consolidated as a more regular unit, leaving the Wedding Present linkage shattered behind them.

They initially found an appropriate home on the maverick and left field record label Cooking Vinyl, home also of Jackie Leven and Oysterband. After making a further pair or so of albums with that label, they started their own label Zirka, through Proper. They have been relatively prolific, with three further studio albums of (largely) original material, two live recordings, a covers compendium (which we reviewed here), and a glut of EP and singles. These have encompassed further covers, including of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic songs drawn from sources as unlikely as varied. All transcribed into their well-worn mix of fiddle, accordion and balalaikas, accompanied by crashing bass, resounding guitars and pounding drums.

Perhaps classifiable as a niche taste at home, they have become superstars in the eastern European diaspora, not least Ukraine itself. Under the cataclysmic events of the the past six or so weeks, the band have decided they cannot stand idly by, and have launched a tour, all monies going in support of the refugee crisis.

Ukrainians Benefit

Let’s look at some of their covers….
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Mar 042022
 

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!

Garland Jeffreys

For an artist who never cracked the top 50 in the U.S., Garland Jeffreys has left quite a footprint. A friend of Lou Reed’s when they were students at Syracuse University, Jeffreys went on to perform on John Cale’s solo debut Vintage Violence before striking out on his own. His mix of rock, folk, soul, reggae, and more made him hard to pigeonhole, but the people who knew, knew. Rolling Stone named him the Best New Artist of 1977, a year that saw debuts from the Clash, the Jam, Talking Heads, Television, and more. Far from prolific – he released five albums between 1983 and 2013 – Jeffreys still secured a devoted following, especially in Europe. Though he no longer tours, he continues to write, maintains an active Twitter presence, and a documentary is in the works to raise awareness of this rare giant of the past half-century-plus.
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Dec 172021
 

Follow all our Best of 2021 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

best cover songs of 2021

To come up with our year-end list, we listened to thousands of covers.

That’s not an exaggeration, or loosely throwing around “thousands” for effect. My iTunes tells me I personally listened to and rated 1,120 new covers in 2021. And I’m just one of a dozen people here. Many of those thousands of covers were very good! But “very good” isn’t good enough for our annual year-end Best Cover Songs list. So when we say these 50 are the cream of the crop, we mean it.

They, as usual, have little in common with each other. A few tie into current events: Artists we lost, social justice concerns, live music’s fitful return. Most don’t. But does a doom metal cover of Donna Summer really need a reason to exist? How about African blues Bob Dylan, New Orleans bounce Lady Gaga, or organ ballad Fleetwood Mac? Nah. We’re just glad they’re here.

So dive into our countdown below – and, if you want us to send you a couple hundred Honorable Mentions culled from those thousands, join the Cover Me Patreon.

– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief

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Dec 102021
 

Follow all our Best of 2021 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

best tribute albums 2021

It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.

One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.

But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.

Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.

– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief

The list starts on the next page…

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Dec 012021
 
acoustic syndicate rock and roll

The Velvet Underground famously experienced minimal commercially success in their lifetime, but many of their songs have slowly found their way into the popular consciousness. One of those is “Rock & Roll” from Loaded, their last album with primary songwriter Lou Reed (the last proper Velvets album period, as far as most fans are concerned). Continue reading »