Jan 302023
 
best cover songs january 2023
Brandi Carlile – If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow cover)

This month, Austin City Limits held its eighth annual ACL Hall of Fame ceremony. The inductees were Joe Ely and Sheryl Crow. The latter was covered by, among others, Brandi Carlile, who also delivered Crow’s induction speech. It will surprise no one who’s ever seen Carlile perform on an award show before that she crushes it. (Find another Crow cover from the ceremony, by Jason Isbell, in the Best of the Rest below.) Continue reading »

Oct 092022
 

Brother BrothersIs there a more evocative term than sibling harmony? And we are here talking about singing, rather than the standard well-rehearsed tales of dysfunctional derring-do betwixt embattled brothers, that usually renders the phrase, at best, ironic. No, this is that sweet spot, blood on blood, wherein the gene pool confers a mystic closeness between voices: think Everly, Louvin, McGarrigle. There are a lot, many falling loosely into country genres.

As do these guys, Adam and David Moss, who go a step further and are identical twins. Illinois natives, they grew up with their Dad’s record collection, singing along and honing the precision between their voices. Sure, Don and Phil figured large in that collection, it not long before comparisons were being made. With a couple of well-received albums and an EP under their belts, and tours supporting the likes of Sarah Jarosz, now seemed as good as any to drop a slew of covers (well, two months ago, actually – apologies for the delay).

A quick glance at the list of song might raise slight concern; do we really need yet another “These Days,” for one? Well, you know, maybe we do. Really. Let’s investigate.
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Mar 312022
 
best cover songs of march 2022
Avhath – Cool / Levitating / Don’t Start Now (Dua Lipa covers)

What’s better than one Indonesian black-metal Dua Lipa cover? Three Indonesian black-metal Dua Lipa covers! Not that you’d ever know these were Dua Lipa songs unless you were listening really closely to the lyrics (and could manage to make them out).

The Band of Heathens – El Paso City (Marty Robbins cover)

During lockdown, Band of Heathens hosted a regular livestream variety show called Good Time Supper Club. One segment, “Remote Transmissions,” featured them covering a new song every episode – over 50 in all. They’re collecting some of the best on a forthcoming album of the same name: Remote Transmissions. “Making records is always about cataloging any point in time. We wanted to celebrate the unique collaborative aspect of the show,” guitarist Ed Jurdi told American Songwriter. “What better way to document the last year than with these songs?” First up is this take on a Marty Robbins country classic. Continue reading »

Jan 112022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Anyone who followed Tom Waits’ career through the ’70s probably didn’t like the odds of Waits staying relevant–or even staying alive–into the ’80s. In his personal life Waits courted ruin, and artistically he was stuck. His beatnik schtick was played out; the booze-hound tropes were tired. Waits had become the sort of lost soul he’d always pretended to be in his act. When his Elektra/Asylum label dropped him in 1982, the setback looked to be self-inflicted–a sad but unsurprising turn in a once-promising career.

Then Waits re-emerged in 1983 and unveiled Swordfishtrombones. The chaotic gem of an album that Elektra/Asylum couldn’t deal with changed everything. Its surreal title and curious photography told you in an instant that Waits had a brand new bag.

Still, the new Waits was the same as the old Waits in some ways. His voice was still ravaged, the piano still needed tuning. His lyrics dealt with the usual fixations in the same old vocabulary: car parts and pawn shops and a greasy breakfast. Waits world. But musically and conceptually, Waits was stepping out–far out. “Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly,” he said. “There’s a place where all these things overlap.”

Waits now took his characters into outlandish emotional extremes; weird raw cinematic sounds evoked their fevered ruminations. He adopted bothersome instruments no one else else wanted: marimbas, calliopes, glass harmonicas; bagpipes, banjos, and brake drums. Musical orphans. All the while his peers were getting busy with MIDI (born 1983) and synth-pop possibilities–even Neil Young, with Trans. Not Waits.

The follow-up album dropped two years later: Rain Dogs. The project doubled down on the eccentricity and experimentalism, revealing Swordfishtrombones as an opening move in a larger game. Rain Dogs may stand as peak Waits; it is certainly the crowning centerpiece of the trilogy that concluded with Franks Wild Years in 1987. Right in the center of the centerpiece is where you find “Hang Down Your Head.”

The song is not a standout track on the album–not in terms of popularity or creativity. It competes for attention with eighteen (!) other tracks, all of which are keepers, many of which are more developed both lyrically and musically than “Hang Down Your Head.” It’s the album’s most conventional and safe song (probably why Island selected it for the first single). Its only cutting edge is the stabbing guitar-work of Marc Ribot.

But “Hang Down Your Head” does stand out in this way: it’s the only song on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones not solely written by Tom Waits. The credits go to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Kathleen is the inspiration for Waits’ “Jersey Girl” (one of Waits’ best sellers, thanks in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s cover) and for “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The couple would go on to co-write many more songs on the albums to follow, but “Hang Down Your Head” is their first effort.

Waits himself credits Brennan for his ’80s resurgence, considers her the catalyst for his brave new approach to sound and songcraft. It’s curious that their first song together is not about starting over, but about loss, the train that takes you away from the unrequited love, the end of the affair.

In terms of covers, the musical world has somewhat overlooked “Hang Down Your Head.” But our three choices leap out from the pack, and we rank them as follows…
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Dec 162021
 
Kill Rock Stars Holiday

Storied indie label Kill Rock Stars has released a compilation of holiday covers (and some originals), titled It’s Hard To Dance When It’s Cold And There’s No Music: Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album Volume 2. It’s the label’s first holiday release since 2006 (with its epically droll title drawn from one of the Tom Waits covers therein). One look through the tracklist reveals some of the compilation’s wry pleasures and inspired deep-cut pairings: Bitch and John Cameron Mitchell playing Guster’s “Tiny Tree Christmas”; downtown NYC collective God Is My Co-Pilot AF covering John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison.” But the most captivating picks appear late in the running order — courtesy of recent KRS signee Shaylee and, in a duet, Johanna Samuels and Fruit Bats. Continue reading »

Nov 092021
 

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

West of the West

“We dreamed of all the crazy places we never been. Like California.” So sings/speaks Bill Kirchen in the classic Commander Cody song “Mama Hated Diesels,” aptly summing up the lure of the Golden State. And, with due hats tipped to Tennessee and to New York State, is there any other that has drawn in so many songwriter acolytes to the flame it has provided, and for so long? Which, by way of introduction, is where Dave Alvin headed with West of the West, a glorious potpourri of songs from the 5th largest economy in the world, pulled together, chosen and sung by the erstwhile Blaster and X man.
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