Sep 242022
 

Things Happen That WayLet’s start with a quick nod to the elephant in the room. Dr. John’s Things Happen That Way isn’t a cover album per se, given there are a number of Mac Rebennack originals on this posthumous release. But given the dude has released his 32nd studio album after having been gone these past two years, we’re of a mind to forgive that. Plus, with the otherwise wealth of covers included, heck, of course we had to review it. And for extra kudos, it is a splendid and unexpected joy, delving into the more country flavors of the N’Awlins voodoo meister.

It seems Mr. Mac was always a bit keen on classic country music. He talked about wanting to make this album long before he actually got to. Now, this here country music is none of your Americana or alt-country; this is the real deal, country that demands to be followed by “and Western.” Between 2017 and 2019, Rebennack and guitarist/producer Shane Theriot met up and made it happen. They enlisted several old buddies along the way, cutting tracks until Rebennack’s heart disease finally caught up with him.

However, with his demise, so too, it seemed, died the final say in what songs and which versions would be allowed to appear, this right now transferring to his estate. So what we get isn’t quite what Dr. John had concluded in his lifetime. Mastering took place later, with some of the versions tweaked to further fulfil, says his daughter, her father’s wishes. He re-recorded “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” perhaps his best known song, with additional vocals from Rickie Lee Jones. They ditched this in favor of one with Lukas Nelson and his band. Which isn’t a bad thing, but both mayhap would have been better?

Anyhoo, with no further ado, what’s Things Happen That Way like?
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Aug 032022
 

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.

“Willie O’ Winsbury” is all about gender-fluidity, and it’s about the rejection of all things patriarchal. But it didn’t come out of some woke college campus; it’s a Scottish ballad that goes back to 1775, if not earlier. Some argue that the events it describes took place in the 13th century.

For those keeping score, “Willie O’ Winsbury” is Child Ballad #100. The Child ballads were not for children: the name comes from FC Child, the 19th century song-catcher who compiled hundreds of English and Scottish ballads from past centuries.

Even in the most modernized version of the song, its old-fashioned language isn’t easy to parse. You can listen carefully (like I did) and still miss the juicier implications and its revolutionary flavor (like I did, until I heard Scottish comedian Stewart Lee discuss it). Normally it’s best to let lyrics speak for themselves, but in this case I will write some notes in the margins:

  • The first shocker is not that the king’s unmarried daughter Janet became pregnant when he was away, or that the king rather brutally inspected her body in court in order to confirm this. The shocker is that she slept with Willie, a peasant. In feudal Europe you didn’t do this.
  • The next surprise is not that the king decides to hang Willie, but that upon seeing the strapping young man brought before the court the king’s heart melts. He admits he’d sleep with this hottie, too, if he (the king) were a woman. This king is kinky enough to realize his daughter was doing the right and natural thing after all.
  • The king invites Willie to marry his daughter and offers to make him a lord of the land. A pretty sweet deal, especially for someone being fitted for a noose.
  • Plot twist: Willie declines the offer. Oh, he’ll marry the king’s daughter all right, but it’s purely out of love, and he rejects anything to do with the king’s wealth or power. That’s the implication, anyway. The couple rejects the social order for a natural order. (Either their heads are full of early Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, or they are too horny to think straight.)
  • When the couple gallops off into the sunset, the song’s narrator implies (in not so many words) that the couple have more wealth in the form of individual liberty than any knight or lord could claim.

Of course, all this is merely one reading of one version of a popular ballad. Variants of the song exist under various titles, with this verse or that inserted, deleted, or altered. In some versions, Willie is a man of wealth in peasant disguise.

So much for the story. The tune itself–the melody and chord progression–is also worth appreciating. How the chord sequence fails to resolve harmonically at any point, but circles back on itself like a staircase in an Escher print. It never seems to lose momentum. (Well, at least not in the arrangements I like.)

And speaking of arrangements I like…
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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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Feb 112022
 
be good tanyas covers

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!

The three women in the Be Good Tanyas–Trish Klein, Samantha Parton, and Frazey Ford–are all Canadians, but Americana is stamped on their musical passports. The band formed in 1999 in Vancouver, B.C., the heart of Cascadia, and soon released some of the best Appalachian-influenced music of the past two decades. Like kindred spirit Gillian Welch, the Tanyas made the old-timey sound new.

While gospel spirituals and hobo songs fired their imaginations at the outset, the Tanyas didn’t only look backwards to traditional sources. They looked across to their peers–Geoff Berner and JT Nero are two contemporary artists they’ve covered–and to the work of their parents’ generation (Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young). They even covered Prince, a musician pretty far from the folk/country music provinces (see our write-up of their Prince cover here). The Tanyas also wrote compelling original material, songs absorbed by urban concerns while sounding rural in origin, songs both light-hearted and dark-minded in turn.

Along with their feathery vocal harmonies, the key ingredients of the Tanyas sound are mellow mandolin, gritty banjo, and acoustic guitar. Fiddles and harmonicas make an occasional appearance, and a cornet slipped in through a side door at least once. Bass and drums they leave to hired hands, but not as after-thoughts: the band’s rhythmic groove is integral to their unique slant on traditional material, lets them make a distinctive statement on classics like “Rain and Snow.”

One complaint about their music is that there’s not more of it. Chalk it up, in part, to bad luck and medical emergencies, and partly to “creative differences.” But then again, we can be thankful that each of the Tanyas have explored their own solo projects, and this has helped keep the Tanyas albums so pure in essence. Frazey Ford recorded an album with Al Green’s former band (it’s more soul-influenced than country-influenced); Trish Klein formed Po’ Girl with Allison Russell; and Sam Parton, long side-lined with serious medical challenges, found a way to record and tour with Jolie Holland. (Holland co-founded the Tanyas in 1999, but departed during the making of their first record, Blue Horse.) All these extracurricular projects are worth seeking out.

The Tanyas may be over as a group, but it’s a good bet that covers of their originals will continue to emerge, and that their own covers will continue to find new listeners.
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Nov 192021
 

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!

John Mellencamp

I wanted to put this in the Under the Radar category. Then it hit me: whose radar could John Mellencamp possibly be under? It’s true, but, equally, his spotlight has always veered from mass appeal towards the niche, albeit to different niche audiences at different times, encompassing different genres and different tastes. How much traction, for instance, is there between the effervescent Johnny Cougar in his sequined satins, and the grizzled dustbowl road warrior of only a few years later, let alone the renaissance man of musician, artist and actor he is seen as now? Today’s answer: Precious little, yet more than you may think.
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Oct 302020
 
best cover songs 2000

Every year, I do a big anniversary post tackling the best covers of a year before Cover Me was born. So far we’ve done 1969 (in 2019), 1978 (in 2018), 1987 (in 2017), and 1996 (in 2016). And in 2020 we circle back to the not-so-distant past with the most recent year yet: 2000.

Cover Me began in 2007 and we did our first year-end list in 2008, so 2000 isn’t that long before we were following this stuff in real time. But, in music eras, 2007 and 2000 seem eons apart. 2000 was nü-metal and Napster, Smash Mouth and the ska revival. Beyoncé was in the quartet Destiny’s Child; Justin Timberlake only had a one-in-five chance of being your favorite member of N’Sync (or maybe one-in-four…sorry Joey). By the time this site started seven years later, all this seemed like ancient history.

There were a lot of extremely prominent covers in 2000. “Prominent,” of course, doesn’t necessarily meaning “good.” This was the year that Madonna covered “American Pie” (not to be outdone, Britney Spears then took a stab at “Satisfaction”). It was the year a Jim Carrey movie soundtrack inexplicably asked bands like Smash Mouth and Brian Setzer Orchestra to cover Steely Dan. It was the year of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Bet you didn’t even know that one was a cover (unless you’re a faithful Cover Me reader).

None of those are on this list (though, if you want more dated trainwrecks like those, stay tuned Monday for a bonus list I’m calling the “The Most Extremely ‘2000’ Covers of the Year 2000”). But 2000 offered a wealth of wonderful covers, often flying just under the mainstream radar. Some of them still seem of the time – anything ska, basically – but most could have come out decades earlier. Or yesterday.

YouTube was still a few years away, as was streaming more generally, so covers still mostly came out through “traditional” avenues: on albums, as the b-sides to singles, etc. As I wrote in my new book, tribute albums were big business by this time too, which means that many 2000 covers emerged through that format. Even narrowing this list down to 50 was hard, which is why Cover Me’s Patreon supporters will get a batch of 150 Honorable Mentions.

Check out the list starting on Page 2, and stay tuned for the best covers of this year coming in December.

The list begins on Page 2.