This is far from the most original observation I’ve ever made, but recording a cover is like trying on someone else’s clothes.
Sometimes the fit is awkward and uncomfortable, and you can hardly move without tearing or tripping over something. But sometimes, it’s so perfect that you learn to strut inside those borrowed duds, to the point where even close friends don’t recognize you. You don’t look like you, or like the person who owns the clothes – you’re some strange, unrecognizable hybrid of the two.
That is, if you do it right. Covers can be fascinating, or they can be a complete waste of time. If you’re going through the motions, playing a slavishly faithful rendition without bringing anything of yourself to it, then you’re just filling the air. As a wise woman once said, ain’t nobody got time for that. If I’m going to buy a covers album, it’s because I want to hear something I can’t imagine. If it sounds just like I thought it would, I’m bound to be a bit disappointed.
Let’s take my favorite covers project of the last few years, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back. I could never have guessed just how Gabriel covering Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” with a full orchestra would have sounded. It seems unfathomable, and yet, there it is, and it’s probably my favorite thing on this record. This year, Gabriel finally released the companion volume, And I’ll Scratch Yours, with the artists he covered each doing one of Gabriel’s tunes. It’s a similar delight – you think you know what Bon Iver would do with “Come Talk to Me,” for instance, or how the Magnetic Fields would recast “Not One of Us,” but hearing these renditions is revelatory.
Every year there’s a crop of covers records – some worth it, some not. But 2013 seemed to have more than the usual share. I have three very different ones to discuss this week, starting with the third volume of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs’ Under the Covers series. Sweet is a power pop genius with a knack for self-harmonizing, while Hoffs made her name as one of the Bangles, and has a number of glistening pop records to her name. Every few years, the pair takes on a different decade’s hits and deep cuts. They celebrated the ‘60s in 2006, and the ‘70s in 2009, which means it’s time for the ‘80s.
But here’s the thing about Sweet and Hoffs (or Sid n Susie, as they call themselves in this context): they haven’t changed their sound since that first outing. So this is a group of ‘80s songs played by a band straight out of the ‘60s, with that Sweet-style analog production. That’s an interesting wrinkle, and it adds spice to this collection.
Even if you haven’t heard them together, you can almost imagine the way Sweet and Hoffs would harmonize, the lovely sounds their intertwining voices would make. And you’d be right – they sing together beautifully. But by the third volume of these covers, we’re used to that, so it’s the arrangements that make this record. Granted, they do choose songs that fit their template, but this is still one of the most organic ‘80s tributes I’ve heard.
Volume 3 kicks off with a dynamite version of R.E.M.’s “Sitting Still,” a clear indication that Sweet and Hoffs are not going to stick to the tried and true. It’s remarkably faithful, Sweet playing those ringing Byrds-ian guitar figures perfectly. Their note-perfect version of Dave Edmunds’ “Girls Talk” (written by the great Elvis Costello) rocks, as does their resurrection of “Big Brown Eyes” by the dBs. Who wouldn’t want to hear Hoffs sing “Kid” by the Pretenders, or hear Sweet crash his way through the delightful English Beat tune “Save It for Later”? In both cases, the pair pays homage to the original while bringing a new dimension to it.
Throughout this volume, Sweet and Hoffs pogo back and forth between well-known songs and forgotten classics. I’m not sure I ever needed to hear Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” again, even in a setting like this, but I very much appreciated Hoffs’ tribute to the Go-Go’s, revving up “Our Lips are Sealed.” And while there are certainly other Smiths songs they could have chosen, “How Soon is Now” remains wonderful. On the flip side, there’s Kristy MacColl’s delightful “They Don’t Know,” which Hoffs knocks out of the park, and the Bongos’ “The Bulrushes,” a song I’d never heard. They dig deep into the XTC catalog to find “Towers of London,” and close things out with Lindsey Buckingham’s great “Trouble,” here stripped of some of its eccentricity, but none of its elegance.
Is Under the Covers Vol. 3 successful, despite hewing pretty closely to the originals in most cases? I think so. It’s great fun to hear these two golden-throated singers weave their way around this material, smoothing out the more angular ones (like “Towers of London”). The song selection gives an interesting insight into both Sweet and Hoffs, and all told, it’s 50 minutes of pure pop delight. I can’t hardly wait until they get to the ‘90s – aside from Sweet’s own work, there wasn’t much melodic pop to be found, so I’m interested to hear what they choose. This series is a winner, as far as I’m concerned.
While Sweet and Hoffs do stick pretty closely to their source material, they’re definitely not trying to clone the original singers. That’s a trick that our other, much less likely pair pulls off on their out-of-nowhere covers record. I’ve been saying this out loud to people to see if they believe me – Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones have teamed up to faithfully cover an entire Everly Brothers album from 1958. Yes, this is a real thing you can really go buy right now.
They’ve titled it Foreverly, but really, it’s the Everlys’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, itself an album of traditional songs and covers. Jones and Armstrong have altered the order a bit, but changed little else – the sound is vintage, despite being fuller, with drums and harmonicas, and the harmonies remain as they always have. Jones takes Phil’s tenor parts, while Armstrong handles Don’s baritone lines. And it works – I was very surprised at how well their voices dance together. They don’t mess with the vocal arrangements at all – Jones doesn’t have to slip into falsetto on “Long Time Gone,” for instance, but the pair mimics the Everlys remarkably well.
The original album was rootsy and acoustic, but Foreverly adds some richer studio touches. “Lightning Express,” for instance, now sounds like a Jon Brion special, with shuffling drums and chimes, while “Rockin’ Alone (In an Old Rockin’ Chair)” is now a piano ballad. These arrangements, while certainly filling things out, remain respectful of the originals. Foreverly is sweet, and while Jones could do this stuff in her sleep, Armstrong is the unknown quality here, and he acquits himself well.
Still, Foreverly is a bit of a novelty, and as interesting as it is, I probably won’t pull it out too often. It’s a neat document of an unlikely pairing, and if it gets more people to listen to the Everly Brothers, great. But the original album isn’t a favorite, and this reinvention is nice and reverential, and that’s about it. It answers its central question – yes, Billie Joe Armstrong can sing this stuff, and can harmonize with Norah Jones well – within the first 30 seconds, and after that, it’s much less fascinating.
Luckily, our third covers album doesn’t fall into the same trap. It’s remarkable from start to finish, the finest of the trio on tap this week. It’s called Fellow Travelers, and it’s by Shearwater, the ambitious Texas band led by the amazing Jonathan Mieburg. The thrill of Fellow Travelers is that it sounds like a new Shearwater album – the band clearly put as much care into the song selection and arrangement of this thing as they do with each new studio effort. Plus, the song choices are generally obscure enough that they may as well be new Shearwater songs.
Case in point – the record opens with Jesca Hoop’s brief “Our Only Sun,” performed on piano and Mieburg’s soaring voice, before crashing into Xiu Xiu’s abrasive, propulsive “I Luv the Valley Oh!!” Shearwater smooths this song out – well, it couldn’t possibly be less smoothed-out than the original – and they drive it home with a pounding beat and huge guitars. Elsewhere they cover tunes by Wye Oak, Clinic and David Thomas Broughton, bringing something new to each one. It’s probably for the best, though, that these songs are all pretty obscure, since Shearwater is not a band that can disappear into a cover. Mieburg is too distinctive a singer for that.
Fellow Travelers is definitely not a catalog of the band’s influences. It’s more of a snapshot of songs by contemporaries. Mieburg sings the hell out of Broughton’s “Ambiguity,” transforming this haphazard folk ditty into a tiny epic, slowed down and graceful. The band also recasts Wye Oak’s “Mary is Mary” as a folksier number, half as long as the original, with a delicate electric piano, and they close things out with a gentle reading of the Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life” that puts a sweeter bow on things than you’d expect.
Shearwater does drop some fascinating surprises. They cover Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven,” stripping it of all the Mylo Xyloto excess and playing it straight, on pianos and ambient guitars. They take on St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” with aplomb, playing it sloppy and joyous, and Mieburg doesn’t alter the lyrics one jot, to his credit. And in the most surprising turn, they deliver a convincing, raucous take on Folk Implosion’s ‘90s dance tune “Natural One.” The Shearwater version sounds a bit like Depeche Mode, but it keeps the original’s sense of menacing groove.
Fellow Travelers is what a covers record ought to be – it celebrates the original songs while asserting the band’s identity throughout. These tunes are all reinvented, to one degree or another, and they all end up sounding like Shearwater – so much so that the one original, “A Wake for the Minotaur,” fits right in. If I told you this was an album of new Shearwater songs, even the longtime fans would believe it. Mieburg and company have tried on these clothes, made some alterations, and found that they’re remarkably comfortable. They’ve made something special here, something that perfects and transcends the idea of covers albums. It’s still ineligible for my top 10 list, but it’s wonderful.
Next week, I say happy birthday to Doctor Who. Then, I bat cleanup on the year as we head into the home stretch. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.