There are few things I love more than connecting with people over music.
You know that high five you do with your eyes when you see someone wearing the t-shirt of a band you thought only you knew? That feeling of turning someone on to something magical that means the world to you? That indescribable elation that comes from being in a room with hundreds of other people who also like the obscure, otherwise ignored thing you like? I love all of that. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that other people have your back, that you’re not crazy to invest so much in something.
I get a variation of that same feeling from tribute albums. If an artist I respect and admire hears what I hear in a song or an album, that’s an incredible validation for me. Here’s a case in point: Sixteen years ago, New York trio Nada Surf released their third record, Let Go. It was their first on Barsuk Records, a label they still call home, and the first real indication that they were in it for the long haul. Back in 1996, Nada Surf were just getting started, and they were crushed under the weight of “Popular,” their novelty ditty of a first single. It was inescapable, and it forever tarred the band, so much so that their far superior second album, The Proximity Effect, got them dropped from Elektra Records. (“We just don’t hear a funny single, guys.”)
So Let Go was a statement, a flag planted in the rocky ground. It was also awesome, the first Nada Surf album I loved, and the start of a still-unbroken run of swell guitar-pop records from this still-underrated band. I adore that album, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that there would one day be a full tribute to Let Go, one that would draw in the likes of Manchester Orchestra, Aimee Mann, the Long Winters and Rogue Wave. And yet here it is. It’s called Standing at the Gates: The Songs of Nada Surf’s Let Go, and it’s wonderful.
Every song is represented, and treated with reverence and care. Manchester Orchestra starts things off with an impassioned, subtle read of “Blizzard of ’77,” and they nail it. Some of these versions, like Ed Harcourt’s piano take on “Fruit Fly,” are reinventions, but all of them maintain the essence, the core of melody and heart that defines the original record. The Long Winters, led by Jonathan Coulton’s buddy John Roderick, go all dance music on “Hi-Speed Soul,” in its original form a guitar rave-up. But it’s still decidedly, delightfully “Hi-Speed Soul.”
The dark and propulsive “Killian’s Red” is one of my favorites from Let Go, a little nightmare in 6/8, and Holly Miranda makes it her own with a sparse keyboard arrangement. There’s nothing I don’t love about what Eyelids (featuring members of the Decemberists) have done with “Treading Water,” and Victoria Bergsman of Taken By Trees brings us home with “No Quick Fix,” a song only available on the European version of Let Go.
But if you guessed that I love the Aimee Mann song best, you win. On the original record, “Paper Boats” is the final track, a pretty acoustic elegy, and when I first heard the bongos-in-a-box Mann decided to use on her version, my heart sank. I should have had faith. Mann worked wonders with this song, playing a delicate piano figure in place of the acoustics and incorporating some subtle strings. It’s somehow more haunting and affecting than Nada Surf’s version, which is amazing. When Aimee Mann wants to sing your song, and throws herself into a beautiful rendition crafted with obvious love, that has to feel good. Hell, I feel good about it and it isn’t even my song.
I’ve followed Nada Surf faithfully since my post-college years, and I kind of feel like a sports fan cheering on a favorite underdog team. Standing at the Gates is a delightful collection on its own, but it’s even more gratifying as a statement about how respected Nada Surf is and has become. Let Go is a terrific little record, and it’s such a joy to hear so many splendid songwriters and bands agree.
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I’m a pretty big fan of Meshell Ndegeocello too, and on her new album Ventriloquism, the venerable bassist and singer has done the opposite, recording her own versions of 11 songs by other artists. Covers records are always interesting to me as a way of teasing out influences, of learning which songs contributed to the development of an artist’s singular sound. Ndegeocello certainly has one of those – her poetic, funky, low-key soul-pop has no direct peers, so I was fascinated to hear what she’d choose to make her own on this record.
And I was pleasantly surprised by her selections. Ventriloquism, her 12th album, includes straight, serious, well-considered takes on songs by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, TLC, Ralph Tresvant, Janet Jackson and others of that ilk. It’s a treasure trove of “hey, I remember that” songs from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and Ndegeocello takes each one apart, finds the wonder inside, and brings that to the fore.
If you want an idea of what this is like, look no further than her slow, sinuous guitar-and-bass ballet through “Nite and Day,” a ubiquitous hit for Al B. Sure in 1988. Gone are the pop beats, and in their place is a dreamy atmosphere – this is so thick you could breast stroke through it. Here is a folksy acoustic rendering of “Waterfalls,” by TLC. Here is a shuffling guitar-led take on “Sensitivity,” the 1990 hit from New Edition main man Tresvant. Here is an amazing, pleading reading of “Tender Love,” originally released in 1986 by Force MDs. It’s one of three songs here written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production team behind so many of those ‘80s hits.
This is all so good, so unexpected, that after a while it gets harder to shock. But she does it with a somewhat creepy run through “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” Janet Jackson’s 1987 smash. There’s nothing funny about the grey, oppressive tone Ndegeocello takes with this one, and it’s kind of awesome that she heard this noise in this song. The record ends with perhaps its most out-there rendition, a nimble jazz swing through Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” fully deconstructing the tune beyond recognition. This new version is airborne almost from the start, and it keeps climbing.
Ventriloquism is such a strange delight that it couldn’t have been made for anything but artistic reasons. In the liner notes she refers to it as a refuge from the storms of the current world situation, and I hope it worked for her in that way. It certainly has provided several hours of diversion for me, taking in more with each listen, hearing these songs the way Ndegeocello hears them. Being allowed this view inside her brain is a joy. If you remember any of the songs I just mentioned, you’ll want to hear this.
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And here is where I get to complain that Ventriloquism, being a covers record, is not eligible for my top 10 list. Neither is Standing at the Gates, since it’s a various-artists tribute album. These unfortunate whines can only mean one thing: it’s time for the First Quarter Report.
If you’re new around these parts, here’s what this is: every three months, I reveal how my top 10 list in progress looks. I do this with the understanding that there is no way that these records in this order will make up my final top 10 list of the year. (At least, I hope not.) It’s just a fun way of explaining my process, and tracking the progress of the final list, which I will post in December.
And man, it’s been a lousy year so far. I’m glad we have so many things headed our way over the next few months, including Eels, Sloan, Laura Veirs, Janelle Monae, Frank Turner, Beach House, Ray Lamontagne and Neko Case, not to mention a new Choir album and a solo record from the voice of the Choir, Derri Daugherty. That eases the pain somewhat, because, not to disparage these records, but this is not a stellar top 10 list, and if it stays this way through December, it’ll be a disappointing 2018.
Anyway, here’s the list right now:
10. GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star.
9. Field Music, Open Here.
8. First Aid Kit, Ruins.
7. Listener, Being Empty, Being Filled.
6. Audrey Assad, Evergreen.
5. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II.
4. They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun.
3. Belle and Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems.
2. Tune-Yards, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.
1. I’m With Her, See You Around.
I can make a case for all of those records, but only a few of them blew me away, so I’m hoping for a more substantially awesome list in a few months.
Next week, Jukebox the Ghost. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.