A tribute album to singer/songwriter Donovan has attracted a lineup of indie rock heavy-hitters, including contributions from The Flaming Lips, Sharon Van Etten, and Hamilton Leithauser. The charity album will be out on October 16.
Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.
Fans of the forever-underrated Big Star were thrilled with the recent release of Live in Memphis, which captures a semi-reunited version of the group performing a homecoming show back during the early 90’s. While it is somewhat of a disappointment that bassist Andy Hummel and guitarist/singer Chris Bell were not a part of the tour, it’s still a wonder to hear the majority of the band’s impeccable catalog in a live setting competently captured (and it’s especially moving to hear Alex and Jody cover Bell’s gorgeous “I Am the Cosmos” and dedicated to their deceased friend). Still, despite many of the high points of the album (personally I loved how high Jody Stephens’s drums were in the mix, and the use of reverb to really bring out his integral contributions to many of the band’s best songs), many of the reviews can’t help but reveal the disappointment at finding out that the delicate favorite “Thirteen” didn’t make the cut.
“Thirteen” is universally beloved for its touching depiction of early teenage love. The initial scene of the first verse perfectly captures the innocence of that time, when the biggest concerns were a partner to walk home from school and whether that special someone would accept your invitation to that week’s dance. The second verse is memorable as well, with its generational standoff over music and the comfort that allies find in their shared love (“Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/come inside where it’s okay”). And the final verse offers both a view that exaggerates the situation (“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”) and also diminishes the stakes (“If it’s so, well let me know; if it’s no, well, I can go.”). The lyrics are accompanied by some of the most beautifully recorded acoustic guitars ever, a trademark of the entire #1 Record album. Alex Chilton carefully picks a classic folk chord progression, mainly alternating between G and C chords, but also brilliantly involving the relevant minor chords as well to bridge the main sections. The guitar solo, in all of its simplistic glory, is also a perfect example of how modesty should be a path taken more often; a couple of precisely selected notes and a graceful little run can be all you need to add the necessary flourish to a song.
Today, Wilco released the rarities box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot, and for many who pick it up it will be the first time that they’ll hear their cover of “Thirteen” (among many other tracks–it’s nearly 80 songs across four discs, many of them previously unreleased). I managed to randomly find a copy of their single “Outtasite (Outta Mind) a couple of years ago which included this cover, so even though I haven’t gotten a chance to plow through the rest of the box set, I can at least comment on this track in particular. Wilco is careful not to overwhelm the tender ballad, but they also are able to add a couple of subtle touches that make it sound like a regular part of the Wilco catalog. The graceful backing piano, the more deliberately strummed rhythm guitar, and a gorgeous lap steel lead guitar all give extra color to the song, and make the song sound like a folk or old country standard. And Jeff Tweedy’s distinctive warble helps bring out some of the pathos inherent in the song, though Tweedy is a good enough musician to not overindulge in this regard, letting the melody and words speak for themselves.
I would be derelict in my duty if I also didn’t share Elliott Smith’s hauntingly beautiful version of the song. As one may expect, “Thirteen” is a natural fit for Elliott, as it allows him to use his well-honed style of gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar and his delicately yearning vocals to great effect. The result is a more mournful and melancholic reaction to this tale of nostalgia, and allows one to reflect the story through a different lens. You can find a more polished version (with more precisely picked guitar and vocals a bit higher in the mix) on the rarities collection New Moon, but this particular video was a pleasant surprise, as Elliott’s emotions really shine in the performance.
Hope everyone had a fun holiday weekend, with all fingers and toes still intact. On to the news and videos:
Big news last week as Death Grips broke up, just in time for me to miss seeing them on their tour with Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t fully expecting the group to show up, considering their history, but it’s a bummer nonetheless. The “break-up” makes sense, in either their own narrative of being an art project or an outsider’s perspective of being a pure troll-job. At least we can say that a lot of rich people gave them money, and they repaid that debt by giving the public a lot of cool music for free.
Some might say that the biggest news was the leak that Pink Floyd is releasing a new album, but this is only significant for people who never listened to The Division Bell and don’t care that Roger Waters is not involved in the new project. Still, if you’re looking for an excuse to turn out the lights and fire up Wish You Were Here, might as well make it this one.
Or you could listen to “Wish I Was Here”, a collaboration between Cat Power and Coldplay for the new Zach Braff film of the same name. I don’t remember much of the movie “Garden State”, but if it got more people to listen to The Shins, I’m perfectly fine with its existence. I still get chills listening to “New Slang”.
If you’re in the mood for some reading, you could do better than read the AV Club’s Hatesong feature, which continues to be a waste of time for most everybody involved. This past week saw a comedian complain about Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” because…he was in 8th grade and didn’t like his classmates that liked the song. AV Club, you’re better than this.
If you need something to lift up your spirits after that, no worries: we finally have a new song from Death From Above 1979. The track “Trainwreck 1979” made its debut on Zane Lowe’s program on BBC Radio 1, and you can catch it at about the 1 hour and 54 minute mark. Be sure to set your cursor back a couple of minutes before that, as Zane explains the significance of You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine to many music fans, even if it never sold all that much. It reminds me of “Sexy Results”, but a quicker and dirtier version of it. In other words, it’s grimy, but still has a good dance beat.
Still bored? Check out some Best Albums So Far lists, courtesy of Relix and Stephen Thomas Erlewine. Several the albums we’ve touted appear on both lists, so good news for us, but they should also provide the opportunity to discover other new artists as well.
I finally have to deal with the moment that I’ve been dreading for weeks now, and that’s a discussion of Jack White’s latest solo album Lazaretto. It’s not a matter of disappointment with the record, or anything along those lines–in fact, I think it’s a pretty good record. The problem instead is that I feel I have no particular insight specific to this record to offer at all. As per the usual, White dabbles in different old-timey styles, while often adding a unique personal touch: here’s a more traditional folk song;, here’s the song where he inverts blues conventions and utilizes bizarre guitar tones, etc. It’s not that it’s formulaic, but at this point the audience should have a good idea in their minds of what a Jack White record sounds like, especially now that we have a variety of post-White Stripes work to analyze.
Of course, this doesn’t stop others from attempting to postulate on the supposed themes of the album, or worse yet, divine some sort of grand theory behind Jack White the artist and what it means for Our Culture. As one of the few cross-generational “rock stars”, White is a figure that no matter what he does is going to generate some interest, or at the very least some page views. Beyond learning about his origins, considering how striking the White Stripes were in contrast with the contemporary music scene, for the most part I never indulged in this impulse. To me, beyond chuckling at a few articles about his various idiosyncracies (who doesn’t love a good “record release by balloon” story?), Jack White was a guy that wrote a lot of great rock songs, and some that were not-so-great. My one concession to this line of thinking is the fact that my favorite Jack White moment is the beginning scene of It Might Get Loud, where he constructs a makeshift guitar out of various spare parts.
The scene helps show a lot of what I love about White as an artist–his practical ingenuity, his love of cheap crap, his ability to find music from the unlikeliest of sources, and the pure emotion that he puts into his music. I enjoyed Jack White before seeing the documentary, but I came away with a new-found appreciation about him as an artist.* The documentary also is worth mentioning because it helps define my critical viewpoint of Jack White: it’s usually one that’s in opposition to someone else.
I know that it sounds like the douchebaggiest position imaginable, but in reality it works as more of a grounding influence. “The White Stripes suck”/”Actually, they’re a pretty good band that shows how limits can actually result in even more creativity”; “The White Stripes are the best band in rock’n’roll”/”They’re really good, but come on, there’s a lot of filler in their catalog and you can’t say that every detour Jack White takes is one worth exploring”; “Jack White is a shit guitarist”/”He knows how to wring pure emotion out of his guitar, and the seemingly odd melodic choices are there for a reason–he’s not just randomly choosing notes, unless it’s in specifically appropriate circumstances”; “I never want to hear ‘Steady as She Goes’ ever again”/”…We agree on this.” I think that White Blood Cells and De Stijl are the Stripes’ best albums, with Get Behind Me Satan a severely underrated number three, especially considering how White was able to organically expand the sound with pianos and marimbas and still have it sound natural, and that Elephant despite its high points is not their magnum opus. I also believe that the solos in “Icky Thump” sound like an electric dog fart, and hearing that song in heavy rotation while I was working full-time as a DJ has to rank as the worst part of an otherwise great job. But I could listen to the guitar in “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” forever.
At this point, it makes sense that Jack White continue as a solo artist; even though a lot of this discussion centers on his work with Meg White, his solo work does allow him to indulge in different styles outside of the pigeonhole he created with the self-imposed barriers of The White Stripes. And the listener has benefited as a result, and it’s led to some thrilling results. You’ll find some of the most amazing displays of pure musicianship anywhere at one of his live shows; it was amazing to watch how in sync the band was with one another, especially the drummer, as Jack would change tempos and arrangements often on a whim.
Yet, amid all this general awe, there is little that is particularly memorable about White’s solo work. There are no immediately identifiable high points, like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or “Ball and a Biscuit”; I kind of remember “Love Interruption”, but that’s only because it got fairly significant airplay and I still had to think a bit before I could remember its melody. This is essentially the problem that I have with Lazaretto as well–when it’s done, I feel like I just listened to a good album. Ten minutes later, if you asked me about any favorite moment, I would be stumped. No matter how much I admire the music, there is still that little extra that is somehow missing to make it truly great.
Still, I’m going to be on the lookout for the next time Jack stops by the Northwest.
*My opinions about Jimmy Page were completely confirmed, however, as he displayed once again that he is the most overrated guitar player in existence. I cannot stand his extremely sloppy playing, and that’s on top of his lack of creativity. At one point he was playing one of his old Zeppelin songs, and he kept fumbling and making mistakes, and I had to think “Couldn’t they have done at least another take?”