Neil Young just released a new album called A Letter Home that he recorded in a phone booth, with the conceit that he’s playing songs from his childhood over the phone to his mother on the other end. It’s all covers, and most of them have been covered extensively already (Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Hardin), so I wasn’t expecting much of a gut response to it. But it’s great! It sounds like the great Neil Young bootlegs of the 70’s like Citizen Kane Junior Blues; it made me want to play all the songs I used to like playing in small living rooms by myself.
The covers album is well-known to be a tricky thing–potentially a sign of songwriting stagnation or just a waste of time that offers nothing new. When they work, though, they can be wonderful sources of imagination and openness and history. Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan, The Everly Brothers’ Roots, Willie Nelson’s To Lefty From Willie, Dolly Parton’s Sings My Favorite Songwriter, Porter Wagoner, and later, Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong and Good as I Been to You–they’re stunning records that lack nothing. Here are some other ones that have stood out to me over the years, in no particular order:
- Ronnie Hawkins–The Hawk in Winter (1976): The tracklist to this album has some overlap with the new Neil Young, Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” When Hawkins released his in ’76, it was more about covering some hot songwriters than when Young does it in ’14. In fact, there’s three Tim Hardin songs on this 11-track album. I love this album, despite how I just made it sound out of touch even in its own time. It’s the perfect sparsely luscious heartbreaking folk record from this period. Townes Van Zandt, Tim Hardin, Nick Drake, Nico–none of them escaped the 70s without some questionable studio flourishes stuck to some of their most incredible songs. And somehow this soft album from a hard-ass 40-year-old rockabilly legend gets those kinds of songs down without the fuss (there’s strings and stuff, but nothing too baroque) and in doing so offers an amazing source of brilliant contemporary songwriting.
Early Morning Rain
Reason to Believe
- Paul Baribeau & Ginger Alford–Darkness on the Edge of Your Town (2006): Paul Baribeau writes perfect songs but he is not prolific; Ginger Alford writes and guitars for Bloomington IN bands like Good Luck, Travelin’, and One Reason. This record comes out of their collaborative Springsteen covers tour. It’s all about fun here–two of the best songs are selected from late in Springsteen’s career, “Long Time Comin'” and “Into the Fire” (the latter is not as fun). The quintessential moment of the album occurs in the acoustic live version of “Born to Run” when the crowd mouth-guitars every electric guitar lick and the extended solo note-for-note. I’m really not sympathetic to criticism of Springsteen–I think his work is unassailable up to and including Tunnel of Love and then after that it’s still better than most things–but I can understand some disgrunts at his self-seriousness–this album is restores the levity (“I’m going to imply things about my penis,” Baribeau prefaces “Pink Cadillac”), community, and ecstasy to these songs while still wallowing in how devastating they really are. Where no one asks any questions or LOOKS TOO LONG IN YOUR FACE!
06 Long Time Comin’
14 Born To Run (Live)
- Give Me the Cure–D.C. Artists Cover The Cure (1994): The awesome title of this comp references DC band Fugazi’s song “Give Me the Cure,” but the bands here are obviously covering The Cure, and it’s all for an AIDS benefit to fund research to find a cure. Featuring amazing bands such as Edsel, Jawbox, Dismemberment Plan, Glo-Worm, My Life In Rain, and Ted Leo’s Chisel, and Peter Hayes from The High-Back Chairs. The standout for me is “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” by The Ropers. The fucking Ropers are the best and that doesn’t get talked about enough. This is a great album because it collects a good chunk of important DC bands of the time and it gets into different areas of The Cure’s discography–it drags up a lot of their best early singles, but doesn’t limit itself to the obvious choices from The Cure’s punkier early period which would’ve been the easiest songs to translate. Mainly, go check out The Ropers.
Jumping Someone Else’s Train
Six Different Ways
- Harry Nilsson–Nilsson Does Newman (1970): Brilliant, super-layered studio mastery. Nilsson harmonizing with Nilsson accompanied by Randy Newman, the honored songwriter himself, on piano. This is early in both Nilsson’s and Newman’s careers but the tribute is loving, earnest, and beautifully executed. The version of “Living Without You” from this album gets my vote for Most Beautiful Sounds Ever Made. If you’ve been averse to Newman’s genius songwriting because you can’t get down with his voice, then I suspect it’s because you’ve only heard his Disney songs, and you should check out his 70s albums, but if that still is keeping you at a distance, come at it through this album and Nilsson’s unmatched voice.
living without you
- The Crust Brothers–Marquee Mark (1998): The Crust Brothers were meant for only a few shows, including a benefit show for the Washington Wilderness Coalition in Seattle that was recorded for this album. The band was actually STEPHEN MALKMUS from Pavement and Tim, Andy, and Michael from SILKWORM. They all trade off vocals on a set of covers that largely samples Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes, but also includes The Rolling Stones, Skynyrd, Marvin Gaye, and an amazing version of The Byrds/Gene Clark’s “Feel A Whole Lot Better.” The truth is I found out about Malkmus’ work because he was on the soundtrack to the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There; I went backwards through his work and smacked into this, a love letter to The Basement Tapes, which was an album I was obsessed with in high school but that nobody else beside Peter Vinney and Greil Marcus had ever seemed to have heard. This album means a lot to me as an intersection between my high school folkie/classic rock self and my college rock self. It made me feel really fucking cool to hear these musicians share some love for the stuff I thought I was lame for liking. But it stands up in any context as a must-hear. Malkmus and Andy Cohen are two “incendiary” guitarists–they kill on stage together. One of my favorite live records, as well.
Feel a Whole Lot Better
(Wolf beat me to the punch on sharing–>) That much-anticipated (announced in 2012) Uncle Tupelo tribute album featuring Drag the River, Have Gun, Two Cow, and Empty Orchestra seems to be making progress recently and might even be out in the summer. Listen to Two Cow’s cover of Tweedy’s “We’ve Been Had.”
Real quick: Top Five Artists that Deserve a(nother) Tribute Album
- Kathleen Hanna
- Phil Ochs
- Sticks & Stones
Let me know what tributes and covers you like best and who you think needs a revisiting. Thought of another one: Grant Lee Phillips’ Nineteeneighties–anybody know that one? Ok, now you go!