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:

  1. 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
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.
    Bessie Smith
    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

  1. ALL
  2. Kathleen Hanna
  3. Phil Ochs
  4. Ferron
  5. 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!


I’ve been lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson twice each. Exactly how lucky is that? I don’t know. They’ve all toured non-stop, but Destination Florida is always up in the air. There are some artists, though, that I’m thankful I’ve had the chance to see just the once, and that one show encompasses everything I hold dear about live music: the surprise, the intimacy, the times when you get so absorbed in the band, deciphering drumbeats and riding pedal steel riffs, that you finally stop worrying about people judging both of your dance moves. Perfect, untouchable nights, in the moment and in the memory. But at the same time, I’m always lustful for an encore show. These are the best one night stands I can think of:

5) Alejandro Escovedo — I saw the Austin TX stalwart in Austin the one weekend I’d happened to be visiting my sister and her new daughter. The best show I’ve ever seen with a full stable of background singers. He’s the man, total professional. Gun. Slinger.

Alejandro Escovedo – Gravity Falling/Down Again/Street Hassle

4) Neil Young — Duh. It was the most recent tour, for Le Noise. He’s been spooky on his own, acoustically, and he’s been spooky with Crazy Horse, but this tour was him being spooky all on his lonesome, electrically. Neil and his echoes, which is what he’s been all along anyway. Allan Toussaint opened. Nothing like the smell of weed wafting through the Hard Rock Casino. Rock on, sexagenarians.

Neil Young – Sedan Delivery

3) Ruby Coast — 3pm on a Friday, the very first show of the very first Harvest of Hope Festival in Elkton. Besides me, the only people there seemed to be the folks from the To Write Love on Her Arms booth trying to give me stickers. Ruby Coast played great songs, coming out of nowhere, in the middle of a fairgrounds in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me that afternoons can be fun. There are others whom I’ve only seen at Festivals like this: Glossary, Billy Bragg, The National, Hot New Mexicans, Avail. But, Ruby Coast was the show that made me felt like I’d earned it. They were all in high school at the time.

Ruby Coast – Liza Liza

2) The Pack A.D. — Not to be too incestuous about it, but the only time I had a chance to see Canadian duo The Pack A.D. was at the NineBullets 4th Anniversary Party. And they blew my face off. And I don’t even miss my face. Just guitar by Becky Black and drums by Maya Miller. It was all sweaty screaming hammering effort. Lots of interaction between Black and Miller, jumping on the drum kit, windmills. Not unlike a Two Cow Garage show. They put everything they had into a show where they were the oddball on the bill. Plus, Miller was willing to humor me a conversation about Star Wars and Sleater-Kinney afterwards. (By the way, the Pack has a new album on the way.)

The Pack A.D. – B.C. Is On Fire

1) Jonathan Richman — Slow as I am, I found out about Jonathan Richman coincidentally one week before he came to town because he was mentioned in Carolyn Mark’s years-old cookbook (she spelled his name Jonathan Richmond), from which I was preparing a delicious whiskey cake. Going into the show I knew only one song, “Dancing at the Lesbian Bar,” so everything was new to me. Richman had the whole bill to himself that night, and he played two sets, just him and his drummer Tommy Larkins. As each song passed I couldn’t believe how tight every lyric was, how complete of a grasp he had over his words, every one was so exact and so rightly chosen. I didn’t know lyricists were capable of that precision. The only people who even come close are Leonard Cohen, David Berman, Branden Barnett, and Franz Nicolay. What I needed was not so much to be loved, as to love, Richman sang. It was the first time I’d heard that, but it’s simple and true enough that it beats with familiarity. Songs he sang in Spanish, French, and Italian all hit as heavy. He sang about Vermeer and Picaso and Van Gogh and driving through suburbia at night out of boredom. He knows how to eschew all the false angles of approaching an emotion and doesn’t settle for a lyric until he finds the absolute core of what he’s trying to say. It felt like I was being serenaded, and I’d never been serenaded, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what it felt like, but I didn’t care. Favorite line of the night: We don’t want the past, we want the moment, just like bread, it’s gotta be fresh, even a day old is getting to be…too much.

Jonathan Richman – Since She Started To Ride


As promised, I tallied the results from the comments section of the Top 3: Two Cow Garage songs thread and here are the Top 5 Two Cow tracks as chosen be the 9B readership.

05) 135 (9 votes)
04) Skinny Legged Girl (9 votes)
03) Should’ve California (10 votes)
1a) No Shame (11 votes)
1b) Humble Narrator (11 votes)

Any surprise inclusions or omissions?