Judging By The Cover: Nothing Plays Low

Nothing plays at Glasslands in Brooklyn, NY on April 4, 2014. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
Nothing plays at Glasslands in Brooklyn, NY on April 4, 2014. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

I don’t think anyone would confuse me for being a true metal or hardcore guy. Though, I do dabble: So much of the music I listen to and see live in concert borders into those worlds, and every day I find a new band that takes me further into this realm of music. I’m attracted to the in-your-face assault of droning feedback and screaming guitar distortion. Maybe it’s the immediacy of a band filling a room with noisy bliss, and seeing them thrash around on stage (and sometimes in the crowd) with furious, fist-pumping anthems. Or maybe there’s been a boom lately of new young bands doing this stuff in a new way. Who knows. Column A. Meet Column B.

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Shearwater: Grandiose Cover Songs

Shearwater's album, Fellow Travelers, is out now.
Shearwater’s album, Fellow Travelers, is out now.

Shearwater is no stranger to high concept rock music. Through its first three albums, frontman Jonathan Meiburg built an ambitious trilogy around his interests in nature and science, and ornithology, masterfully marrying indie rock with prog rock grandiosity. Then, with 2012’s Animal Joy, the band totally shifted, downsizing in scope, yet crafting lean and distorted rockers.

So it’s not all that surprising that Meiburg’s next move was another conceptual album: On each of Fellow Travelers‘ ten songs, Meiburg and company pays tribute to an artist with whom the band has toured.

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Judging By The Cover: Six Great Cover Songs I Heard In Concert In 2013

All too often, bands you’re dying to check out — especially new ones — play shortened sets due to only having like ten songs to pull from — and you tend to walk away feeling a tad unsatisfied. I’ve always thought this is the perfect excuse to work up a cover song: It not only fleshes out the set, but, in many ways, introduces the audience to a band’s influences and own songs, and ultimately wins over fans. If a young band pulls out a great cover song, it actually makes me want to delve into its original music more. Go figure. So yeah, I love a well-chosen cover song, and especially one pulled off live in concert.

And this year, I was lucky enough to hear a bunch of them. Here’s a few:

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‘Space Oddity’… In Spaaaaace!

For the last five months, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has served as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station. And while in space, he’s made some fun and surprisingly educational videos: You may have seen him making a sandwich or wringing out water from a wet towel.

Hadfield’s latest video is perhaps his best yet: a music video of a stunning  cover version David Bowie’s 1969 classic and space tragedy “Space Oddity.” The video is gorgeously shot (hello lens flares!) and edited, and as you see Hadfield slowly floating and singing alone on the space station, it’s remarkably poignant.

Judging By The Cover: ‘Wonderful Christmastime’

I have mixed feelings about Christmas songs. I don’t celebrate the holiday, so I don’t have any sentimental or spiritual reasons for listening to these songs. And it’s easy to get inundated with holiday music playing at every place you turn from basically October until New Years. But despite all that, I do tend to enjoy the music for music’s sake, when it’s not too overplayed. I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Typically my favorite Christmas songs tend to be those that invoke a bit of melancholy, introspection, or even subversion, rather than being sugary sweet. Newer songs like Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Sam Phillips’ “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” or many of Sufjan Stevens’ new songs on his two massive box sets have been excellent additions that find that right tone.

But I’ll admit, sometimes I just want to hear a big burst of joy.

One of my favorite songs from this time of year is Paul McCartney’s 1979 hit “Wonderful Christmastime,” known for that distinctive synth riff from a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. McCartney did a pretty delightful version to end Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and it got me thinking about how much I like this song.

“Wonderful Christmastime” is a song that I think many view as treacly and overly sentimental McCartney pop, the way a lot of his post-Beatles music is viewed. Sure, it has got no teeth. This ain’t “Helter Skelter” — let alone “Jet.” But to me, this song, and especially the chorus “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” is impossibly catchy and actually fun. And as part of a mix of newer holiday fare, it’s a nice addition to the canon.

Still, “Wonderful Christmastime” has been pretty popular, inspiring its fair share of reinterpretations — from Barenaked Ladies and Hilary Duff to Jars Of Clay. None of them have been particularly good. But just this year, I’ve heard two new covers of this song and both are fairly solid offerings.

The first, by The Shins, on a new Starbucks-produced compilation album called Holidays Rule*, is a more-or-less straight-up indie pop recreation. It’s a perfectly fine and serviceable rendition, but doesn’t quite add enough of James Mercer’s flavor. But it also certainly doesn’t detract at all from McCartney’s original. Sometimes a new artist playing a song as you want to hear it is enough.

*As far as new Christmas comps go, Holidays Rule has some decent selections played by many artists I really love: Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, The Civil Wars, Eleanor Friedberger, Y La Bamba, Andrew Bird, and even McCartney himself. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The other cover of “Wonderful Christmastime” that I’ve heard is by a brand new baby band Ex Cops. The Brooklyn band’s upcoming 2013 debut True Hallucinations is already a favorite new discovery of mine, so it’s cool to hear them play those synthy chords and then give the chorus an energetic boost of crunchy guitar distortion and throttling drumming.

Compare And Contrast: ‘Game Of Pricks’

It’s difficult to truly calculate how many songs have been recorded by indie veterans Guided By Voices and its frontman Robert Pollard. Certainly hundreds. Maybe thousands? But it’s safe to say that with such a giant output over the years, it’s hard for fans to know where to start, what records to listen to, or which songs to focus in on with way-too-prolific band. Sometimes it just takes a single song as an entry point. This is the case for me and GBV.

Like many, one of my favorites that’s stuck with me over the years from Guided By Voices is “Game Of Pricks” from the band’s album Alien Lanes.

The main draw for me is the way this feels completely realized with excellent hooks, despite being under two minutes. Much of Pollard’s work is concise, but his last five to ten records have more “unfinished” sketches in need of a second verse than lean pop bangers like “Game Of Pricks.”

But another reason why “Game Of Pricks” has become one of my favorite songs is two cover versions recorded in the last few years. Both do an excellent job of keeping it straightforward and simple in their approach, but still maintain the lax, grunged-out feel and relatable point of view. Sometimes a cover song need not completely reinvent, strip down or rethink, but just be a kick ass interpretation that makes you remember how great the song is. These two covers do that and then some.

Here’s Telekinesis’ version, from the EP, Parallel Seismic Conspiracies:

and here’s a decent live version from Telekinesis:

And then there’s this cover version from fellow longtime indie rocker, Lou Barlow (best known for his work with Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr.), from a GBV compilation, Sing For Your Meat: A Tribute To Guided By Voices.

Also be sure to check out a cool performance of the song by violinist extraordinaire Owen Pallett, as part of The A.V. Club’s Undercover series.

Judging By The Cover: Chromatics, ‘Into The Black’

Chromatics are getting ready to put out their first album in five years. To tease a little, they’ve released this reworked cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My MY,” titled “Into The Black.” It’s nice and moody. Also dig this retro, split screen video.

Old Things That Are New To Me: The Pop Group’s ‘Y’

Sometimes there are bands that I’ve heard of, and read things about, but never actually heard much of. This is the case with The Pop Group, a late 70s, early 80s post punk band that falls in the same wheelhouse as bands I already love like Joy Division, Gang of Four and Talking Heads. I kept seeing their name but strangely, it took another artist covering their work to finally get me to dig in and see what their all about.

On their recent tour, St. Vincent has been playing The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil,” an all-out assault of guitar noise and seething and sexy, if not disturbing vocals. St. Vincent played this song last night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a ballsy move for the talk show crowd who just want to hear something off the new record. But for singer and guitarist Annie Clark, it’s a perfect song to cover.

Clark has perfected this juxtaposition between alluring image, silky voice and stunningly beautiful melodic arrangements with fucked up lyrics of pain, loneliness and violent thoughts. And her guitar work is both skillfully dexterous and intensely loud and explosive. I recently caught St. Vincent on this Strange Mercy tour at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club, where she showed off her sweet, witty side and her under-the-surface boiling turmoil that manifests itself with her bursts of guitar feedback and killer riffs. Mid-show, Clark busted out The Pop Group song and it enveloped the entire room with white hot distortion.

Clark showed early signs of this newer, rawer direction during this year’s Our Concert Could Be Your Life show, Clark and a rotating cast of great indie rock bands paid tribute to the previous generations of indie rock that were depicted in the exceptional Michael Azzerad book Our Band Could Be Your Life. There, Clark pulled out “Kerosene” by Big Black, a song that first made a lot of people rethink how Clark could own the stage.

Seeing St. Vincent cover The Pop Group sold me and made me want to finally dig out that band’s 1978 album, Y, and I’m glad I did. It’s a masterful and weird record mixing post punk and funk grooves with avant jazz and experimental noise. They’re brasher, noisier, more experimental and atonal than many of the bands from this era. And they play with angular melodies and off kilter rhythms that at times feel in the pocket and other times completely sprawl out into washes of noise. It’s great, great stuff, even if it IS over 30 years old.

Old Things That Are New To Me: Sebadoh’s ‘Punk Moon’

Earlier today, my friend and co-worker Lars tweeted:

“Accidentally typed “Punk Moon” instead of “Pink Moon.” Oh, Nick Drake, the world would have been so different.”

Which got me to reply:

How hasn’t there been a punk tribute to Nick Drake yet? We got the title right there! How do we make this happen?

Thanks to another friend, and former intern, I was tipped off to an amazing cover of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” played by early ’90s indie rockers Sebadoh. Though a grainy old performance video from 1995, it was clearly a solid, powerful punk-ed out version of the iconic folk song. “Why didn’t they ever record this?” I wondered. But of course, things being the internet and all, I quickly found that they DID record a studio version of this song:

The song appeared on Sebadoh’s 1992 album Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, a compilation album of songs from their Rocking the Forest EP and their Sebadoh vs. Helmet EP. The record served as the band’s Sub Pop debut. While I’m a big fan of Sebadoh, I’ll freely admit I haven’t heard everything, and mostly know their albums The Freed Man, Sebadoh III and Bubble And Scrape. Looks like I have some more homework to do. It’s always cool to find out something new from a band like this.

Washed Out Covers Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’

Recently Washed Out performed for Sirius XMU Sessions, during which they performed a short but well-realized cover of Chris Isaak’s lovely 1989 slow jam ballad “Wicked Game,” from his record Heart Shaped World. It’s a great reminder to how amazing the original is.

Check out Isaak’s performance on Late Night with David Letterman (back when he was on NBC) from March 1991. Excellent version.