Earlier this month, I reviewed the new Bob Dylan album Shadows in the Night. There, Dylan recorded a dozen songs popularized by Frank Sinatra, performing them in almost a tribute to that style: little percussion, lots of horns, and a muted, late-night vibe. As I wrote then, I think it’s a successful experiment: he doesn’t just pay tribute to strong songs, but frankly sounds more alive than he has in a while.
Anyway, listening to that got me thinking about Neil Young’s record from early 2014 A Letter Home, another record entirely comprised of covers. And from there, I found myself going into a sinkhole of cover albums, ranging from Elvis Costello’s country period to Guns and Roses tackling 70’s punk.
When an artist releases an entire album of someone else’s songs, it could be as simple as fulfilling a contract or buying time for a band to regroup or an interesting re-imagining of something familiar. Like any record, they can be great or boring, inspired or lazy. Sometimes they can be all at the same time. Let’s start with Young.
Released at the beginning of last year, A Letter Home was one of Young’s predictable / unpredictable knuckleballs. After denying he was recording a new album and hitting the talk show rounds to promote Pono, his ultra-high fidelity music device, Young released an album of covers that sounded like it was recorded on a boom box. It’s scratchy, dated and kind of charming, although I don’t turn to it often and when I do, I always wonder if I accidentally got a bum copy. And of course Young released an ultra-expensive audiophile vinyl version of something recorded on primitive equipment. Rating: 2/5
The funny thing is this isn’t Neil’s first foray into an album of all covers. Just a couple years before, he quietly released Americana, where him and Crazy Horse jammed out on a bunch of old traditional numbers (and also “God Save the Queen,” which used to be Canada’s national anthem). Quickly forgotten when the double-record Psychedelic Pill was released, this might be a hidden gem of the Young catalogue: his guitar playing is on-point, his singing is as strong as anything he released this decade and Crazy Horse just tears into the material, giving old folkie standards a huge kick of energy. As Young himself says between tracks, “it gets into a good groove.” But the backing vocals are a nice touch, too. Rating: 4/5
Two albums of covers are more than most artists ever release, but Elvis Costello has also released two. More, if you count the double-CD reissues that came out a decade ago. They’re not always successful: 1995’s Kojak Variety was recorded in the Barbados and sounds like a bunch of guys enjoying a musical vacation. It’s about as much fun to listen to as their vacation stories probably are, too.
More successful is 1981’s Almost Blue, which he recorded with The Attractions and a bunch of Nashville session players. At the time, Costello was still generally seen as a new wave-ish guy, angry and verbose. So when he released an album of country music covers (and not even rockin’ outlaw country, but oldies!) his label saw fit to put a warning label on copies.
But it’s not really a surprise: even on his first album, he was displaying country influences (see: “Stranger in the House”). And both him and The Attractions are in top form on this, either pounding through songs like “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do?” or slowing down on standards like Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1.” It’s also interesting to hear how much country influence is in his songwriting when you jump from this to his other albums. I especially like “Sittin’ and Thinkin’,” and “Success,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of his other albums. Rating: 4/5
While I’m talking of influences, let’s shift to another covers album: David Bowie’s 1973 release Pin Ups. Probably more famous for it’s cover – featuring a mulleted and pale Bowie posing next to Twiggy – than for it’s music, it’s an interesting piece of the Bowie puzzle. There’s glammed out (and rather forgettable) covers of songs by The Who, Van Morrison, and Pink Floyd, but the real keeper is “Sorrow,” which is more restrained and a showcase for Bowie’s singing (and a slight glimpse at where he was headed musically, too!). Rating: 2.5/5
That same month, The Band released their own covers album, Moondog Matinee. Like Pin Ups, this one showed where Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and the rest of The Band were coming from musically, ranging from Elvis Presley (“Mystery Train”) to Chuck Berry (“Promised Land”) to film noir (“Theme from The Third Man”). But unlike Bowie or Costello, The Band wasn’t able to make their versions sound especially distinct. If anything, it feels like a ploy to buy time as their output slowed to a trickle. Indeed, before long they’d hit the road with Bob Dylan and record one final album (1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross) before disintegrating around the bloated concert movie The Last Waltz. Rating: 2/5
And sometimes a ploy is all a covers album seems to be. No album feels this way more than Guns & Roses final record, 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?. By this time, they’d been through highs and lows, growing from a sleazy hard rock band to one of the biggest rockers of the 90s. It’s easy to forget, but they were pretty ubiquitous for a while and bordered on pompous: take the “November Rain” video, for example, with it’s gratuitous crane shots. Editor’s Note: Possibly the greatest song and video of all time…
As the band splintered apart, they rushed out one final record, covering a bunch of artists they enjoyed – mostly late 70s punk. They cover the Sex Pistols (“Black Leather”), The Damned (“New Rose”) and The Stooges (“Raw Power”), sounding listless and bored while doing so. The Johnny Thunders cover (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”) is decent, but that speaks more to the song than the band. And the Charles Manson cover? The less said, the better. Rating: 1/5
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.