So, you know those YouTube "unboxing" videos where people film themselves opening up new electronic devices while giving an impromptu review of the item? We're gonna do that, but with albums, in our new feature "Unlistening."
Covered: A Revolution in Sound is a compilaton of cover songs celebrating Warner Bros. Records 50th Anniversary. AllMusic editors Stephen Thomas Erlewine and Matt Collar sat down together to give you their thoughts on first listen.
MC: So, what are we about to unlisten?
STE: What we have here is Covered: A Revolution in Sound -- a tie-in to the ongoing celebration of Warner Bros. Records' 50th Anniversary.
MC: I'm already confused, but okay.
STE: So far, there has been a box set of original Warner Recordings -- a CD set, plus a longer USB set -- a real nice hardcover book released by Chronicles, and now Covered, which follows the old trick of freshening up old hits by having modern rockers cover them. Kinda like that new Nat King Cole Re: Generations thing... but with lots more guitars.
MC: Okay, I think I get it now.
STE: It IS a little confusing. The title tells the tale of the album but doesn't necessarily let you know -- and that's part of the problem of this Warner anniversary campaign: lots of money spent, but it's been under the radar.
Anyway, onto the music. I always have a problem with the concept of this kind of thing.
MC: Cuz it's never done right?
STE: More like I'm not sure if it works in either direction -- I don't think it brings new listeners to old bands, old listeners to new bands, and often it feels a little forced. Although I do like the Rubaiyat: Elektra's 40th Anniversary, which this is very similar to.
MC: Ah yes, that was a pretty good set.
STE: Yeah, there were lots of great covers -- some unpredictable ones, too, like Sugarcubes doing Sailcat.
MC: Right -- didn't the Cure cover Hendrix too?
STE: Yes, but that's on the 1993 Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix album -- which just happens to be one album that I think of when I think of how I don't like these kinds of projects!
MC: HA! So many tribute/cover records my brain can't keep them straight.
STE: Exactly -- and I'm sure you have them all on your shelf.
MC: Of course. So track one.
STE: Mastodon doing ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid."
MC: Mastodon is blowing up lately, sort of.
MC: I think the name might imply a level of awesomeness that I don't know if this track quite lives up to.
STE: I would agree -- and I don't think it's quite as nasty as it should be. Not bad, but kind of dutiful.
MC: It sounds a bit like a Muppets version of Mountain. This, again, sounds more awesome than it really does.
STE: Yeah that sounds better on paper.
MC: The riff isn't greasy enough.
STE: I think the problem is that they're a little bit too precise -- which works for their music, but not on a ZZ Top cover. Still, not an embarrassment.
STE: In contrast, I think the Black Keys do bring something of themselves to Captain Beefheart's "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles."
MC: Yeah, I'm not familiar at all with this song, but it sounds just right for Black Keys.
STE: It's still a little bit too influenced by Dangermouse for my taste -- don't know if he actually produced this -- but it's good. And I do like that they picked something that's not familiar.
MC: Could easily be a leftover track from Dan Auerbach's solo record.
STE: I think the solo album has a bit more dirt than this, but that's a subtle difference. I like this though -- a cut that I'd listen to on its own, makes me want to hear the Beefheart original.
MC: Yeah, once again it's fine if not a revelation. It also lacks a kind of lived-in dirt, which seems to be a burgeoning theme here.
STE: Well, in comparison to what comes next, there's a whole lot of grit and muscle in this, because Michelle Branch's version of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" is precisely what I have a problem with on these things -- perfectly fine, perfectly forgettable renditions that are almost a Xerox.
MC: This sounds like a left-over track from the last Mandy Moore album.
MC: Which makes it sound a lot more awesome than it really is.
STE: I don't necessarily have a problem with that, but there's not much of a hook here -- Branch sounds better singing her own songs, this winds up being a little run of the mill.
MC: And, frankly, does NOT make me want to go hear the Joni Mitchell version.
STE: Why is that?
MC: Sort of what you said -- not much of a hook. I don't really like the song. Perhaps those lyrics coming from Mitchell would be meaningful. From Branch they just seem like meandering drivel.
STE: It's the singer not the song, eh?
MC: Yeah, perhaps.
STE: I can see why this doesn't grab you -- it's a great song, but Branch doesn't dig into it much.
STE: And I feel that way about Against Me!'s "Here Comes a Regular" too, which is WAY too faithful to the Replacements -- right down to the closely mic'ed 12-string acoustic guitar. And since the original was done in one take, it feels very odd to have something that mimics a recording that was tossed-off (in the best possible sense of tossed-off).
MC: Ha! Is this what Against Me! normally sounds like? I mean, they are a "punk" band of sorts right?
STE: They are punk, political, but they do have a wider spectrum -- the guy plays a Rickenbacker 360 after allâ€¦
MC: This sound less like the Replacements and more like Collective Soul or something.
STE: Or Goo Goo Dolls trying to sound like the Replacements?
MC: AH -- on the nose!
STE: Again, I don't think this is BAD but it's so close to the original.
MC: And I really want them to rip it up at some point. The polite solo really doesn't cut it.
STE: I wish they had taken more liberties with it -- it needs something
MC: Yeah, itâ€™s beyond reverent. Fades out -- BOO!
STE: And let's face it -- if there ever was a great band that shouldn't be treated with complete reverence, it's the Replacements! Cover them like they covered Zeppelin or Kiss.
STE: Alright, onto Misty Higgins, who has turned Roxy Music's "More Than This" into incidental music for Grey's Anatomy.
STE: Again, not horrible -- but stripping latter-day Roxy of its silken sensuality feels as wrong as treating Replacements with so much reverence.
MC: It's pleasant and stuff.
STE: And that's all it is.
MC: Oh, I hear the banjo/mandolin though, and I want to break stuff.
STE: Too tasteful for you? Too precious, too NPR?
MC: Yeah, basically -- a twee kind of quirky.
STE: James Otto is another one that is too reverent -- it'd be better if there were steel guitars doing the horn riff on Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic."
MC: The horns are done nice.
STE: Great song, done faithfully.
MC: He might even sound better to me than Van Morrison.
STE: That's a bold statement!
MC: Yeah, but really I'm not a huge fan of Morrison's vocals.
STE: Fair enough.
MC: I respect the guy and all.
STE: Otto is better here than his album was -- that had too much Big & Rich shtick, this shows he can do more. Funny thing is that "Into the Mystic" is one of his more restrained performances.
MC: Reminds of something Taylor Hicks would do.
STE: HA! Yes, this is a more subtle Taylor.
MC: The song is really the star here.
STE: And they do this faithfully -- but there's a bit of room for soul, not just reverence. I think it's because the song is more open for covers than "Here Comes a Regular."
MC: Okay -- am I insane or is the next track Adam Sandler covering Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane"?
STE: Yes, yes it is, and not as the Lunch Lady either.
MC: NO! This is absurdly earnest.
STE: I can't get my head around it -- he's doing it straight, even mimicking inflections. And it's just... weird.
MC: Yeah, I want to laugh, but it won't come out.
STE: That's the thing -- it's hard to laugh at it. Which means I like it more than a lot of the rest here! It's interesting.
MC: HA! I can see that.
STE: It's not comedy, not even unintentionally.
MC: The production is a bit tepid.
MC: Is he playing guitar too? I mean the solo?
STE: Not sure -- he might be.
MC: That was a pretty nice solo. I like that this sounds live.
STE: Yeah, there are actually elements here that work, I just can't figure out the intention.
MC: It sounds like something you'd hear in the late '80s. And the fade out works too!
STE: It's so strange.
STE: "You Wreck Me" points out that bands like Taking Back Sunday haven't really learned how to work a groove.
MC: That's exactly what I was thinking! It's all smoothed out, rounded corners.
STE: Right, and then they even go for affected vocal inflections. It's not a disaster but they sound stiff and small.
MC: Yeah, shows all the pitfalls of the emo aesthetic. It's limp.
STE: Diminished -- they don't really ride the riff. Because this is the biggest rocker on Wildflower.
MC: Ha, the singer says "smokin' hot" -- ouch. Sorry bro, but it's not, it's just not.
MC: OH BOY!
STE: Not prepared for the Used's version of Talking Heads' "Burning Down The House," eh?
MC: YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! Well, at least it's not reverent.
STE: That's a point in their favor. The only one.
MC: Yeah, this is in completely bad taste.
STE: Which is kind of the Used's calling card. They have no taste -- not even bad taste, they just don't know much better. And it's just ugly -- it's a typical "punked- up" cover, with a bunch of crap thrown on top.
MC: Sub-par Prodigy.
STE: So bad that it takes away whatever credit they would have gotten for at least not copying the original arrangement.
STE: Which almost makes Disturbed's faithful slog through Faith No More's "Midlife Crisis" a relief.
MC: You mean this isn't just a remix?
STE: You may be right, I may be mistaken. Sure is hard to tell.
MC: That really sounds like Mike Patton.
STE: It does, and just makes me more interested in the Faith No More reunion.
MC: I imagine, if this gets played on the radio, a lot of people will be confused as to why Faith No More is suddenly making the rotation.
STE: Well, it's just publicity for the reunion, that's all.
MC: What's funny is that this is one of Faith's biggest hits and I never knew "Midlife Crisis" was the song title.
STE: Avenged Sevenfold doing Black Sabbath's "Paranoid"?
MC: S T E R E O S E P A R A T I O N.
MC: Who hasn't covered "Paranoid"?!
STE: Again, the problem for me is precision -- it's too careful, needs some mistakes.
MC: I wish they had just repeated that main riff over and over without vocals.
STE: Yeah -- that would be bludgeoning! This just... is.
MC: Not much else to say there.
STE: Nope, and that brings us to the piece de resistance -- Flaming Lips' inversion of Madonna's "Borderline."
MC: Now, this is does border on revelatory. This might be one of the most inspired cover songs I've come across.There's some real love here.
STE: I could see that -- I miss the main riff, but they smartly bring it back at the end when it comes crashing in.
MC: Makes me FEEL how much I like the original.
STE: Ah, that's an excellent point. It feels like they know it enough to turn it inside out and after so much reverence, such imagination has a greater punch.
MC: Totally, like they've been messing around with this for years.
STE: Now, I wouldn't necessarily put it on that much... but, I sure do prefer it to much of what came before.
MC: I dunno, I'm probably gonna listen to this a bunch of times now. It's a great mixtape track. It kind of makes me all tingly.
STE: So it makes the whole project worthwhile for you then?
MC: Man, you're puttin' me on the spot there. Sure, why not? What's funny is that we are sort wishing the album had been in more bad taste or less good taste.
STE: Totally -- I think at least a little bad taste would make it interesting. Because say what you will about the Used -- and it's a horrible track -- at least it's not forgettable as a paint-by-numbers.
MC: Being reverent to pop music made in the last 30 years is sort of boring right?
STE: Well, reverence can be fine, as long as it's done with some passion but a project like this never engenders passion -- it's dutiful.
MC: Yeah, pop music -- er, pop covers, I should say -- should either be passionate and inspired or so bad you can't get the taste out of your mouth.
STE: You're onto something there -- well it can also can be true of pop in general. But this, well, it almost feels like an obligation... which it may well be for everybody involved.
MC: Us included...
STE: And... wrap.