So far, it's been another strong year when it comes to cover songs. But unlike the last few years, when those songs might have appeared on compilations or charity albums, the majority have been offered as part of various online music series or served directly from the musicians to their audience. Here are five of my favorites so far.
1) Beck's Record Club Covers INXS — "Never Tear Us Apart" (featuring St. Vincent, Liars, Os Mutantes)
It's been two years since Beck has put out an official release, but dude's still been busy: He produced and co-wrote Charlotte Gainsbourg's album IRM, produced tracks for Jamie Lidell, had guest appearances with Tobacco and Bat For Lashes, and even dropped a new song on the True Blood soundtrack. For most, that might be enough, especially for an off cycle.
Still, Beck soldiers on with his amazing website feature Record Club, in which he invites his friends and fellow musicians to cover an entire album in one day and release it song-by-song once a week. In its recently completed fourth iteration, Beck covered INXS' Kick, with St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Liars and Os Mutantes. The project ebbs and flows between inspired takes and sloppy yet fun one-offs. This deconstruction of the power ballad "Never Tear Us Apart" might end up being the album's highlight thanks to the sexy and soulful singing of Clark. They also (thankfully) replace the original version's cheesy sax solo with a soaring violin.
2) Wye Oak Covers The Kinks On The A.V. Club's Undercover — "Strangers"
The best part about The A.V. Club's ongoing video series Undercover is its simple concept. As is laid out in every intro, The A.V. Club made a list of 25 songs. It then invited bands to cover those songs for a video shoot, crossing each song off the list as the bands do them. That is, once a track is taken, the next band has one less song available to play.
The series has yielded some nice work from Ted Leo playing Tears for Fears, The Antlers doing Pink Floyd and one of my favorites, Wye Oak and Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg doing The Kinks' "Strangers." Earlier this spring, I caught Wye Oak and Shearwater at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C., and was able to catch a sneak preview of Meiburg and Wye Oak playing this song live. There's nothing fancy about their more or less straightforward version. But the combination of Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner's and Meiburg's voices and Wasner's thick guitar distortion pushes it up a notch for me.
3) Ted Leo Covers Nick Lowe On Twitter — "So It Goes"
Sometimes following a musician you don't know on Twitter can pay off. Back in January, I came across Ted Leo's Twitter feed (@tedleo), and soon found that he was regularly posting links to MP3s of songs he recorded with his band The Pharmacists during his nightly warm-up sessions. Almost all of the songs sounded like rough, single-take renditions, just to get the blood flowing on something comfortable. Among the best was an incredible take on Nick Lowe's "So It Goes." Leo has recently been performing it in concert, finding a way to capture the energy of Lowe's original with only an electric guitar. The song is a perfect mix of raw garage-pop melodies and crunchy, punky guitars, making it ideal for an artist like Ted Leo.
4) Kyp Malone Covers Talking Heads On Our Show With Elliot Aranow — "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)"
Stereogum recently clued me in to a new arts and music web video series on YouTube, Our Show With Elliot Aranow. One of the first features was from TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, who was performing Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)." While the footage is grainy and washed out, and the sound just a step or two above a typical fan-shot video, Malone's version of the Talking Heads classic brings newfound melodicism to the words and a loose energy throughout. The video opens with Malone's modest disclaimer, "A lot of people told me this is their favorite Talking Heads song and not to s--on it. But I'm just gonna do what happens. It's gonna be what it's gonna be."
5) Dirty Projectors Cover Bob Dylan For Levi's Pioneer Sessions — "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"
Covering Bob Dylan songs: It's remarkable how nearly everyone has done it at some point in their musical careers, but, for me anyway, it rarely grows tired. It's a testament to Dylan's ongoing musical influence and the versatility and adaptability of his songs that artists can take a Dylan work and add their own flavor to it, and the song can remain distinctly Dylan.
The latest comes as part of Levi's Pioneer Sessions, an ongoing promotional series of free song downloads that has artists "recraft the classic songs that inspired their sound." So far, the series has included The Swell Season, John Legend and The Roots, Raphael Saadiq, Passion Pit and many more. Among my favorites is Dirty Projectors' ever-so-slight reworking of Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine." Here, singer David Longstreth pulls out his best Bob Dylan impersonation, encompassing both the same Kermit the Frog honky-tonk croon that Dylan's voice had during those John Wesley Harding/Nashville Skyline years, as well as Longstreth's own signature warble. Still, the song is no knock-off. With the smooth female vocal harmonies and an easygoing backing groove, it's another sturdy Dylan cover to add to the list.