Pilgrim’s Playlist: Two Intriguing Covers Albums

whitehorse-northernsouthI love cover tunes because to me, it’s almost impossible to ruin a great song. I could listen to the worst, off-key butchery of a beloved classic and still hear the original version running in the back of my brain, and still marvel at how well written it is. At their very worst, cover songs are reminders of better things.

Here are two recently released covers albums with very different approaches that surprised and intrigued me.

Whitehorse – The Northern South Vol. 1

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As a species, we make new stuff by improving on old stuff. Prehistoric humans invented fire, which led to metallurgy, which led to the industrial age, which ultimately led to the digital revolution. The Rock & Roll pioneers invented a type of music which led to Rock, which ultimately led to every Rock sound and subgenre under the sun.

Building on top of previous achievements is one thing, but going back to using the same materials as the early pioneers is quite another. Yet that’s exactly what Whitehorse does on their new covers EP. They go right back to the original materials – songs from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Walter among others – and try to build something new with them. That’s kind of like a computer programmer recreating a prehistoric fire pit in order to build a new app.

But Whitehorse’s bold experiment pays off. The band, consisting of former solo artists Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, brings the perfect balance of reverence and revision needed to make covering the old pioneers worthwhile. The two are both roots-based to begin with, but they come up with a surprising array of electronic and acoustic studio flourishes to make their versions of these old nuggets sound unlike any other.

The telephone vocals and crisp tempos make Howlin Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle” sound eternal. “Pretty Thing” brilliantly keeps Bo Diddley’s trademark beat only on a wooden block, while a slowed-down “Nadine” driven by a drum machine gives Chuck Berry’s great lyric a surreal new feel. Doucet gets fantastic sounds out of his guitar, and his tone-perfect licks and solos provide the crowning touch on a really fine piece of work.




Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites

This is a strange and fascinating collection of covers, and if you come at it the right way, it holds some really beautiful moments. Mark Kozelek has been the driving force behind Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, two indie Rock acts that showcase Kozelek’s brooding, poetic and intensely personal brand of guitar Rock.

Well he’s kind of gone off the deep end with this one. Accompanied mostly by a solo piano, Kozelek takes on some of the biggies from the old-school American Songbook, including “Send In The Clowns”, “Moon River” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. And as far as my rusty irony detector can tell, it’s all on the level. Kozelek has, after all, played lots of covers on albums and in concerts throughout his career.

His fragile vocals are so unassuming that it kind of sounds like the janitor snuck into the studio late at night to lay down some takes. And yet, he hits most of the notes, and his tentatively emotional delivery brings a fresh, Gen-X-flavored pathos to the old chestnuts. And seriously, if “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” isn’t the greatest song ever written, surely it’s the greatest pop melody ever.

Other covers on the album aren’t quite so contextually jarring. His voice is perfect for 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”, and he added some nice swirling vocal effects making it more faithful to the original. Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” and David Bowie’s “Win” are sweet little artifacts. And Modern Mouse’s “Float On” sure takes on a different meaning when it’s performed like a church hymn.

For an introspective mood when you feel like singing along to a great song or two, this might be a good one to dial up.



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