SONIC REDUCER Cover albums critics stuck on music-maker-as-auteur theories, singer-songwriter elitists, and band-as-prime-mover rockists have long believed them the easy way out. Cat Power has succumbed twice, Dirty Projectors once, Scarlett Johansson completely surrendered to the mix of her forthcoming Tom Waits covers long-player only to be upstaged by the production of TV on the Radio's David Sitek. Still, despite the presence of so many tuneless, karaoke-jacked wannabes ready to grab their 15 minutes, even the talented are tempted to linger in the shadows of giants, bringing their own ideas and sound to a few of the many great, perhaps forgotten, songs and stories swirling in the ether. Why look down on the cover disc?
San Francisco songsmith Andy Cabic, who plays Great American Music Hall with his band Vetiver on May 6 for the first time since August, dusts his shoulders of such snobbery. "I don't know why there would be a critical bias against cover records," he opines outside Sacramento at the Hanger studio where he's three days into the next Vetiver album of original numbers. "Maybe a critic should try to do a covers record and see how good it comes out before they say there's something wrong with it."
Cabic's not ashamed to point out that "throwback is all over" Vetiver's new collection of offbeat covers, Thing of the Past (Gnomonsong). The retro album art depicting a pretty girl studying old vinyl was shot at Cabic's Inner Richmond flat, highlighting just a fraction of his impressive stash of records and the music was made by the band a group of old friends from North Carolina that Cabic assembled to tour Vetiver's To Find Me Gone (Dicristina Stair, 2006).
Wasn't it Bob Dylan and the Beatles who triggered so many critics to privilege songwriters over interpreters? "I was just having a conversation with someone about what caused it," Cabic says. "I think you'd have to attribute it to Bob Dylan. The Beatles' first two records had covers. I still love those records that were put together by the whole machinery of an A&R person, a singer, and songs by the great writers of that moment. But I chose songs that weren't of the moment songs that were timeless or not easily heard today, songs I thought we could do well." Well is an understatement: Thing is a lovely, tenderly rendered amalgam of the band's distinctive sound, Cabic's hushed voice, unusual covers which run the gamut from Biff Rose's "To Baby" to David Brock and Hawkwind's "Hurry on Sundown" to San Jose mystery songwriter Dia Joyce's "Sleep a Million Years" and guest turns by underground folk luminaries like Michael Hurley and Vashti Bunyan. "The interesting aspect of doing covers is that there's a mixture of restraint and freedom in doing them," Cabic muses.
Another recent notable cover project is Shelby Lynne's sensuous dust-up with Dusty Springfield's catalog, Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway). Lynne, who plays the Fillmore on May 1, has caught her share of acclaim for this spare collection sans the plush arrangements of Springfield's versions and teeming with Lynne's tremulous, haunted soul. So why covers, apart from the fact that Lynne's chum Barry Manilow suggested it? "I think people want to hear good stuff," she says from her Houston tour stop, with sharpshooter directness and the twangs of a tempestuous girlhood spent in Alabama. "Not a lot of good out there. I'm talking about if you wanna listen to classic music, you always reach back."
What Lynne loved about Springfield was "the song selection and she was a great honest singer. The production I love it was Jerry Wexler and the Memphis sound," though she quickly adds, "I was trying to stay away from that.