By Zach Schepis
Learning another artist’s song, possibly rearranging it, and then performing it has become one of the longest-standing musical traditions. Despite high-fidelity recordings and staggering new audio production techniques that aim to capture lightning in a file, the collective songwriting cannon of history is first and foremost a lasting tradition. Like a myth or story that is passed down orally over the years, songs, too, will often change shape and faces as they are discovered by new and inspired artists.
Sometimes the cover ends up being better or more memorable than the original composition. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” has become an iconic powerhouse that managed to eclipse Otis Redding’s original.
And whether or not the song makes you want to pull your teeth out, how many of you think about Robert Hazard instead of Cyndi Lauper when “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” plays on the radio? How many of you remember The Leaves rather than Jimi Hendrix when the classic rock staple “Hey Joe” is mentioned? I’d venture to guess not too many.
Although it’s rare, there are some artists for whom a single song simply isn’t enough; they have to cover an entire album’s worth of material. Celebrating the whole album makes sense, since many iconic releases came to define their respective eras, and in some instances, even outgrew the artists that created them.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the best, worst, and most preposterous examples of these album-based covers.
Dave Depper – The RAM Project
Photo by Rebecca Wilson.
Dave Depper is somewhat of a musical mad scientist. Or better yet imagine a young rock and roll Doctor Frankenstein who, donning a pair of headphones, locks himself deep in the shadows of his laboratory, shunning the light of day until his sonic beast has been perfected. The situation may sound ridiculous, but then again, so is Depper.
It all began when the Portland-based musician and Decembrists collaborator set out to record his debut album. Despite writing a number of original tunes, Depper came to the conclusion that what he really wanted to do was remake Paul McCartney’s 1971 album, Ram.
“I didn’t want to interpret it,” he said, “I just wanted to see how close I could get to the original. I felt that if I could do that, then I would somehow earn the entitlement to make my own record.”
This seemingly novel (albeit bizarre) idea soon took hold of Depper’s sanity and wouldn’t let go. The artist only had one mic and one input at his disposal, and ended up recording each drum individually. By the end of the endeavor, Depper stated that he “had gone a little Howard Hughes. Unshaved, not eating… that kind of thing.”
Easy Star All-Stars
Official Dub Side of the Moon cover art.
Rather than undertaking an ambitious cover to further their own creative inspiration, there are other artists who do it to ride on the success of the original album’s legacy. But whether or not they’re making a buck or two covering these mega-hits, Michael Goldwasser’s roots reggae collective do it damn well. Dark Side of the Moon (aptly retitled Dub Side), Sgt. Pepper, and OK Computer (under the moniker Radiodread) are among some of the classics that Easy Star re-imagined as reggae tunes. Bong hits in the intro to “Breathe” notwithstanding, the compositions end up sounding fresh and imaginative.
It might be hard to imagine how you compose a reggae version of a song like “Exit Music (From a Film)”, however, the result was so successful that Radiohead started airing the album before coming on stage.
Luther Wright and the Wrongs – Pink Floyd’s The Wall
Roger Waters’ double album and magnum opus The Wall is a sprawling and seemingly impenetrable composition that remains highly regarded after nearly four decades since its release. Alienation, insanity, and apocalyptic destruction, coupled with over-the-top theatrics and dense compositional arrangements all make this staggering tour-de-force quite the challenge to cover.
However, Pink Floyd’s sprawling achievement didn’t stop Canadian country music troupe Luther Wright and the Wrongs from taking a stab at it. As the band was listening to the The Wall on their van radio, they started to notice how some of the songs exhibited minor-key country riffs. Deciding to cover the album, Wright tweaked some of the lyrics to make the words more relevant to rural life, and even decided to install a wall of hale bales–instead of bricks–around the stage during performances.
Surprisingly, the cover album became recommended by none other than Waters himself.
Camper Van Beethoven – Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk
While we’re talking about monolithic double albums, it’s worth mentioning Camper Van Beethoven’s treatment of the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album Tusk.
Following on the heels of a 10-year hiatus–in which front man David Lowery caught the mainstream eye with Cracker–the rekindled group set out on the ambitious task of re-recording this epic, scatter-brained gem of classic rock. What’s more is that they only gave themselves four days to complete the whole task. Strangest of all, the band decided to fabricate a back-story to go along with the production–which included being trapped by snow in a mountain cabin with a four-track recorder in 1987.
The only consistency which proved to be true was the use of a 1987 Drumulator machine during the recording, which, like in the story, their drummer used after supposedly breaking his arm. CVB’s take on Tusk somehow manages to make the material sound even more outrageous than it did originally; exaggerating qualities like Lindsey Buckingham’s stifled insanity on “Not That Funny” and having Stevie Nicks’s “Sisters of the Moon” sung by a computer.
Beck & the Record Club – The Velvet Underground & Nico
Official The Velvet Underground & Nico cover art.
The genre-hopping, musical mind-bender Beck decided to form Record Club in 2009. He then enlisted the help of musical cohorts like Leslie Feist and Thurston Moore to record their very own version of an established album. A tribute to the debut 1967 Velvet Underground record ended up being their first release in the series, in which the musicians recorded the album in only one day, and released it song-by-song online.
Considering the album was recorded without any previous arranging or rehearsals, you might expect it to sound like a complete disaster. Somehow, however, it ends up sounding remarkably raw and gorgeous.
Beck and company went on to make touching (and sometimes hilarious) versions of the first INXS album, Leonard Cohen’s debut, and Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis but never were the best and most interesting intentions of this fleeting project more apparent than on their maiden voyage.
“Pussy Cats” starring The Walkmen
Official “Pussy Cats” by the Walkmen cover art.
In speaking of beloved indie acts taking on their sometimes elusive heroes, perhaps no single last-minute act of equal parts tribute and self-indulgence is as lovingly performed as The Walkmen’s version of Harry Nilsson’s classic 1973 LP, Pussy Cats. The legend of the original material–produced by John Lennon during his seldom revisited “lost weekend”–is only eclipsed by the quirky circumstances of this novelty project.
After their beloved studio was going to be torn down, the New York City quintet decided to re-record the record track-by-track in a single weekend. The results bring out the best of the band’s characteristic ramshackle approach to pop glory, and perhaps the outright happiest they’ve sounded on disc.
Check out this hilariously tongue-in-cheek (and very brief) documentary on the record below:
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Any list covering album-oriented cover bands that leaves off Phish is kidding itself. These twenty-year strong titans of the jam band scene started a Halloween tradition that has become an annual live staple ever since. In 1994, following up on a surge in popularity and success on the road, the Vermont foursome promised to play an album in its entirety from another band on Halloween night. After counting up mailed-in fan votes, the winner was determined: the White Album by the Beatles.
The tradition kept; the following year’s Madison Square Garden show was when Phish enlisted the help of an entire horn section to play The Who’s Quadrophenia. Other notable albums they have tackled in the years since include Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light–in which David Byrne even took to the stage to guest on a tune. Arguably, the tradition set the tone for many more album-oriented performances and record releases by other artists relative to Phish’s draw to festival shows.
Last but not least, we thought we’d remind you that cover bands can come in all different shapes and sizes…