Various Artists

The Believer's Covers Compilation Comp

(The Believer; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 22 June 2005

I love covers. I mean these things have to be right up there with (well-executed) concept albums and Johnny Greenwood solos. Hearing an artist interpret another artist’s work can be a true test of musical merit, both of the original work and the interpreter’s talent. Does it stick close to the original (Yo La Tengo’s cover of Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby”), take on all the characteristics of the interpreter’s musical taste (Iron & Wine’s beautiful “From Such Great Heights”), or find some happy medium (Cat Power’s perfect and totally unexpected “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”)? Is it too ironic (a la Secret Machines “Money (That’s What I Want)”) or just ironic enough (Radiohead’s “Nobody Does It Better” phase and Devendra Banhart’s fondness for “Step in the Name of Love” immediately come to mind)? Sonic Youth failing to back up their pledge to cover the White Album is still a disappointment. I come up with imaginary mixtapes of covers that should be happening. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to hear Stephen Malkmus cover “Marquee Moon,” My Morning Jacket do “Lay Lady Lay,” or Sufjan Stevens try out Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes”?

Understandably, I was more than a little excited about Believer magazine’s compilation of covers (curated by Matthew Derby) by some of their (and my) favorite artists. It’s by no means a complete list of good cover bands (no YLT or Cat Power?), and there are, of course, plenty of artists that I’d love to hear covers from that are not represented (Calexico, A.C. Newman, Joanna Newsom, The Futureheads), but it is nonetheless an impressive line-up of artists playing some great songs. This doesn’t guarantee a great compilation (and in this case the disc isn’t entirely successful-the sluggish middle section weighs it down significantly), but there’s enough good material on here to provide mix-tape fodder for months.

Where it succeeds, the Believer comp does so very, very well. Spoon’s interpretation of Electr-o-Pura opener “Decora” showcases their style of crisp minimalism melding with the beautifully murky sound of the original. Britt Daniel’s vocals sound perfect in Georgia Hubley’s role, and they build the track into a gorgeous rock crescendo that would make YLT proud. CocoRosie, always better in small doses, pull off a typically ethereal and lovely cover of Damien Jurado’s “Ohio,” but are out-done by the Mountain Goats’ take on The Natural Bridge‘s “Pet Politics.” For those of us who love the idea of Darnielle covering Berman, this is a treat, and he makes the most of one of the weaker tracks in The Silver Jews’ discography.

This is all well and good, but the real standouts are on the second half, starting off with The Shins’ “We Will Become Silhouettes,” which manages to amaze as a light-hearted, Elephant 6-style pop number with an almost country twang. It doesn’t sound all that much like The Shins and pretty much nothing like The Postal Service, but it’s a hell of a track. Cynthia G. Mason’s take on “Surprize, AZ” is the most beautiful of the plodding middle section, but it’s the closing set that makes the disc work. Mount Eerie’s take on Thanksgiving’s “Waterfalls” isn’t particularly noteworthy, but Devendra Banhart’s barnstorming version of Antony & the Johnson’s “Fistful of Love” is almost as soulful and heartfelt as the brilliant original. While the song does feel like it was recorded at the same time as Vetiver’s track and has the same weak production, it’s still a great match for Devendra. Wolf Parade’s take on Frog Eyes’ “Claxxon’s Lament” is faultless, frontman Dan Boeckner delivering his melancholy lines beautifully over the slow, well-produced closer.

Not everything is so rosy. The song I was most immediately excited about, The Decemberists’ cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Bridges and Balloons,” is one of the more disappointing here. Part of it is bad advertisement-this is just Colin Meloy and his acoustic guitar, not the whole band-but mostly it feels steamrolled. The full band could have fleshed out Newsom’s simple and lovely melody, but by himself Meloy loses much of the song’s beauty. The usually reliable Constantines falter with “Why I Didn’t Like August ’93,” which just comes off as non-descript. Also, as previously mentioned, the middle section of the album feels muddled, with Josephine Foster getting lost in the shuffle and Jim Guthrie delivering a merely solid rock turn with his cover of The Constantines “Night Time, Anytime.”

I find it hard not to give this a higher rating; sure, it’s not a great compilation, and the sequencing leaves much to be desired, but this is behavior we should be encouraging. At the least, Believer is off to a great start. Let’s make this annual; let’s make it expected of musicians; let’s make it weird; and let’s make it a bit better in future. Given the amount of talent Believer has managed to attract for this comp, that last goal ought to be well with in their reach.