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Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs
Under the Covers, Vol. 2
Out of the Box
It's always curious when someone uses the term "covers band" as though that's supposed to be a putdown. Maybe if the artist in question does nothing but covers. If not, however, cover versions often say a lot about a performer's own art. Springsteen fans still expect great covers during his shows (although he was the greatest with these in the early days, when he made many his own). The Stones were a great covers band, especially when it came to Chuck Berry and Chess blues, for at least two decades. And it could be argued that Elvis and the Beatles were some of the greatest covers artists of all time. Covers have also made for some truly excellent albums over the years — Bowie's Pin Ups, the Band's Moondog Matinee, Macca's Run, Devil, Run, Dylan's World Gone Wrong and pretty much anything by the Detroit Cobras all come immediately to mind. They've made for some pretty dreadful ones as well but we won't cite which ones so as not to offend anyone with more pedestrian tastes.
Two power-pop icons — from two different eras — have recently given covers albums a shot, with mixed results. Actually, this is Matthew Sweet's second such project, once again teaming up with Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs. The pair recorded an excellent album of '60s rock covers two years ago. Volume 2 now moves things into the 1970s. Even in retrospect, it's simply not true that the '60s produced better rock and pop music than the '70s did. Nevertheless, this one isn't as enticing as Volume 1. Part of it may be the literalness of the covers here. This was also true of the last one, although it didn't come off quite as literal, thanks to covers like "Cinnamon Girl" or "And Your Bird Can Sing," both of which are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to re-create verbatim. And Hoffs succeeded in making her "Different Drum" nearly as sexy as the one that young Linda Ronstadt had recorded years before.
This time, however, something like "You're So Vain" is just too well known and, well, too identical to Carly Simon's original. Ditto "Maggie May," even as sung by a gal. Hell, two of the original artists — Lindsey Buckingham and Yes' Steve Howe, to be exact — show up for guest spots on their respective covers (and, seriously, does "I've Seen All Good People" really need to be covered by anyone at this late date?). It was a nice touch to have Dhani Harrison guest solo on a version of his dad's "Beware of Darkness," however — and none of this is exactly bad, just not as exceptional as the last album was. There is at least one perfect moment, though, and that's when Hoffs sings the Raspberries' "Go All the Way." It always was a perfect POP! song but especially since the instrumentation is almost identical here, power cords and all, guys are going to dig a sexy female singing the words "please go all the way" much more than they ever did Eric Carmen. That's just the way it is.
Dwight Twilley continued to record and occasionally release brilliant power-pop tunes and albums throughout the '90s, even though his star shone brighter in the late '70s and '80s. He left California, returning to his native Oklahoma, a few years before the new millennium, and has continued recording there. Much of that work was unreleased, as a recent treasure trove of "rarities" albums just offered to the public by Gigatone demonstrates (the label has also released a live recording of the original Twilley Band in Chicago, as well as a Best of Dwight Twilley, 1997-2007: Northridge to Tulsa collection). Out of the Box, his first covers album, is pretty much what you'd expect from the artist, based on his always-obvious influences — five Beatles covers, two Elvis tunes, a few obscurities. Some stuff is better than other stuff — seriously, even as Detroit music fans, did we really need a cover version of Seger's "Good Time Rock and Roll"? Strangely, a version of Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" is one of the rocking highlights.
Best of all is the cover of Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss," one of the most important, if unheralded, songs in rock history and lore. Twilley maintains the classic bass riff that is the song (which Pearl Jam inexplicably neglected), while adding two different words to its intro verse and then an entirely newly written third verse that transforms it from a teen death rock anthem into an adult song. It's harder and more punky than any version aside from Detroit's own Coldcock's version. Twilley's voice has become somewhat more sinister-sounding with time, though the signature hiccups are still present — all perfect for the song. And the new guitar solo by longtime bandmate Bill Pitcock IV is as appropriate as the one Lennon added to "Peggy Sue" on his own Rock 'N' Roll covers album. It may not be the best version of the song ever recorded; I'd argue that's a toss-up between J. Frank Wilson's mid-'60s hit and Cochran's original recording. But it surely does succeed in bringing "Last Kiss" full circle. Excellent!