Wednesday, May 23, 2012


The covers album is still somewhat rare since Dylan and The Beatles made songwriting a must for serious pop musicians.  You write your songs for your first album, and then you better keep writing them, or forget it.  It doesn't matter how good a band you have, or how good a singer you are, or guitar player, if you don't write the songs, you're not good enough.  It's ridiculous of course.  How many mediocre albums have come out, and dutifully made it into our hands by bands struggling through writer's block?  Or maybe they really just had one or two good self-written songs.  Why push more out?  There are plenty of great songs that haven't been recorded more than once, go ahead, see what you can do with them.  I tell ya, if we didn't have this writer-is-king prejudice, lots of albums would be much better.

It seems you have to earn the right to do a covers disc.  Stick with it long enough, write several albums and at least some decent songs, and only then will we talk about it.  Bowie Pin-Ups?  After Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane.  John Lennon's Rock And Roll?  He'd paid his dues by then.  Even Dylan didn't do covers until Self-Portrait, after his first folk album.  The point is, fans and critics demanded these people write more and more.

After Mr. Jones and a big-selling, T Bone Burnett-produced debut disc, Counting Crows have stuck around, surviving on the hit-and-miss success of Adam Duritz's writing.  I've not been a fan, although I like their sound.  I think they are a solid band.  That's why I applaud the group's new Underwater Sunshine disc, which is a twist on the usual covers collection.  Mercifully, no Motown covers.  Heck, there's hardly a famous song on it.  What the group has done is found songs they really like, no matter who the original artist was.  There are several here that are by their old friends in the San Francisco scene, unknowns outside.  There are some by brand-new writers trying to make a mark, that have caught the Crows' ears.  And of the better-known folks, they picked cuts they love and wanted to play, not something they hope will get them attention.

I hadn't thought of Pure Prairie League's Amie in years.  The minor 70's hit is a fine example of the early fruits of the country rock era, back when the band was making strides in the wake of The Eagles and Poco.  Duritz doesn't have a good reason for doing it other than loving to sing it, and I can see why, it's a campfire kind of tune.  It points to a love of early alt-country, as the group also covers Gram Parsons' Return Of The Grievous Angel and The Byrds take on You Ain't Going Nowhere.  Hearing them in mandolin mode is a treat, and certainly not what you normally get on their albums.  And who knew they were closet fans of British folk legends Fairport Convention, represented here by Meet On The Ledge?  I suppose Big Star are a typical choice for muso types, and there's nothing special about the take on The Ballad Of El Goodo here, but they do a nice version of The Faces' Ooh La La.

But then we get numbers from such non-stars as The Romany Rye, Tender Mercies, Kasey Anderson, and Sordid Humor.  Duritz (who seems to have led the way in the choices) is right on in his lengthy liner notes for each song.  These are good, they do deserve to be heard by lots more people.  And I'll add that Counting Crows is an excellent band, adept at switching sounds and making each number their own.  I'll also suggest they do this more often, because not all their own songs come close to these.  Not to pick on them, of course, many many big bands are guilty of that.  Stop being so scared of covers, musicians, don't give in to the pressure to be a full-time writer.  We'll all be better off.

1 comment:

  1. Amie is a good cover by CC by a great band, PPL. It was on the CC setlist on tour few years ago.It's more than a minor hit as it still appears on playlists all over the country over 40 years later and is highly recognizable.It's one of the all time great country rock classics.Nice job by the band.