Messing With the Classics: 10 Cover Albums

Messing With the Classics: 10 Cover Albums

Reinventing the wheel is dangerous business.

Having remade Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon in 2009 as well as releasing a very rare take of The Stone Roses’ self titled debut in 2013, The Flaming Lips have made a name for themselves as a band unafraid to tackle classic material on their own terms. They continue in that same vein with their new rendition of The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As Lips’ bandleader Wayne Coyne recently told TIDAL, ”Mostly we do it because it’s fun…I don’t think we have any agenda. I mean we make so, so much music that it can be a relief not to be working on your own songs…everyone who makes their own music has this secret joy of playing songs that aren’t theirs.”

Coyne goes on to suggest that these albums we call “classics” aren’t as sacred as we hold them to be, their resonance in people being, to an extent, “dumb luck.” While there may be some truth to this statement, any artist so bold as to take on one of these works ought to anticipate the expectations they are setting up for themselves.

An act far beyond covering a single track, and far more rare, remaking a full album is a risky business, especially when it comes to legends as the Pink Floyd or The Beatles. The Flaming Lips do it their own way and for their own reasons, but they’re not the only ones stepping into thin air. We’ve picked out 10 other interesting attempts at full album covers.

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Easy All-Stars: Dub Side Of The Moon (Easy Star, 2003)

The original:
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side Of The Moon (Harvest, 1973)
The Dark Side Of The Moon is quite simply one of the most iconic, best known and best-selling albums of all time, remaining on the Billboard charts for a stunning 741 weeks in a row. That’s 14 years, folks! Using some of the most advanced studio techniques, such as multi track recording and tape loops, this was state-of-the-art at the time – but its the human quality of the songs and the artistry of entire album that make it simply timeless.

What is this about?
This is the debut album by the New York-based reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars, and one that gave them instant stardom. Just as the original album has been a regular on the world’s sales charts since the release, Dub Side Of The Moon has steadily remained on the Reggae charts all the way since 2003. The band followed up their success with Radiodread (2006) and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (2009), and of course, Dubber Side Of The Moon in 2010.

Why should I listen to it?
Does a dub-reggae interpretation of The Dark Side Of The Moon sound a good idea? Well, not really, but this actually works out amazingly well. This is a complete makeover, though with the actual song structures kept fairly intact, even sticking to the same time-pace as Pink Floyd, which many have said synchs perfectly with the first hour of The Wizard of Oz. Try to leave your stoner jokes at the door, but it’s hard not to giggle when the chiming of clocks on “Time” is replaced with the bubbling of a bong, followed by a smokey cough. Bringing their own kind of psychedelic haze into the magical mystery tour of the original songs, including roots reggae, jungle and dancehall, Dub Side Of The Moon is heading for the same directions, but on a different space shuttle.

The Dirty Projectors: Rise Above (Dead Oceans, 2007)

The Original:
Black Flag: Damaged (SST, 1981)
A true hardcore cornerstone, Damaged is one of the most influential punk albums of all time. Black Flag defined the entire L.A punk scene and paved way for American underground rock with ferocious anger and rambling anthems like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” “T.V. Party,” and “Police Story.”

What is this about?
Dirty Projector mastermind Dave Longstreth hadn’t heard Damaged in 15 years when he decided to remake it basically from how he remembered it in his youth. Longstreth, being a complete opposite of Henry Rollins in every way, turns angry riffs into lush orchestration, and angry yelling into sweet harmonies.

Why should I listen to it?
This is something completely different, that’s for sure, and not an album aimed at the typical Black Flag-fan – or hardcore enthusiast at all. Longstreth and his Dirty Projectors reache far beyond such categorization, and this is probably a love-hate kind of work. The critic’s stayed mainly positive, “That the album has a concept – a song-by-song ‘reimagining’ of Black Flag’s Damaged – scarcely matters to the listener, although it seems good for Longstreth: It gives the illusion of an anchor,” wrote Pitchfork (8.1/10), while in a more lukewarm response, Paste Magazine stated, “This is either one of 2007’s most refreshing or most grating albums, and there’s a hair’s breadth in between.”

Laibach: Let It Be (Mute, 1988)

The Original:
The Beatles: Let It Be (Apple, 1970)
The final studio album released by The Beatles, even though it was mostly recorded prior to Abbey Road in the early months of 1969. The quartet was already in steaming ruins at the time of its release in May 1970, but the grandiose, orchestral production of Phil Spector manages to even out the frictions within the band. A second proper version of the album was released in 2003 without his heavy-handed touch, as Let It Be… Naked.

What is this about?
In the history of odd combinations, this one really stands out. The industrial/neo-classical Slovenian outfit Laibach doesn’t compromise their strict, military sound and guttural singing when turning towards the gentle pop of The Beatles. Their beautiful version of “Across The Universe” aside, this shows another side of The Beatles. Laibach decided to drop the title track on their version, and replaced “Maggie Mae” with a German folk tune.

Why should I listen to it?
For Beatles-lovers, mainly because you’ve never heard The Beatles like this before. As All Music Guide puts it, “In some respects, Let It Be wasn’t that hard of an effort – songs like “Get Back,” “I Me Mine,” and “One After 909″ simply had to have the Laibach elements applied (growled vocals, martial drums, chanting choirs, overpowering orchestrations, insanely over-the-top guitar solos) to be turned into bizarre doppelgängers. The sheer creepiness of hearing such well-known songs transformed, though, is more than enough reason to listen in.” But this is also a political statement. Made at the dawn of the Slovenian independence movement, it evokes living behind the Iron Curtain at a time when the people no longer would “let it be.”

Booker T. & M.G.’s: McLemore Avenue (Stax, 1970)

The original:
The Beatles: Abbey Road (Apple, 1969)
The real swan song by The Beatles, and the last sessions where they all participated, is nothing short of a masterpiece, bringing them into brave new musical directions (again and for the last time), completed with standout tracks like “Something,” “Sun King,” and “Come Together” – and of course the iconic cover art. Fun fact: a 19-year-old Alan Parsons worked as an assistant engineer in the studio. Known not only for his own subsequent artistic career, he also did the engineering on the aforementioned The Dark Side Of The Moon.

What is this about?
Booker T. Jones was so awestruck when he heard Abbey Road, he just had to pay immediate homage to it, and together with Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson and the rest of the M.G’s, he made McLemore Avenue just a couple of weeks after its release. The album cover is even a remake of the original, McLemore Avenue being the street passing Stax studios in Memphis. You can even spot the famous “Hitsville USA” sign back there.

Why should I listen to it?
This is a soulful, instrumental and quite improvisational interpretation, where the single tracks are bundled into three lengthy medleys – except for “Something”, the only standalone track – securing a sweet Southern flow that suits the songs surprisingly well.

Petra Haden: Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out (Bar/None, 2005)

The original:
The Who: The Who Sell Out (Decca, 1967)
A concept based tribute album to pirate radio, complete with fake commercials and jingles in-between the songs. A milestone in their catalog, The Who Sell Out is far from a sell-out. This masterpiece is a perfect blend of mod pop and hard rock, wonderful vocal harmonies and with some of the bands finest songs, including “I Can See For Miles.”

What is this about?
This daring project came to life when Mike Watt (of Minutemen fame) handed his friend, singer-violinist Petra Haden (That Dog, The Decemberists, many others), an 8-track cassette tape with the original Who album recorded onto one track and the other seven empty, for her to fill with intricate vocal harmonies. Haden decided to remake the classic by herself, and only herself. This a cappella version features just her, singing all the voices, all the instruments and yeah, even the jingles and the mock radio commercials.

Why should I listen to it?
This could’ve ended up a total train wreck in the hands of others, but Petra Haden has the vocal capability and keen musical understanding to transform one masterpiece into another. And Pete Townsend himself approved of it, speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2005, ‘”I heard the music as if for the first time. I listened all the way through in one sitting and was struck by how beautiful a lot of the music was. Petra’s approach is so tender and generous. I adore it.”

Camper Van Beethoven: Tusk (Pitch-A-Tent, 2003)

The original:
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner, 1979)
Actually the most expensive album made at that time, with a stunning $1 million price tag. According to author Rob Trucks’ in his 33 1/3 book Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, the group started their recording session with a cocaine fueled celebration of Mick Fleetwood’s new $70,000 sports car, before he got a phone call saying that the uninsured car was broadsided and demolished while being towed to his home. The album itself also became a commercial car crash, selling “only” four million copies – something like 20 millions less than Rumours. It is now generally hailed as a keystone album within the AOR segment.

What is this about?
This is nothing less than a re-recording of a re-recording. First done by Camper Van Beethoven in 1987 around spare time of making their delightful Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. This song-for-song remake didn’t get a proper release until 2003 when they returned from a 12-year long hiatus. They dug up these old demo tapes, and decided to give it another shot, more or less as an experiment to see if they still could play together and work as a group.

Why should I listen to it?
And they sure could. Camper Van Beethoven gained popularity as one the most beloved alternative rock bands in the mid ‘80s; combining garage/punk roots with jangle pop, ska and country-folk. All elements are present here, on a collection where the song material of course is excellent – the performance loose and joyous. Even if it’s not up there with Camper’s best albums, it’s still a treat.

The Darcys: Aja (Arts & Crafts, 2012)

The original:
Steely Dan: Aja (ABC/MCA, 1977)
Obscurely named after a Korean woman who married the brother of Donald Fagen’s high-school friend, there was nothing else obscure about Steely Dan’s sixth album. Aja became the jazz-rockers’ first Platinum-selling release, and is highly regarded for it’s audiophilic production and dream-team of session musicians, including a solo by saxophonist Wayne Shorter on the album’s title track. Rolling Stone included it in its 500 Greatest Albums of all time, and the U.S. Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2011 for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance.

What is this about?
Canadian art-rock four-piece The Darcy’s released their interpretation of Aja a mere several months after their self-titled debut, Drummer Wes Marskell said the band chose to cover an album “solely to redirect conversation” surrounding their debut.

Why should I listen to it?
While some criticized the Darcys for reinterpreting an album that cannot or should not be reinterpreted, many others praised the band’s “rough and ragged makeover” of the sophisticated pop-perfect classic. ”Aesthetically distant from its source, you say? Not so fast. A strange kinship is afoot,” writes Consequence of Sound. “People forget that Steely Dan’s music is fucking dark,” the site goes on, crediting the Darcys for sonically unearthing the band’s “buried lyrical darkness.” Despite being based on material that isn’t their own, The Darcys’ Aja is considered the middle part of a three-album trilogy, the third of which, Warring, won a Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year, as well as being a nominee for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize.

The Walkmen: Pussy Cats (Record Collection, 2006)

The original:
Harry Nilsson: Pussy Cats (RCA, 1974)
In 1974 John Lennon temporarily separated from Yoko Ono and left New York for a period, settling in Los Angeles and rambling around with Harry Nilsson in what is commonly known as the “Lost Weekend.” Fueled by large amounts of booze, the pair entered the studio together and recorded Pussy Cats, with a worn-out Harry Nilsson at the microphone and Lennon filling in as producer. The album is guested by, amongst others, Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner and Keith Moon. It must have been a hell of a party.

What is this about?
It started out as a joke, but ended up as a full album. Indie/post-punk outfit The Walkmen did a track-by-track, note-by-note remake of one their favorite albums, recorded in the last days of their Marcata studio in New York City. Together with a bunch of friends they created their own Lost Weekend while the studio fell apart around them. Oddly enough, we get a couple of covers of covers here as well, since Nilsson/Lennon themselves versions of “Many Rivers To Cross” and Dylan’s “”Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Why should I listen to it?
It’s kind of hard to revitalize the ramblings of the drinking buddies, and wisely enough, singer Hamilton Leithauser does not try to impersonate Nilsson growls. As the little sister to the band’s main album of that year, A Hundred Miles Off, this one might be considered a parenthesis in their own catalog; but it’s in some ways just as good. The band catches the vibe while creating their own mood into it. And hopefully it helped gain more attention to an often-overlooked gem from the mid-‘70s.

Carla Bozulich: Red Headed Stranger (DiCristina Stairbuilders, 2003)

The original:
Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975)
Being dissatisfied with is relations with Atlantic Records, outlaw cowboy Willie Nelson turned to Columbia in 1975 for more artistic freedom. His first statement was Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. With a production so sparse even Columbia thought it was just demo tapes, but they kept their promise of artistic liberty and hesitantly released Stranger – to wide acclaim from the public and critics alike. It was Nelson’s big breakthrough, sold multi-platinum and is generally ranked among his finest works to date.

What is this about?
Singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich first gained attention as the singer in Ethyl Meatplow and country-based post-punk band The Geraldine Fibbers, later performing as Evangelista. Red Headed Stranger is her first solo album, and an escape from the pressure of writing new songs. She turned to this classic, aided by, amongst others, longtime partner Nels Cline, Alan Sparhawk of Low – and hey, Willie Nelson himself.

Why should I listen to it?
The result is nothing short of gorgeous. Adding instruments like Autoharp, electric mbira and tamboura into the mix, Bozulich does more than a remake, this is a true rediscovery with new soundscapes within a whole different aural texture. As All Music sums it up in their rave review, “As downtrodden and spiritually haunting as its predecessor, this new Red Headed Stranger is vital and necessary, a work of new Americana — not the radio format, but the mythos itself.”

Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall (Geffen, 2007)

The original:
Judy Garland: Judy At Carnegie Hall (Capitol, 1961)
Judy Garland’s powerful live performances were a big event of the day. This show, recorded on April 23, 1961, has been called “the greatest night in show business history,” at least if you’re a fan of over-the-top Vaudeville-styled stage productions. The double live album was a critical and commercial darling, winning six Grammys and spending 95 weeks on the charts. It also representing a personal victory for Garland, after a long struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. Thanks to this performance, she would come to be billed as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer.’

What is this about?

Over two nights in July 2006, Rufus Wainwright paid tribute to Judy Garland’s famous concert. Balancing a showbiz sheen with more deeply-rooted themes, Wainwright said listening to Garland’s original helped him emotionally process the September 11 terrorist attacks and remember “how great the U.S. used to be.” While Wainwright’s concerts were extremely well received, adding four more performances in London and Los Angles due to popular demand, the live album itself was not a commercial success.

Why should I listen to it?
Culture site Flavorwire wrote, “Rufus Wainwright is every inch the diva Judy Garland was, complete with a dark period of drug abuse that he thankfully rose above.” Wainwright went great lengths to reproduce Garland’s original performance, complete with a 36-piece orchestra and a cunning knack for imitating Garland’s vocal eccentricities. His heartbreaking version of “Over the Rainbow” is an essential take on a very well-covered song.

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