The Flaming Lips took on a bear when they released a cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon back in December, but survey says The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing the Dark Side of the Moon (yes, that’s really the name) is a hit. Riddled with space-age eccentricity and a whole lot of Henry Rollins, who is “not frightened of dying,” the Lips’ version is an inspired slice of genius. Recruiting Peaches as the psychedelic screamer in “The Great Gig in the Sky”? Bloody brilliant.
A great full-album cover doesn’t just tip its hat, instead, it manipulates the source material’s base components to create new context. That’s not to say that the originals automatically reap respect and reverence — as some of their best reincarnations kick the shit out of them in the schoolyard. Our 10 favorites pick the prototype to pieces and reassemble it, resulting in an equally important work of art.
Beck’s Record Club project brings together random musical superstars to record a classic album in a day. The first session enlisted Nigel Godrich, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Holmes (of W.A.S.P.) and others, to tackle 1967’s essential The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the resulting cover album was released one track a time, with a new song posted each week. Beck used the album “as a framework,” exposing a flexibility in Lou Reed’s simple tunes; “Black Angel’s Death Song” could be a bonus track on Mellow Gold. Given his penchant for repurposing art, we think Andy Warhol would have been proud.
Dave Longstreth and the Dirty Projectors’ take on Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged isn’t so much a cover as a memory, as you would attempt to recount a story or joke in your own words. In this case, the words are instruments and the distinctive and idiosyncratic vocal styling and melodic structure of a band built on gleeful weirdness. Does Henry Rollins like Rise Above? We can’t find evidence to support or refute, but that might be because he simply doesn’t recognize his own album. Would a Black Flag fan like this record? We’re gonna go with a confident “maybe,” but he might not tell his buddies.
Stream: Dirty Projectors, “Rise Above”
Rufus Wainwright is every inch the diva Judy Garland was, complete with a dark period of drug abuse that he thankfully rose above. In this case, Wainwright’s live reproduction of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 performance went to great lengths to remain faithful to its source material resurrecting the original orchestral score — a feat, as 32-piece concert orchestras are a modern rarity. It’s dramatically faithful too, thanks to Wainwright’s uncanny knack for mastering Garland’s inflection and vocal quirks, down to the flub in “You Go to My Head.”
The Walkmen must have had a Lost Weekend of their own from the sound of their song-by-song cover of the ramshackle 1974 Harry Nilsson album, produced by John Lennon. More than ten musicians packed into a Manhattan apartment-cum-studio and banged out a record that contains the same wretched bite and after-hours, whiskey-soaked enthusiasm that shredded Nilsson’s vocal chords on the original. The experience resulted in the documentary In Loving Recollection, a tribute to the last album the Walkmen recorded in their old studio space and the mayhem that ensued. Watch Part 1 below.
Skeptical as we were when this cover album came out, the Easy Star All-Stars stayed as faithful as they needed to in order to pull off their take on OK Computer. A reggae album can blend into its over-saturated genre pretty easily, but by preserving the Radiohead’s classic guitar lines and sexily smoothing the accompanying rhythms, the Easy Star All-Stars transformed homage to alienation into a full-on booty call record. Don’t believe us? Check out the legs on that gospel chorus at the end of “Paranoid Android.”
Stream: Easy Star All-Stars, “Paranoid Android”
A former member of the Rentals and the Decemberists, and a contributor to acts such as Beck and Weezer, singer and violinist Petra Haden was recuperating from a serious car accident when Minutemen bassist Mike Watt suggested she cover The Who Sell Out and gave her an 8-track recorder. Haden created a vocally acrobatic a cappella rendition of the classic 1967 album, that even Pete Townshend was on board with: “What Petra does with her voice, which is not so easy to do, is challenge the entire rock framework … When she does depart from the original music she does it purely to bring a little piece of herself — and when she appears she is so very welcome.” Haden recruited a group of singers and brought her Who-tastic show on the road, performing as Petra Haden and the Sellouts.
When the original artist agrees to be on your cover album, you’re doing something right. Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers and Ethyl Meatplow tackled Willie Nelson’s album Red Headed Stranger with her gravelly, dense croon, adding a new strand of melancholy to a record about a wife-murderer on the run. Instead of evoking the desperation of a fugitive in the first person, Bozulich’s version frames Red Headed Stranger as a story told by an informed outsider. When Nelson himself appears on “Can I Sleep in Your Arms?,” it’s as if the ghost of the hunted is checking in on his own story.
Download: Carla Bozulich – “Red Headed Stranger Theme”
Camper Van Beethoven took on the project of covering Fleetwood Mac’s double album Tusk to see if they could still work together without killing each other. Funny choice, since Tusk is perhaps the most fragmented Fleetwood Mac record of them all, as the radically different musical ideas of Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie duel throughout. Recorded in a snowbound cabin, Camper Van Beethoven’s realization of Tusk has the same claustrophobic feeling of a band getting sick of each other; its stripped-down, distorted and eerie instrumentation laying bare the breakdown they had to go through to work together again. After this cover album was released, Camper Van Beethoven embarked on their first major tour in several years. One band experiences a rebirth where another reached the end of a creative path.
Stream: Camper Van Beethoven, “Tusk”
9. Pussy Galore – Exile on Main St. (1986, Shove)
Original: The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St. (1972, Atlantic)
If the original Exile on Main St. was a swaggering greaser exuding a vaguely disturbing vibe, Pussy Galore’s incarnation is a full-fledged, bleary-eyed creeper, commanding the girl to “Shake Your Hips” or that dollar he’s waving will end up somewhere very unpleasant. Something has gone decidedly rotten here, like a record (or in this case, limited-edition cassette tape) left out in the rain and mildewed. The Rolling Stones may have been the bad boys next to the Beatles, but in comparison to Pussy Galore, they’re Johnny Mathis.
Stream: Pussy Galore, “Rip This Joint”
The premise is simple: Booker T. & the M.G.s covered the Beatles’ Abbey Road, naming their record after the street on which Stax Records was located (the album art is a parody of the Fab Four’s street-crossing picture). Acting as the Stax house band, Booker T. and company transformed the Beatles’ uneven and sometimes bleak final recorded album into a four-track lounge act, replacing raw, vocal emotions with cool and collected instrumental improvisations. While the Beatles’ clashing and roaring made their final work great, McLemore Ave. slows it down and reminds us that they also knew how to write one hell of a sweet melody.
Stream: Booker T. & the M.G.s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
Ranging from barely recognizable to note-for-note, each of these covers rely on the deconstruction of some element, whether it be the original album’s mood, rhythm or the sex of the lead singer, to make it shiny and sparkling to our ears. Did we miss any gems? Is there a Lady Gaga cover of Hole’s Live Through This that we just haven’t heard about yet?
Main image by Lindsey Best.