SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS!

score

Various Artists – SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records: THE COVERS! (Merge Records; April 7th, 2009)

I usually don’t get jazzed up about compilations, but this year can be the rarest of exceptions. Less than two months ago, the good folks over at Red Hot put together the all-star jammy-jam of the millenium. So, not to be outdone, Merge Records co-founders (and Superchunk-ers) Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan (who’s also the man behind Portastatic) put together their own ridiculously awesome compilation, this one to showcase the collective talent of their own label’s bands.

But here’s the catch; it’s all covers of Merge artists’ songs done by non-Merge artists. That’s one hell of a hook- to be able to wrangle bands like The Shins, The National, Bright Eyes, Ted Leo, The New Pornographers, Les Savy Fav, Ryan Adams and Death Cab For Cutie; covering the likes of Arcade Fire, Robert Pollard, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields and Destoyer (also there’s four songs by the label’s flagship band).

I call Superchunk Merge‘s flagship band because that’s exactly what they are; Mac and Laura started the label to self-release their early 7″ singles as well as their friends in and around the Durham, North Carolina area. And the rest is history; twenty years of independent music history. It’s funny that people label so many bands as “indie rock” when in fact whenever I’ve thought of if indie rock even had a distinct sound, it’d be precisely what Superchunk sounds like (as well as bands like Sebadoh, Archers Of Loaf, Guided By Voices, Pavement, et al.) but it seems like everything released on an independent label these days is considered “indie”. That’s a whole ‘nother essay, someday…

Let’s just shut that off and get into the music; there’s 75 minutes of tunes here, so we have a lot of ground to cover. I’m just going to gloss over the weaker tracks and delve into what makes this record a worthwhile listen, and as most compilations are; a worthwhile cause.

Four Superchunk songs get the do-over: Ryan Adams does well for himself by speeding up his version of Like A Fool and The Hive Dwellers render My Noise as a completely different piece altogether- getting freaky and minimal. But the two standouts are Les Savy Fav sounding identical to on their cover of Precision Auto and Death Cab‘s really nice re-working of Kicked In.

The Shins shine on their cover of Tenement HallsPlenty Is Never Enough, and The New Pornographers play The Rock*A*TeensDon’t Destroy This Night, both songs penned by Chris Lopez, the voice behind both of those bands. Other standouts would be the beautiful Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers) duet by St. Vincent and The National, Bill Callahan‘s gruff and curmudgeonly work-over of VersusSanta Maria, John Darnielle‘s excellent guitar-vocal-Panasonic boomboox rendering of East River Pipe‘s Drug Life, Broken Social Scene‘s cover of The Clean‘s Complications (“this song was written before Born To Run” says the small child’s voice before the song- I can’t confirm if this is true; Born To Run was recorded in 1974, The Clean didn’t form until 1978. Hmmmmm…)

Other tracks worthy of mention- two Magnetic Fields‘ songs; Bright Eyes doing Papa Was A Rodeo and Tracey Thorn with Jens Lekman on Yeah! Oh, Yeah!

Now for the bad news (boo!) Okkervil River, The Apples In Stereo and Lavender Diamond: your songs are all terrible.

Dear Robert Schneider (of The Apples In Stereo),

Please, please, please stop making music. How is it you can cover a Neutral Milk Hotel song and make it unlistenable? I hate you- please retire posthaste.

Signed, Jimmy Mac

Also, that aforementioned Hive Dwellers rendition of Superchunk‘s My Noise: the worst song on the record, by far. When I said “freaky and minimal” I meant “lousy and awful”. There is one song I’m quite indifferent to, I like it and I don’t: Times New Viking on Arcade Fire‘s Neighborhood #1. See, I love the song. And it seems that ever since TNV released their album last year i go out of my way to slander them; alas, this isn’t as terrible as their album. It’s still got that annoying fuzzy reverb but there’s an acoustic guitar in there and the vocals aren’t as washed away. I think I like it. I’m not sure- ask me in a month.

So, there you have it; another really good compilation album in 2009. There’s at least five tracks on this that’ll be entered in the song of the year running come December, which had me thinking; should compilation albums and songs from them be considered as album of the year/song of the year finalists?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Tracklisting:

01 Quasi: “Beautiful Things” (3Ds cover)
02 Les Savy Fav: “Precision Auto” (Superchunk cover)
03 The Shins: “Plenty Is Never Enough” (Tenement Halls cover)
04 St. Vincent and the National: “Sleep All Summer” (Crooked Fingers cover)
05 Broken Social Scene: “Complications” (The Clean cover)
06 Ryan Adams: “Like a Fool” (Superchunk cover)
07 Bright Eyes: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
08 Lavender Diamond: “New Ways of Living” (Destroyer cover)
09 The Apples in Stereo: “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3” (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
10 Laura Cantrell: “Cowboy on the Moon” (Lambchop cover)
11 Bill Callahan: “Santa Maria” (Versus cover)
12 Barbara Manning: “Through With People” (Portastatic cover)
13 The Mountain Goats: “Drug Life” (East River Pipe cover)
14 The New Pornographers: “Don’t Destroy This Night” (The Rock*A*Teens cover)
15 Tracey Thorn and Jens Lekman: “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” (The Magnetic Fields cover)
16 The Hive Dwellers: “My Noise” (Superchunk cover)
17 Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: “The Numbered Head” (Robert Pollard cover)
18 Okkervil River: “All You Little Suckers” (East River Pipe cover)
19 Death Cab for Cutie: “Kicked In” (Superchunk cover)
20 Times New Viking: “Neighborhood #1” (Arcade Fire cover)

SCORE! 20 Years Of Merge Records