Billie Joe + Norah
It seems like a left-field idea: pair the prince of pop-punk with the queen of adult alternative to cover an Everly Brothers album from a half-century ago. But Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and singer-songwriter Norah Jones make a formidable duo on the second of 2013’s tributes to the Everlys.
The other, February’s What the Brothers Sang by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy, delved deep into the Everly Brothers’ catalog for obscurities. Armstrong and Jones also eschew the brothers’ best-known material like “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Cathy’s Clown.” Instead, the unlikely pair turn their eyes on one of rock music’s first roots albums.
In 1958, just a year into their career, the Everlys recorded Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a collection of traditional country and folk songs. The sound of the 1958 original is spare: just the Everly’s voices backed by their guitars. Foreverly sees Armstrong and Jones covering each of that classic LP’s tracks, though they’ve resequenced the track order, except for the first and last track.
Their voices mesh easily when reproducing the Everlys’ two-part close harmonies, and they’ve expanded the tone color beyond acoustic guitars with bassist Tim Luntzel (Bright Eyes/Lee Ranaldo Band) and drummer Dan Rieser (Jones’s regular percussionist), recreating the rhythm section arrangements you would find on small-band rockabilly records of ‘50s.
With its focus on traditional songs, the original recording was the most morbid album of the Everlys’ career; amongst the material Armstrong and Jones duet on here are murder ballads (“Down in the Willow Garden”, “Barbara Allen”) and multiple tunes where dying mothers meet their makers (“Lighting Express” and “I’m Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail”).
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, as none of this would sound out of place on any of Jones’s solo albums. But the combination of her sultry coo with Armstrong’s more ragged voice and nearly forgotten material makes for a small treasure of an album. MIKE KALIL
Fellow Travelers (Sub Pop)
The covers record promises little.
It’s a fleeting curiosity, the sort of thing you forget you ever heard until you find it years later at the back of the stack or the bottom of the cutout bin. It’s the sort of thing a band might do to satisfy the final clause of a miserable record contract.
It’s almost never anything the world really needed to hear.
So when Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg declares Fellow Travelers his “favorite album so far” by his 12-year-old band, it’s a hard not to to roll your eyes.
Then you hear the thing, and you think he might be right.
One reason this covers record works is the genuine thought and heartfelt effort that went into it.
The title is literal. Each song, save for one original composition, comes from bands Shearwater toured with in recent years. Then Meiburg raised the stakes, inviting each of the covered bands to play on the record, so long as it wasn’t on their own song.
The result is lively and memorable. St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” is drained of its mannered strangeness and reincarnated as classic southern rock tune. Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven” becomes a fragile piano ballad like Coldplay might have made before they turned into Coldplay. Xiu Xiu’s “I Love the Valley OH!” and Clinic’s “Tomorrow” each grow bigger and bolder in Shearwater’s hands.
The only real misstep is a too-faithful take on Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” a song that wasn’t terribly interesting to begin with.
Which leads to the other reason this record largely works: Shearwater itself. Too often with their own material, the band is overwrought, riding Meiburg’s wounded cry to annoying depths of melodrama. The constraints of other people’s songs seems to rein that in.
Indeed, the most plodding entry on Fellow Travelers is Shearwater’s own “A Wake For the Minotaur,” which somehow squanders perfectly good backing vocals from Sharon Van Etten.
It’s so forgettable you can’t help thinking Meiburg and company should have let someone else record it first then tried their hand at covering it. HENRY BREAN