Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Best Of A.V. Undercover

You'll never find a bigger sucker for covers than Your Narrator, so when my beloved, Onion AV Club announced last year that it was starting a series commissioning covers of classic and "new classic" songs, I couldn't have been happier. The premise was even bolstered by the fact that they would all be covered in a room in the AV Club's Chicago offices that was decorated as one of the greatest flags in the world

The rules for this contest were a little odd - there was a list of songs and bands would be invited to pick a song to cover from an ever-shrinking list, meaning that there were more than a few odd fits. The results of the first round were successful enough that a second round of covers was commissioned this year, which concludes today with the Fruit Bats' cover of "The Other Woman". Overall, the results were mixed, there were some faithful and nice takes, a few workmanlike covers and a few more that just missed the mark - wildly. And to be fair, a lot of times covers that are great fun live when you just wanna dance, fall flat on a computer screen when you have the original a click away.

But there were enough amazing moments to make the project worthwhile and today i bring the top six, countdown-style. You can watch the videos and download the songs after the jump.

6. She Drives Me Crazy [Fine Young Cannibals] - Sharon Van Etten  Buy Epic

I hadn't heard any Sharon Van Etten before this cover, save the dying whispers of her set fading away as I entered the Pitchfork festival last year but this cover quickly won me over. I didn't know the FYC original as anything more than a 10-second clip from Time-Life 80's set infomercials, but I had a good enough sense of the song to mostly steer clear. Van Etten, however brings the perfect sensibility shift to this slick pop number that draws out the catchiness of the hooks and tenderness of the lyrics to perfectly reframe it. By the time her cooing backing singers come in with the "ooh-ooh"s, you'll be hooked.

5. Boxcar [Jawbreaker] - Mountain Goats  Buy The Sunset Tree

John Darnielle, with his love of metal's lyrical bombast, punk's anger, indie's lo-fi fetish and a singer-songwriter's fixation of relationships and literary wording, has never been one to hew to closely to any genre's party line. That makes him a spiritual kinsman with Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach, whose 1993 screed against the inflexible scensterism that punk often breeds, "Boxcar," has always been a favorite of mine. To me one of the great joys of music (especially) punk is how it's a mindset that transcends class, age, race, religion, time and certainly musical genre. If you can't see how James Brown or Woody Guthrie are every bit as punk as Henry Rollins, then I'm afraid that you're missing the whole point. The 'Goats take on this song is straightforward, but perfectly exectued, a chance for the band to shine while Darinelle wails they lyrics with the trembly passion you've come to expect. He also improves on the original by changing the lyrics from referencing drugged-out blowhard Kerouac to Didion. Perhaps a sentimental choice, but one that I'll stand behind.

4. God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind) [Randy Newman] - Shearwater  Buy Rook

The next selection comes from a shorter offshoot, of AV Undercover, called Holiday Undercover which was basically the same thing but artists could pick their own song as long as it was holiday-related. I don't know on what planet Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg (look for him later, too) celebrates Christmas, but it'd be a pretty depressing one if he's rockin' out to Randy Newman's "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," which is one of the most scathing takes on the darkness of human nature ever set music. No matter though, as Meiburg captures the song's chilling beauty to a "T" with a creepy solo electric take. Not only that, but he makes great use of the visual element, having someone wrap him in strands of white Christmas lights as he plays in a darkened room. It's not a holiday song for the kids, but its an inspired take on a standout track from one of my favorite albums, Sail Away, which earns it a spot on the list.

3. Tubthumping [Chumbawamba] - They Might Be Giants  Buy The Song On Album Raises New And Troubling Questions

Speaking of using the setting perfectly, how about They Might Be Giants? I was already stoked to see Titus Andronicus cover their college hit "Birdhouse In Your Soul" (although that version turned out to be sadly a little too high on arty concept and too low on melody) but when I saw that not only were they performing but they were taking on "Tubthumping," I knew it would be one to remember. The dual Johns ended up enlisting as many AV Club staffers as they could find and packed them into the room for a loose and joyous version of everyone's favorite anarcho-punks, Chumbawamba's one-off hit. This is a song that everyone from a crusty hardcore dude to the ditzy girl in the office can't help but smile and sing along with on the chorus and this version, if nothing else, proves it.

**Edit** The song is now available on they TMGB rarities compilation, Album Raises New And Troubling Questions, with a credit to "The AV Club Choir". Aw.

2. Strangers [The Kinks] - Wye Oak (feat. Jonathan Meiburg)  Buy This Song b/w Mother [Danzig] Buy Civilian

Wye Oak are about as indie rock as modern indie rock gets. Normally a two pieces featuring bang-toting blonde Jenn Wasner and bespectacled former band geek (I can only assume, no offense) Andy Wasner, they craft, thoughtful, subtle songs that mix restrained melody with outbursts of noisy guitar. You know, indie rock. It's no wonder that they've become something of the AV Club mascots and the only one of the only two artist to appear in both versions of the series. The cover that brought them into our hearts was their ragged take on a song that band with so many great ones scattered across the years that you almost need the occasional cover just to remember them all - the Kinks. They take the late career acoustic ballad, "Strangers" and add just a little crunch with the help of
Jonathan Meiburg (hey!) to turn it into the perfect slow-burn show closer. Wasner wrings all the emotion from Ray Davies' lyric possible and by the end, you're halfway ready to ask the girl next to you on the train to share her life with you.

**EDIT** Merge has decided to release both of Wye Oak's covers as a digital or vinyl signal.

1. Everybody Wants To Rule The World [Tears For Fears] - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists  Buy Shake The Sheets

We all knew it would come to this, didn't we? When the AV Club polled readers on the best cover at the end of last year, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists' version of "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" came out on top and, one year down the road, it appears that they still couldn't best the first song they posted. This was recorded the night after an epic show at Bottom Lounge (thus the all-concealing shades) and the right before the boys hopped in a van to rock the foundations loose in Madison and it caught them at the perfect time. The bee pinata in the background adds whimsical color as the band blast through this 80's mainstay with some fidelity but more than enough of their own touch to call it new. Leo and Canty's guitars dart back and forth, Marty and Chris are impeccable as ever and the song even fades out to the trademark Leo echoplex, it's a great band showing what they can do when you just let them have some fun. What more can you ask for?

Honorable Mentions:
Two-Headed Boy [Neutral Milk Hotel] - Swell Season
Try A Little Tenderness [Otis Redding] - Peter, Bjorn & John
September Gurls [Big Star] - Dum Dum Girls
Say Yes [Elliott Smith] - Ben Folds

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