Monday, April 6, 2009

First impressions of ... the Merge Records covers disc

Merge is 20 years old. Part of the larger "Score!" subscription-based box set, "The Covers!" is an amazing collection of songs spanning the label's existence, covered by some of the most popular (non-Merge) indie bands around, such as Quasi, Les Savy Fav, the Shins, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers, Okkervil River, Death Cab for Cutie, Times New Viking and many more. This collection is the first of only two commercially available pieces from the box set. Limited to 7,500 copies. All proceeds benefit charities chosen by the SCORE curators.

I didn't write the text above (Merge did), but what follows are my preliminary thoughts on this incredible covers project:

1 Quasi – "Beautiful Things" (3Ds)

A warm, humming firecracker that comes across as a less-polished MGMT or a rough-around-the-edges R.E.M. (circa "Reveal").

2 Les Savy Fav – "Precision Auto" (Superchunk)
A song for summer block parties if I ever did hear one: Les Savy Fav's tribute to Superchunk is raw, urgent and full of adrenaline (like most of the group's originals).

3 The Shins – "Plenty is Never Enough" (Tenement Halls)
Along similar lines, this single-in-waiting is full of enough bounce and pep to fuel any good-natured roadtrip.

4 St. Vincent and The National – "Sleep All Summer" (Crooked Fingers)
Like its title implies, this love song, while pretty, is the aural equivalent of your dog's favorite Sunday-afternoon sunning spot.

5 Broken Social Scene – "Complications" (The Clean)
BSS, Canada's premier musical collective, goes all expansive and legendary for this punk cover and it works, epicly so.

6 Ryan Adams – "Like a Fool" (Superchunk)
One of the most prolific voices of this generation channels the vibe of Radiohead's "The Bends" album (the single "My Iron Lung" in particular) for what is probably going to be this album's best entry point for casual rock fans.

7 Bright Eyes – "Papa Was a Rodeo" (The Magnetic Fields)
Similarly, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, one of the other most prolific voices of this generation, feels right at home with this Magnetic Fields classic. If you liked his "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" disc a few years back, you'll dig this cover.

8 Lavender Diamond – "New Ways of Living" (Destroyer)
Eh.... Her voice just doesn't do it for me/sounds as if it escaped from a slightly unnerving collection of beloved lullabies for yuppie spawn.

9 The Apples in stereo – "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3" (Neutral Milk Hotel)
I was so glad to find out that this stellar track is on here. (I heard it last week on Walt Dizzo's radio show and was hoping to get my hands on it sooner rather than later – thanks, Merge's powers that be!)

10 Laura Cantrell – "Cowboy on the Moon" (Lambchop)
I don't want to come across as a sexist, but this "Dream Weaver"-esque ditty belongs on the same eerie (fake) compilation as Lavender Diamond's "New Ways of Living." Pass.

11 Bill Callahan – "Santa Maria" (Versus)
Oh, I see, we've landed on this album's ho-hum stretch. Unless you're a big Quentin Tarantino fan (as in, you own all of his film's soundtracks), this sitting-pretty-south-of-the-border roller probably won't jump out at you.

12 Barbara Manning – "Through with People" (Portastatic)
Finally we're back to songs to write home about/include on your next awesome mix tape! Like Belly and the Martinis, yeah? No? Well, then, I guess I'll be dancing and falling in love to this one alone.

13 The Mountain Goats – "Drug Life" (East River Pipe)
Yikes, was this recorded by a laptop? (Then again, I'm the kind of guy who prefers his Guided by Voices releases to be hi-fi.)

14 The New Pornographers – "Don’t Destroy This Night" (The Rock*A*Teens)
Score (is right)! This No. 1 shot from Neko Case, A.C. Newman and the rest of the merry little pranksters is as amazing as the singles the Beach Boys released during their Brother Records years and you laughed the first time you heard the phrase "Canadian supergroup"....

15 Tracey Thorn & Jens Lekman – "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" (The Magnetic Fields)
Doesn't quite reach the epic highs of Sinead O'Connor and Shane MacGowan's 1995 duet "Haunted," but just having these two talents work together is pretty impressive.

16 The Hive Dwellers – "My Noise" (Superchunk)
More love for Superchunk ... or is it? Upon first listen I'm pretty sure the Hive Dwellers actually hate Merge's all-star group. This is a regrettable recording.

17 Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – "The Numbered Head" (Robert Pollard)
Though I haven't followed Ted Leo's career as closely as I probably should have, his take on Guided by Voices' Who-obsessed frontman is quite pleasant. Consider me a new fan.

18 Okkervil River – "All You Little Suckers" (East River Pipe)
Nuanced (read: not very exciting), but leaps and bounds better than Track 16.

19 Death Cab for Cutie – "Kicked In" (Superchunk)
Makes the soul smile. Come on, what else would you expect from these guys?

20 Times New Viking – "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" (Arcade Fire)
I was a little worried about this one, as the Arcade Fire original is one of my favorite song, but ... well, I have mixed feelings. It kind of feels like noise (which I hate), but, like choice My Bloody Valentine tracks, I'm coming around to it. It works, no worries. (I cheated and listened to this track twice.)

Matthew R. Perrine (aka me, the guy wrote this) is a reporter for the Duluth Budgeteer News. Read his regular Arts & Entertainment coverage at

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