Various Artists – The Believer Magazine

Various Artists
The Believer Magazine

It’s difficult to really dive into a disc like this: Sure, Believer Magazine’s 2005 Music Issue companion features many of indie-rock’s best covering indie-rock’s best, but it’s also unlikely that Believer put a lot of time into sequencing and preparing the disc, which makes it a lot more like a collection than an album. But to hell with it. It exists, and therefore must be criticized, despite the fact that whether or not you actually go out and pick up this disc (available exclusively with the magazine’s June/July issue) depends as much on your ability to stomach 800 words about what books Nick Hornby bought last month (not kidding) as your devotion to any of these artists.

Though the literary magazine’s audience has grown drastically in the last couple of years, their ability to pull exclusive tracks from quality artists is still impressive: The Decemberists, Mountain Goats, Spoon, Devendra Banhart, Mount Eerie, and The Shins all pepper this disc, and up-and-comers like the Constantines, Wolf Parade, and Espers fill in the cracks marvelously. Even better, all but a few of the disc’s 17 tracks are full studio efforts, with only Colin Meloy of the Decemberists failing to drag his band with him.

Meloy’s cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Bridges and Balloons” is nonetheless a captivating opening track that could’ve been so much more. What makes the spartan approach disappointing is that the song and its fantastical, nautical imagery is a perfect fit for Meloy’s pipes, and the arrangements on the Decemberists’ latest, Picaresque, turned straight-ahead strum numbers like this into old-America fever dreams. This could’ve been a world beater; instead, it sounds like a particularly good demo.

At least Meloy found a good fit, which is more than can be said about Spoon’s decision to cover Yo La Tengo’s “Decora.” The track, despite Spoon’s recent winning streak, is a little bit like replacing French vanilla ice cream with regular vanilla: both bands employ such pedestrian indie-rock arrangements that Spoon is doing less creative interpreting and more rote playing. The Constantines make two appearances here and continue to be the world’s best fucking band that no one cares about. Their two-minute vamp of Canadian punk group Elevator to Hell’s “Why I Didn’t Like August 93” finds singer Bryan Webb dropping his Springsteen schtick, a la their unbelievable B-side take on the Talking Heads’ “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” and singing this linear would-be-classic with wrenching restraint.

The Constantines end up on the wrong end of Jim Guthrie, who sucks all of the hellhound sloganeering out of their gale-force “Nighttime/Anytime (it’s alright)” and replaces it with … violins. Guthrie, who has proven his meddle both as a solo artist and with Royal City, sounds under qualified turning punk fury into smooth folk. Also appearing twice on the comp, Ida’s batting average is worse than the Constantines. Ida covers a song written by Karla Schickele’s deceased uncle, and guess what? It’s slow and pretty. Like Ida songs! Elsewhere, the little-known San Serac attempts to turn Ida’s “Late Blues” into a blustery mid-80s electronic bubble, but the aggressive arrangement can’t find much of a melody.

The Shins re-working of the Postal Service’s “We Will Become Silhouettes” shows an aggressive disregard of the fast-shrinking indie credibility of both bands. Isn’t now when you’d want to break out a cover of some little-known power-pop nugget, just to remind fans that, at some point, you liked music more than advertising? James Mercer turns the song into a straightforward pop track that, surprisingly, would likely be relegated to B-side status on either of their albums.

Banhart side project Vetiver (here sans Banhart) scores instant cool points for making mess-hall jamboree of Michael Hurley’s “Be Kind to Me.” Banhart himself shows up with a cover of Antony & The Johnsons’ “Fistfull of Love.” It’s a revelatory track, both for the way it betrays the molten, 60s-soul core of the song and for exposing Banhart as more than a paisley, trees ‘n turtles folkie: here he amps up, drives his voice to distortion, and vexes his spirit in a performance that instantly ranks among his best. In the comp’s other outstanding moment, John Darnielle (who by now is sort of like drug rehab for old songs: he’s where you go to get better) absolutely owns the Silver Jews’ “Pet Politic,” turning its dark Southwestern melody into tear-stained pop-folk. Darinelle’s delivery is superb, eating up the “Isn’t it amazing how / I go where I’m told / I go where I’m told / I go where I’m told” line with shivering disgust.

Espers, Wolf Parade, and Two Gallants all turn in charming, if unmemorable versions of little-known songs. Mount Eerie recluse Phil Elvrum renders a friend’s “Waterfalls” into drizzling sub-folk, providing hope that his new moniker hasn’t swayed his studio ambition. There are downers too: Almost nothing could make CocoRosie interesting, especially not a creaky Damien Jurado cover. Josephine Foster and Cynthia G. Mason both take turns at stripped, uninteresting folk interpretations. For the most part, though, the disc fulfills its magazine’s front-cover boast: “Excellent bands covering excellent bands.” The choices here are personal and somewhat obscure, and the freedom allowed the artists shows in their performances.