Arts Desk

Your Local Faves, Playing Other People’s Songs

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Because I wrote about Title Tracks' versions of songs by The Flamin' Groovies and The Merseybeats earlier this week, and because Bob Dylan's truly atrocious new disc of Christmas standards leaked yesterday, I've been thinking a lot about covers.

Let's put aside the illustrious history of ill-advised tributes (read: the entire Me First and the Gimme Gimmes oeuvre). A good cover can both satisfy a simple, dorky impulse—to hear one artist you admire spin another in an interesting way—and prove rather instructional. For example, it can tell you that Title Tracks frontman John Davis is probably a sucker for semi-obscure gems (he is), as well as a student of infectious, pop-classicist hooks. With that in mind, I've collected some recent covers by local artists.

My short list, after the jump, is fairly folk- and indie-centric, and by no means complete. Tell me what I missed in the comments.

These United States and Vandaveer—the folky side project of  TUS's bassist, Mark Heidinger—contributed cuts to Dylan Mania, a French tribute compilation that slipped under the radar when it dropped in May. Vandaveer's take on "The Man In Me" is fairly straightforward, if not nearly as creepy and self-satisfied as the 1970 original. These United States' version of "To Ramona," meanwhile, is more animated and unhinged, benefiting greatly from a galloping rhythm and some thickly applied pedal steel. You can hear both songs on the groups' respective MySpace pages.

Ugly Purple Sweater has a cover of the Woody Guthrie-penned folk standard "This Land Is Your Land" up on its MySpace page. No surprises here, really—except that the duo has tweaked the title a bit, and decorated the song with a fairly silly falsetto. Which, strangely, is pretty awesome.

Last Tide—whom I wrote about in this week's One Track Mind—includes a swirling, eerie cover of Talking Heads' "Memories Can't Wait" in its live set. Cover Me—a blog that, yes, covers covers—has an mp3 of the song from the band's recent appearance on WMUC’s Third Rail Radio program. Also, Last Tide frontman Nate Frey's other band, Detox Retox, does an, um, interesting cover of Joy Division's "Transmission":

The gloomy art-punk outfit Screen Vinyl Image taps one of its sonic forebears in this live cover of an early Slowdive B-side. Bonus! The woozy video quality and seizure-inducing lights are straight out of any shoegaze music vid circa 1989:

Ted Leo doesn't make music in the District anymore, but I like his tense, crescendoing cover of Robert Pollard's "The Numbered Head"—from the recent Score! 20 Years Of Merge Records: The Covers! comp—enough to include it here. You can stream the song at the Merge Records online store. It's got nothing, though, on the all-adrenaline cover of "Suspect Device" that Leo played at Fort Reno a few years ago.

Yo La Tengo hails from Hoboken, N.J, but the group played a pair of (kinda) D.C.-related covers at its 9:30 Club show recently: "Firecracker, Firecracker," by Half Japanese, and "Nervous Breakdown," which L.A.'s Black Flag wrote about three years before the District-born Henry Rollins joined the group. Rollins' provenance was a shaky excuse for Yo La Tengo to play the song, but the crowd was happy to forgive the trio. You can stream the entire set at NPR.

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  • Aaron Leitko

    Personally, I like Ted Leo's cover of Lungfish's "To Whom You Were Born"

  • Jonathan L. Fischer

    Also, basically half (well, 3/10) of Leo's "Tell Balgeary..." is covers. Maybe he'll play my cousin's bar mitzvah.

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