“Psychobilly hoedown” is not a phrase used often – if ever – when referring to Nine Inch Nails. That is, it never was until southern darlings Shovels & Rope covered one of Trent Reznor’s songs on their new album. But that’s exactly how the band described their take on “Last” when NPR Music streamed the album this week. To say that their Busted Jukebox Vol. I collection of covers (out today on Dualtone Records) includes unique renditions of unexpected songs is an understatement. The entire album is more than just cover songs – it’s a collaborative effort with musical stars from wide-ranging genres that puts a new spin on old hits. The duo give an Americana makeover to works from The Kinks to Neil Young, Lou Reed, and Guns ‘n Roses, with a little help from their fellow artist friends, including Shakey Graves, Lucius, JD McPherson, Preservation Jazz Hall Band, J. Roddy Walston, Butch Walker, The Milk Carton Kids, Caroline Rose, and Inlaws.
So how does this eclectic collection of songs match up to other covers and covers albums? Is it worth spinning as the holiday season approaches or should it stay on the mantle and out of sight? We give our First Impressions.
First Impressions of Shovels and Rope‘s Busted Jukebox Vol. I
The standout track for me is the jazz funeral version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” that was recorded in New Orleans with Preservation Hall Jazz Band not long after Reed’s death. The mournful horns from Pres Hall at the intro set an elegiac tone that’s quite fitting. But it’s the warm harmonies from Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent that turn the song into a gently joyful tribute.
I happened to be browsing on Instagram when I came upon a picture of an adorable baby holding a record. The baby is none other than Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent’s baby daughter Louisiana. And that record she’s holding, none other than the duo’s new album Busted Jukebox Vol. 1. All this to say, I was quite excited when Ben asked if we’d want to contribute our First Impressions of the new record. The album is a mix of collaborations between Shovels & Rope and other artists. But while some collaborations end up sounding more like a mish-mash, it is far from the case with this album. The pair brought in longtime friends, previous collaborators, artists they admire as well as others they met on the road along the way and the results are songs with lots of fun layered vocals and new twists on known songs. My favourite song on the album is Elvis Costello’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding with the Brooklyn quintet Lucius. I love the incredible soul that the group brings to the track with their luscious vocals and choral-like harmonies.
What I love about Busted Jukebox Vol. 1 is that it’s not only a covers record, it’s a covers record done with some of the coolest artists out there right now. It’s really awesome to pick up a record featuring Shovels & Rope alongside Shakey Graves, J. Roddy Walston, Lucius, and JD McPherson to name a few. What’s more awesome is the fact that it’s covers of a wide range of tracks from Elvis Costello to Lou Reed. The general consensus here seems to be that their cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and I have to agree. It’s just so beautifully done.
What I really love about this album is the number of under-the-radar tunes on it. Ask anyone if they can even name a Lou Reed tune, they might be able to pull out “Sweet Jane,” or recognize “Walk on the Wild Side” as the bass line from ATCQ’s “Can I Kick It?” Here, Shovels and Rope cover “Perfect Day,” a high-profile Lou Reed song, but still one that your officemates wouldn’t be able to place. My favorite is the most recognizeable tune on the album, Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding, done as a southern-soul waltz, with Brooklyn indie-poppers Lucius providing the lullabye ooh backing vocals. Stylistically the album is full of natural-sounding instrumentation, absent the usual studio trickery, which helps remind us that this is a bands-and-friends collection of experimental, skillfully arranged covers. The second listen is better than the first.
I like the odd cover, although I have to admit that there are only so many covers I can take because rarely are they better than the originals. Ryan Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 changed my opinion about cover albums, and Shovels and Rope‘s collaboration with a multitude of friends is further pushing the envelope on how great covers can be. Opening with Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” with Shakey Graves singing lead was a great choice. Butch Walker turning his anthemic “Bullet Belt” into a barnyard ditty is also terrific. Asking JD McPherson to sing the lead on “Nothing Takes the Place of You” was smart, as McPherson’s old-school charm and voice channels the personality and warmth of the late, great Toussaint McCall. But like Hollie, the rendition of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” with Preservation Jazz Hall Band is fantastic. It’s given a new, dreary life, but one of a cavernous saloon in some deserted ghost town. It is that solitude and intimacy that makes the entire album a success.
Shovels and Rope are a hard working touring band – they average 200 shows a year. Throughout those shows and years on the road they are bound to meet some incredible talent. What makes this album a great success is that it’s based around artists who have formed friendships while on tour. My first listen reminded me of being backstage, or in the crowd waiting for the encore – when all bands come out and perform together. My favorite song would be the collaborated Nothing Takes The Place Of You with JD McPherson. The rockabilly greaser from Oklahoma provided the powerful and moving lead vocals while Shovels and Rope stepped back to let it all shine. This is more than just a cover album! And if you allow yourself to ignore it just because of that, then you’re going to miss out on a great group of songs performed by some amazing musicians. A must have album!
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