Songs for 65 Roses: Re-Working the North Carolina Jukebox
(The Splinter Group)On an album sporting covers of bands like Superchunk, Let's Active, Des Ark, The Moaners, Metal Flake Mother, Stillhouse, Ryan Adams and Fetchin' Bones, you can be excused for expecting a good deal of electric execution, a raucous rock 'n' roll affair. But Songs for Sixty Five Roses doesn't rock; in fact, it doesn't try. And, in these 18 retoolings of some of N.C.'s musical apogees, that lack of rock-ist sneer and a refined, holistic approach for every track works well. After all, this disc is more about the whole than the artist, his appearance or his songs.
Consider the opening track from former Seven Mary Three frontman Jason Ross, a Chapel Hill resident for five years. He tackles "Mower," the Superchunk classic that, in original form, finds Mac McCaughan howling "Nothing gets in my way today/ No one has the power of steel beneath them/ I'll leave the world cut down." Here, though, Ross eases it out solo, sweetly, internally resilient, an acoustic guitar line easily pushing the melody as a quiet Brian Paulson hum controls the undercarriage. It's not indie rock.The other Superchunk cover finds Two Dollar Pistols, fronted by former punk drummer John Howie Jr. They boot-polish and bar-stool it, making the song an easy, country traveling song, as opposed to its original frantic bustle. And it translates.
But the Superchunk covers are meant only as points in the case: Nikki Meets the Hibachi chooses the softest song in the Des Ark catalogue, "For Bob Riecke," and sweetens it still with a big, multi-tracked chorus. Goner's hyper and nervous "Battleground Park" morphs into an epic diorama under Caitlin Cary's sprawling voice, with original songwriter Scott Phillips playing grand piano and handling backing vocals. Even the most abrasive moments on the collection are but transient guitar treatment: As Portastatic, McCaughan allows his guitar to feedback into the last verse on an otherwise straight-ahead, quick-trot version of Ryan Adams' "Oh My Sweet Carolina." Michael Rank employees feedback for an intro to an acoustic take on Fetchin' Bones' "Flounder," using abrasion only to highlight the later melodic efficacy.
Sure, it would rock to hear Superchunk cover Polvo or listen to The Moaners growl through a Des Ark blitz. Maybe these are adult-contemporary takes on songs that--in original form--had very little to do with maturity (save Will McFarlane's superb cover of James Taylor, or Athenaeum's dubious take on Randy Travis). But if it takes softening the edges to ask for help and to accomplish John Plymale's goal--"We hope the money raised will help develop new treatments and possibly a cure for this awful disease"--then so be it.