So it must be acknowledged that implicit to the title of this feature 1 is that there do not exist people who would listen to this. One of these albums, then, seems to come with its own pre-ordained disclaimer: the reason that Weezer’s The Teal Album appears to be that the internet demanded that Weezer cover “Africa,” and they made an album around it. I’m here to argue, however, that this is, in fact, not a reason to make a whole album, any more than “I have the legal rights to use the name of a band that used to be a going concern” was a reason to make this Lemonheads covers albums. I guess what I’m saying is: neither of these albums has an easy answer to the question “who is this for?” and that is the non-profanity version of the question in the header.
The two things looked at in tandem, in fact, show us a world of contrast, albeit not contrasts that are in opposition. The Teal Album is a try-hard overachieving fanservice big swing, anchored by an internet-demanded track that, frankly, was a bad idea from the top all the way down. The Lemonheads’ Varshons 2, on the other hand, was not really requested by anyone, internet or otherwise. It is, in fact, the Lemonheads’ 2 second-consecutive covers record, but first in ten years, and no part of it was demanded by anyone. At times it’s hard to believe that even Evan Dando wants this record to exist.
The other thing, though, that these two bands have in common is that they were both, in the nineties, capable and even laudable power-pop bands. The further sort of duality that they’re drawn into by this circumstance – that is, the circumstance of each band releasing a covers album within a couple of weeks of each other – is to note how differently their things progressed. They both started off rockin’ bopsters from the East Coast, but the Lemonheads fell apart into drugs, apathy, and the sort of frontman weirdo-ness that doesn’t make for coming back easily 3, and lurch to life occasionally to make enough sweet reunion tour dollars to yield, I’m going to presume, another pile of drugs with which to hole up and not worry about anymore.
Weezer, on the other hand, fell apart into basically the exact opposite experience, riding Rivers Cuomo’s algorithmic 4 songwriting uh…chops to album-a-year middle-ground success as sort of the last generally-bland riff-and-hook rock dudes left standing. It’s unfair to call either experience a band, as one has basically no functional members beyond the people hired to play the songs, and the other is compries of 75% original members, leashed to each other to play music that means nothing, and only sets out to accomplish selling enough records to enable them to continue doing it. One is a constantly self-destructing machine, the other a perpetual-motion machine.
And so it comes to pass that each of these bands, capable in their past of great work, come forward with albums full of other people’s’ songs, as though that was any way to communicate to whatever remains of their fanbases whatever it was that was great about them in the first place, out of mercenary need. The Weezer album out of year-over-year mercenary behavior, to drum up support for whatever their next studio monstrosity is going to be, and the Lemonheads for more easily-scrutinized mercenary reasons: they probably needed the money or whatever.
Whether it’s an outright trend that I’m not on top of or just something that confirmation bias has pushed in front of me, covers albums have been happening over my transom a fair amount lately – even just last year, one would have heard a lot about both Third Eye Blind’s covers album (which got a writeup as part of this very feature) and Meshell N’Degeocello’s covers album (which was one of my favorite albums of the year), and that’s only out of the fifty-odd things I write about over the normal course of business in a given year. So: why? Why a covers album at all? Why two of them in a month, and three of them 5 in a year?
Well, the answer seems to be pretty apparent: people like songs they already know, and you can bet heavily on them perhaps giving you more of a listen if you aren’t straining their memory (by being a band they don’t remember) and their faith (by presenting them with a bunch of songs they don’t know). It’s a low-stakes way to get something out there, in short, and it almost certainly has no reason to exist beyond that.
But maybe there’s something in the performances that tells us otherwise. After all, pleny of people have made much hay with someone else’s songs, and there’s no reason why any of this couldn’t be the same situation.
No reason beyond the fact, of course, that it isn’t.
Look, this is a pretty straight up and down situation: these albums are both bad. But they are, to their credit, bad in distinct and separate ways. Weezer performs a bunch of note-perfect covers of existing radio hits, with just enough “Weezer” on them 6 to make it clear that you’re not hearing the original. It starts by making the listener wade through the execrable internet-baiting “Africa” cover, well-sung 7 but otherwise-unspectacular version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Take on Me” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, and it just isn’t worth it. There’s a stretch in the back half of the album that almost sort of makes a case for the record; “Paranoid” adds very little to the song itself, but at least sounds like the band is genuinely enjoying themselves, “Mr. Blue Sky” is a durable enough song that it always sounds like that 8, and they do the coda, which is nice. “No Scrubs” is also a surprisingly sturdy song, and while it’s eye-roll inducing in its “wouldn’t it be funny if this white rock band did an R&B classic?” conceit, the band plays it relatively straight, and it’s at least listenable. It ends with a couple of the worst things I’ve ever had to sit through, in the form of a braindead version of “Billie Jean” 9, followed by a perfunctory version of “Stand By Me”, which isn’t even that hard of a song to cover in the first place. It’s actively baffling, and it really caps off an already-bad record on an already-bad note.
The Lemonheads album is less unpleasant, if only because it’s considerably more slight, and also because it mostly has better songs on it. Unlike the Weezer record, it starts pretty strong, with a fine Yo La Tengo cover (“Can’t Forget”). It runs through Dando-ified versions of pretty-good songs by the Jayhawks (“Settled Down Like Rain”) and the Bevis Frond (“Old Man Blank”) before taking some big swings at a classic Paul Westerberg solo number (“Things”) that turns out well, because it’s not like any Paul Westerberg song is dependent on its performance 10.
Things get even wobblier with their version of “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” which is one of John Prine’s very best songs, and is pretty outside of their ability here. They don’t fall down entirely on Lucinda Williams’ “Abandoned” 11, they do completely fall down on “Now and Then” (by a band called Natural Child, whose work I am not familiar with at all). NRBQ’s “Magnet” is fine, if not revelatory. They get full points for constructing a version of the Florida-Georgia Line’s “Round Here” that I not only like more than the original (not difficult), but might actually listen to again of my own volition some day. And then they go completely off the rails. Their amiable country-rock approach is abandoned for “TAQN” by The Eyes, and punk rock does not suit whatever form the Lemonheads currently take. It’s better than the fake-reggae of the GiveGood’s “Familiar”, but it’s still not as bad as the Lovecraftian, mind-melting horror that awaits the last two tracks on the album.
I’m trying not to overstate things, but jesus their version of “Straight to You” is bad. Evan Dando’s perishing, lackadaisical-dude voice is fine, and its actually borne up pretty well with time, but “Straight to You” is pretty much exactly the kind of song that you need a super-huge operatic take on, or it just ends up sounding pretty dumb. There are lots of Nick Cave songs that are well-served by a slow, unengaged approach 12, this is absolutely not one of them. Having done considerable violence to a great song, they then record a faithful, reverent version of a terrible one with “Take it Easy”. It is at this point that I wanted to attack Spotify’s servers with a hammer. Say this for the Weezer record, at least it didn’t make me this angry.
There’s little else to say than that, in the end. In this case, both cover records seem to admit defeat – Weezer’s by throwing their hands up and just giving the people what they want, which was a cover of “Africa”, as well as a bunch of radio songs from when he was a kid, The Lemonheads by not only not writing songs, but not even doing anything to make the songs they cover sound like The Lemonheads 13, and basically acknowledging that you just want to hear them play songs you already know anyway.
So who the fuck listens to this? I don’t know. People who are into internet memes, I guess. People that like bar bands and want them to have a name they know, I guess. People that don’t want to acknowledge that the nineties ended twenty years ago, I guess. I genuinely have no idea. They aren’t worth listening to in any way, and I can’t imagine who is doing so.
Now, give me an album of Weezer covering the Lemonheads, that I’d listen to. If you could get a version of “Rudderless” on there, I’d even donate to the Kickstarter.
- one of the first features I came up with for this blog, and a well that I have to prevent myself from going to too often, lest it spoil the special gem-like rarity of the truly inexplicable. ↩
- for so we are forced to call them, given that the only constant member is Evan Dando, to the point where it’s difficult to even figured out who played on Varshons 2. ↩
- and indeed, the Lemonheads have never really “come back” in any meaningful sense after The Lemonheads, their first “reunion” album, which has its moments, but not very many of them. ↩
- this is meant literally – dude writes songs with spreadsheets and math. ↩
- I never much cared for Third Eye Blind, but I’m perfectly happy to lump them in with the Lemonheads and Weezer as bands that peaked in the nineties and somehow continue to lurch around making records I don’t care about, including a covers album. They’re not that different. ↩
- for all that their music currently sounds painstakingly assembled out of parts to the point of being frictionless and uninteresting, it is also the case that there is a surprising amount of singularity to their sound – that is to say they are readily identifiable as “Weezer”, even though their music is designed to be as featureless as possible. ↩
- There are, to be sure, two aspects of Weezer as mechanical performers that are interesting, and the first is Cuomo’s surprisingly-capable, surprisingly-agile voice – he hits the high note in “Take on Me”! – and Pat Wilson’s drumming, which is much better than it has any right to be. ↩
- it did force me to consider whether I find the production on this record less offensive than on ELO’s Out of the Blue or not. I think that I’m just used to the way radio rock records sound in 2019, and it sounds less freakish because I’m here in it. I’m also sure that there’s pretty much no way in which I would have to hear it in a few years when things have changed somewhat, as they inevitably do, and compare the two experiences, so I’m going to have to let that stand for the truth in my estimation. ↩
- Rivers Cuomo owes me nothing, and I don’t know anything about his proclivities, but if you’re already the dude that wrote the agency-denying, stalker-lite lyrics on Pinkerton, maybe avoid covering what sure sounds like a proto-MRA anthem about a woman who lied about being impregnated by you to get at your dollars? In 2019? Like, maybe that’s not the best idea? I don’t know, man. Just saying. ↩
- there are great performances (as opposed to great songs, which abound) in Paul Westerberg’s solo discography, but not very many of them, and none of them are on 14 Songs, and none of them are “Things”. ↩
- one of my favorite Lucinda Williams songs, in fact, and from the album that you probably unjustly know as “the one with ‘Passionate Kisses’ on it”, because everyone covers that song all the time. Or maybe “Change the Locks,” which Tom Petty covered. ↩
- “Into My Arms,” “Black Hair,” “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side”, “Skeleton Tree” and “Henry Lee” – since he’s already got a duet partner there – are the ones that spring off the top of my head. I’m sure I could find a dozen more if pressed. ↩
- They sound, in fact, like the best bar band in your town. Whoever that is, the Lemonheads sound like that now. ↩