[24 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
A good cover song should change a song yet still retain enough of its character that you find a new way to appreciate the original. Where lyrics had gone unnoticed before, a new version can emphasize different moments or add unique twists by changing the delivery. A new beat or even a few new chords could add a whole new element to a classic piece and give something for both new and old audiences to appreciate. The principle is true enough that for bluegrass band Ironhorse, doing tribute albums for their favorite bands along with their own original recordings led to a remarkable discovery. Modest Mouse songs sound fantastic as bluegrass.
Each song gets translated to a style of bluegrass that matches its character. You’ll have a plucking piece, a waltz, a crooning song, or sometimes just a rapid dance. The dark, moody song ‘Trailer Trash’ is an easy fit for a slow plucking tune. Yet the more the band gets into Modest Mouse’s more distorted, warbling sound the more the bluegrass version pulls it back to its roots. The dramatic beats and shifts in tone of ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’ and ‘Float On’ are wiped away in their covers, leaving a steadier progression that delivers the chorus through crooning instead of shouting. Nor does Iron Horse always go for a conventional adaptation, ‘Baby Blue Sedan’ becomes a plodding waltz instead of being just another acoustic adaptation.
Creating these songs is a trial and error process. In an e-mail band member Vance Henry explains, “CMH Records comes up with the ideas for the covers. Once a project is agreed upon, we will listen to the songs that the producer has selected for any that we feel just can’t cross over into the bluegrass style and if everyone agrees we will replace it. Sometimes we notice them upon first listening, but occasionally we discover them when we start putting an arrangement together….It is a group effort where we will just chart the song and get in a circle and start playing and let the arrangement evolve and I think these turn out to be the best arrangements/projects.” The album was recorded in two weeks through the group plucking in the studio, leading to a real sense of cohesion and balance as they make each song have its own spin.
The most impressive thing about this cover album is how much it will increase your appreciation for Modest Mouse’s lyrics. The clever wordplay of the band was always noticeable, but having their lyrics be sung elegantly in bluegrass style adds a new sense of quiet desperation to them. The lines “I miss you when you’re around” ring even colder when sung to a waltz that is meant to be slow danced with a partner. Instead of lead singer Brock angrily shouting, “Outside naked, shivering looking blue, from the cold sunlight that’s reflected off the moon, Baby come angels flying around you, reminding you we used to be three and not just two” in the cover it is now a careful and earnest solo. The repeated lines of, “Don’t you worry, we’ll all float on” become a group harmony, with each member of the band joining in until everyone is singing. Hearing these new versions gives new dimension to these songs, so that you’ll want to hear the original and just as much as the bluegrass cover.
You can find the album through the band’s website and through most online services.