Gibbard's tribue to Teenage Fandclub overcomes any aspect of mere novelty and stands proudly on its own.
The reasons for covering a song are at least as varied as the reasons for writing one.
When Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s album 1989 in its entirety, listeners clamored over his potential motive: was he truly paying Swift homage, as he claimed, or was he one-upping her?
Critical praise for his version invited questions of its own: were the songs good to begin with, or did Adams somehow “make them good” by performing and arranging them in a more interesting way?
The Flaming Lips have taken on two sacred cows, Dark Side of the Moon and (with guests galore) Sgt. Pepper’s. Beck fans will remember his “Record Club” series, which took on the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence, INXS, and even Yanni. Petra Haden a cappella’d The Who Sell Out. The Walkmen delivered a suitably boozy version of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats. Rufus did Judy, Macy did Stevie. The Dirty Projectors covered Black Flag’s Damaged (supposedly without having heard the album in years).
Then there are older efforts, whether it’s Jon Spencer’s pre-Blues Explosion band Pussy Galore out-scuzzing Exile on Main St. or, my personal favorite, Camper Van Beethoven’s improbable cover of Fleetwood Mac’s weird-to-begin-with Tusk.
In this case, Gibbard’s take on Bandwagonesque seems to be very much a labor of love. He has long professed his admiration for Teenage Fanclub’s music, going so far as to call it his “favorite record” by his “favorite band of all time” in a recent press release. Thanks to Turntable Kitchen’s vinyl subscription series “Sounds Delicious”, we can now partake in Gibbard’s fandom.
Instead of a squeal of feedback, Gibbard’s album begins with synthy ambient sounds, the chord changes muted, with one melting into another and the singer’s crystal-clear delivery over the swirls. It doesn’t have the bite of the original, but that’s not the point -- he's clearly after the emotional directness and prettiness of the songs, and for the most part he succeeds, though I sometimes missed the sloppiness of the Fanclub original.
The outro of opener “The Concept”, which begins about three minutes in, is rendered effectively by Gibbard’s treatment, more Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev than power pop. A guitar comes in with a charming, George Harrison-esque solo, cymbal crashes, and a choir of Gibbard vocal tracks for nearly five minutes.
After the instrumental “Satan”. which is appropriately noisy but rather defanged compared to the original, we enter into the album proper. We have one doting cover after another of beloved songs like “December”, “What You Do to Me”. “Star Sign”, “Metal Baby”. and others (“Sidewinder”, oh my gosh, not to mention the brilliant “Alcoholiday”).
For the most part, Gibbard plays it straight, making the songs a little less lo-fi, a little less cringe-inducing in their vulnerability, more competently performed and recorded, but accordingly, they sound like their loose threads have been sewn in and carefully mended.
Don’t get me wrong -- the songs are really good, as we knew all along, and Gibbard’s versions are well done, too. But the more interesting moments are on songs like “I Don’t Know”, “Pet Rock”, "Guiding Star", and "Is This Music", which sound more Brian Wilson than Alex Chilton -- Soundcloud-era Brian Wilson, that is. One loses some of the distortion in the guitars and some of the shoegaze-y elements of the original, but one also gains a sense for the album’s contemporary relevance, as though to say to today’s listeners, “you, too, can learn from Teenage Fanclub!”
Too often known as the other album released in 1991, Bandwagonesque is ripe for reappraisal, and Gibbard’s album-length cover certainly gives plenty of reasons to do so.
It's an act of appreciation that overcomes any aspect of mere novelty and stands proudly on its own.