Some interesting covers on the new Merge Records 20th anniversary CD Score! (The entire thing is available for streaming at Merge’s website.) “Interesting” partly in terms of what they reveal about the original versions… for example, that Destroyer’s songs’ impact is strongly dependent upon the attitude conveyed by Dan Bejar’s witty, slightly supercilious vocal tone. Without it (as demonstrated by Lavender Diamond’s version of “New Ways of Living”), his songs can sound almost commercial – as in, part of an advertisement, music composed explicitly to play nice with people’s expectations. It’s the distance between that affect and Bejar’s vocals that allow the songs to grow – or at least, this one. Another Merge artist whose music seems highly dependent upon the singer’s particular approach (the songs on this album are all written by present or past Merge artists, but Merge pulled off a bit of a coup in getting recordings from many non-Merge artists) is Chris Lopez, formerly of the Rock*a*Teens and (formerly?) of Tenement Halls. Lopez’s hoarse, desperate romanticism casts his songs in a kind of autumnal twilight that the Shins, for example (covering Tenement Halls’ “Plenty Is Never Enough”) almost willfully subvert, turning the track instead into a bouncy pop number. It works–but more if you don’t know the original than if you do.
On the other hand, Mac McCaughan – who is, as co-founder and co-owner of Merge Records, songwriter for Superchunk and Portastatic, unsurprisingly, the most covered writer here (a full quarter of the tracks here are written by McCaughan) – proves to be a very durable and recognizable melodist. Not really a surprise – but it’s instantly clear when one of his songs is covered, no matter what the performers do with it.
It’s also interesting to hear Ted Leo and the Pharmacists cover Robert Pollard’s “The Numbered Head” – if only because, unexpectedly, Leo covering Pollard sounds weirdly like a Mission of Burma song. (Speaking of whom, I’ve finally figured out what Peter Prescott’s vocals remind me of: a Viking merrily enjoying his work of pillaging and slaughter.)