There used to be a bit of a joke in the music realm whenever a band put out a greatest hits album or a live album. These were issued for a handful of reasons. The first is that the superfans would buy them anyway, regardless of whether they already had the material in other forms. The second is that these often fulfilled contracts with little to no effort expended. The third would be a gentle reminder to the audience that this entity still existed.
The covers album fulfilled all these and more until the music industry, as we know it, collapsed. Now, because so many bands are independent entities, contractual obligations aren’t such an issue anymore and neither are throngs of adoring fans waiting for your every next breath. The best an average covers album can do now is to herald the fact you’re not dead yet and give you something to record without having to work too strenuously to write it. Extraordinary cover albums can and do exist, but they require an effort equal to new material and, depending upon your bottom line needs, do you need to work that hard?
Sometimes it can be revelatory. Hearing Johnny Cash’s renditions of a full spectrum of popular music via the American Recordings was a true eye-opener. Most covers albums, otherwise, do more to shut eyes. Into this comes America’s Back Pages, an album that reeks of a lack of necessity. A lot has to do with the choices and the baldfaced obviousness of them; so obvious that it induces grimacing. Naming the album “Back Pages” fulfills Holy Writ One: “You must cover Dylan.” Burning hot nods to needless generational pony-patting include “Woodstock” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Yes, I get the implicit wit in the choice, but “America” has been covered an awful lot. What could America the duo actually do with it beyond a degree of reproduction.
Meanwhile, another far more interesting disc seems to have been near the surface but not fully realized. After all, you have to give points to America for also trying out the Gin Blossoms/Marshall Crenshaw track “T’il I Hear It From You,” New Radicals’ “Someday We’ll Know” and Mark Knopfler and James Taylor’s “Sailing To Philadelphia,” all totally feasible and all more intriguing than the expected fare. A more adventurous turn might have yielded a more interesting result.
That other function of a covers set, to remind an audience you’re still alive, put an inadvertent pall over the disc as I listened to it, knowing that around the same time I received it the third founding member Dan Peek (who wrote the band’s hit “Lonely People”) had just passed away. Revisiting the past, even other people’s pasts, just didn’t jibe with this unfortunate event which was totally beyond their control. It all colluded to present a mix that promised something truly interesting, yet fled to the usual safe and boring stereotypes when all was said and done.
In the end, the bias holds and America’s Back Pages renders itself pleasant, wildly inoffensive and, in the end, devoid of urgency.
Back Pages is available from Amazon.com.