Cover Story, the 4th album from Virginia’s Love Canon, is among the most interesting releases we have covered at Bluegrass Today. It’s not really a bluegrass record in the traditional sense of the word, or even an exhibition of bluegrass music. What it conveys instead is a celebration of the bluegrass ensemble, the group of instruments that Bill Monroe pulled together in the late 1940s to make up his Blue Grass Boys, playing them differently than was the current fashion, and reshaping forever the way they would be viewed in the popular mind.
Love Canon aren’t the first to reimagine the bluegrass band this way. Musicians schooled in bluegrass have been doing so for at least 40 years in varying degrees, starting perhaps with The Country Gentlemen who brought material from outside the genre into the grassy mainstream. But they rarely deviated the resulting sound far from what had come before. In our time we see Punch Brothers creating contemporary pop using acoustic instruments, and doing so with a vey high degree of skill, to critical and popular acclaim.
What we have on Cover Story is something different. These guys apply that same high level of virtuosity, but look backwards to the pop music of the ’80s with a joyous collection of songs that should be cemented into most of our brains. Even if you aren’t a particular fan of radio pop and rock, any period of roughly 10 years is sure to contain a number of truly memorable songs, and that is what Love Canon has chosen.
Only a few tracks get the uptempo grassification treatment, and only where it works. On mega hits like Kyrie Eleison from Mister Mister (1985), and Tempted from Squeeze (1981), the band retains the rhythmic structure of the originals, using the acoustic instruments to mimic the beats and accents of a keyboard and drum-driven band, but without percussion. It’s a statement a bit like Tony Rice’s with Manzanita which said loudly and clearly that you could play bluegrass without a banjo – although it never set out to do so.
To cover iconic hits like that you need a truly powerful lead vocalist, which Love Canon has in Jesse Harper. They also use guest vocalists, as on Driver 8, originally a guitar twangfest from R.E.M (1985), sung here with a bit of a bluegrass beat by Keller Williams. Tempted, in particular, involves a song originally performed by Paul Carrack, among the most distinctive singers of that era, and guest Erik Krasno turns in a very creditable performance.
The entire band is strong. Adam Larrabee is on banjo, Darrell Muller on bass, Andy Thacker on mandolin, and Jay Starling on reso-guitar.
The band doesn’t carry a fiddler as a rule, but they make great use of guests Alex Hargreaves, Mike Barnett, and Michael Cleveland to cover synth parts, which serve them well on tracks like Things Can Only Get Better, recorded by Howard Parker in 1985. The strings set the tone for the intro, and Love Cannon goes on to retain the funky beat of the original, with mandolin and banjo providing the percussive sounds .
For some reason, Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) has been a popular number for bluegrass groups to cover this past few years, but I haven’t heard one succeed to the degree of this one here, which does get a grassy feel. Harper gives it a fine reading, supported by Aoife O’Donovan. It just works.
As does their version of Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, paired in a medley with an instrumental composition with a Celtic flavor from Harper, Icecaps Of Pentatonia. Gabriel is another of those immediately-recognizable singers who often repel cover attempts, but guest Mark Erelli serves up a fine rendition. Love Cannon again retains the feel of the original in their rhythm section with the bass avoiding the familiar bluegrass 1-5 pattern in favor of the rockier repetition of the 1, and the banjo and guitar playing the signature guitar part from Gabriel’s 1977 recording.
Other songs include a country song, Islands In The Stream, a hit for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton in 1983, sung here by Harper and Lauren Balthrop, who does a great job of putting over a Dolly-like vocal. This one even gets a brass section! Perhaps the farthest stretch for an acoustic cover is Enjoy The Silence from Depeche Mode (1990). Again the mandolin and banjo provide a simulacrum of what the drum kit did originally. And they also take on Billy Joel’s Prelude/Angry Young Man, the only fully instrumental track on the album.
If you have a passions for ’80s radio hits, and enjoy experimentation with bluegrass instruments, Cover Story is can’t miss. You non-bluegrass friends will rock along with you in the car, or dance with you at a party.
But Love Canon is more than a novelty, and this album is serious music, pointing the way towards other sounds that a bluegrass band can produce. Find the album, released on Organic Records, wherever you purchase music.
Very well done, guys!