When listening to Mo Kenney’s new album Covers–10 stripped-down takes on the likes of Tom Petty and Guided By Voices–something curious happens. Songs that used to be country feel more like rock. Tracks that were happy are now a smile with sad eyes, all while Kenney smudges them with her laid-back, guitar-forward, indie rock fingerprints. You’ll be so swept up in the moment, though, you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be humming along to her soft-rough sing-song on “Sour Girl,” lost in the inertia of your deja vu because, yes, you have heard these songs before, but never like this.
If deja vu happens from dreams we’ve forgotten upon waking, perhaps its inherit trance-y feeling is why, during my fifth listen to Covers, as the album ended on my Spotify and a random mix of Kenney tunes followed, it took me a couple songs to notice. That’s how well the multiple ECMA-winning singer-songwriter takes these tunes and makes them her own.
“That’s a good compliment; that’s sort of what I was aiming to do,” Kenney says, when I tell her this during our phone interview.
“A lot of the songs I put on there I’ve known since I was a teenager and I’ve loved since then, so it was kind of like, nostalgic,” Kenney says. “I spent so much time alone in my room listening to records, and I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. I’ve just loved music my whole life.”
Covers is an arm stretching out from Kenney’s pandemic seclusion to the artists who made her care about music in the first place, back when she was a kid holed up in her room in a different type of isolation. (She describes listening to Elliot Smith as a teen: “It felt like I was the only one that knew about it, or that it was just for me, sort of.” Somewhere right now, someone under 20 is thinking the same thoughts while listening to her.)
But that’s not the only motivator for Kenney. “I don’t have an acoustic record that’s like a sparse, acoustic album and that’s mainly–especially now–what my live shows are,” she explains. “And a lot of the time after a show, people will come up to me and want to buy a CD or a record and they’re like ‘Well, what is most like what I heard tonight?’ and I don’t really have that in my catalogue, so I wanted to record a record like that.”
But where Kenney’s new collection of songs are sparse, solitary missives lifted from the same metals that melded her teenage years, another Halifax rocker shows covers can also be loud and loose and full of frayed-edge energy.“I really love that her vision was doing stripped-down solo versions of songs, and our version was ‘it’s the full band, but everything is live off the floor in as few takes as possible,’” says No, It’s Fine. fronter Cailen Pygott when I called him to discuss the band’s new LP, called (It’s Nice To Pretend) We Wrote These Songs. “We were both like ‘How do we make this an honest distillation of our relationship to these songs?’ but we just both did it in slightly different ways.”
Recorded as a full set–just like a live concert–in a mere three takes at Golden Palm Studios (where Gabrielle Papillon and Beauts both made excellent albums recently), the surprise sophomore effort by the emo-streaked punk band is wringing with the energy of its live shows. And that, Pygott adds, is exactly the point. “This is like a crystallized performance. In addition to this is us showing these songs that we really love–and actually having some content to put out–it was really important to me that this live as a performance.” To hammer that point home, Pygott and his band also recorded the studio sessions as a series of YouTube videos you can watch on their channel.
The record’s 10 tracks bounce between takes on Modern Baseball, Weakened Friends and Silver Jews–all influences on Pygott’s brand of sad songs sung loudly. These are influences that run deep, with Pygott saying Modern Baseball’s record You’re Gonna Miss It All “is pretty much the reason I started this band.”
Of course, Kenney and No, It’s Fine. aren’t the only two acts to have fallen for covers. Everyone from Whitney Houston (whose riff on Dolly Parton’s “I will always love you” shot the song from country classic to era-defining anthem–and happens to be Kenney’s favourite cover of all time) to Nirvana knows the allure of singing a song lifted from someone else’s catalogue. (Who could forget Cobain’s raw rasping over David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World?”)
Lately, though, it feels like covers could be the answer to the modern musician’s dilemma. It’s a way to satiate the ravenous content-creating beast, a way to cede to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s impossible demand that, if artists wanted to make more money, they simply ought to make more songs (to paraphrase a quote he gave to Music Ally last summer). It’s also a way to win over ears in the fickle world of streaming. (Of course, if Kenney and No, It’s Fine. are only looking to hack music’s current cents-per-stream model, they’d surely have chosen songs more famous than something by Shotgun & Jaybird or Stone Temple Pilots. Both albums’ track listings feel like a role call of musician’s musicians, a cultural shorthand only comprehensible to heavy listeners.)
Then, there’s the evidence that locally, covers seem to be on the rise. Aside from Kenney and NIF, a few recent Halifax takes on famous songs worth pressing play on include Rose Cousins’s clear-eyed version of “I Wanna Dance (With Someone Who Loves Me)” and Jenn Grant’s smoked-out “Eye of the Tiger” redux.
While Pygott is quick to say that the content churning problem was part of the reason for NIF’s new record, he adds that it was far from the only motivator: “You can’t write a song a day–well, some people can. If it is a trend at the moment, I think that’s radical. I’m very into it. I like to know what other people like.” He continues: “It’s always really interesting to see if there’s an artist you enjoy, seeing them show the things they really like through the lens of them playing it and being able to see where those influences are coming from.”
He takes a beat. “Who’s your favourite artist’s favourite artist?”