Short, sweet and faithful re-imaginings
The pandemic has forced entertainers who rely on live shows and performances to get creative. Comedians are creating YouTube accounts to feature their best clips and get people interested in them while they wait for another chance to perform a gig. Musicians are trying out virtual concerts to keep the juices flowing, the rust off and the ticket sales from completely evaporating. Madison Cunningham got a headstart on her peers by practicing and performing a cover every Wednesday on various platforms, even before COVID-19 ramped up. Highlights among the 34 since last April include a reverb-heavy Beach Boys rendition, a jam rock take on Talk Talk and a baroque, glistening Judee Still cover. To satiate fans impatiently waiting for her follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Who Are You Now, she has packaged four of her favorites into a short little EP named after the weekday she performed them on, Wednesday.
Though Cunningham has Americana ties in the swaggering rootsiness of “Pin It Down” and “Old You,” her rather bleak soundscapes and gauzy, subtly reverberating vocal production have slotted her into indie folk, like Lomelda if she cut down on the distortion or Regina Spektor minus the idiosyncrasies. Her best songs tend to be stripped back, rooted in pretty harmonies and strings rather than roaring guitars, so this batch of covers should play to her strengths. Even though it’s quite short, not every song has the same presentation; “Hold On” and “The Age Of Worry” are just her and her guitar, while “In My Life” features vocal and guitar inputs from Mike Viola and “No Surprises” includes a piano. All of them do not sound especially different from the YouTube renditions, retaining a homespun authenticity and intimacy that is critical to this style of music.
None of these covers can be considered radical departures, yet they do bring something different. The opener “Hold On,” a Tom Waits tune of whiskey-ravaged, bluesy texture, has the roughest guitar tone and vocal performances on the record, yet it does not quite convey the same level of world-weariness as Waits. The one unmistakable improvement here is John Meyer’s “The Age Of Worry,” which tries to be a sweeping anthem with huge drum hits and soaring backing vocals and is hampered by synthetic production and little blending. Cunningham’s version feels a lot more comforting and honest by ditching the bombast and keeping Meyer’s best feature in the form of impressive verve and swing in the guitar work.
“In My Life” and “No Surprises” are decent sidegrades. The extensive vocal layers of the Beatles duet is shifted to a much tighter harmony that is just gorgeous, and the famous, intricate solo is not as electrifying but certainly impressive. No one will ever equal the draining numbness of Thom Yorke’s performance on one of the best songs on One Computer, but Cunningham’s more overtly angry delivery is a new development for her and the song that works quite well. That opening melody conveys just as much dread and finality as it did 21 years ago, yet it doesn’t feel like a retread.
It would have been nice to get a more upbeat cover like the aforementioned Talk Talk rendition to introduce more variety, yet Cunningham and the production sound are on point across Wednesday, and it doesn’t stretch on to the point where more variety is needed. It’s a decent little side project that will thrill fans who might have missed them the first time.