Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.
Silver Jews have one of the strongest cult followings, in part because they’re considered a Pavement side project. The New York City indie rock group formed back in 1989 when David Berman teamed up with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement. They slowly rolled out six albums over the years, slowing down as time passed and eventually disbanding in 2009. Over their 20 year run, Berman was the only constant member, delivering straightforward lyrics and dark, minimal song structures.
Hold up, though. They may reunite.
A few weeks ago, Nastanovich posted a photo to his Facebook page that featured the band rehearsing. Apparently they went through several old tracks as well as two new ones, “The Veranda Over The Toy Shoppe,” and “Wacky Package Eyes.” Judging by the giant grin on his face, it’s safe to assume it went pretty well. He has since clarified they may not be reuniting for a tour or record, but that they simply got back together to play for an evening, but it’s good news no matter what.
Thankfully we’re still left with some of the band’s gems, including 1996’s The Natural Bridge. Their second full-length LP saw David Berman, Matt Hunter, Rian Murphy, Peyton Pinkerton, and Michael Deming gear up for a 10-song release of mainly emotionally barring, slow, downtempo tracks. One of the album’s best and darkest is “Pet Politics”, Berman’s ode to fractured relationships and the divide of possessions, emotions, and the struggle that comes along with it, particularly regarding losing your dog. The lyrics hit with great weight, especially by closing with the heartbreaking one-liner “Please guard my bed.”
When someone starts talking about how brilliant John Darnielle is, it’s best to zip your lips and listen up. The Mountain Goats don’t have to be your favorite band or even your type of music to recognize that the indie folk rock frontman has more going on in his head in a week than most of us contemplate in a day. As their music suggests, from both their lo-fi days in the early ’90s up to their recent album about wrestling, they tend to get wordy, rambling on with poetic phrasing and deep prose, often in the guise of trivial metaphors. Darnielle then went on to write his own book, Wolf In White Van, because why stop writing? The man loves to learn and, even moreso, push himself to study others’ learning.
So, yes, of course one brainiac band decided to pick apart another.
The Mountain Goats picked up the Silver Jews’ song for The Believer: The 2005 Music Issue, which, if you weren’t absurdly in the know ten years ago, was “the life partner of Dave Eggers’ literary journal McSweeney’s.” Sandwiched between a myriad of David Sedaris essays, Nick Hornby interviews, and snark-less reviews, their cover is a one-man take. While others solo tracks come across so-so (Sorry, Colin Meloy, but Joanna Newsom needs more than a white dude and a guitar to sound magical), The Mountain Goats’ cover seems to breathe with a deep connection.
On the original version of “Pet Politics”, those lonely opening guitar notes reach out to a dark nothingness, joined by their own echoes and a deep, solemn bass. Berman calls out with a deadpan voice, building up a western-style delivery that wears itself out, sighing with ambivalence while up late at night. Darnielle doesn’t try to mimic that. Instead, he lets the words stand on their own, stripping things down to an acoustic set that highlights the words even more than before.
John Darnielle opens up “Pet Politics” for a closer examination of the relationship drama, emotion abuse, and human nature of separation. The ownership of a pet may be a metaphor, but it’s a strong one at that. It’s what leaves us looking for never-ending love and ultimate security, even if a dog is just a sizable heart covered in fur. Silver Jews gave their song the despondency that lives in the moment, but The Mountain Goats use the song to reflect on thoughts — because, really, we all replay the same lines to ourselves when we’re lying in bed at night nursing a broken heart anyway.