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It can be concerning when younger bands attempt to pay tribute to an influential artist and then completely fail to do them any justice. A cover album is a deceptively difficult project to tackle because it gives the artist the unique task of representing not just their own musical vision but also the musical vision of the original artist. This collection of one artist’s music being played by another is meant to showcase the former’s creative vision and the latter’s modern interpretation of it. Too often bands think that they are carrying on the legacy of an artist that inspired them when in reality they’re missing the point and displaying their inability to adapt and reshape their inspiration. A band that takes on a cover album is inheriting a level of creative responsibility that doesn’t necessarily come with original music.
Fortunately folk-shaping musicians Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy are actually qualified to take on this task, and the music that they cover has a clear place in both artists’ musical histories. What the Brothers Sang is an album of cover songs originally by the Everly Brothers that seeks to place the songs in a more modern context. The country influence of the original songs makes them a logical choice for the duo of Billy and McCarthy who show similar styles in their own music. Through their own past solo and collaborative endeavors the duo have shown a strong influence by the Everly Brothers, an influence which has manifested itself through the use of country sounds and tight harmonies. On this album Billy and McCarthy take these influences and try to advance them a step further.
The decision to cover the Everly Brothers is not a new one, many indie bands have covered the group in the past. However, Billy and McCarthy made many decisions on this album that allow them to stand out from other Everly interpreters. Their song choice is one clear classifier, as it differs from what most bands would expect in an Everly tribute. The duo selected lesser-known songs from the group that serve as a platform for harmonized melody and bare-bones rock and roll instrumentation. In each song Billy and McCarthy join together on harmonies that sound extremely delicate over the warm music production. When the two transition from a quite song like “Devoted to You” to a twangy song like “Somebody Help Me” the contrast is intentional and it makes both song styles more effective by way of foil.
The songs from the album that thrive the most are the more delicate ones, the songs that have just a subdued guitar and drums. These songs rely on the style of vocal harmonies that the Everly Brothers popularized, and for good reason. In Billy and McCarthy’s harmonies each voice is supported by the other in such an expert way that it can be difficult to tell when one voice might suddenly come in or drop out of a harmony. The previously all-male vocals on these classic Everly Brothers songs take on a new light in this album because of the balancing male and female voices that Billy and McCarthy contribute. An upbeat mood is buoyed by the instrumentation of the album, which at it’s best showcases the duo’s ability to breathe life into old songs. Album track “Milk Man” is just one of the tracks on the album where various folk instruments are layered on top of the guitar to create a classically up-beat country rock sound.
This is an album that will likely be championed by reliable country/folk/rock fans. It has a niche appeal for fans of both duos but it still manages to be successful on it’s own. Longtime listeners of the Everly Brothers will find what they like in What the Brothers Sang, though even those unfamiliar with the group will still be able to discern and appreciate why the album work. In the true spirit of a good cover album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy have made a tribute that properly represents every music group involved in the project.