Written by Marina Malin
As I begin to write this, the only items in my backpack are two books on albums from Elliott Smith and Nick Drake that I am reluctantly returning to the music library. This morning as I scrolled through my Instagram feed, naturally I nearly screeched at the Pitchfork release post of Shannon Lay’s Covers Vol. 1; The brief caption mentioned my forever favorites, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. Never having heard of Shannon Lay, the dynamic duo was enough for me to spring out of bed and immediately binge the album in its entirety (which made me very late to class). It felt as if the album was a gift to me as covers of Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier, Ty Segall, and Velvet Underground accompanied the two.
Covers Vol. 1 begins with “Angeles” by Elliott Smith. Her guitar strumming is reflective of Smith and her undaunted voice takes me by surprise. Her voice, though coming forth with power, respects Smith’s intimacy as she maintains a consistent vocal range that fails to express drastic emotion. Lay incorporates Smith’s intimate and wispy vocal range, yet she is just not able to master the wallowing, mopey, and self-loathing that makes Smith revolutionary. At points, she adds textures to her voice like when she sings the word “satisfied.” This choice sends me into a subtle cringe. As I put Elliott Smith on a pedestal (rightfully so), this personalization interrupts the heart of the song. By inserting vocal variety and piano, she takes away what makes an Either/Or song great, and makes it into her own. Maybe my enthusiasm for Smith hinders personal appreciation for any cover, or maybe I think “Angeles” is such a masterpiece it makes me mad that people will try to impose on it…And maybe to the person reading this, it is honorable that she is adding her own style.
“From the Morning” by Nick Drake is arguably one of the most beautiful songs from one of the most influential albums. Nick Drake has a jangly guitar playing style where we can envision the guitar strings bouncing along to his rough voice that is intentionally and craft-like sloppy. Drake gives life to his guitar-playing, making both elements, his voice and guitar, be able to stand alone, yet the combination of the two creates mastery. The song is already delicate and dainty, the addition of Lay’s soft-whisper-like voice and clean guitar playing cradles me in a way that feels maternal. Intentionally extending her words and the cyclical tempo reinvigorates a lullaby effect. She allows Nick Drake to linger by panning out “From the Morning” into “Horn,” an instrumental melancholy masterpiece that Lay can keep up with.
“Close My Eyes” is a great demonstration of Lay’s vocal range, confirming that her choice to stay in the same tone in “Angeles” and “From the Morning” is out of respect for the two’s craftsmanship. Lay demonstrates polite listening and repeating as her voice fluctuates into a rather country tone. The lyrics add a level of sincerity and youth to her voice.
“The Keepers” by Ty Segall is rebellious in tude. The quick guitar strums and crashes of the drums as he sings “We are the animals” makes me curious as to how Lay would pull this off without awkwardness. Stripping down this song and “I’m Set Free” by the Velvet Underground, the smooth guitar playing, similar to the previous tracks, remains and I can confidently decipher that her guitar playing is reliable and skillful. The quietness of both songs against its expectation isn’t underwhelming as she adds her vocal harmonies. In particular “Im Set Free” is ethereal and majestic much like Weyes Blood’s “God Turned Me Into A Flower.”
“I Am Slow” originally by OSS is a beautiful final song with instrumentals that have the magical quality of a harp. She adds a rather optimistic tone against lyrics like “I am dead, I am very dead. Ain’t no way for me to get up and go.” Moving into her set of goodbyes, she displays extremely impressive vocals that make me feel like grief is at the crux of our human condition. Her repetition of goodbyes only adds to her mystical rendition of the previously psychedelic song. Lay demonstrates (probably) the feel of a human transcending from their form and elevating into the clouds where they will rest and find eternal freedom. Perhaps this effect was intentional as more than half of the artists she covered have passed. As Lay leaves me with a bittersweet goodnight kiss, I am particularly impressed with how she was able to strip down the previously noisy song to an angelic whisper.
The album is nostalgic, melancholy, and ethereal. Lay effectively takes great songs and asserts her style to create a cover that offers something separate from the original. The album interrogates my contributions to the covers vs originals discussion as my contradicting interactions with “Angeles” and “I Am Slow.” With Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Sibylle Baier, Vashti Bunyan, Arthur Russel, Ty Segall, and Velvet Underground, the album felt particularly special as if I handpicked the track list. My prior bias shaped my experience with the album and I am not entirely sure if it is a good thing. What I do know is that most covers don’t do originals justice, but it is clear that Lay is an active listener devoted to maintaining the significance of the originals. For better or worse, Lay makes Covers Vol. 1 her own and avoids some ghostly cover of masterpieces. Personal Rating: 6.8/10