Covering an album in its entirety is a daunting task, and one that sometimes comes with little reward.
For instance, releases like Ben Lee’s version of Against Me!’s New Wave seemed like a bit of a novelty: It felt like a boutique release that, while perfectly serviceable in its own right, had its appeal limited only to listeners who were fans of both the band and Lee.
However, that seemed to change when Ryan Adams put out his reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2015. Enthusiastically endorsed by Swift herself, the album came from a place of genuine love for her music. Adams created versions of those songs that were distinctly his own without drastically changing everything that the originals work. It was also a rewarding listen for those who were only fans of one or the other, and was a decent Ryan Adams record on its own merits.
Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard succeeds at a similar goal on on Bandwagonesque, his cover of Teenage Fanclub’s landmark 1991 power pop classic of the same name recorded for Turntable Kitchen’s Sounds Delicious cover series.
Gibbard has often spoken about how important the original record is to him, and it’s no surprise that his Bandwagonesque acts as a 40-minute love letter to one of his greatest inspirations. His version of the record’s 12 tracks are mostly faithful recreations, and with one or two exception, he doesn’t typically deviate from the Beatles-esqe arrangements and killer melodies found on the original recordings.
To a cynic, his cover of “What You Do To Me” sounds exactly what one would expect a cover of Teenage Fanclub by the guy from Death Cab for Cutie to sound like. But what sets Gibbard’s version of the song apart from just being a run-of-the-mill is his passion for the band’s work and the strength of his performance. He perfectly captures the song’s loud pop dynamic and never once does he sound like he’s phoning it in.
The album’s opening epic “The Concept” has been significantly altered from the original. On the cover’s first half, the power chords and wild guitar solos have been replaced by a dreamy organ and a less prominent, chiming guitar line. The band’s power pop guitar fireworks were integral to the original recording, but Gibbard instead transfers the focus to Norman Blake’s wistful lyrics; He pushes them front and center before transitioning to a gorgeous, swirling rendition of the song’s iconic coda.
Gibbard’s version of “The Concept” is a brilliant reinterpretation of one of the best singles of the 1990s, but it’s probably the biggest departure from the original recordings on the entire record. However, it’s not the only song to have a different arrangement here.
The largely instrumental “Pet Rock” is cut down from two minutes to a 50-second interlude, where Gibbard replaces the full-band sound with a single church organ and stacked, baroque harmonies. “I Don’t Know” switches out the original’s heavy guitar riffage for a mid-tempo style that wouldn’t sound out of place Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. It’s the only time that on the record that a cover has been imbued with Gibbard’s trademarks as opposed to him keeping the tunes to the letter or drastically re-tweaking them (“The Concept”)
Other than those exceptions, Gibbard’s covers are mostly to the letter, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout the record, Gibbard’s love for the source material shines through, and each of his renditions are stellar reminders for both Teenage Fanclub’s gifts for writing perfect pop songs and his talent as a melodic rock singer.
If you’re a Teenage Fanclub die hard, all your favorite moments and melodies are almost perfectly re-created by Gibbard. The Byrds-tribute “December” is missing its strings (replaced by guitar effects), but the song’s fuzzy, jangly guitar parts remain. “Star Sign” eschews the original’s intro, but is otherwise identical to the original recording and remains one of the catchiest things on the entire album.
“Alcoholiday”, the best song both on the original album and on here, is still the Platonic ideal of a perfect power pop song, with its melodic, gauzy guitar lines and subtle harmonies. Gibbard’s vocal performance perfectly captures the emotional weight of the song’s aching, remorseful lyrics about an unfaithful, unhappy relationship.
One of the best things about Gibbard’s Bandwagonesque is that his versions of these songs prove how timeless they songs are. Teenage Fanclub’s Big Star-inspired power pop sounds just as fresh in 2017 as it did back in 1992. Additionally, Gibbard’s love for the band and their songs has always been apparent in his own songwriting with Death Cab for Cutie. Fans of the band are sure to find songs on Bandwagonesque that seem to be the predecessors of some of Death Cab’s poppier moments, such as “No Sunlight” or “The Sound of Settling”.
This re-recording Bandwagonesque is a sweet tribute from one of indie rock’s biggest names to one of his favorite bands. Gibbard’s album is not a better one than the original, nor was that its intent. Fans of Death Cab and Teenage Fanclub alike should have a blast with Gibbard’s loving take on the material, and listeners who are coming into this record without ever hearing these songs before are in for a wonderful, largely faithful, tour of one of the finest guitar pop records ever made.