These genre inversion cover albums have been around in various forms for a while now — lullaby, string, bluegrass, et al. — and the concept is pretty simple. The artist being covered — Metallica, for example — is then changed up into something which is the polar opposite, such as a string quartet. It’s “clever,” I suppose, but the usual end result is that an idea which sounds clever for a one-off becomes tiresome over the course of an hour, usually due to song selections.
Essentially, what makes a cover work well is when it plays off a band’s normal sound, inverting something, and then making the listener hear it in a brand new way. So, in that sense, genre flips are clever and all, but let’s be fair — really playing with something is where cover songs shine. Taking a thrash song and translating it to strings is impressive, but taking a ballad and doing the same — not so much.
That’s a very roundabout way of saying that, while Iron Horse is a very capable bluegrass band, taking Modest Mouse songs and rendering them in the same tempo, only with banjos and mandolins, and a bit of a twang, makes their 2004 album, Pickin’ On Modest Mouse: The Bluegrass Tribute, wholly unremarkable.
Looking back, one wonders why, in the span of a year, two Modest Mouse tribute albums saw release. Iron Horse’s bluegrass tribute, Pickin’ On Modest Mouse, came out in November of 2004, and just shy of one year later came Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities, which also paid homage to the Washington indie act.
Anyways, here we are in 2018 and Iron Horse’s album has been reissued again, this time for its vinyl debut. The tracklisting is the same as the 2007 compact disc reissue, but it’s been given new cover art. Pickin’ On Modest Mouse has had surprising legs for what is essentially a cover album by a band for whom tributes are their bread and butter.
And not to harp on Iron Horse too much, but there’s a Popmatters piece from 2009 in which the band’s Vance Henry said, “we will listen to the songs that the producer has selected for any [of those] that we feel just can’t cross over into the bluegrass style and if everyone agrees, we will replace it.” That really cuts to the heart of why this double LP failed to hold my attention for longer than one side at a time: they’re not taking any chances. On Tiny Cities, Mark Kozalek did “Neverending Math Equation,” which is off-kilter and weird and by no means should it work as a pretty acoustic song, but holy shit it does, and it’s even more astonishing because it’s such a change from Modest Mouse’s original.
Kozalek’s vocals are layered and swimmy, rather than Isaac Brock’s harsh, reedy angularity, and changing the scratching and breaking into a finger-picked guitar finish? It’s brilliant. It’s the sort of song where you really have to listen closely to figure out what it is, and that is what makes a cover perfect — where you don’t even know it’s a cover at first, with the dawning realization thereof making you appreciate what’s being done all the more. Iron Horse mainly elicits a response of, “Is this a bluegrass cover of ‘Float On?'”
The audio quality on the vinyl release is strong, vocals balanced well with the various string instruments. It’s a trifle cold, although not sterile, but a little more bleed and interplay between the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle would’ve given Pickin’ On Modest Mouse a warmer sound, which could’ve given the album stronger appeal for those repeated listens.
The packaging for the double vinyl LP is the strongest version of the release yet. The cover art looks more put-together than the original compact disc release, and definitely improves upon the photograph which adorned the cover of the 2007 reissue. The line-art points cleverly to the covers of Modest Mouse’s first three full-lengths, all of which featured clouds in some form, and is an inspired touch.
Pickin’ On Modest Mouse: The Bluegrass Tribute will be available from indie music retailers on Record Store Day, April 21.