An album of covers travels over sketchy ground any way you slice it. There are more opportunities to screw it up than to succeed. If you break down the elements of a good cover, things like knowing and loving the song, being true to it while simultaneously taking ownership of it, you have to multiply that by the number of songs. On top of the song by song issues, an album of covers also has to say something bigger and broader about the artist covering the material. What are that bands influences, history and vision? To say covers albums are a tricky business is an understatement. Nonetheless, bands seem to be more enthused with the idea than ever. And they fail in droves.
Girl in a Coma’s latest release, a series of 7" EPs titled Adventures in Coverland, is their stab at this critically (though not always commercially) dangerous plan. So, how do they fare? Well, with selections ranging from Richie Valens to Joy Division, they certainly succeed in laying out the influences of what has become, in a very short time, a remarkably rich musical palette. The selection is also culturally diverse, spelling out the trio’s cultural history as well. In conjunction with their last album, 2009’s Trio BC, these EPs make the source of Girl in a Coma’s rapidly expanding vision quite clear. Taken as a whole, there is no question that Adventures in Coverland succeeds where similar albums, often by bands with far more experience, fail.
Even on a song by song level, these reworkings succeed. They add their own edge to Selena’s "Si Una Vez" and give their own flavor to "Walkin’ After Midnight" without trying to outdo Patsy Cline. Most of the tracks aren’t so much extraordinarily bold as they are extraordinarily honest. Girl in a Coma manages to both express their own musical direction and show the humility, a sadly lacking virtue in much of the modern world, to let great songs be great songs.
That being said, their boldest attempts also turn out to be their most successful of all. They take the seedy sexuality of the Velvet Underground’s "Femme Fatale" as well as the stark isolation of Joy Division’s "Transmission" and add a dose of humanity. Both songs explore coldness and minimalism in ways that would be difficult to both respect and rework. Girl in a Coma’s angle is to infuse them with a sense of life that is deliberately missing from the originals. There is a hint of anger that adds hope to "Femme Fatale." After all, who among us with a human heart isn’t appalled by the song’s main character? The warmth they add to "Transmission" is less accepting of the song’s cold realities and, therefore, adds a more dynamic desperation.
As if avoiding the typical pitfalls of covers and making a record, or series of records, that successfully honors the past while moving into the future weren’t enough, these EPs come as a great package. The sleeves unfold into a game board where the players follow the band around the country. The album cover game board has been done before, most notably by Flipper (who may well retort with an album of their own titled Flipper in a Coma if they get wind of this). The added spin on the concept is that the combination of the three 7" sleeves gives it its own fantastic record geek factor. From song selection to performance to packaging, Adventures in Coverland works on every level.