by Matthew Derby

CD enclosed with the June print issue

  1. The Decemberists: “Bridges & Balloons” by Joanna Newsom
  2. Spoon: “Decora” by Yo La Tengo
  3. The Constantines: “Why I Didn’t Like August 93” by Elevator to Hell
  4. CocoRosie: “Ohio” by Damien Jurado
  5. The Mountain Goats: “Pet Politics” by Silver Jews
  6. San Serac: “Late Blues” by Ida
  7. The Shins: “We Will Become Silhouettes” by the Postal Service
  8. Josephine Foster: “The Golden Window” by the Cherry Blossoms
  9. Cynthia G. Mason: “Surprise, AZ” by Richard Buckner
  10. Jim Guthrie: “Nighttime/Anytime (it’s alright)” by the Constantines
  11. Espers: “Firefly Refrain” by Fursaxa
  12. Two Gallants: “Anna’s Sweater” by Blear
  13. Vetiver: “Be Kind to Me” by Michael Hurley
  14. Ida: “My Fair, My Dark” by David Schickele
  15. Mount Eerie: “Waterfalls” by Thanksgiving
  16. Devendra Banhart: “Fistful of Love” by Antony & The Johnsons
  17. Wolf Parade: “Claxxon’s Lament” by Frog Eyes

The oldest recorded song we know of was etched on clay tablets in western Syria 3,400 years ago. But the first actual song was created much further back, before the creation of language, perhaps even before the invention of bread, or maybe in celebration of the invention of bread. Archaeologists and musicologists have determined that the Syrian recording is composed of notes in the same diatonic major scale found in most Western music today. Do modern songs also contain some chunk of the genetic material used to birth the first song? It is likely. Why else would musicians today spend so much time learning and retooling the compositions of their peers and forebears, if not to crawl slowly backward through time in an effort to come into contact with those first sweet notes as they left the Neolithic lips of the celebrants of the primal loaf? It’s staggering to think of that moment—that there actually was a first song, and that, before the first song, there was only the noise of the trees and the cackling of enormous, carnivorous birds and unleavened cakes hardening on flat, sun-scorched stones.

Probably, though, the goal in performing cover songs is more immediate. Most songwriters learn by dismantling their favorite songs and rehearsing each component so thoroughly that they could reassemble the composition blindfolded at knifepoint. Others are motivated to share a well-loved melody with someone who hasn’t yet been broken by its particular, tuneful devastation. It’s a way of passing on something great to someone who deserves to be bathed momentarily in greatness. It’s also a humble acknowledgment that, at the end of any day, we don’t really know why a good song tears out our hearts. The CD accompanying this issue of the Believer is a catalog of cover songs by artists answering the question, “What have you been listening to lately?” Some of the covers are faithful, others are barely recognizable, and some come from original compositions heard only by four people in Canada. All of them will change you slightly, make you more aware of things—even the one thing you’ve just noticed, which is the sudden and distinct smell of bread baking somewhere nearby.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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