Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie "Prince" Billy
What the Brothers Sang
People who say they love the Everly Brothers probably harbor those fond feelings for the string of country-tinged, close-harmony hits the duo launched in the mid-'50s. They ran out their string of smashes within a few years, though; by the time the Beatles hit Sullivan, Don and Phil were on their way to be being successful mid-20's has-beens. But they kept making music, and that's the rich and little-known period singer/songwriters Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Dawn McCarthy pay homage to on their new tribute album, What the Brothers Sang.
The set opens with Kris Kristofferson's existential touring ballad "Breakdown," which the Everlys sang on their 1972 album, Stories We Could Tell. The song isn't particularly debauched, but this is not the sound of safe-as-milk moppets. It is weary, fatalistic, a song for grown-ups to sing. While many of the songs were written by outside writers, the tunes Billy and McCarthy pick up on here paint a likeness of someone taking a look at back at life, ruminating on heartaches and disappeared times. Tony Romeo's upbeat "Milk Train" channels nostalgia for rural life but also smuggles longing for a certain female passenger. The nostalgia in John Denver's "Poems, Prayers and Promises" is overt, as the singer deems "it's been a good life all in all" as he and his buddies sit around the fire "and pass the pipe around." More poignant still, in "Omaha," Don Everly's 1970 solo multi-movement ode to finding love and contentment in the middle of the map, you can hear the artistic ambition and musical sweep of a talented man who would have loved the chance to be taken as seriously as Lennon/McCartney or Ray Davies.
These sort of rueful, indistinct emotional states are Billy's métier; the small-combo pop/country hybrid arrangements don't stray far from the Everlys' originals, nor would they sound out of place among Billy's recordings. He and McCarthy can't rival the brothers' genetic-level harmonies, but there are moments here when what the brothers sang fades into the background. Tackling the 1965 Don-penned single "It's All Over," McCarthy and Billy deliver the spare lyrics of deadpan romantic doom together but somehow slightly apart, which only makes it sadder. "I just stopped living/ When you said goodbye" comes off far more devastating when you don't sound like a beaming teen.