When Will Oldham re-recorded some of his earliest songs for the smooth-sounding Sings Greatest Palace Music, he compared the record to an Everly Brothers album he listened to when he was a kid: The Very Best Of The Everly Brothers, for which the Everlys re-recorded a batch of their early hits. Since that was the only way Oldham had ever heard those songs, he assumed that the versions on The Very Best were the way they were supposed to sound. Oldham’s experience isn’t that unusual, because Don and Phil Everly don’t have a clean discography. Like a lot of acts from the pre-Beatles era, The Everly Brothers were a singles act that mostly treated albums as an afterthought, relying on filler, novelty numbers, and versions of other people’s recent hits to pad out their records. And because the Everlys changed labels a few times over the course of their career, they occasionally covered themselves.
All of this is a way of explaining the eclecticism of Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Everlys tribute album What The Brothers Sang. It’s no accident; it’s part of McCarthy and Oldham’s vision for this project. What The Brothers Sang features some songs—such as “Empty Boxes” and “My Little Yellow Bird”—that sport the clean, quasi-mystical woodwind-and-acoustic-guitar late-’60s folk sound that’s been common to McCarthy, Oldham, and the Everlys. And Oldham and McCarthy perform “Devoted To You” and “So Sad” in a loping fashion true to the classic ’50s Everly Brothers, albeit with an additional layer of subtext because it’s a man and a woman singing the lyrics. But they also re-conceive “Milk Train” and “Somebody Help Me” in a big, slick, country-inflected style reminiscent of ’80s college-rock. What The Brothers Sang is a lively, lovely album—and diverse to boot.
The Everly Brothers rarely wrote their own material, which means that when Oldham and McCarthy cover a song like “Poems, Prayers And Promises,” it could be argued that they’re really paying homage to John Denver—especially since their version doesn’t vary much from Denver’s original. But then that’s partly the point of What The Brothers Sang. The Everly Brothers were from a time when pop stars were expected to construct their musical personas out of other people’s songs. The Everlys picked heartfelt love ballads, winsome reflections on places (such as “Omaha” and “Kentucky,” both covered beautifully here), and jubilant Americana. Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy offer an appreciation of each of these sides of the Everlys, as well as the side that could turn Kris Kristofferson’s melancholy “Breakdown” into their own, deeply personal salute to “lonely songs.”