REVIEW: Nichole Wagner’s “Dance Songs for the Apocalypse” Pushes Her Own Envelope


Covering a song isn’t nearly as easy as parroting the words. The art (after picking the right song, of course) comes from honoring the spirit of the original, while adding your own stylistic twist. Think Johnny Cash’s rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (and, while you’re at it, throw out Darius Rucker’s completely superfluous cover of “Wagon Wheel”). Americana artist Nichole Wagner has released an EP of covers, appropriately (even if coincidentally) titled Dance Songs for the Apocalypse. In addition to adding her spin to the tunes, Wagner ends up pushing her own envelope far beyond alt-country.

Wagner grew up in small-town Louviers, Colorado, before attending college in Arizona, then moving to Austin and, eventually, focusing on music. Her debut album, And the Sky Caught Fire, is a solid collection of alt-country rock – check out her heartbreaking duet with Rod Picott, “Fires of Pompeii (We Should Walk Away).” Much like her early life, Dance Songs finds Wagner bouncing around different spots, trying to find what best suits her – and she’s largely successful. The album leads off with Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” the band’s dystopia-as-movie thriller tune from 1979’s Fear of Music. While that band always had a dancy-ness to their music, Wagner’s version gives it the full-on dance groove treatment, as well as working in modern-day tragedies (Parkland, El Paso) while finding new references in the original lyrics – “Heard about Pittsburgh, PA.” Moving into the early 90s, Wagner updates Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s folksy “Heartbeats Accelerating” (made more famous by Linda Ronstadt in a slightly spaced-out version) with a rhythm-heavy take prominently featuring Aboubacar Sylla on balafon, a sort of West African xylophone.

Moving into the early 2000s, Wagner tackles alt-country legend Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter.” Similar to the original, the music on this rendition is spare at first before swelling to a peak as Wagner recites Jenny Lewis’s devastating look at bi-polar depression – “But the lows are so extreme that the good seems f@#king cheap.” (Note to self – dig into more Rilo Kiley, but only on a good day). Wagner also takes a swing at a fairly recent tune, Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” swapping out the original syncopated feel for a more sweeping take as she allows herself to get lost in the song: “No, I don’t care if I sing off key/I find myself in my melodies.”

The best moment of the EP is also the most difficult – covering Neil Young ain’t easy, especially if it’s one of his lesser known, eight-minute songs. But Wagner takes a stab at Young’s 1974 deep cut “Ambulance Blues,” and she hits her mark. While the original, ostensibly about the latter days of both Richard Nixon and CSNY, tends to meander (even the lyrics declare “it’s hard to say the meaning of this song”) in the best Young-ian way, Wagner’s version pushes forward, replacing a 70s late-folkie arrangement with Jessica Pyrdsa’s piano and a duet between Eddie Dickerson’s violin and Wagner’s unadorned, simply beautiful voice. It’s the best example of a successful cover – taking a song by a great artist and making it all her own.

Dance Songs for the Apocalypse was produced, engineered and mixed by Justin Douglas and mastered by Andre Castro. Additional musicians include Douglas (guitar, synth), Abram Shook (synth, guitar, bass), Daniel “Lit Du” Durham (electric and upright bass), Chris Hausler (drums, percussion), Michael St. Clair (trombone, trumpet) and Carol Kay (background vocals).

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