Tim McIlrath (Rise Against) Talks Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones’s Foreverly

Sometime after Green Day released the wildly successful American Idiot in 2004, they graduated into what I call the "give no fucks" category...

Sometime after Green Day released the wildly successful American Idiot in 2004, they graduated into what I call the “give no fucks” category, joining a few other notable peers.  Foo Fighters fans weren’t clamoring for the heavy metal Probot record Dave Grohl made. Metallica didn’t create Lulu after millions of metalheads demanded they collaborate with Lou Reed. Green Day didn’t need to turn American Idiot into a musical, and I have a hunch that Billie Joe Armstrong teaming up with jazz-pop singer-songwriter Norah Jones to cover an Everly Brothers record was not the result of an online petition started by Green Day fans. But did any of these artists give a fuck? Clearly, no. If selling out is loosely defined as creating something for the sole purpose of it being successful, then whatever the word is for “opposite of selling out,” insert it here. These are endeavors of pure intent, and I respect them out of the gate for that.

Foreverly is actually a cover record of a covers record. The Everly Brothers were at the peak of their success in 1958 when they released Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, which, as the title not so cryptically implies, is itself a record of covers. When the music world talks about the Everly Brothers, it’s their close vocal harmonies that lead the story. Close harmony was prominent in the traditional country-folk world at the time, but the Everlys were one of the first groups to bring those sensibilities to rock and pop. (“Wake Up Little Susie” anyone?) They promptly took over the airwaves and paved the way for other harmony-driven groups like the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, all of whom cite the brothers as an influence. But on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, we get to hear what influenced the two Everly brothers. These influences apparently hit a nerve with Billie Joe Armstrong who, at his wife’s suggestion, hit up Norah Jones to cover the record with him.

True to the original, Foreverly is stark and exposed, giving way to what this album is all about: vocal harmonies.  There’s a full arsenal of country-folk weapons across this record, such as banjo, mandolin, pedal steel, pump organ, harmonica, violin and piano, that are used to create an authentic homage to these age-old traditional standards, but these well worn weapons are mostly holstered — the music never overtakes the vocal focus of this project. The instrumentation on songs like “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet” and “Kentucky“ is minimal and subdued, while their versions of “Put My Little Shoes Away” and “Rockin’ Alone (In an Old Rockin’ Chair”) rely almost solely on piano to lay a foundation for the vocals to build on.  “Down in the Willow Garden” is propped up gently by half-time snare hits, deep-in-the mix bass, a wandering piano line and a haunting pedal steel solo. We get to hear a bit of an electric guitar solo on the cover of Frankie Bailes’ “Oh So Many Years,” but otherwise Armstrong and company keep it mellow.  Listen closely and the timbre of Billie Joe’s voice can at times actually be reminiscent of Don Everly’s. For a man with such a distinctive voice, I found it interesting to listen to his vocals melt seamlessly into this role without reminding you that he is in fact the singer of Green Day. Not an easy feat.

Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones takes the tenor vocal on most of the songs, taking a back seat to Armstrong’s baritone (much in the same way Phil Everly sang the high notes and Don sang the lows and any solo vocals) in most of the tracks.  Notable exceptions include “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” where we hear Jones introing the song while playing a six-string banjo as a stand-up bass backs her up. Norah Jones knocks these songs out of the park and was an apt choice for Foreverly. The Everly Brothers were, of course, always two male voices singing together, so kudos to Armstrong for throwing this feminine curveball into an otherwise straightforward homage.

Foreverly is obviously a bigger leap and risk for Armstrong than for Jones. The last time I saw Green Day, my own band was opening for them in Germany and I saw the madness up close. The closest we came to meeting any of the very busy members was when drummer Tré Cool pushed a foosball table onto the stage just as we were just going into our last song and insisted I play him right then and there. (I lost, 3-2.) Then Green Day took the stage and unleashed a rock show of epic proportions. Sitting here now, listening to Foreverly, it’s Billie Joe’s incredible versatility that strikes me. The man seems to feel just as comfortable running full sprint across a hundred-foot stage, screaming into a microphone while confetti poppers and pyrotechnics attack a German audience’s senses, as he does gently crooning traditional folk songs with one of the past decade’s best female songstresses. In 1958, Song Our Daddy Taught Us was a pleasant surprise, an unexpected release from two prominent artists. In 2013, Foreverly feels the same way.

Tim McIlrath is a member of Rise Against, whom you can follow on Twitter here. The long-running group releases a career-spanning vinyl box set on November 30.