Do It Again
The cover song is one of the strangest things in the arts world, and I think it stems from the 60s and the folk movement, when singers seem to have immediately accepted certain songs as part of the canon. I think this is also the period when modern history started to become a concept. What I mean is that around this time, people perhaps began to start looking at their own time, at themselves and the events that were becoming history even as they were happening: the Cuban Missile Crisis; female, black and gay liberation; the Vietnam war. Likewise, I think people suddenly started seeing contemporary music as an immediate addition to the canon: Bob Dylan, for instance, was covered on albums by people like Fairport Convention or Judy Collins alongside traditional folk numbers and songs by Kurt Weill.
These days, with the music world being far more fragmented and various, I think we're a little less certain about what constitutes the cannon, and covering someone else's songs has come to be seen as a little bit cheap. You certainly wouldn't find modern equivalents of Joan Baez, Judy Collins or Linda Ronstadt, releasing cover albums of material by recent artists. The closest person we've got, Cat Power, currently restricts her increasingly lame cover records to old classics - songs that have been given the approval of time.
I think because the cover song has become so invalidated these days (think of all those horrific versions of Hallelujah) a few artists seem to be doing something slightly different at the moment - namely, revisiting the oeuvre of a single other singer. Often, it's a way of validating the work of someone else; sometimes, it's so as to assert themselves as an artist, by taking up someone else's mantle. Thus it is for Scarlett Johansson on her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head (2008), which in my view is unjustly neglected: in attaching herself to Tom Waits and his mythology, she already tells us something about her tastes and the sort of music she is interested in. Her delivery of these songs - laconic, dark, flirting with tunelessness - against a murky backdrop of electronica masterminded by Dave Sitek, is for me a winning tribute to Tom Waits, and shows great originality and intelligence. I don't know if ScarJo picked the songs, but there's no arguing with the tracklisting: there are songs here from Bone Machine, Rain Dogs and Real Gone, amongst other albums, and the selection strenuously avoids any obvious covers. The album also avoids the pitfall of being an ugly, limp duplicate of Waits material, and steers clear of adopting his trademark sounds: listen to her woozy take on 'Falling Down', where her metallic vocals beat against a synthy sort of swamp. It's really, really good stuff. Certainly something of Tom Waits's breeziness and rawness gets lost somewhere, but that isn't what her album is striving for: so her rendition of 'Who Are You' works for me in jettisoning the saltiness of his melody. I love the way this album courageously sets itself out as a real musical venture: everything about it is obtuse, from her vocals to the selection of songs to the instrumentation - and I think it works.
I love the way a good cover record can make you revisit older material. I had such a ball listening to old Tom Waits for this piece, and the same goes for the Willie Nelson songs I heard after listening to Phosphorescent's marvellous album 'To Willie' from this year. Again, there can be no quibbles with the choice of material: the picks here are tastefully and discerningly taken from albums such as Red Headed Stranger, Spirit and Phases and Stages - masterpieces all, which I cannot recommend enough. But where Johansson's album worked to pare down Waits's sound to an ambient, 4AD sort of sound, Phosphorescent does the opposite, adding flesh to Nelson's ragged bare bones, in the form of looped vocals and fuller instrumentations. Not that the album isn't subdued: connecting perfectly with Nelson's themes of loss and disillusion, Phosphorescent absolutely nails 'Too Sick To Pray', 'Walkin'' and 'Can I Sleep In Your Arms', amongst others. His take on 'It's Not Supposed To Be That Way', with Dirty Projectors' Angel Deradoorian, is so disquietingly perfect and lovely, taking the drawl right out of the song, that it nearly makes your heart stop. Here, picking Willie Nelson serves to show the country element in Phosphorescent's alt-country, and oddly lends him more heart than his own, perfectly excellent, solo material.
Rufus Wainwright tackles Judy Garland differently: his versions of her songs, for a start, are live performances from a tribute concert. But his reasons for chaining himself to her legend are what make these songs work so well, both live and on record (Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall, 2007), and it is a bold venture that fearlessly reclaims Garland as a musician while also commenting on her status as a gay icon. It also rehabilitates so many of the songs she performed from a reputation of cheesiness. Finally, he imbues her material with a queer and defiantly homo reading, since he doesn't regender any of the songs: it's a fascinating experiment. Look to his cover of If Love Were All, which he sings far better than she ever did, to hear the way he parses the sadness of the song, and the hopeless bravura it puts up: Garland never wrote a song, but had the genius of a born performer; Wainwright is a born performer too, but also brings a craft and a respect for the music to bear on his renditions: 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' and 'How Long Has This Been Going On' are given a really beautiful spin that shows how beautifully the songs are crafted and gives them a good shake. It's a political record, I reckon, which should be read after his own song 'Going To A Town' as part two of an attack on rightwing, small-town America: these songs of hope and love, the American songbook, being sung by a gay man, ring out with defiance.
I think Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions (2006) is similarly politically motivated: fascinating how revisiting an elder's work can reveal your true roots, your affinities. Certainly, Springsteen has never been a country artist per se, but this album is a country album, speaking of his love for his country and its songs; and these are protest songs. A caveat here: none of the songs on Springsteen's album were written by Seeger; but his inspiration is felt everywhere, and these are songs that he made his own at the height of protest folk's day. So when Springsteen elects to sing 'We Shall Overcome' at the height of George Bush's empire, in the words of Skunk Anansie, yes it's fucking political. I think it was also a way for Springsteen - who was clearly uninspired in his previous own material - to reconnect with the fun of music, with the performance of it. He will never be a great country performer, and this set is terribly ragged, but it is also incredibly engaging, full of moments that make you grin and cause your heart to beat faster: check out his rollicking version of 'O Mary Don't You Weep', or the storming 'John Henry'. If only he were always like this; there is a dourness in his own material which is completely absent here.
Finally in my round-up of recent tribute records, I want to mention Shelby Lynne's excellent record of Dusty Springfield songs, Just A Little Lovin', which is more along the lines of what I'd expected Scarlett Johansson's album to be: a lo-fi, simple, serious re-imagining of some seriously big songs. But where Johansson's album is all about textures and production, Lynne goes for a stripped sound, knowing that her own vocals closely resemble Springfield's. Again, it should be observed that Springfield didn't write her own material, but Lynne responds to these songs that Springfield inhabited so well. Anyone who's listened to 'Looking Up', from Lynne's cult album I Am Shelby Lynne, knows that she can pick up on the complexities of 'Breakfast In Bed', which is to my mind Springfield's best song. In it, she promises to console her loved one, who she begs to stay the night with the words, "you don't have to say you love me". It's heartbreakingly self-defeating, and Lynne's version is terrific. I also love her naked versions of 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' and 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' - like Springfield, Lynne never oversings; there's a warmth and loveliness in the way she restrains her power; the arrangements are delicate and spare. I think the fit with Springfield is a great one because Shelby Lynne has always struggled to find herself a niche, a real style - like Springfield, she is a woman who has too much soul for the style of music she's often restricted herself to; this is a good and beautiful attempt to strike out.
Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as "enigmatic." Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.