Friday, October 13, 2006

Covering Up

What with Bruce Springsteen delving into the Pete Seeger songbook and Joe Lovano revisiting Miles Davis' legendary Birth of The Cool music (more on this in a forthcoming post), there's been a fresh impetus recently for artists to delve right back to their source material. On her last album, Erin McKeown attracted some degree of criticism from UK critics (mistakenly, in my view) when she opted for slicker production values. With the outstanding 'Sing You Sinners', she has now veered in the opposite direction, emphasising naturalistic small ensemble performances on a range of songs from the standard repertoire (along with one deferential original composition). It will be interesting to see whether critics here see this is as a welcome move, or as a sign that she is running out of songwriting ideas, but as she appears to be criminally undervalued here, it may simply be that this album gets neglected altogether. This would be a great shame, as 'Sing You Sinners' is a quite exceptional record. With little formal jazz training, McKeown demonstrates an instinctive understanding of her chosen material - understanding that the key to its success lies in its wit and playfulness, and also in phrasing and delivery, two key aspects of vocal performance few singers these days can truly master.

Those familiar with McKeown's back catalogue will immediately see the link between these songs and her own work, particularly on the Judy Garland-inspired 'Grand' album. The range of material selected is impressively broad, from the almost-too-obvious (the opening 'Get Happy'), to simmering and subtle ballads ('They Say It's Spring'), to classic rhythm and blues ('Thanks For The Boogie Ride'). There's also a small helping of the weird and wonderful in 'If You A Viper' and the splendidly camp in 'Rhode Island Is Famous For You' ( a song McKeown has been performing at her live shows for some time now).

The playing throughout is superb, with Sam Kassirer proving understated and sensitive on piano and Alison Miller a really quite tremendous drummer, always concerned with bringing out the full range of sounds from her kit. She is an adventurous player, which helps this album to avoid any accusations of being merely mired in nostalgia. The clattering percussion on the versions of 'Paper Moon' and 'I Was A Little Too Lonely (You Were A Little Too Late)' provide an intriguing link to the more rhythmic work evident on 'We Will Become Like Birds'.

Most of these songs have a timeless quality to them, but McKeown manages to make every single one of them her own with the natural confidence of her delivery. Recorded quickly over one weekend, McKeown has admitted letting her band dictate the feel of these songs, and she has wisely resisted the urge to pile on overdubs (save for some very classicist horn arrangements), instead allowing the original performances themselves to thrill and captivate. The end product is a dynamic collection, alive to new possibilities whilst characterised by an obvious knowledge of and enthusiasm for the classic American songbook.

'Melody Mountain' from Norwegian duo Susanna and The Magical Orchestra is a rather different kind of covers album, often striving to be as unfaithful to its source material as possible. The selections veer from the strangely predictable (Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'), to the frankly baffling (AC/DC's 'It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll', Kiss' 'Crazy, Crazy Nights'). Somehow they manage to impose the same process on all the songs - with Susanna's eerie , mysterious voice accompanied by exceedingly minimal, atmospheric backings from former Jaga Jazzist member Morten Qvenild on unusual instruments (church organ, autoharp, vibraphone etc). The Kiss and AC/DC covers are the most fascinating, as rather unsubtle, intentionally brash originals are completely transformed in sensitive and mournful interpretations. Susanna makes 'Crazy Crazy Nights' sound like a lament for lost youth, and as such it becomes profoundly affecting. 'It's A Long Way To The Top' gives a stern lesson in music industry realism, but in Susanna's hands it is delivered with what sounds like regret and sadness, rather than the sly glee of Bon Scott's delivery.

Even the less daring choices are handled with aplomb. There have been so many covers of 'Hallelujah' recently (and the song has become so closely associated with Jeff Buckley's astonishing rendition), that one wonders whether another can really be necessary or useful. Yet Susanna's reading is quietly superb, with her upward progression in pitch demonstrating her capable vocal range and creating a gradual heightening in intensity and drama. Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, it's Alright' also lends itself naturally to the reflective mood, and it's pleasing enough to hear a female voice other than Joan Baez tackling the song's nuances of tone and sentiment.

Although 'Melody Mountain' is not a lengthy album, the sublime mood and glacial pace is so cohesive that it becomes something of a challenge to listen to it from start to finish. Still, though, it's a powerful and intelligent work that, like Mark Kozelek's album of AC/DC covers from a few years ago, deftly avoids the potential novelty of some of its selections.

No comments: