When I was just a tad, I can recall hearing “It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra a lot. It was one of the first songs that I can recall hearing, along with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” by Frankie Valli. I was always struck by the maudlin, depressing qualities of the tune; even as a child. The sense of death approaching was palpable in the Sinatra version to my youthful ears. Now we have Glenn Gregory taking on the tune, and his performance sounds more reflective and somewhat celebratory to me, but that just might be my 49 year old ears making a difference.
Gregory offers a compassionate take on the lyric with yet another great performance on the record. I’m less convinced with the backing track. Following the first verse, it’s an ambient hip hop soundbed with a shuffle beat and vinyl crackle aplenty. The style is not the problem for me. It’s the tempo. It sounds like Gregory is singling to a different tempo than the beat that has been used in the song. When I try to sing along* it’s well nigh impossible to match Gregory on beat. Weird. But his performance is excellent, no matter what difficulties I have in listening to it.
* C’mon. You do it too.
The driving, intense take on Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be You Dog” by Boy George was pre-released as a taster for the album and I’ve already noted that few would recognize the former Culture Club crooner on this stygian powerhouse of a tune. As noted, he recalls the attack of Nick Cave far more than anyone would expect from the man who sang “Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me.”
Though this Monk has been around the block as many as three times, he hasn’t seen or heard it all. Not yet. I had not heard approximately a third of these songs previously. All of them are excellent songs, so hats off to Martyn Ware for curating this collection. One particularly stunning song is “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” by Sheffield singer David J. Roch. I’d not heard of him but even the Bill Withers tune from 1974 he sings was new to my ears. His performance is spine tingling as the song begins over piano chords with deep sustain. His vocals are doubled at just the threshold of hearing in a whisper that almost sounds like a binaural recording. Subtle and thrilling stuff! Then the Eurobeat begins and the song enters Moroder-space. As much as I love that approach, I almost prefer the original two minutes of the song, but the contrast is fascinating, and it doesn’t take away the spellbinding intro movement to this song.
Shingai Shoniwa is a new name to me since I don’t get out of my Record Cell too much. But like Kate Jackson, I will think about looking into her band The Noisettes since her vocals on the venerable “God Only Knows” are full of magnificent character and I’m ready for more. This is a singer who brings an insouciant swing to the Brian Wilson number and you just know that Martyn and the other backing vocalists [Billie Godfrey and Kelly Barnes of H17 fame] had a ball harmonizing on some radically different backing vocals than they normally indulge in.
Boy George was back for a version of Lou Reed’s “Make Up” from the “Transformer” album. This makes two songs from that record that have appeared on two volumes of MQ+D, so this must have had a big impact on the young Mr. Ware. It’s not too much of a head stretch to imagine Boy George singing this one, but I’d not heard him since “The Crying Game” and I wasn’t prepared for the “grain” he’s acquired in the course of his tumultuous life. But he fits the number warmly and with a backing track not far removed from the original, that puts the spotlight on his dusky, now seriously lived in vocals.
Last month, Sandie Shaw abruptly retired from performing, but thank goodness she had already laid down her vocals in this smoking version of Gladys Knight’s “Walk In My Shoes!” This was another song I’d managed to miss in my years on planet earth, but it doesn’t matter. Ms. Shaw positively bites the lyric, which radiates passion and hurt, like the pro she is and the backing track synthesizes Motown and Phil Spector in a whizzing synthetic cocktail that comes the closest to reflecting the sound of the first MQ+D volume.
As far as hitting the target that Ware was aiming at, I don’t think there’s a song on this album that isn’t more spot on than Polly Scattergood’s haunting take on “The Look Of Love.” It’s definitely a “dark take on a previously happy song.” I can’t say that it works for me, personally. Scattergood’s tremulous, near whisper on the song has the queasy whiff of a woman in a sadomasochistic relationship. This perception isn’t exactly dissuaded by the music bed, which sounds like Michel Legrand meets David Lynch. Then it turns atonal and ghostly on the fadeout. Brrrrr!
Thank goodness, that the next cut comes when it does. Billy MacKenzie was a good friend to Ware and Gregory and since his tragic death in 1997 prevented him from participating here, Ware does the next best thing and includes Glenn Gregory singing Billy’s biggest hit, the electric “Party Fears Two.” This cut, in fact, appeared on the last H17 album, the strange odds + sods collection “Naked As Advertised,” but Ware reasoned that few probably heard that release, and it deserved a wider airing. To say the least! They reimagine the jaunty song here as a heart-rending ballad at a glacial pace that significantly heightens the poignance hidden deep within the number. Stellar.
The first song here that seeded this entire project was Billie Godfrey’s cover of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” It’s a widescreen take on the previously intimate cut. Godfrey has been singing with Heaven 17 ever since their first tour following “Bigger Than America.” While I can no appreciate the song without hearing Jimmy Somerville singing, the arrangement echoes the one on the Bill Withers song with David Roche in that the buildup is slowly paced before the beat marches in, except that this time it’s over 60% of the long 6:30-ish running time. One gets the impression that the song’s fabric may have been stretched a wee bit thin to fit comfortably on that framework. Always leave ’em wanting more; that’s my motto.
The album wraps up with “bonus tracks,” whatever that means. Maxim is a Russian pop singer who worships at the altar of synthpop, so naturally he struck up a friendship with Ware. Together they reinterpret the ABBA classic, “The Day Before You Came.” The song is such a sturdy construction, it more than supports the warm synthpop/klezmer fusion that Ware offers Maxim as support. The end result is one of the lighter moments on the album that nonetheless confirms the songwriting genius of Bjorn and Benny.
Finally, Heaven 17’s other backing vocalist got a platform to step up to the front here. Ware gave Kelly Barnes Teena Marie’s “Co-Pilot To Pilot” to cover since he felt her voice resembled Teena’s. You might say! I’m not familiar with the track in question, but I certainly thought she was very close to the late Lady T. When I sampled the original, I was floored at the similarities, vocally at least. The B.E.F. squad have let the dogs out of the house and this track is all about H17’s backing band, Tim Cansfield [guitars] and Randy Hope-Taylor [basses, keys]. The extremely funky rendition makes Teena Marie’s sound pretty thin. Taylor’s deeply flanged bass is solidly in the Bootsy Collins Zone, and the closest I’ve ever heard to Star-Mon® himself! Needless to say, this is my wife’s favorite track here!
This album was years in the gestation but it solidly paid off to these fervent ears [and eyes]. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how gorgeous and evocative Malcolm Garrett’s exquisite cover design is as well. The CD looks dark and seductive; a perfect complement to the music inside! The album itself takes an approach halfway between the extremes of the previous Volumes 1 and 2 in this series to strike a solid synthesis of synthpop and R&B/funk influences while leaning towards a film music influence. In fact, disc two of this edition of the CD, which features the backing tracks in instrumental form, is subtitled “Soundtracks for Imaginary Films” right on the disc itself. I’m guessing that Ware made it with an eye towards getting sone soundtrack work. The irony is, that it’s far too effective a calling card for his production career!
After this hit the streets, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were stars beating a path to his door in the hopes that he night produce their albums. After all, this is the man who sold millions for Terrence Trent-D’arby and pulled Tina Turner from the doldrums and re-energized her career. This album is so hot [Polly Scattergood excepting; I can’t go there] that I’ve not been able to give the instrumental disc a listen just yet after over a week of listening. It is flat out the best cover album I have heard since Icehouse gave us “The Berlin Tapes.” Martyn Ware is clearly a man at the top of his form here. I’m not shocked that he was able to shop this to the Wall Of Sound label on completion; making him labelmates with The Human League yet again!
It proffers a wide variety of singers giving their all in a selection of top drawer material that includes several definitive takes on what are some very familiar songs. That songs and singers I’ve not yet heard can send goosebumps down my arms upon initial listening reveals that Ware and his B.E.F. team have outdone themselves this outing. I have already had multiple numbers from this release lodged in my skull to powerful effect, and it’s the sort of album that can be heavily played for a year, with new “favorites” rising to pole position on the iPod® of my mind.
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