I’m a sucker for a cover album. The idea of interesting artists doing their favourite songs is compelling. It reveals their influences, exposes a little of their psyche, maybe even their childhood. Their was a particular vogue for them in seventies with Bowie’s “Pin-ups”, Bryan Ferry’s “These Foolish Things” and John Lennon’s “Rock’n’Roll.” Oddly the first Nick Cave LP that I bought was “Kicking Against The Pricks” and this served as a gateway into his music. In recent years I’ve enjoyed Headless Heroes “The Silence Of Love”.
The covers album needs to have a few components to draw me in. It needs to have decent split of the familiar and the obscure. Too much of the former and it feels like a karaoke exercise. Too much of the latter and the fun of recognising the original and hearing how a different approach works is dissipated.
This month’s Album of the Month manages to get the balance pretty much right.
“Tribute to 2” is Jim James’ second covers project following an EP of George Harrison songs in 2009. Taking a break from his band “My Morning Jacket”, I’ve kept an eye on “My Morning Jacket” through the years but have felt their lengthy albums intimidating to dive onto.
“Tribute to 2” is a collection of songs that James has largely recorded in home studio. It is a mixture of standards and more recent material as follows:
1. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (The Beach Boys cover)
2. Baby Don’t Go (Sonny & Cher cover)
3. Wild Honey (Diane Izzo cover)
4. Midnight, the Stars and You (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly cover)
5. Crying in the Chapel (The Orioles cover)
6. Funny How Time Slips Away (Willie Nelson cover)
7. Love is the Sweetest Thing (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly cover)
8. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Bob Dylan cover)
9. Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover)
10. The World is Falling Down (Abbey Lincoln cover)
11. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin cover)
The opening treatment of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, one of the most beautiful of songs from “Pet Sounds”, is fascinating. It opens with a bass pulse and immediately we are transported to Isaac Hayes version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. The orchestration joins and the melody gets twisted from the Beach Boys to Hayes’ version of Jimmy Webb’s classic breakup song. It is the richest of the versions that James attempts and sets a high bar that doesn’t quite get reached.
Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go” is spare affair with just multi-tracked Jim James and a fuzzy simple piano. Diane Izzo’s “Wild Honey” was unknown to me. I’d recalled seeing Jeff Tweedy of Wilco namecheck her in interviews. Further research reveals a tragic story. Izzo died in 2011 aged just 43 from brain cancer having released just one LP. I know not a lot more. The album isn’t available for streaming and youtube has few of her videos. The song is gorgeous with James again accompanying himself on an accosting guitar.
Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” is woozy and drunken as is the standard “Love Is The Sweetest Thing”, putting me in mind of Harry Nilsson’s “A Touch of Schmilsson On The Night”. “Schmilsson” got played regularly at home when I was growing up. Nilsson recorded the album with the arranger Gordon Jenkins who had worked on many of Frank Sinatra’s orchestral albums. Nilsson and James seem to have huge affection for these classic sounds and
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” would seem unlikely company for these songs but James take is beautiful, taking it into the territory of the first Fleet Foxes album. The original is one of ELP’s less pompous and proggy numbers and James recording of it sits perfectly with those songs from the earlier part of the 20th century.
Along with Diane Izzo, Abbey Lincoln is the other singer whom I was unaware of. Lincoln was an African American singer, songwriter and actress. A prominent civil rights activist, she was married to jazz drummer Max Roach and sang on his politically charged early sixties albums before carving out her own career which lasted well into the eighties releasing albums on the iconic verve label. She also acted in both movies and TV, appearing in the “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Mission Impossible” and “Marcus Welby M.D.” and latterly Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues”. She died in New York in 2010 aged 80.
“The World Is Falling Down” is perfect for these troubled times. The title track from a 1990 Lincoln album, her take on it is a bluesy N’Awlins slow march. Her voice is careworn putting me in mind of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone – simply gorgeous.
James’s version retains the quiet desperation and hope of the original which seems entirely appropriate given all the difficulties that the world finds itself in at the moment.
It is the apex of the album and hearing the song was what prompted James to progress with the project.
It’s a really crazy time in the world right now, a lot of negative energy in the air. A lot of really crazy energy. A lot of the songs I feel are dealing with that, reflecting on the sadness of that. But also, a part of me likes to remember that life can also be beautiful. You can find something in the day that’s humorous, or beautiful in a way… not to forget what’s going on, but to deal with it.
So an interesting if not essential album from James. The one barrier to enjoyment may be the way that James sings many of the songs in a wavering tenor, not far from Neil Young’s but with less control and a tendency to lose the thread on occasion or to ad-lib some abstract vocal accompaniment.
If nothing else though it has introduced me to both Diane Izzo and Abbey Lincoln, who both seem worthy of further attention. I may also dip back into some Morning Jacket material too.
You can pick up the album from Rough Trade here.