All Covered Up
Three of the most unique albums of the year are all about covers
V2 Records / Luaka Bop
How often do you have a recording act whose music is actually defined by its name? The French group Nouvelle Vague’s name means “new wave” in French and “bossa nova” in Brazilian Portuguese. Released in early May, their self-titled album is my favorite release of 2005 so far.
Nouvelle Vague was released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label (which is always a nice start), and goes into a direction I’ve never before heard in a cover album. This album takes the lovely vocal stylings of not one, but eight different women, merges them with the popular bossa nova sound, and covers 14 songs from the late ’70s punk and early ’80s new wave eras. It may just be coincidence, but I believe this album has helped spark a resurgence in bossa nova music this year, from Bebel Gilberto Remixed to Eldissa’s album of acoustic and bossa nova covers of disco songs, What a Difference: Disco Meets Acoustic Lounge.
Included on this wonderful album are covers of songs ranging from the Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart;” Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough;” “Guns of Brixton,” from the Clash; “This Is Not A Love Song,” by Public Image Ltd.; “A Forest,” by the Cure; the immortal Modern English song “I Melt With You;” XTC’s “Making Plans For Nigel;” and even a cover of the Dead Kennedys classic “Too Drunk To Fuck.” In its bossa nova form, “Too Drunk” seems quite harmless at first, especially for those who don’t already know the song, until the F-bomb drops.
From the reviews I’ve gathered thus far, it seems you’ll either absolutely adore this album, like I do, or you won’t like it at all. I would like to think folks will embrace this charming batch of covers of which, as Nouvelle Vague is quick to point out, “no bossa nova versions have ever been recorded.”
I have to admit I’m a bit embarrassed that, until recently, I had no idea who Bettye LaVette is. For the uninitiated, Bettye LaVette is a soul veteran who had six Top 40 hits on the R&B chart during a 20-year span from 1963 through 1982, including her first (and biggest) hit, the 1963 classic, “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man,” which peaked at #7. Fast forward 42 years, and she’s put out an album (due September 27th) with a title that’s true to form: I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. With each song on this album, you’ll believe it. This record is going to knock you on your ass!
LaVette takes ten songs, all written by women (including tunes penned by Dolly Parton, Joan Armatrading, Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash), and puts her own spin on them. Highlights of the record are Williams’ “Joy;” “Little Sparrow,” by Parton; “How Am I Different,” by Aimee Mann; and a stirring cover of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream.”
This album has garnered high praise from the likes of Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt. The first song, a cover of the title track to Sinéad O’Connor’s 1990 behemoth I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, is a perfect example of the passion LaVette feels for every song here, all soulfully sung in a way I haven’t heard in I don’t know how long.
Oh, dear Lord. I’m not sure who brainstormed this idea, but someone at Verve thought it would be fun to take legendary recording artist Paul Anka, pick out some obvious rock song choices from the past 20 years, and let him do a jazz cover album called Rock Swings. It may be jazz-oriented, but it certainly doesn’t rock.
This release sounds like a parody album, but isn’t. The following is a brief description of each of the 14 covers, in the order they appear on the album.
“It’s My Life” (Bon Jovi): First of all, let me say how thankful I am that this wasn’t the Talk Talk song from 1984. That would have been downright wrong. I think this was an odd choice, but since I was never a fan of the original song, I didn’t really care for this version either.
“True” (Spandau Ballet): As a jazz cover, Anka gets a little carried away near the end, but this actually isn’t bad. You’ll probably be hearing it at your local supermarket in a couple of years.
“Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor): What’s most sad about this version is that Anka really seems excited to be covering this song, but he really shouldn’t have sung it at all. This ’80s staple was never meant to be jazzified.
“Everybody Hurts” (R.E.M.): A surprising and somewhat faithful cover; certainly one of the stronger tracks on the album.
“Wonderwall” (Oasis): A semi-fun cover, but if you want to hear a superior cover of this song, I suggest you find the version by the Mike Flowers Pops, from the mid-’90s. Their version actually charted higher than Oasis’ original on the UK singles chart.
“Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden): This lounge-like version has already been done to death by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme on the 1997 compilation recordLounge-a-palooza. Did we really need another version of this already-tired song? Probably not.
“It’s A Sin” (The Pet Shop Boys): When I looked at the track listing for this album, I initially thought it was a sin to cover this ’80s classic, but I’m actually fond of this toned-down version.
“Jump” (Van Halen): OMIGOD! If there is ever a moment you laugh your balls off while listening to a record, this is it.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana): This is the point in the course of listening to the album when you realize Anka most likely did not pick out the selections. I’ve heard respectable covers of this song from Tori Amos and the jazz outfit The Bad Plus, but what I really want to know is, whose brilliant idea was it to make this grunge classic into a happy song?! For the love of Christ, I honestly want to know. At least it’s under three minutes long.
“Hello” (Lionel Richie): A semi-decent cover of a semi-decent #1 song from the ’80s. Nothing to get excited about.
“Eyes Without A Face” (Billy Idol). In 1984, I thought Billy Idol doing a ballad was kind of cool. Paul Anka doing a cover of a Billy Idol ballad just isn’t cool at all.
“Lovecats” (The Cure): I never knew a Cure song could sound like the theme from “The Love Boat.” Just kidding – sort of. This song is my guilty pleasure on the album.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson): A toss-up. Many folks may still be too torn about how Michael Jackson makes them feel to be interested in this cover song.
“Tears In Heaven” (Eric Clapton): Anka takes a song about a personal tragedy and turns it into a respectable cover and album closer. This made me think, “Gee, this album wasn’t so bad at all.” Then I came back down to reality, thought about the half of the album that was just plain wrong, that it didn’t make me “rock” or “swing,” and I was inspired to break out a proper jazz record from someone like Chet Baker. “Let’s Get Lost” anyone?