Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
OK, where do I begin? Cover Classics is the name of the game, yet few, perhaps, would accord Annie Lennox’s Medusa that status, at least not within the world of critics, who, by and large, were damning, back before it became the norm to decry the later efforts of Ms. Lennox. This isn’t an In Defense piece, so I am not required to address her current standing (to some relief), yet I want to. So what to say of an artist who was once so right, then suddenly so wrong? And is that view still applicable?
I loved Eurythmics when they first appeared. Not the Eurythmics, just Eurythmics, and it was on the BBC serious rock music program, The Old Grey Whistle Test, that I first encountered them, 1981 maybe, a performance beamed in from Conny Planks studio in Berlin featuring erstwhile members of Can and Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums. The singer and the guitarist? Well, they had been in the Tourists, a short-lived UK new-wave band whose only hit had been a Dusty Springfield cover, but the gloss of their companions gave big kudos. That incarnation sank, but they remodeled in 1983, returning as the Lennox/Stewart duo, with the glorious “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”, on the cusp of the synthesiser/vocal duo boom. For me, as they became bigger (and they were huuuuge), so the joy evaporated, the songs becoming overglossed and overproduced as the budgets and the band expanded, the originally gaunt structures overblown with unnecessary reliance on Lennox’s vocal calisthenics. This was, and is, a woman whose voice is best in the unadorned simplicity where less is more. Their global audience’s opinion differed wildly from mine, and Eurythmics hoovered up awards and sales alike. And then, arguably at their peak of success, they split.
Tourists – I Only Want To Be With You (Dusty Springfield cover)
So what did Annie do next? Diva, her first solo disc, came out in 1992 and was well enough received. Medusa, our subject, followed in 1995, all covers and all originally performed by male artists. The choice of material was exemplary, featuring a combination of classics, little-known gems, and the material of significantly on-trend songwriters for the moment. Its kick-off single was the little-known “No More I Love Yous,” falling into the gem category, and which was so shoehorned into the Lennox style that it could have easily have been an outtake from Diva, rather than a non-hit from the non-hit wonders The Lover Speaks. (No, me, neither.) With a mesmerizing video, this went straight to the top of the UK charts, propelling the LP sales alongside it to the same position, which is when the backlash began. Stateside, the response was a little more muted, the LP reaching “only” number 11, albeit spending 60 weeks on the Billboard charts and selling, to date, 2 million copies in the US. But the knives were out, with “good” reviews, such as in Rolling Stone, labeling it “wildly uneven,” to the rest, such as Trouser Press, calling it “willfully wrongheaded… milquetoast”.
Was it really that bad? The next single was old war-horse “Whiter Shade of Pale”, which I confess to liking, with its charming variation on the original’s organ led-motif only latterly becoming engulfed in production embellishments. A difficult song to cover, it is so very much better than the dog’s dinner regurgitated by good old Willie and Waylon. “Waiting in Vain”, a nod to the still-high regard of Bob Marley, becomes a watered-down shimmy, and an anodyne take on Paul Simon’s “Something So Right” complete the singles, each with less trajectory than the last.
Annie Lennox – A Whiter Shade of Pale (Procul Harum cover)
As for the rest of the LP, Lennox scuttles through some Neil Young and some Al Green, blanding each out into a pallor as bleached as a later album cover portrait of hers, Bare. If you find the Clash a little abrasive, her version of “Train in Vain” is actually quite pleasant, and her version of the Persuaders 1971 hit, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” would be very much more highly regarded, were it not for one Chrissie Hynde and her later version with the Pretenders. The other Medusa tracks became also-rans; I struggled to remember them without listening to the album again, and, if truth be told, struggle still.
Annie Lennox – Thin Line Between Love and Hate (The Persuaders cover)
I had one spark of possible excitement in my research for this piece – that of tracking down the B-sides of the singles, with further covers, including (with no little irony) Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” on the flip of “No More I Love Yous”, as it was to Joni that Ms. Lennox missed out on the Best Pop Vocal at that years Grammys, Turbulent Indigo pipping Medusa into 2nd place. Elsewhere, the opportunities offered by a Psychedelic Furs cover and a Blondie cover, an execrable “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” is blown 100%. And that saddened me. And Clem Burke, I dare say.
Annie Lennox – (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear (Blondie cover)
So has Medusa stood the test of time? Is it now, or was it ever, a Cover Classic? No to each, I’m afraid. But it was worth the effort. I have many a record where only 2 or 3 tracks stand up, and as Lennox set the bar as high as she did on the still-beautiful “No More I Love Yous,” I can forgive her past and future gaffes. Hell, my first wife went to school with her. My recommendation: don’t buy the whole album. You’ll do better by yourself and Ms. Lennox if you cherrypick. Download the ones you want, maybe along with that handful you can still bear by her old band. There’s at least a CD-Rs worth.
Start your cherrypicking at iTunes or Amazon. Maybe last year’s Nostalgia would be the better place to start…