Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
At last, via Bandcamp, it is once again possible to get hold of Ian McNabb’s 2016 album Respectfully Yours. For a while it seemed well nigh untraceable, with neither McNabb nor his manager able to lay a hand on or a link for a copy as little as a year or so ago. The original release was in hard copy only, and only at live shows or direct from the artist’s website. No downloading malarkey in those days, which now threatens to become the only way for many releases to meet the light of day. I’ll pretend it was my request last year that had McNabb put this up for re-evaluation, but I suspect it was more the harsh economics of lockdown logistics, pumping all hands to deck in the pursuit of making ends meet. Be that as it may, Respectfully Yours is a welcome presence, virtual or otherwise.
For the unfamiliar, Ian McNabb led the Icicle Works, a part of Liverpool’s postpunk wave; “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” is your best bet for hearing them on U.S. radio. He went on to a solo career, finding more acclaim than success. As of this writing, he continues to gig incessantly, often alone and sometimes as a duo. A feature of any show is when he takes the opportunity to give the audience a sing. It’s always noticeable how popular are those early songs from The Icicle Works days; perhaps that’s why he has strung together the 2006 line-up of that band for a series of dates this autumn. I’ll be there.
Respectfully Yours is a different set of oldies, clearly a set chosen from his heart. There’s a mix of the expected (Neil Young, the Doors) with some less so (pre-disco Bee Gees, a deep cut from Black Sabbath). I get the feel this was largely a solo studio effort; the arrangements are often just McNabb and piano or guitar.
Given the original vinyl came out the week of David Bowie’s death, one might reasonably assume the opening cover, “Changes,” to be his. But it isn’t, being an often overlooked nugget from Ozzy and the gang’s Black Sabbath Vol. 4, arguably the least archetypical of their numbers, Tony Iommi’s riff on that song being on piano. If “Changes” was a mood breaker for Black Sabbath, McNabb adds a whole new additional shimmer and sheen, with organ joining the piano, and massed choral BVs, the result positively gospel in interpretation, having me imagine a Baptist chapel ceremonial, the lyrics fitting a born again experience, with McNabb the shamanic preacher man.
“Pocahontas” is McNabb’s choice of Neil Young, his voice a rich and warm vessel that carries the lyric well, giving an almost anthemic shimmer, over strummed acoustic guitars and organ. Nice shards of electric cut in and over the latter third. Completing a near perfect opening triad comes the aforementioned Bee Gees song, “Run To Me.” One of the plaintive songs Robin Gibb excelled at in the 1960s, pre-Stigwood and febrile Saturday nights, McNabb offers little beyond ramping up the melodrama, which is more than enough. As the chorus kicks in, the multitracked vocals resemble, of all comparisons, Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“Baltimore” is the Randy Newman song. Memo to self: it’s about time we did a Five Good Covers post on it. McNabb chooses to play it fairly straight–too straight, perhaps; the vocals and piano contrive to give a quasi-Billy Joel experience, if a little more polite. In truth, it becomes just a little dull. Good contrapunctal piano, mind, and some nice and cheesy early 70’s guitar.
In a similar vein, “Life On Mars?” is just too obvious a Bowie song to have covered, not least as McNabb’s voice is not so very far removed from the “serious” voice Bowie himself put on for this song. And that top note of “Mars” is just a little too far away for a smooth touchdown. Thankfully, McNabb is on much safer territory for “The Killing Moon,” an is-it-a-tribute to fellow Liverpudlian self-publicist Ian McCulloch. I think deliberately, again, very little messing about here, either, the delivery giving full value to the melodic structure of the song. I wonder what “Mac the Mouth” had to say about it? As it’s Echo & the Bunnymen’s best known song, by a mile, I find myself wondering a bit churlishly if it’s also too obvious of a choice. But hey, it’s his party and he’ll do what he wants to.
It takes a brave man to take on Scott Walker, one of the unofficial yardsticks for comparison in dark brown baritone voices. Possibly in awe, McNabb apes the arrangement of “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” almost note by note, albeit with stripped-back instrumentation. It’s good, especially if you are unfamiliar with the grand guignol of the gothic original. Which is the rub. Although, if an outcome of listening to McNabb’s take is to chase up Walker’s, job done, and I don’t feel McNabb would begrudge that. Possibly even his intent.
The compulsory Rolling Stones cover comes from the 1976 hodgepodge compendium of leftovers, Black and Blue. McNabb does it proud, with echoes of Lou Reed creeping into the mix. The Stones it doesn’t sound like, and I like it for that, not least as their own version of “Memory Motel” is somewhat of an idiosyncratic self-pastiche. McNabb returns some gravitas and credibility to an actually quite fine song. Very little of the kitchen-sink studio nonsense, either. (And I say that as a big fan of Mick, Keith and the rest of them).
The Doors are always going to be an influence cited for purveyors of moody and arch rock music, especially whenever an enigmatic frontman steps up to the mike and croons, rather than shrieks. “The Crystal Ship” is one of Jim Morrison’s most magisterial vocals, the song an imposing monolith of gaunt and skeletal beauty. It is here where McNabb takes most liberties with the original, adding some delectable chamber jazz aesthetic to it, with double bass and a suggestion of vibes, actually piano. Sumptuous! (I’d love to have heard more of this level of invention.)
Following that beaut is a gather-your-wits roustabout, the Green On Red song “Time Ain’t Nothing,” which becomes full-on Icicle Works in timbre. (The couplet “Walking down dusty roads / Looking for horny toads” carries a whole different meaning in McNabb’s Anglo tones, compared to the good ol’ boy drawl of Chuck Prophet!) An excellent and fitting finale, it draws together all the feelgood aspects of Respectfully Yours, allowing the listener a quick forgetfulness of any surly critique. Plus it has the best guitar solo on the disc, the ambience of the song altogether less angular than the original, and certainly sent me away a happier man than before.
Respectfully Yours tracklisting:
1. Changes (Black Sabbath cover)
2. Pocahontas (Neil Young cover)
3. Run To Me (Bee Gees cover)
4. Baltimore (Randy Newman cover)
5. Life On Mars? (David Bowie cover)
6. The Killing Moon (Echo & the Bunnymen cover)
7. Montague Terrace In Blue (Scott Walker cover)
8. Memory Motel (The Rolling Stones cover)
9. The Crystal Ship (The Doors cover)
10. Time Ain’t Nothin’ (Green On Red cover)