We stretched our own meaning of cover version previously, when we gave the earlier three volumes of the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project a belated review. Now, and against the odds, lo and behold, here is a fourth. Its title, The Task Has Overwhelmed Us, provides a small glimpse into the work that went into it and its end result.
As before, Task has been put together by London-based guitarist and one-time Pierce sideman Cypress Grove. Once again, it is based on demos and early recordings by the prolific Gun Club auteur, with earlier volumes stemming from cassettes squirrelled away in a drawer and found after Pierce’s untimely death. As with the others, it brings together quite the cast of contributors, many reprising roles from the earlier sets. In a reflection of the time it took to put this Task together, this includes both the living and the dead–perhaps fitting, as Pierce himself also “appears,” like a ghost at the feast, across a fair few of them.
With 18 tracks spread across four sides of vinyl, it would be impossible to talk about all the tracks here. Of course, there is the issue that few, if any, of these songs can be compared to any original. Even if you think you recognize the name of the song, possibly from one of the many Gun Club albums, the chances are that the words will be different; Pierce was notorious for writing completely different versions of, nominally, the same song.
A word is necessary for the production duties, which transcend the occasional slip from the sublime, transforming even the slightest melodic sow’s ear into a a golden purse. Sharing those duties with Grove is Australian singer, Suzie Stapleton, herself also based in London, and who appeared, if just as a performer, on the last volume. Here she steps right up, showing a sure and deft hand on the sound balance, as well as giving one of the album’s more striking vocal offerings.
An undoubted highlight is the opener, “Mother of Earth,” with Dave Gahan showing every inch of his added value. Gahan’s delicately impassioned vocal pleads over a sepulchral backing of piano, guitars and violin, the rhythm section a discreet backdrop. The production, piano and backing vocal is Stapleton; the guitars, both of them, are Gahan. Utterly glorious, and near worth the entry ticket alone.
The contrast, then, with L.A. female garage band the Coathangers is immense. It’s likely a deliberate contrast, to lull any sense of calm, the last emotion Pierce would ever wish upon you. A somewhat rudimentary thrash, “La La Los Angeles” sounds exactly as it ought. Pierce sings and plays from beyond the grave for “Yellow Eyes,” which might have become just a slow angsty blues, without the melancholically somber arrangement by Messrs. Cave and (Warren) Ellis, the two Bad Seeds playing piano, keys and BVs. More Bad Seeds jump aboard as (the) Amber Lights, for the punky “Debbie By the Christmas Tree,” a slight tune that seems crying out for Iggy Pop behind the mike, and is a track to maybe skip, unless that is the mood you are in. Thankfully, the quality control restored by the soothing and reassuring timbre of the late Mark Lanegan. His doleful delivery of “Go Tell the Mountain” is up there with the opening track. Cave and Ellis are again present to embellish the vocals and keyboard parts. There is more Pierce in the mix as well; see if you can spot him in the cross-current chorus.
Side two, disc one kicks off with the standard ramalam pelter through of “Going Down the Red River,” with suitably manic vocals from Jim Jones, which unfolds the emerging pattern, whereby songs of barroom berserkery spar with more brooding, slower constructions. A rare mix of the two follows, where Peter Hayes and Leah Shapiro of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, lurch through the ominous and foreboding “The Stranger In Our Town.” It carries a swampy feel of no small appeal. But we need another deep and slow burn for balance, with that exactly what Suzie Stapleton offers, performing “Secret Fires” with guitarist Duke Harwood, erstwhile collaborator with Mark Lanegan. Stapleton’s voice is a deep and swoony instrument, a cross between Marianne Faithful and Lucinda Williams, cleaner than each but just as much soul as either. Harwood picks acoustic guitar and slide. It is a show stopper. Tough to follow that, but Hugo Chase doesn’t do a bad job with the Doors-y “Tiger Girl,” a sultry simmer that finds him channeling his onetime bandleader, Nick Cave (Chase was a member of the Cavemen, the band that became the Bad Seeds).
Task‘s second disc starts with some acoustic guitars that evoke a patchouli-scented psychedelia. And who could that singer be, with the clearly mature contralto, a sweetly, mellow and seductive sound? Given her harmonizer is clearly Nick Cave, it is a shock to appreciate it can only be Debbie Harry, her voice in a much better place than recent outings with Blondie might otherwise suggest. Or is it that her voice is now far better suited to this sort of fare, over the new-wave grooves she can no longer replicate, or convincingly relate to?
Cypress Grove delivers “Idiot Dance,” a beguilingly spooky mantra of mysticism, with slow piano, jagged peals of guitar and shimmered synths, added sounds and effects also present for good measure. Back then stumble the Amber Lights, reprising “Tiger Girl”–a little unnecessarily, to my mind, their version exposing the simplicity of the tune. But, of course, we’ve been tricked, as it is a completely different song (even if many of the lyrics are the same). I’ll stick my tiger feet with the first.
Another newcomer appears next, again with Stapleton alongside for “From Death to Texas,” which has to be one of the better song titles in the canon of good song titles. It is a straightforward bluesy holler, but the knowledge it is Alejandro Escovedo adds no small luster. Completists will be pleased to note it is Willie Love here on drums, present, with Pierce and Chmelik for their shared (largely) blues covers album, 1992’s Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee & Cypress Grove with Willie Love. (Those same completists who will have already clocked that “Go Tell The Mountain,” as here sung by Lanegan, was on said album, one of the two Pierce originals included.) This side finishes with the somewhat unnerving rendition of the song “Vodou,” which, given the singer is the late Mark Stewart of The Pop Group, offers no surprise to the style he garnishes it with.
Lydia Lunch beckons in the final side, with the guttural sprechgesang “Time Drains Away.” If you have ever wondered as to the skill set of film director Jim Jarmusch, on guitar and melody, wonder no more. Let’s say the day job is in little threat. With now a run of less motivating tracks on the trot, praise be for good old Chris Eckman, who imbues “Lucky Jim” with the full Walkabouts desert shimmer. Rather than Carla Torgerson, he is here paired by a Chantal Acda, their voices a perfect mix of sand and honey. Another high water mark.
Pam Hogg, 80’s fashion designer, might seem an odd choice up next, in a song, “Time Drains Away” (another great title), with the hefty handprint of Youth, on synths and guitar. It isn’t at all bad, and is the song that the earlier one by Lydia Lunch could and should have been, if that makes sense. A real grower, the mood is all sci-fi and steam-punk. Which leaves only the deliberate cacophony, braying sax and all, of “Bad America,” credited to Sandelica, a disconcertingly engaging mix of free-jazz and hip-hop.
The suggestion is that The Task Has Overwhelmed Us is the bottom of the casket, and, all in all, it is a very good single album, if hiding within a double. Which is harsh, as there are a lot of keepers here, marred by a few that just seem less than essential, But it depends, and that is the joy, quite which Pierce you were looking for, as, in much the same way as he could cast his net wide across styles and genres, moods and modalities, so here to have this team taken up the gauntlet with a similar open-handedness. A tribute, then, both to Pierce and to Cypress Grove, Stapleton, and all those present.
The Task Has Overwhelmed Us Tracklisting:
- Dave Gahan – Mother Of Earth
- The Coathangers – La La Los Angeles
- Jeffrey Lee Pierce (feat. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis) – Yellow Eyes
- The Amber Lights – Debbie By The Christmas Tree
- Mark Lanegan (feat. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis) – Go Tell The Mountain
- Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind – Going Down the Red River
- Peter Hayes, Leah Shapiro, & Humanist – The Stranger In Our Town
- Suzie Stapleton (feat. Duke Garwood) – Secret Fires
- Hugo Race – Tiger Girl
- Nick Cave & Debbie Harry – On The Other Side
- Cypress Grove – Idiot Waltz
- The Amber Lights – Tiger Girl
- Alejandro Escovedo – From Death To Texas
- Mark Stewart – Vodou
- Lydia Lunch, Jozef van Wissem, Jim Jarmusch – Time Drains Away
- Chris Eckman & Chantal Acda – Lucky Jim
- Pam Hogg (feat. Warren Ellis & Youth) – I Was Ashamed
- Sendelica (feat. Wonder & Dynamax Roberts) – Bad America