How to begin to explain the enigmatic giant that was Jackie Leven? Most reviews, in his life and beyond (he died in 2011), will comment on the mystery that he were not better known and better acclaimed. Uniformly lauded, somehow, possibly even deliberately, he remained so far under the radar as to be non-existent. Not that his talent, or he, were easy to hide, both being immense. If The Wanderer: A Tribute to Jackie Leven opens a few more ears to his music, it will have served a purpose, although I suspect it may more appeal to the already converted, a hard knit, hardcore bunch who talk in awe of his live performances. Please let me be wrong, and if, as you read this, you find yourself unfamiliar with the name, go seek him out. A retrospective collection also released recently, Straight Outta Caledonia, is as good a place to start as anywhere.
One of the best things to come out of the coronavirus lockdown, should one be allowed to say such a thing, has been the run of homespun lockdown recordings, the artists stranded at their homes with neither the staples of touring or studio recording being much accessible to them. Sadly, this too has also been one of the worst things of the pandemic, with rather too many bedroom warblings of the same old, same old staples and standards of coverland. Thankfully, Aoife O’Donovan’s Aoife Plays “Nebraska” is one of the former type. The simplicity of this performance is the strength here, the songs already spare and sparse, with O’Donovan’s rich vocal poignancy being the only change from the gruffer original. Even her guitar is almost only just there, like curls of smoke from a background smoldering grate, there more to add texture and atmosphere than necessarily to accompany.
Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you will already know this is a follow-up, the second EP in a series of three, by the music royalty pair, each addressing and celebrating the works of great country duet pairings. We dealt with the first volume …Do Porter & Dolly here, then hedging a bet it would be followed. And is there a better known C&W pairing than that of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, almost as well-known for their life offstage as for the songs they made together?
George Jones was one of country music’s biggest stars, perhaps the biggest. Whenever Johnny Cash was asked who his favorite was, his response always began, “You mean, besides George Jones?” His tally of 160 singles in the country chart gives just some idea as to the hugeness of his appeal, dwarfing the attainment of other genre equivalents. His legacy that has lasted well beyond his 2013 death, unlike many of his contemporaries on the self-same rhinestoned stages of ’50s and ’60s Nashville. Present-day aficionados include Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, who once said, “I now have to listen to George Jones once a day. Amazing singer. What a singer.” All this despite never any lifetime crossover success, he was always strictly country.
Tammy Wynette was his wife between 1969 and 1975, and was already a star in her own right. The succession of joint album recordings they made continued long after they parted, six released during the marriage and three after the divorce, including their biggest seller, ironically, 1976’s Golden Ring. (Incidentally, Tammy’s two best known solo hits, “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” and “Stand By Your Man” both came ahead of their marriage, so arguably each relate, in one way or another, to George’s effect upon her life.)
As with the last EP, David Mansfield is in charge, his magic hands on the production dials and much of the instrumentation. His love of the genre and of the period is obvious, managing to display the classicism of the songs and yet avoid most of the residual kitsch of the originals. A lower fat and less sugary re-envisioning that maintains all the goodness, but with a slightly more up-to-date taste. Some salt with the saccharine, then, tears with the honey, as befits the prevailing lyrical content.
It would be easy to assume, on first acquaintance with the Aisles EP, that Angel Olsen is hopping on the bandwagon of artists who’ve found success making slowed-down and sulky covers of iconic ’80s pop tunes. She’s continuing a trend initiated by Gary Jules on “Mad World,” you might think, which M. Ward developed on “Let’s Dance,” Lorde on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Kari Kimmell on “Cruel Summer,” and Greg Laswell on (yes, honestly) “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” a brooding version of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” surely just around the corner.
It might also seem that Olsen is tapping into the Stranger Things-assisted revival of analog synthesizers so central to the ’80s sound, which “boy from Michigan” John Grant has done so much to bolster in recent times. But, while there may be some truth in all of this, Olsen is way too singular an artist to be remotely obvious or predictable in her reinterpretations of tracks made famous by Laura Branigan, Billy Idol, Men Without Hats, OMD, and Alphaville.
First things first: don’t be so hard on yourself. Sure you know who Colin Hay is; he’s the chirpy singer from Men At Work, his slightly husky and agreeable tenor singing about a land where women glow and men plunder. A Scot, who found fame in Australia, he has lived and kept his career going in the US, a resident of Los Angeles for many a long year. Men At Work still exist, sporadically, with Hay the last man standing from the original line-up, but he also has a bevy of solo recordings, amiable and pleasant fare, with a great live show to boot. Now he’s got a new cover collection out, called I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.
Why a cover album? Well, his choice for the title track gives a clue–that’s right, it’s another quarantine album, where the artist is stuck at home and wants nothing to do with idle hands. It seems these are the songs that have inspired and uplifted Hay over the years. Unsurprisingly, most stem from his teens, with the Beatles, the Kinks, and even Gerry and the Pacemakers all represented. And nothing off-center in the song choices, they all being staples and standards.
Which is perhaps the problem. Songs as ubiquitous as this cry out for something a bit different from the the love and respect he clearly has for them. Individually, they are all polished and presentable. Thrown singly into a performance amidst his own or his band’s stuff, you’d sit up and take note. Together, not so much, it all becoming a little M.O.R. Inoffensive. Bland, even. Having said that, I dare say they would fly off the merch table at a gig, and maybe that is the target demographic.
The title track is a strong start, initially just strummed guitar and Hay’s straining but never strained voice. The piano and strings are then a bit Bacharach. As I guess they would be, he being the author and the originator of the original presentation. A bit too Bacharach, frankly, way more Dusty than the White Stripes. Likewise, when it’s just Hay’s unadorned vocal, “Waterloo Sunset” is fine, but then the strings and some sort of backing chorale gloop in and drench the beauty within this old chestnut.
Strangely, “Wichita Lineman” just about works within this production style, Hay’s vocal endearingly and plaintively sad. Whereas “Norwegian wood” really doesn’t. Here Hay sounds like a busker who has strayed into a an easy listening orchestral jam session. Ghastly.
“Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”? I had to catch myself here, trying to recall the original, before remembering this was peak Gerry and the Pacemakers at their cloying best. Which actually means that Hay here has, after all, done something surprising with it, excising no small amount of the sickliness that Gerry Marsden regularly injected into it during his later cabaret years. Similarly, I like his rendition of “Ooh La La,” a more “modern” song, sort of. His voice is closer to Ronnie Lane’s, who sang the original for the Faces in 1973, and thus infinitely preferable to Rod Stewart’s latter-day revamp of his old band’s song. I’ll go further, I like this a lot. And like even more the next song, Del Amitri’s “Driving With The Brakes On.” No extraneous strings, just voice, guitar, and piano. Well, most of the way through, the conductor unable to keep his hands of the baton, if with more restraint than earlier on this disc. Are things looking up?
Sadly not, as that busker is still here, this time mangling “Across The Universe,” aided and abetted by Mantovani-alike again. With that bloody wretched choir. Beam me up, Scotty, a fast forward just quick enough to find a not-bad “Can’t Find My Way Home.” As in not that good, just (that word again) inoffensive.
Final track is the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers To Cross.” Methinks he bases this telling on the Linda Ronstadt version, the piano and guitar broadly redolent thereof. Which is no bad thing, it’s OK, and as good a place as any to close the album.
I think this is a great shame: Hay still has the voice and this is for the most part a good sound song selection. But just who is he listening to on production? The PR says his “frequent collaborator/producer” Chad Fischer, who seems a big cheese on TV themes. Figures.
Heck, what do I know, but, if I did, Colin, I’d say “it’s a mistake”…….
I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself tracklist:
1. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (Dusty Springfield cover)
2. Waterloo Sunset(Kinks cover)
3. Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell cover)
4. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Beatles cover)
5. Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying (Gerry & the Pacemakers cover)
6. Ooh La La (The Faces cover)
7. Driving With The Brakes On (Del Amitri cover)
8. Across the Universe (Beatles cover)
9. Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith cover)
10. Many Rivers to Cross (Jimmy Cliff cover)
When Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs turned 50 last year, a box set anniversary reissue materialized. The classic album by Derek & the Dominos (aka Eric Clapton and band, plus Duane Allman) was given its due with state-of-the-art remixes and other assorted love tokens—a 12-by-12-inch book, certificates of authentication, discs full of outtakes (Clapton and Allman action figures sold separately, I guess). This summer Layla enjoys another, more vivid celebration: Layla Revisited, a live concert recording by the formidable Tedeschi Trucks Band, with guests Trey Anastasio and Doyle Bramhall II. It’s a lively and focused performance, as the soulful and high-powered ensemble romp through the full Layla album in original song order, in a single live show (with one small exception recorded in studio).
These releases are all pretty impressive for an album that was initially met with mixed reviews, tepid sales, and some measure of confusion about the artist, this mysterious Derek. The label execs wanted an “Eric Clapton” album, of course, but by then he’d had it with the spotlight. (After a short tour in support of the album, he dissolved the band and withdrew into a long, dark seclusion.) No one knew the Dominos, either, though the band had formed the core of All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s first post-Beatles effort. Harrison’s project came out the same month as Layla and attracted all the attention and praise that Layla missed out on.
A feeling of fate surrounds Layla Revisited. Derek Trucks is named after Clapton after all (or after his pseudonym, anyway), and is the nephew of Butch Trucks, founding drummer of the Allman Brothers Band. Derek quickly emerged as an exceptional guitarist in the Duane Allman mold, and eventually led the Allman Brothers Band in its final decade. He has also shared the stage a number of times with Clapton (they played “Layla” together, naturally). One more simple twist of fate: the stellar singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi–Trucks’ life partner–was born on the very day the original Layla came out. So, yes, there’s a lot to celebrate here, and a lot of history to revisit.