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)