Nineteeneighties is Grant-Lee Phillips’ homage to hismusical heroes. An LP of covers in the style of David Bowie‘s Pin Ups. As the title suggests it’s a touraround the 1980s with a pronounced slant towards oldschool indie rock. Now cover versions are odd beasts:much like plumbing in a sink, they are more complex anddifficult to carry off than they first appear. They areslippery and it’s almost impossible to tell which ones willsucceed and which will fail.
My mate James brings CDs ofcovers version to poker night. Once a week he conjures upan eclectic selection. The versions can swing fromthe sublime (Jimi Hendrix‘s All Along theWatchtower) via the odd (anything by Nouvelle Vague)to outright blasphemy (Tina Turner murderingUnfinished Sympathy). Here Mr Philips serves up elevendiffering takes on the strange art of the cover.
I was intrigued to discover how Mr Phillips wouldtranslate the diverse material he had gathered here. Fromthe primal scream of the Pixies‘ Wave Of Mutilationto the crystal melodies of Echo & The Bunnymen‘sKilling Moon to the flimsy early electronica of New Order‘s Age Of Consent. The artists and songs encompass abroad church of noise. The originals would make a greatsoundtrack, but would the covers flow together or just soundlumpen and disjointed?
I shouldn’t have worried. One look at the track listingshows that Grant-Lee Phillips has a love and understandingfor these songs. He hasn’t gone for obvious choices; themajority are songs that are buried on LPs, and are notthe hit singles that a casual fan my have picked. It’s notThis Charming Man or Love Will Tear Us Apart onshow here.
The fragile nature of the cover version is shown instark relief by the opening two tracks. I thought that thePixies’ Wave Of Mutilation would be a perfect fit for Grant-Lee’s towering vocals and dusty Americana. Yet the resultis something of a low slung dirge. It highlights theshortcomings of the Pixies range more than a failure on thepart of Grant-Lee. The thrill of the Pixies sound residesin those screaming guitars, poppy baselines and BlackFrancis’ bug-eyed vocals. In a stripped down form thereappears to be little left to play with.
I winced when I saw that New Order’s Age Of Consent wasone of the featured tracks. The song is tied so tightly toPeter Hook’s bassline I thought it would be like cuttingoff Samson’s hair, that it would lose its power when tornaway from its moorings. Astonishingly, it works – thebassline replaced by acoustic guitars and a finger pickedmelody. The pithy lyric of disgust and anger soundswounded, Grant-Lee’s voice taking on some of Barney Sumners’delicate papery grace.
The remaining songs are all successes. The Cure‘sBoys Don’t Cry has a slowed down, brittle heartfelt edge;REM‘s So Central Rain is wreathed in sweet southernair; Joy Division‘s Eternal is a lesson inrestrained atmospherics, the vocals teasing outhidden counter melodies in Ian Curtis’ most haunted lyric, abluesy harmonica, mournful piano notes and subtle organtones replacing the icy synths of the original.
Morrissey‘s infamous piano intro is cut fromthe cover of The Smiths‘ Last Night I Dreamt SomebodyLoved Me, but the ache, the longing, the weary heartbreak isretained; the song slowly envelops you like the onset ofsleep. On the version of The Church‘s Under TheMilky Way, bright acoustic guitars float elegantly abovethe dark menace of reverberating electronics.
Often the cover version can often been viewed as anattempt to escape writer’s block. Grant-Lee Phillips hasnever struck me as someone short of his own material, and youcan hear the esteem in which he holds the songs on thisrecord. The personal attachment to the material shinesthrough. He seems to have climbed inside their very DNA.They feel personal, lived in and cherished. This recorddeserves to be more than simply the soundtrack to my nextnight of poker.