Always a safe pair of hands for a nicotine-laden cover version, Marianne Faithfull returns this month with a hefty, two-disc package of expertly chosen songs drawn from a dazzlingly eclectic range of sources. Like 1979’s Broken English and 1987’s Strange Weather, Easy Come, Easy Go takes us back to a time when all ears were on the singer’s interpretation of a track: whether they wrote it or not was of negligible importance. It might be the oldest cliché in the book to praise a vocalist for making other people’s songs their own, but in Ms Faithfull’s case, the words couldn’t be better chosen.
And so her ballsy, been-there-done-that persona is applied to work by artists as old as Bessie Smith and as modern as The Decemberists; her tarry, lightly-bruised voice pulling the whole thing together with surprising consistency.
Disc One leads us in gently, moulding ten lesser-known tunes by household name artists (Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, Randy Newman) into a masterful, after-hours 1940s jazz set. Brass and upright bass help to create the smoky club sound, but by far the most powerful instrument is Ms Faithfull’s voice, which makes each one of this quirky selection sound like ageless classics.
Down From Dover is quite stunning: moving, expertly paced, and easily the equal of the Faithfull signature tune The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan. Bessie Smith’s Solitude is similarly impressive, and by giving the same treatment to recordings by young artists (The Sadies, The Decemberists) she proves that her excellent guest spot on Patrick Wolf‘s last album wasn’t just a fortuitous fluke.
Only Smokey Robinson’s Ooh Baby Baby falls flat here, mainly thanks to the guest vocals from Antony Hegarty, whose mannered, melodramatic delivery sits awkwardly with the balanced poise of the rest of the disc, and threatens to pull the overlong track into mawkish vaudeville.
Disc Two takes a lot more chances, replicating the backing music of the originals more closely, and thus forcing Ms Faithfull to confront the material rather than twisting it neatly into the late-night mood of Disc One. In some cases this raises the bar even further.
In particular, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club‘s Salvation is finally given the treatment that it deserves, its world-weary refrain of “Do you feel alive? / Can you feel alive?” much more at home in the hands of a careworn survivor than in those of three tousled-haired lads in sunglasses. And Morrissey‘s Dear God Please Help Me feels similarly better suited to the authentic older stateswoman than to the younger, grumpier prima donna, even if the decision not to prune some of the lyrics (“There are explosive kegs between my legs”) was a little misguided.
Occasionally the vocal experiments don’t work quite so well, as on West Side Story’s Somewhere, where the Tony part is absurdly filled by Jarvis Cocker, hardly a convincing shoo-in for a Puerto Rican gang member; or on the deeply loungey Black Coffee, which strays worryingly into Cleo Laine bi-bi-da-ba jazz’n’jewellery territory.
For most of its lengthy running time, though, Easy Come, Easy Go is terrific. The plethora of guest star appearances (Nick Cave, Keith Richards, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to those already mentioned) is sure to gain column inches and multiply sales, but is far from necessary given the undoubted and enduring star quality of Ms Faithfull. Whether she’s bringing other artists’ work under her wing or confronting it head-on, she’s still quite something.