Thursday, 22 November 2012

D CDs #495: Keep At It

Well, this is interesting. A synchronicity that borders on predestination, you might say.  If you were Rupert Giles, that is.  Having spent the last album review comparing a black man's straight-up blues to a white man's bluesy soul, here's a white woman's countrified blues to complete the set.

Obviously, it's not really complete at all. I'm confident we'll be paying a visit to Lauryn Hill at some point, if no-one else.  But there's something interesting in considering how moving one step away from "white male" alters the dynamics of the kind of music we seem to keep dipping into.  Especially since Raitt, like King and Scaggs, is represented here by a collection that includes both covers and re-interpretation and original material.

Which is nice, because it lets me side-step the identity politics this time and talk about covering songs.  When I was young and stupid (and there's ample evidence that I am no longer young, at any rate), I tended to think anyone who didn't write their own songs was little more than a hack.  Doubtless this was at least partly just a teenage rock fan turning his nose up at pop music, and finding authorship a convenient place to draw what I could pretend was a meaningful line.

I still think there's a point buried in there somewhere, though; the best music has an emotional resonance which doesn't have to come from a direct connection between writer and singer, but that's certainly a good way to do it.  The fact that so many people swear it's almost impossible for cover versions to eclipse their originals suggests I'm not alone in this assumption, though just to confuse matters, whether or not I prefer a cover version is almost entirely dependent on whether or not I heard it first.

Live From Cook County Jail, Boz Scaggs and Give It Up can all be used as test cases for this theory.  All three as noted are mixtures of covers and originals, but due to my near-total ignorance of American music from before the early '90s, there's not a song I recognise from some other source. I'm entirely reliant on the liner notes as regards provenance.  And once again, the three discs all take different positions. BB King proves himself to be an energetic and arresting entertainer, but his actual songs aren't nearly so interesting as the classics he takes on.  Scaggs seems equally impressive no matter who penned the material, indeed of the three, his is the hardest album to guess which songs were imported elsewhere.

Raitt, on the other hand, includes three of her own songs on this album, and each of them is excellent.  The stuff she mines from musical history?  That's not so great.

Perhaps I might have been inclined to simply cite this as proof of the "original = best" theory, except that Scaggs has already made us question that, and King has blown the idea out of the water.  So what's going on here?  Let's start by talking about the three original joints we got here.  The first of these, "Give It Up or Let Me Go", opens the album, and it's simply wonderful, a foot-stomping lick-heavy rant against a wandering boyfriend that's impossibly energetic even before the sublime horn section and boogie piano solo shows up.  "Nothing Seems to Matter" follows on, a slow-burning, delicate breathing space to give your adrenaline time to recede.  It's such a perfect opening pair of songs that it's maybe not so much of a surprise that the rest of the album can't meet the expectations.  The closest it comes is with the penultimate track Raitt's third songwriting credit, "You Told Me Baby", another uptempo romp, with more wonderful guitar and complaints about men, only this time with a bitching saxophone solo.

Elsewhere, though, things seem to come unglued.  There's nothing here that less than competent, but then when you're picking and choosing from the back catalogue of anyone you damn please, hitting competence really isn't particularly impressive.  There needs to be something that pushes a new version of an old song into its own territory.  You'd have thought the enthusiasm Raitt brings to her own songs would be a start, but with a couple of exceptions (a quite lovely rendition of Joel Zoss' "Too Long at the Fair", a good approximation of the kind of restrained force Jackson Browne specialises on a version of his "Under the Falling Sky"), the spark feels like it's missing, or at least not it's not setting alight the right parts of the material chosen.

Which is a real shame, given what Raitt can clearly accomplish when she's guaranteed herself that direction connection.  I may not have been invariably right about all this back when I was fifteen, but in these moments in 1972, I'm pretty sure I had a point.  It would be seven more years before another of Raitt's albums would include an original composition.  One wonders what might have happened if she'd kept writing.

Six tentacles.


lyndagb said...

Have you listened to Johnny Cash's 'The Man Comes Around'? That is a great example of brilliant covers which don't seem to suffer at all from not being written by the singer. Possibly because he was fully autonomous by that point in his career and was choosing songs which spoke to him anyway.

Also, I always think that everything Leonard Cohen ever wrote sounded better when sung by someone else!

SpaceSquid said...

Interesting you should mention The Man Comes Around. That's pretty much the only album I own which is predominantly covers (and the only one which is neither a charity release nor bought for the purposes of this series of posts), and "Hurt" is pretty much the only cover on there for which I heard the original first and yet prefer the Cash version.