Friday, 30 August 2013
D CDs #484: Actually I'm Middle Aged; Thanks For Bringing That Up
This is one I approached with trepidation. A CD best known for (essentially) two cover versions, one of which the album is named after? That's enough to ring alarm bells. Not for reasons of musical snobbishness - which isn't to say that isn't in the mix at all - but it's simple logic: if your best known songs are from other people, there's nothing to hang one's expectations on, and no baseline from which to work.
Let's get "Sweet Jane" and "All The Young Dudes" out of the way first, then. Both are wonderful songs. Both are strong enough and important enough to generate a feeling of '70s life even for someone like me who only experienced the very end of the '70s, and that was while in utero. None of this is in dispute. The question is, though, how well do these songs hold up to the originals, or, in the case of "...Dudes", what we might plausibly expect the original to have been?
In both cases, the answer seems the same. Comparing this version of "Sweet Jane" to the Velvet Underground original, two things immediately stand out. First, Mott the Hoople were a damn tight outfit when they needed to be. The Underground had a tendency to play their stuff with a feeling of slight decompression, and always on the edge of unspooling. MtH replace this louche faux-indifference with a laser-like focus. Second, it turns out doing that drains the song of some of its charm. I once had a friend who asked me why Stevie Jackson didn't sing every Belle and Sebastian song, his voice being so much clearer and stronger that Stuart Murdoch's. The answer is here. Songs are not quests for technical perfection, even if often - as here - there is some value in giving that a go.
"...Dudes" demonstrates the same... I don't want to say "problem"... quality. It runs entirely like one would expect a Bowie song to run if it was being played by an exceptionally good Bowie tribute act, but one where aping Bowie was more important than inhabiting him. I know of no truly great cover song which is lauded for not straying too far from the original.
Be that as it may, though, Bowie made his choice, and MtH hit the result out of the park, for all I might suspect Bowie's own swing would have taken the song further still. This seems to me the case for the album as a whole. Even at its absolute least inspiring - the pleasant but drawn-out "Sucker", the filthy keyboard-led dirge of "Soft Ground" - what you have is a bunch of guys with immensely solid musical chops belting out smartly-crafted songs. Hell, they even prove they can unwind where necessary with the tasty stoner-stomp "Momma's Little Jewel", though the aborted intro and associated bickering suggests they might be trying a little too hard to appear spontaneous.
In short, there is a great deal to like here, and more still to admire, even if such feelings tend to fade out rather earlier than the songs do. Finding things to love is a little harder. "Jerkin' Crocus" and the aforementioned "...Jewel" get the blood pumping (though the former's obsession with nads pulling and judo holds on the scrotum means any increase in a man's heart rate may simply be attributable to nerves), but elsewhere the disc is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Too much is too similar, and for too long. "One Of The Boys" is a nifty bit of glitter-heavy grooving but its false end four minutes in really should have been where it stopped for real. It and the other six-minute slices on offer here simply aren't interesting enough to sustain their momentum. To be sure, picking on MtH for what was a common '70s approach - take a simple, funky idea and extend it to ludicrous lengths - seems a bit unfair, but if they wanted to avoid me sniping at them for it they should've written an album that got further into this list. A problem doesn't disappear once it seeps into the mainstream.
In the final analysis, it's only the waves of string and percussion lapping over Ian Hunter's lament on "Sea Diver" that troubles the disc's outsourced songs. It's heartfelt, and it builds and fades with commendable speed. It's proof that the band could indeed stand on its own two feet, that it didn't have to lean on Bowie and Reed to get the job done. They had the chops after all to make a great album.
I just don't think this is it.