Thursday, 5 May 2011

Random Review #54 Chris Whitley - Perfect Day

C1S11CD15 picked by @MMmmwa or I’m guessing Michelle to her friends, the Queen of the Hashtags on Twitter with a wry sense of humour, making me laugh on a daily basis. Thanks Michelle.

It’s taken me all week to write this review even though it was the first one started and the last one finished out of the three I’ve done. I found it hard to write, not because I don’t like the album - far from it - but reviewing this album has made me feel surprisingly sad; let me explain!

Chris Whitley died from cancer in 2005 aged 45; I didn’t know the guy but I followed his career from his wonderful debut  “Living With The Law” through all his musical u-turns and, for some reason, I feel sad that a guy who had given me so much pleasure with his music and still had so much more to offer, was taken from us at such an early age. As I write this I am the same age as Whitley was when he died and maybe that’s why it has made this one so hard to write. So, that’s the sentimentality over, onto the album!

This is an album of cover versions, and in my opinion artists release covers albums for a number of reasons:

  1. Lack of original material – Paul Weller admitted that Studio 150 was recorded when he was suffering badly from writers block.
  2. Desperate attempt to resurrect a flagging career - step forward Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Sharleen Spiteri who have all released really awful covers albums and in the case of Simple Minds and  Sharleen Spiteri, should know better!
  3. An honest appreciation and admiration for the artist and the songs they are covering - see Peter Gabriel’s surprising good 2010 release, Scratch My Back.
Most artists would say they fall into category 3, but my argument is that you shouldn’t cover a song unless you can improve on it and in most cases they fail to do this. I could write another blog on cover version albums but I’ll save that for another day.

This album falls into category 3 for me as most of the songs are so de-constructed sometimes it’s hard to make out what the original song was. Whitley also chooses songs that aren’t well known, so, chances are, you won’t know what the original sounded like anyway.  Whitley has always been keen to throw the “odd” cover on his albums: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s - Some Candy Talking; Kraftwerk’s - The Model; and Gary Numan’s - Are Friends Electric, on various albums. All from a man who started playing straight up acoustic blues!

This album has blues standards - Spoonful, Smokestack Lighting; classic Dylan - Spanish Harlem Incident; and the odd curve ball – Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. All songs are broken down and put back together by Whitley assisted by Billy Martin (Drums) and Chris Woods (Bass). Martin on drums sometimes sounds as if he is dropping things in the kitchen rather playing percussion, at times it’s as if all three musicians are playing in different timings on each song - and sometimes maybe different songs - but it works! Whitley slows the songs down, changes the tunes, but is always faithful to the lyrics, so although Perfect Day is far removed from the original, the lyrics mean it is still recognisable. It is a very quiet album, even when played loud and sometimes the beauty is in the silence, if that makes sense. It’s not about using loads of instruments, it’s about stripping the songs down to their bare minimum and this is the where the beauty of the album lies.

Chris Whitley always tried to stretch himself with his music and so his back catalogue is extremely varied: the best place to start is Long Way Round, An Anthology 1991-2001, taken from his first 7 albums. This will give you a feel for the depth and talent of the man, but if you fancy taking a chance on this album you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Mark 9/10

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